Text and textile share the common root word textere, which means “to weave” in Latin. Before written language or images were marked on paper, woven tapestries and cloths acted as retainers for information. Early traditions of oral language were both ephemeral and dependent on memory, so humans wove their stories into cloth, allowing it to live beyond its creator. Mnemonic devices, some in the form of images, proved to assure future recourse. Even though ancient textiles did not carry actual text, they did portray images that served as containers for ideas, stories and information.
For time immemorial, the natural fibers of wild plants have been the common link between textiles and paper. Materials used for colouring cloth (and later paper and ink making) are derived from plants, animals, and rocks. Natural fibers hold a special place in the history of recorded language and images because they were more portable. Whether pictorial weavings, hieroglyphs painted on papyrus scrolls, or printed words on a piece of paper, natural fibers have made communication light-footed, quick to summon, and accessible.
Through collaborations with Boricua artist Jorge González, I began to understand the role of plants in the history of language and weaving. We share an interest in wild plants as sources of raw material for vernacular craft traditions. Escuela de Oficios is the name given to Jorge’s efforts in creating collective and self-directed educational spaces in Borikén (Taíno name for Puerto Rico) that focus on these traditions. Among its many activities are field trips to visit artisan weavers, native craft collections, and natural fiber harvests as a means of cultural preservation. He also organizes group weaving sessions accompanied by reading out loud a selection of texts on subjects that range from archeology to local mythology and poetry. It’s an exercise that Jorge and artist Mónica Rodríguez borrow from deceased Boricua anarcho-feminist Luisa Capetillo, who read the news to tobacco workers back in the 1930s.
I wanted to bring these practices to the garden while we collaborated with readily available plants, so I invited Jorge to lead the fourth and final workshop of the Rewilding Borikén series at the Huerto Comunitario San Mateo del Batatal in Santurce. We worked with cattail (Typha dominguensis) that Jorge harvested in Loíza and plantain (Musa paradisiaca) bark fiber harvested at the garden. This would be the most hand-on workshop in the series, since the materials used were free and abundant.
As a way to honor and recognize the plants we were working with, our first part of the workshop involved drawing the inner structure of a cattail and plantain stalk with our bodies, as seen in a transversal cut (the transversal cut of both these plant’s stalks reveal a web-like structure). Jorge wanted to show how the structure could speak to webs or networks of mutual support. We all stood side by side, in a circle, with our elbows raised and pointed at each other, with sufficient distance so as to respect COVID protocols. After this initial ice breaker, the class was given the option to learn how to make cordage or braids for rug weaving. They chose the first and we proceeded to harvesting the plantain bark and separating it into strings.
To stimulate the conversation on the idea of webs, I shared an excerpt from the book Spiders and Spinsters: Women and Mythology by Marta Weigle. I chose a passage about a Navajo version of the game cat’s cradle, which is essentially making forms with strings or cordage. A group of U.S. folklorists recorded in 1979 how a Navajo family in southeastern Utah used the game to teach children about the position of the stars and their corresponding mythologies. The children presented the different shapes that traced the Big Dipper and Pleiades, well beyond the ethnographers’ understanding of the constellations. The father, who had remained quite for a while, finally spoke:
“These are all matters we need to know. It’s too easy to become sick, because there are always things happening to confuse our minds. We need to have ways of thinking of keeping things stable, healthy, beautiful. We try for a long life, but lots of things happen to us. So we keep our thinking in order by these figures and we keep our lives in order with the stories. We have to relate our lives to the stars and the sun, the animals, and to all of nature or else we will go crazy, or get sick.”
Cordage, a type of primitive or rough form of thread, was used to trace the constellations and “tie” the stars together, along with mythical tales. I shared with the class my fascination with how mythology has a way of using stories as mnemonic devices to remember the cycles of the Earth which seem guided or accompanied by the movement of the stars. Mythology speaks to the power of language in keeping the world stable and beautiful, as the father said. As we name our surroundings we also cultivate the power to shape them. We make sense of the world and ourselves.
As participants continued to twist their fibers and make cordage, I read a quote by Brazilian philosopher Vilém Flusser explaining how the act of weaving—the way the weft and warp crisscross each other—is similar to the way we read. Text displaces itself from left to right, like the weft or horizontal thread. Our reading gaze moves from the left to right but in a downwards direction, so as to move up again on the next page, like the warp or vertical thread. In other words, the text is the weft and the reader is the warp. Both message and recipient, text and reader, create the fabric of meaning; without each other, meaning cannot be distilled.
Weeks after the workshop, the group continued to meet at Jorge’s studio. My purpose in weaving like-minded thinkers and makers was fulfilled. These skills, as simple as they seem, lay at the foundation of weaving, writing, and all subsequent technologies that keep a record of our past and continue to shape our future. And now, as you follow the visual guide to make cordage with your neighbouring plants, you’ll have a better sense of their role in facilitating communication.