We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Paula J Vester a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.
Paula J, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. Learning the craft is often a unique journey from every creative – we’d love to hear about your journey and if knowing what you know now, you would have done anything differently to speed up the learning process.
While employed at Oatland Education Center in Savannah, GA, my job was to work with school groups discussing and demonstrating about Life in Georgia before the Civil War. In order to represent life in the frontier, I needed to learn what people would do in everyday life which included farming, cooking and the spinning and weaving of textiles needed for that life.
Bonnie Dawson was my fellow employee, and an accomplished weaver. Even though she was there to help me learn some of the basic skills, I read books – as this was before the internet and videos that could help me learn – and sat at the spinning wheel, and taught myself how to spin. Once in awhile Bonnie could give me some advice, and she was my true teacher when it came to the weaving. During my two years there, I read everything I could find on the skills I needed to learn and practiced, sometimes in a vacuum, and practiced. I did not advance much in the skills themselves, but my demonstration skills improved, and I could certainly talk to people about they way people lived, and they didn’t always notice how my yarn looked or how many times the thread broke.
I don’t think in my situation as it was then that I could have sped up my learning process. We had other duties, and what I really needed was time to practice, to study, but mostly to practice. My biggest strength and most essential skill was that ability to talk to the public even as my weaving and spinning skills were nominal. Telling stories of people settling in the “frontier”, building their homes, working with the cotton and wool, and making the textiles needed for their lives allowed people to step into the lives of the people who would have lived in the cabin. As my weaving and spinning skills improved, the tales have still helped me take those I am teaching or demonstrating for to a world where can better understand the lives of the people who lived then.
As I have said, my greatest obstacle was time – or rather, lack of time – to practice my skills. Other duties often made both Bonnie and I to set aside practice time to lead a group of visitors around the Center or to help with planning and organizing events. I know that it was not my only job at the Center to learn to spin, weave, and dye, therefore I know that if I had been able to stay there longer, I would have learned many things.
But I moved to the Atlanta area after just about 2 years there, and it was here in Atlanta that my real learning, researching, and growing began. It was here that I focused on just the spinning, dyeing, and sometimes the creation of finished projects. I began my research into history, and technique. The internet opened doors for contacting resources – printed, video, and products -and my time was spent working on the skills I would need to teach other people these skills.
Paula J, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
From childhood, I have been interested in textiles and history. Around the age of 8, my Mother taught me how to crochet a chain and how to sew. I was better at sewing than crocheting, as I did make my dolls dresses, but never go past making a chain that practically circled our house. Later, I learned to really crochet and knit, and the love of history our connection with the people who came before us stayed with me. These were the simple interests that I took with me in 1980 when I applied for a job at Oatland Island Education Center in Savannah as a Heritage Farm Interpreter.
I answered an ad in the Savannah newspaper that said, “Wanted: someone who can spin, weave, plow with a mule and cook on a hearth, apply to the Chatham County School Board.” I could not do any of those things, but knew that I could learn, and I applied. I am not sure what made the director, Tony Cope, take a chance on me, but he did have Bonnie Carter, who knew how to do some of those things, and maybe he believed me when I said I could learn.
It was there that I learned the basics, and got over my fear of talking to the public. As long as I have a loom or a spinning wheel in front of me, I can talk to people all day long. I loved the time I got to spend studying the history of Georgia, learning the cooking skills, weaving skills and learning about spinning and dyeing. We sent the mule off to a school in Statesboro to learn to pull a plow, but the mule never learned to pull a plow, so I never had to learn to plow either. I am proud of the work I did there, but I feel like I really blossomed and learned even more when we moved to the Atlanta Area.
It has been while living here in Stone Mountain, that I have practiced and practiced and worked to perfect my skills and to expand my knowledge. It was here that I began to find out about places to go and study with skilled craftsmen who knew so much more than I did. It was also here that I began to demonstrate on a bigger scale at schools, public events, and to organize events where teaching and demonstrating could share the world of textiles and history with the public.
I was one of the charter members of the Peachtree Handspinners Guild, a group of spinners who work to perpetuate the craft of spinning and the raising of the raw materials and ability to find the equipment and has continued to maintain a social circle of members for the last 37 years. I have organized conferences for the PHG as well as regional and national organizations over the years, and have organized demonstrations of spinning and weaving at historical sites as well as places like the Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, and for the Georgia Renaissance Festival since 1987.
Since 1986, I have taught thousands of students about spinning and weaving throughout history, I have talked with Senior Citizens Groups, Garden Clubs, Social Organizations of all kinds, including the Daughters of the American Revolution, Knitting, Spinning and Weaving Guilds from Idaho to England. I have taught at Wool Festivals, and Fiber Conferences in Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Washington State, and Idaho. I have taught Summer Camps about Ancient South American Textiles, and school groups about Medieval Textile Guilds, and college students about Natural Dyes and development of synthetic dyes in relation to Color Theory.
Since about 1996, I have also been interested in the fact that the kudzu that can seem to cover the South, was used by the Japanese for a coupe thousand years to make cloth. It became my mission to learn how to process it and make cloth myself. It is an ongoing adventure, that I have been on ever since. I have searched out people here and in Japan that can help improve my process and product, but I have a long way to go. The process is slow, but I have decided – as with all my activities, these days – it is ok. I will continue to work to improve my kudzu processing and weaving at whatever pace I can work.
I know that my greatest love is the time I get to spend experimenting and perfecting my skills. But…I realize that when a student or former student comes to me with information about something they might be researching themselves, I love that just sometimes, I can say, “Oh, yes, I just learned something new about that recently!” So, my continuing to learn new information and practice new skills is one of my strengths. I have several speeches that I love to give to groups over and over – My talk on Natural Dyes, my talk on The Wool Industry, My talk on Cotton through History, just to name a few. But I tell folks, “give me a few weeks, and I can talk on just about any textile subject you might be interested in”.
As my company, World In A Spin, exists, it is just me – and sometimes my grandson and husband helping me – working to continue to educate and share my passion for spinning, dyeing, weaving, and history with the world. Wherever I am invited to speak or teach, I go. I am always finding new avenues to explore, always leading something I can’t wait to tell friends or the public about. I am trying to learn new ways to reach people – the pandemic and my age encourage me to search out these avenues, as well as my grandson who thinks the things I have to share need to be documented and recorded. I see it as another thing I should embrace and learn myself.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of being a creative in your experience?
I believe that my creative journey will never end. And I am saddened when friends, students, people I meet in a coffee shop discuss how they cannot find anything to do with their days. I run out of energy and hours before I run out of things I want to learn. As I get older, I often have to sit down and rest, but my thoughts and still churning over the things I want to do or what I accomplished just before.
Is there something you think non-creatives will struggle to understand about your journey as a creative? Maybe you can provide some insight – you never know who might benefit from the enlightenment.
When I teach certain skills to people, I see that some people need a specific series of steps to learn to understand something, and other people can be given a concept or a demonstration of the end game and they figure it out quite well.
So, if I see a person’s eyes begin to “glaze” over as I am discussing something, I try to back up and go back to those basic steps that can help them see the parts of the process. Sometimes non-creatives can appreciate those building blocks that turn into something better that vision. When I talk about natural dyes, sometimes I talk of the plants themselves or the chemical process that will take place to create the color, and that draws in people to my pots of magical colors.
- Website: www.worldinaspin.com
Diandra Dellucci and Lee Vester and Paula Vester