Fathom Mag

Tactile work reminds me of redemption.

Published on:
December 1, 2022
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4 min.
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The year most of us lost was my year of waiting. It arrived after deferring my acceptance to a graduate program based in London—attending was an impossibility during a pandemic. In the interim, my husband and I packed up our one-bedroom apartment in San Diego and moved in with family in Phoenix where most of our stuff has been in boxes ever since. 

During the Phoenix year, I felt unmoored, full of pent-up energy, and empty of direction. I thought I needed a certain kind of life to cultivate discovery and I lived with a desperation for it instead of the real thing. 

In the long period of uncertainty that started before the year of waiting and extended beyond it, I craved the satisfaction of a job that I could touch. I wanted so badly to make things with my hands so that the creases in my fingers would become dusted with fibers or dough. If I couldn’t make the life I planned for I could make something tangible. 

Now, it’s easy to see the spiral of braided stories as a tidy little metaphor for my lost year. I could take the waste and turn it into something productive, utilitarian—it’s so on the nose it hurts.

So, born of too little direction and a bit of boredom, came the rag rug project. I started by carting around a basket of fabric scraps—the material I’m using to create the growing spiral of the rug. Those scraps became a single braid, growing ever longer so that when I’m working on it, the strand spills out in loops around my feet. 

The rug is all trash, really. None of the remnants that became a rug are enough to make new clothes, and I’ve spent many British murder shows ripping them down even further in order to braid each more easily. Scavenging, ripping, collecting, and braiding is not beautiful work. It is slow, monotonous, and inelegant. The edges are ragged and frayed, and I sewed it together too tightly at first so that it has lettuce edges that will surely trip someone if I don’t find a fix. 

But that basket whispers memories. 

Each strip of fabric contains a story. The green knit is a leftover from the shirt I made in a single, frenzied day. The mustard twill—once my husband’s college cutoffs later demoted to the scrap pile after an ill-placed rip left us shaking with laughter. The red flannel was unearthed from my grandmother’s closet after she died. Each strip sings to me as I run them through my fingers, feeling the softness of age.  

Of course, looking back it’s easy to say that my year of waiting wasn’t actually lost. Of course, I could point to the fact that I’ve already finished the grad program. The rag rug project was also the result of looking at something that could be tossed out and making the decision to see something other than trash. Now, it’s easy to see the spiral of braided stories as a tidy little metaphor for my lost year. I could take the waste and turn it into something productive, utilitarian—it’s so on the nose it hurts. 

At the time, though, I just saw a basket of remnants and couldn’t bear to throw them away. 

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Once, while sitting on the floor surrounded by fabric that refused to come together into the three-dimensional clothing I was hoping for, I realized that nothing teaches me about plodding on after failure more than sewing. The seam ripper, that sly tool of deconstruction, is an old friend. Perhaps I can learn about failure here because sewing is something visual and tangible, it is easier to remake clothes than it is to start over in a story, a job, a friendship. I anticipate some failures when I’m honing my sewing skill but am afraid of them everywhere else.

Mending, repairing, or learning what to do with the unfixable: these are all things we’ve been trained to shuffle into categories labeled mundane, tedious, or busywork. And in the shuffle, the skill of those things gets lost and muscle memory of fixing wanes, and with it some of our imagination does too. 

Even the words of tactile work remind me of redemption. Transformative, restorative, repair—words I’ve come to associate with God’s grace.

I find a tactile pleasure in knowing an object well. And in getting to know it, I live the real life of discovery I thought I was missing out on. I learned the real or imagined memories of those generations who came before who also turned their old clothes into carpets. Each look in the past forces my brain into the future to dream about what memories might be made. 

There is a scent of spiritual practice around tactile work that I am drawn to. It brings to mind Brother Lawrence seeking God while washing the dishes—a story I always appreciate more in theory than in practice. Even the words of tactile work remind me of redemption. Transformative, restorative, repair—words I’ve come to associate with God’s grace. 

I wish I could figure out how to harness the proclivity to persevere that comes naturally when I am working with my hands—a pretty way to say I want to grow in stubbornness—and apply it to other areas of my life, the parts where I give up and lose heart too quickly. 

The scholar and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose suggests that the beauty of life on earth requires “a particular kind of ethics—an obligation to keep faith with life by participating in and contributing to its immensity.”[1] I turn the words around in my head, smoothing them out to try and see them better. I like the way they feel when I read them, nearly solid themselves. Could my mundane making and repair work be keeping faith? 

I had to leave the rug behind when I finally moved for my year in London last fall. When I left, it was still hardly worth the label “rug.” It’s a single-rider magic carpet that’s still kind of wonky; I haven’t figured out how to fix the curling on the edges, the uneven stitches. In my imagination, though, it bridges the past, present, and future. That strand there, I imagine telling yet nonexistent children, that one there is from the pillows I made for my first apartment in LA, the one full of laughter and loneliness and creative energy all at once. And this rug? It’s the one I made when I was a little lost.

Callie Radke Stevens
Callie Radke Stevens is a writer and editor currently based in London. She just completed an MSc with an unwieldy name through University College London, which provided an excuse for her to write about regenerative farmers, repairs, and climate solutions at the same time. Tweet at her @calliemstevens.

Cover image by Claudio Schwarz.

[1] Deborah Bird Rose, “Slowly ~ writing into the Anthropocene”, Text, Special Issue Website Series Number 20, 2013, p. 12.

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