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Felted Masks

April 24, 2004

Linda Van Alstyne

Linda Van Alstyne and one of her masks Photo by Terry Henley

It was our good fortune to have as guest lecturer on April 24, Linda Van Alstyne, physical and occupational therapist as well as a felt maker who specializes in masks. Linda has been a weaver - having both built looms as well as having done weaving- and since 1997 primarily a felter. With this kind of experience, Linda has a good understanding of the postures that weavers will take while pursuing their craft. In the best postures of the body, balance is the key to everything, not unlike the balances that we search for in economics, work, or play.

Overall, Linda recommended that, whatever you are doing- spinning, warping, threading, weaving, it's not a good idea to keep at it for too long. Most of us are accustomed to do these things for long periods of time without stopping; Linda recommended that, if possible, find a way to take some kind of a break about every half hour. There are many simple, basic exercises that almost anyone can do - before, during or after weaving- that will help the body to maintain a better balance as often as possible. Also there are many ways of setting up your craft studio that will also be more helpful to this end.

As a basis for further development of this topic, Linda informed us that the core in the body's alignment is the spine. The three curves in the body that need to be kept aligned and mobile throughout all activities are in the spine at the back, in the lower part of the spine and in the neck. With age these curves change. Much of the seating that is in use is not designed and built to enhance good posture; trains, buses, cars and sofas are built for the average person. So if you are out of this range, your feet will dangle or you will become a slouch.

Now Linda began to demonstrate and explain a series of exercises that help to keep the body in balance and in alignment. All these exercises are related to the three points of control connected to the three curves in the body. Pulling the chin in maintains the correct curvature in the neck; rolling the shoulders back and down keeps the upper part of the spine in alignment and then pulling in the belly and squeezing from the back will maintain the lower spine correctly.

It is also possible to control and maintain balance during the weaving itself. For example, if you are throwing a shuttle and you alternate the hands, that helps. Certain positions can cause injury if maintained repeatedly for long periods of time; for example, if you are throwing a shuttle with thumbs down the rotator cuff in your shoulder may become damaged; if you do the same thing with the thumbs up the rotator cuff will be strengthened. Similarly if you are doing tie-ups, don't do them from one side only but alternate your position. If you have a tendency to sit with your legs crossed it is a good idea to alternate them. You always want to work in a safe zone.

One safe zone is when you keep your arms close enough to your body so there is no feeling of strain while working. If you have to bend too far forward to work on the loom perhaps you need to use a different loom that is more accessible for your height; perhaps you can find a loom with parts that can be adjusted and moved so that it is more accessible. However if you are in a current situation where you have to lean very far over the breast beam then it is a good idea to stop frequently and do an exercise of alignment. There are many spinning wheels today that require the use of only one foot, repeatedly and for long periods of time. It will be necessary to find ways to compensate for that. There are ankle stretches that can be done. Generally, when working, try to use your whole arm as you move and try to keep the wrist straight. A very important protection is to keep the knees always slightly below the horizontal of the upper leg. When warping a loom, sit on a higher stool. When sitting on a sofa that sinks you in and down, use more pillows to put yourself into a better sitting position, behind and under you, as necessary.

Linda gave us each a pamphlet entitled, "Body Maintenance Guide for Fiber Artists" or "How to keep those aches and pains away while doing the things you enjoy."

All the time that Linda was talking to us about proper posture and helpful exercises there was facing us, on the exhibition table, a group of unusual and delightful masks. It was getting difficult to wait for her to speak about her own craft work. All of these masks were felted and sculpted with wool, a technique that Linda has developed and is now teaching. It is called the hat on ball technique. The hat becomes the mask. It would not be possible to describe these masks but it will give you an idea of how interesting and clever they are from some of their titles: Skeleton Bride. Friendly Fire, Soleus, Marty Graw and Wing Wisher. These are just a few of the titles.

So Linda began the day with a talk on physical therapy and ended with a demonstration of a highly interesting and amusing craft. We wish you continued success in all your endeavors and thank you for sharing with us.

-- Sara Briggs


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