Last week I had the pleasure of running a workshop on open practice with Catherine Cronin as part of City University of London’s online MSc in Digital Literacies and Open Practice, run by the fabulous Jane Secker. Both Catherine and I have run guest webinars for this course for the last two years, so this year we decided collaborate and run a session together. Catherine has had a huge influence on shaping my own open practice so it was really great to have an opportunity to work together. We decided from the outset that we wanted to practice what we preach so we designed a session that would give participants plenty of opportunity to interact with us and with each other, and to choose the topics the workshop focused on.
We began with a couple of definitions open practice, emphasising that there is no one hard and fast definition and that open practice is highly contextual and continually negotiated and we then asked participants to suggest what open practice meant to them by writing on a shared slide. We went on to highlight some examples of open responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the UNESCO Call for Joint Action to support learning and knowledge sharing through open educational resources, Creative Commons Open COVID Pledge, Helen Beetham and ALT’s Open COVID Pledge for Education and the University of Edinburgh’s COVID-19 Critical Care MOOC.
We then gave participants an opportunity to choose what they wanted us to focus on from a list of four topics:
For the last quarter of the workshop we divided participants into small groups and invited them to discuss
What OEP are you developing and learning most about right now?
What OEP would you like to develop further?
Before coming back together to feedback and share their discussions.
Finally, to draw the workshop to a close, Catherine ended with a quote from Rebecca Solnit, which means a lot to both of us, and which was particularly significant for the day we ran the workshop, 3rd November, the day of the US elections.
Slides from the workshop are available under open licence for anyone to reuse and a recording of our session is also available: Watch recording | View slides.
On Friday 13th of March I wrote a blog post called What Comes Next, which marked the end of the last round of UCU strikes and looked forward to my return to work the following week. Five days later, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus pandemic, my university advised all staff and students to leave campus and work from home, and the following week the whole UK went into lockdown. I think it’s fair to say that at that stage none of us could possibly have imagined what came next.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, it may be a cliché, but rarely has it been so true. In the fifteen weeks since lock down began, it’s been nothing short of inspiring to see the superhuman efforts of colleagues right across all sectors of education to ensure that teaching and learning could continue, while respecting the unique stresses and anxieties that we’ve all been facing in these Unprecedented Times.
Learning technologists have become the new superhero/ines, putting the technology in place to enable teaching continuity, upskilling academic colleagues to help them transition to online teaching, figuring out the practicalities of hybrid teaching, and working out the logistics of making it a reality at scale, all while dealing with the uncertainty that, for all the planning and modeling, we don’t really know what’s going to happen in September, and beyond that, what will happen in the longer term.
And all this effort has taken place against a back drop of hot takes from ed tech gurus, CEOs and journalists, who persist in comparing “traditional” on-campus face to face education to online learning, despite decades of evidence based research that direct comparisons between the two modes are unhelpful at best and specious at worst. Every day my twitter feed is full of educators and learning techs responding with tired outrage to articles claiming that online programmes require less staff, less skill, less effort, less funding, while providing an inferior learning experience and questionable outcomes.
It’s as exhausting as it’s infuriating. Particularly when colleagues who were striking over precarity, inequality and workloads at the beginning of the year, returned from strike and immediately shouldered increased workloads without question or complaint. Meanwhile the pandemic has only exacerbated the inequalities that already exist in the system. Journal submissions from women scholars have fallen off a cliff, fixed term teaching contracts have been terminated, disproportionately affecting women, BAME colleagues and early career academics, and women are still carrying the invisible emotional burden of a system and a society under profound stress.
We’ve all had to adapt to the new normal and to do what we can to get by. But my concern is that the new normal still isn’t normal, and perhaps more importantly, it’s also not sustainable. This level of physical, mental and emotional labour can’t be sustained in the long term without it taking a considerable toll.
As lockdown begins to lift, and we all start to breathe a tentative sigh of relief, my fear is that the delayed impact of that burden of labour will make itself felt just at the point when we have to step up a gear. Lifting of lockdown isn’t an opportunity to relax and get back to normal, it’s the start of a long uphill race with no visible finishing line in sight.
Academic colleagues, and the professional services staff who support them, face an astronomical task to prepare their courses for hybrid delivery, and to open the university to new and returning students in September. The online pivot, that all out sprint to ensure teaching continuity at the beginning of lockdown, has turned into a marathon and there are serious concerns whether we have the strength, stamina and resilience for it.
At the beginning of lockdown my own institution placed the emphasis squarely on communication, care and continuity, and by and large it has responded to the unique challenges of the pandemic with compassion and sensitivity. I sincerely hope that we don’t loose sight of that ethic of care as we move out of lockdown towards a new academic year that will be unlike anything we could ever have experienced or predicted, because that’s when we’re really going to need it the most.
The FemEdTech collective is calling on the Editors and Editorial Boards of scholarly journals to acknowledge and mitigate the disproportionate impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic on women researchers and scholars. Multiple voices have highlighted the escalating impact of COVID-19 on women’s scholarly productivity, and hence the quality and representativeness of the research and scholarly work published during this global pandemic.
In order to support authors and reviewers, we are asking Journal Editors to consider these issues while reviewing submissions and commissioning editions during and after the COVID-19 crisis. We therefore, call upon Editors to:
State on their websites the special measures they will take to support women researchers and scholars during this time. For example, editors may delay calls for special issues.
Promote gender balance by inviting potential authors to submit papers written by both female and male authors and prioritise papers written by women, particularly where they are single or lead authors.
Ensure that revision and review timescales are flexible and take into consideration the additional schooling, caring and community responsibilities which fall disproportionately on women.
Alessandra Minello, a social demographer, expects the gender difference in caring responsibilities will be mirrored by an impact on career advancement, with increasing disparity between those with and without care responsibilities.
A study at University College London has evidenced that during the pandemic, as teaching and learning moves online, and students’ need for emotional support escalates, the burden of this emotional labour falls increasingly on women. The home becomes a place where teaching staff provide emotional support to students, making it difficult to leave demanding work situations or to block out negative emotions at home.
In the longer term, these factors are likely to have a significant impact on women’s career progression, and may increase their precarious work situation, as they take on more of the emotional labour of caring and pastoral support, labour that is rarely acknowledged or rewarded in the same way as research outputs and publications. We encourage Editors and Editorial Boards to help ameliorate the effects of the pandemic on women’s scholarly contributions and careers.
We acknowledge that these issues can also have a significant impact on the publication record and career progression of BAME colleagues, differently abled academics, and other minorities but data on this is more scarce. Staying Power, published by UCU in 2019 , reported on Dr Nicola Rollock’s research that interviewed 20 of the only 25 black female professors in the UK (that’s 0.1% of all professors). A recently published book Data and Feminism, available open access as well as in print, is informed by intersectional feminist thought. The book goes beyond gender: to question who has power and who has not, and to support challenges to those differentials of power.
If nothing else, we ask Editors to read our letter and the articles linked to increase their awareness of these issues. Thank you for listening.
The OER Conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me. It’s the only open education conference I attend regularly and I’m privileged to have been present at every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge back in 2010. So needless to say, I was gutted that the f2f element of this year’s conference had to be cancelled, despite knowing that it was unquestionably the right thing to do. I know from experience how much work and personal investment goes into planning the OER Conference and what a difficult decision it must have been for ALT and for co-chairs Mia Zamora, Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Jonathan Shaw. That initial feeling of loss was tempered by ALTs announcement that they would be moving the event online, an ambitious plan, given that the conference was barely two weeks away. I was always confident that ALT could pull off this #pivot as they already have a wealth of experience facilitating online conferences, through the annual winter online conference, and as an already distributed organisation they didn’t have to cope with the scramble to set up remote working that may other organisations and institutions faced. What I didn’t expect though was for ALT and the conference co-chairs to deliver an entirely unique event. They didn’t just move the planned face to face conference online they completely transformed it into a new, original and completely free online experience that welcomed over 1,000 registered participation from across the globe. And please note, the OER20 conference wasn’t just free as in speech, it was also free as in beer, so if you participated in the event, either listening in to the presentations, or even just following the hashtag online, please consider making a donation to the conference fund. Every little helps to support ALT and cover the cost.
Of course the theme of the conference, The Care in Openness, could not have been more timely or more prescient. The whole notion of care has taken on new weight since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Care has literally become a matter of survival. The only way we will get through this is if we care for each other, and if we protect and value those that care for us.
If I was to pick two session that for me, really embodied this ethic of care it would have to be keynote sava saheli singh and Mia Zamora in conversation, and Frances Bell talking about the femedtech quilt project. Both sessions featured films that provoked a really strong, but very different, emotional response. Screening Surveillance’s Frames is a deeply unsettling tale of surveillance, commodification, dehumanisation and alienation. Powerful, challenging and disturbing, watching Frames is a profoundly uncomfortable and thought provoking experience. The subsequent discussion brought to mind Jimmy Reid’s immortal address on becoming rector of the University of Glasgow in 1972; Alienation.
“Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human being, self-centred and grasping.”
This quote particularly resonates with me. So much has changed in the 50 years since Reid’s address, but so much remains the same. It is the system of capitalism that is still so often the root cause of our dehumanisation and alienation. Industrialisation may have given way to surveillance capitalism, but digital technology is simply the latest mechanism for our alienation.
sava ended her brilliant keynote session with a much needed call for compassion and action:
“We need to approach everyone with compassion…All of us are activists now.”
It was a huge privilege to hear sava and Mia in conversation, and my only regret is that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet them in person. I hope that will happen one day.
Nowhere is that compassion and activism more visible than in the making of the femedtech quilt, a craft activism project and a material manifestation of care led by the indefatigable Frances Bell. Frances produced this beautiful film about the making of quilt and it’s safe to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after watching it. Like the quilt itself, the up-swell of collective emotion was “beautifully imperfect, imperfectly beautiful.”
I find it hard to put my profound appreciation for this project into words, but Su-Ming Khoo spoke for many of us when she thanked Frances for giving us all “somewhere to put our connection and our gratitude”.
My other highlights of the conference included….
The launch of the University of Edinburgh and Wikimedia UK’s Wikimedia in Education handbook. Edited by Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, this free, open licensed booklet brings together 14 case studies from educators across the UK who are already integrating Wikimedia assignments in their courses and classes. I know how much work has gone into the production of this booklet so it was great to see it being launched. I’m sure it will be an invaluable and inspirational resource that will encourage educators to see the huge potential of integrating Wikmedia projects in education.
Staying with the Wikimedians, Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programmes Coordinator Sara Thomas gave an impassioned talk on Wikimedia and Activism. I love listening to Sara present, she always makes me want to storm the barricades! Sara reminded us that learning and creating open knowledge are always political acts. Creating knowledge encourages agency, but access to information alone does not result in enlightenment. Knowledge is nothing without literacy and information literacy is crucial for participatory democracy.
I also really enjoyed Bonnie Stewart and Dave White’s thoughtful and compassionate session on Designing for Systems of Care: Can Open Pedagogy Scale Caring? Dave spoke about the dangerous grey area between surveillance and care, and argued that personalised, individualised learning is actually reducing our agency, our self-direction and self-determination. We’re at a point where the tech sector appears to be telling us “we’ll care for you and personalise your experience, if you tell us everything about you.” But we can’t use technology to lock everything down, we need to create a culture of trust now more so than ever.
I made one very small contribution to the conference this year, a short alt-format talk on open practice and invisible labour, which you can read here and listen to here. Sadly this talk became all the more relevant with news reports yesterday afternoon that hundreds of university staff on precarious contracts have been made redundant by the universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex. As my colleague Melissa Highton succinctly put it “This is why we strike.”
There is always a strong social element to OER conferences and there was a risk that this would be lost with the move online. However the conference team excelled themselves and, if anything, this was one of the most social and inclusive conferences I’ve participated in, ether on or off-line. The social bingo was hugely popular and a great use of Alan Levine’s fabulous TRU Collector SPLOT. (If you enjoyed playing OER social bingo, you might like to support Alan’s work by contributing to his Patreon.) The KarOERke was also priceless. Anyone who knows me will know that karaoke is my idea of HELL. I can barely even bring myself to watch it, never mind participate! However, I had great fun dipping in and out of the online KarOERke on ds106.tv. My only regret is that I missed Lucy Crompton-Reid singing Kate Bush. The final rousing chorus from Les Mis was something to behold though. Y’all are daft as brushes.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the OER20 though was that none of the emotion and connection that is so characteristic of the OER conferences was lost. If anything, this was heightened by the #unprecedented global situation we find ourselves living through. Suddenly these tenuous temporal connections we made with colleagues from all over the world during the two days of the conference, felt more important than ever before. A valuable lifeline, and a network of care, hope and activism that connected us all at a time of uncertainty and isolation. Ultimately these are the things that matter and these are the things that will see us through.
My name’s Lorna Campbell, I’m a regular contributor to the femedtech network and I’m speaking to you today from Glasgow in Scotland. I make no apology for the fact that this talk raises more questions than it answers, and like much in the world right now, it has evolved significantly over the last few weeks and months. The original inspiration for this presentation was a post I wrote for the femedtech Open Space during last year’s OER19 conference. The Open Space sought to question dominant narratives of “open” and explore whose voices are included and excluded from our open spaces and practices.
As Catherine Cronin reminds us, openness, by its nature is highly diverse and contextual. We all experience openness from different perspectives and different positions of power, prejudice, privilege and discrimination. For some of us, openness is part of our job, our research, our field of study. For some it’s a philosophy, a personal commitment. For some it’s political. For some it’s emotional. For many, me included, it’s a complex mix of all of the above.
I’m fortunate to experience openness from a position of privilege. I work at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to open knowledge, where my primary responsibility is to support engagement with open education and OER. I also contribute my labour to other organisations that support like-minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee, sometimes just for fun.
We all have a deep personal commitment to our open practice, to equity and social justice. We all want to be good citizens of the open community, making a positive contribution to the global commons. But when do the hours that we willingly devote to open education start to become unacknowledged, invisible digital labour? How much does the open community rely on this invisible labour? And perhaps most importantly, how far does it exclude those who are unable or unwilling to contribute their labour for free?
These are questions that many in the open knowledge domain are increasingly trying to address. One of the key concepts underpinning the new Movement Strategy being developed by the Wikimedia Foundation is Knowledge Equity, the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge. If the Wikimedia community is serious about honouring this commitment to knowledge equity then it must also acknowledge the problematic issue of invisible labour.
CC BY-SA, NASA + VGrigas (WMF), on Wikimedia Commons
As open practitioners, the boundaries of our labour are complex and porous and this has both positive and negative consequences for ourselves as individuals, community members, workers, activists and volunteers.
These complexities have been thrown into stark focus by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent UCU industrial action, which focused on equality, job security, fair workloads and fair pay. The strike highlighted the problems of exploitation, discrimination and precarity that exist right across academia, and from which open education is far from immune. When our personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with an exploitative system, boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line. How can we balance our agency as open practitioners and citizens of the global commons with cognisance that it is our digital labour that sustains a system that is by turns inspiring and dispiriting, empowering and exploitative?
USS Strike Rally, George Square, Glasgow, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell
These issues were encapsulated in a twitter thread from @HEreflections1 during the previous round of industrial action.
“One of the most pernicious aspects of stress, anxiety and burnout in education is that it often starts with individuals who work longer hours through enjoyment and an ethic of care. But at some point the organisation captures this as core work which has to be done.
As a result the enjoyment, the agency is lost and the stress begins to grow, leading eventually to hate and/or exhaustion in some cases. And it creeps up on people so that they blame themselves. This is the failure of the system, and any discussion of well-being or expert groups focusing on happiness misses the point completely.
What starts with dignity and vocation is smashed by performativity, by human as resource, and by an inability to see education as a community.”
And yet despite the toll taken by the exploitation of our invisible digital labour and ethic of care, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in our collective response to the current coronavirus crisis. Colleagues returning from strike threw themselves into the task of supporting the online pivot, while dealing with the new reality of working from home, juggling childcare, home schooling, caring for elderly relatives and immunocompromised friends, while coping with financial insecurity, and unprecedented stress. All of this emotional and affective labour has been contributed without question or complaint at the same time that institutions are deducting strike pay from our wages and, in some cases, making redundant the precarious staff who carry so much of the burden of this labour of care.
There are no simple answers to any of the questions I’ve raised here, but I believe it is important that we raise these critical issues and that we keep talking about them, so I’d like to invite conference participants to reflect on the nature of their own open practice and invisible labour and, if they feel so inclined, to share their experiences and reflections at the femedtech Open Space.
Cronin, C., (2017), Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.3096
Today marks the end of the current round of UCU strike action and it’s been an unsettling few weeks in more ways than one. I didn’t join the strike until half way through the first week as I had already agreed to present a keynote at the Wikimedia in Education summit at Coventry University before the strike dates were announced. This is the second time I’ve broken a strike to participate in an event of this kind and in both instances it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. However as the event, and my keynote, had a strong focus on equity and social justice, and addressed some of the issues that the UCU strike has been highlighting, I took the decision to go ahead.
Since then I’ve withdrawn my labour from my university and have done what I can to support the strike. I haven’t been picketing because I can’t afford the travel costs on top of the eye watering loss of wages, but I’ve been trying my best to observe the digital picket, by not tweeting anything directly related to my work at the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve continued tweeting information related to the strike, and sharing posts on #femedtech, withdrawing from the open education community on twitter has been quite an isolating experience.
Because I work part time for my university, I also contribute my labour to several other oganisations on a voluntary basis, so I’ve continued to participate in some events and activities in a personal capacity, however it’s been a constant struggle to decide where to draw the line. So, for example, although we didn’t plan any Open.Ed activities for Open Education Week, which fell in the middle of the strike, I did participate, as a member of the #femedtech network, in an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares? organised by the ALT Open Ed SIG. Was that the right thing to do? I have no idea. I also participated in two VConnecting Missed Conversations that explored some of the themes we discussed at the ALT / Wikimedia DE Open for a Cause event in Berlin in December, wrote a blog post about “women’s work” and the femedtech quilt, and an article about the labour of care in Higher Education for WonkHE.
Care was one theme that emerged repeatedly during the strike. Care for ourselves, care for our students, care for our colleagues, care for our profession. And now that diligence of care is going to take on a whole new dimension as we do our best to care for each other in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going back to work next week in these exceptional circumstances is going to be difficult and challenging for everyone so I hope we can hold onto that ethic of care over the coming months.
Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge. Many of us even care about our institutions, even if that care is increasingly unreciprocated. Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy. This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades. Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted. There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true. Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely twitter thread about the current round of UCU strikes, Máiréad Enright pointed out that
“There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.”
The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.
As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology. Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media. In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice. All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour. Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lense of gender. ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.
While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education. One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology. The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.
Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project. Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference; The Care in Openness. Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here https://quilt.femedtech.net/
As part of Open Education Week, the ALT Open Education SIG and Femedtech facilitated an asynchronous event Open Policy – Who cares? The organisers invited provocations from members of the open education community in the form of Flipgrid videos and writings on femedtech.net. This is my contribution.
I’ve worked in the domain of open education for over ten years now and I passionately believe that publicly funded educational resources should be freely and openly available to the public. In fact this is one of the founding principles of the Scottish Open Education Declaration. When we talk about open policy the focus tends to be on “open” and “free”, however I think what is critical here is “funding”, because as we all know, open does not mean free. If we want to support the creation of open knowledge and publicly funded open education resources, then the education sector has to be supported by adequate funding and, perhaps more importantly, by equitable working conditions. And this is where problems start to arise; at a time when casualisation is endemic in the UK higher education sector, too many colleagues are employed on exploitative precarious contracts. This is why we are currently in the middle of a period of sustained industrial action that is protesting universities’ failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. If you are a teaching assistant employed on a fixed hourly rate that doesn’t even begin to cover the preparation time for creating your teaching resources and lecturing materials, it’s hard to make the case, ethically and morally, that you should release your resources under open license, because you’re effectively giving your labour away for free, and very few marginalised workers have the privilege to be able to do that. So while I still believe that we do need more policy around open education, and that we have an ethical responsibility to make publicly funded educational resources available to all, we also need equitable working conditions that will enable us all to contribute to the shared knowledge commons.
In my post about my Open World femedtech quilt square I explained why I chose to make my square out of Harris Tweed, a protected fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I was born and brought up. In many ways the fabric is emblematic of both the islands and the islanders; the wool is shorn from the local black face sheep, the colours, traditionally from natural dyes, reflect the colours of the landscape, and the cloth is woven by hand to produce a fabric that is unique, beautiful and hard wearing. As with many traditional fabrics, tweed production was originally a communal activity, and much of the work was undertaken by women; from dyeing and spinning the wool, to weaving the tweed, to waulking and finishing the cloth. Waulking involved soaking and beating the tweed to remove dirt and impurities, and soften and shrink the cloth. Before tweed mills were built in the islands to process the hand-woven cloth, finishing a tweed was a social activity as much as a collective task.
This following account of the importance of waulking as a women’s social activity, comes from a Gaelic radio programme called Tigh Mo Sheanair (My Grandfather’s House) which was recorded in the early 1970s and the speaker is my grandmother, Anne Campbell, who was born in 1909 and lived in Harris all her life. Her words were translated from the Gaelic by her daughter, my aunt.
Anne Campbell & Sybil McInnes
“The entertainment whilst waulking the tweed was better than a wedding, for us anyway when we were young, especially if the waulking took place in the evening. If the waulking was in the morning we had to come home afterwards and stay in in the evening. Waulking was sometimes our only entertainment. We were always delighted when we got news that someone in the village was about to complete a tweed. In those days it was the women who wove the tweed on the “little loom”. A tweed would take three weeks to complete – today a tweed is completed in one day using an automatic loom.
To waulk the tweed a long table was set out with seating for four women on each side. There was a tub at either end of the table. The tweed was cut into two pieces and a piece dropped in each tub. One side worked left the right and the other right to left.
For a bit of fun the loose coloured threads at the end of the tweed were cut and each woman would put her thread outside the door. If your thread was the first one then the first man who came to the house had to see you home that evening. It did not matter if you had a steady boyfriend, it was who ever found your thread that had to take you home. There was often good-natured bantering outside the house especially if your own boyfriend turned up expecting to walk you home. We didn’t think anything of being up all night if there was a waulking.”
Although my granny wasn’t a weaver, she did spin and dye her own wool, which she used to knit socks, jerseys and other garments. When I was a child, there was a huge cast iron cauldron wedged in the rocks outside the house, which had been used for dying wool before modern conveniences came along. The remains are still there today.
This communal aspect of fabric production, sewing, embroidering, and quilting has always been important. It provides women with a space where, to some extent, they are in control of their own labour. A space where they can come together to share their skill, pass on their craft, tell their stories, and enjoy each other’s company. These spaces sometimes seem to stand outside the strictures and expectations of “normal” society, and provide women with a space where they set their own rules. To my mind this has been the most powerful aspect of the femedtech quilt project, which has given so many women from all over the world, a space to collaborate, to share their skills, their stories, their inspiration and their creativity.
I’m writing this post with Frances and Suzanne in mind who will be coming together this weekend to sew the femedtechquilt, and although all those of us who sent in squares won’t be able to join them in person, I hope they’ll feel the strength of the threads that bind this amazing community together.
At the end of last week I sent off my contributions for the #femedtechquilt project, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to part with them. As soon as Frances Bell raised the idea for this amazing project I knew that I wanted to make something out of Harris Tweed, a protected, handmade fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I’m from, and which is woven into the identity of both the islands and the islanders. I decided to try and make a representation of the header image of this blog, not only because Open World is where I share my open practice, but also because that header image is my own picture of one of my favourite places in the whole world, Traigh na Berie beach in Uig, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. I’ve visited this beach almost every year of my life since I was a small child, I did my higher geography project on the flora of the beach, my Masters dissertation was on the anthropomorphic landforms of the surrounding area, I worked on archaeological excavations there, and I use another picture of the beach as my twitter header. I’ve also returned there frequently with my own daughter. It’s a place that I have a deep attachment to, which has always inspired me, and still does.
I already had some beautiful left-over tweed from a length I bought to make curtains for our VW camper van, and I bought a bundle of off-cuts when I was home in Stornoway in the summer. It wasn’t difficult to make a rough representation of the beach, as the colours of the tweed naturally echo the colours of the Hebridean landscape. Sewing it was more of a challenge. My mother taught me to sew when I was a kid, but it’s not something I do regularly, other than altering clothes. In order to sew my square, I had to get my mother’s sewing machine, which I inherited when she passed away a few years ago, repaired and reconditioned. Using it seemed fitting, as she was a talented seamstress who used that machine to make beautiful tweed coats and jackets for my sister and I when we were young. I was really pleased with the way the square turned out, it looked much better than I could have hoped. One thing that really surprised me when I was making the square was just how evocative the smell of pressed tweed is. It immediately took me right back to the islands and my childhood. For me, this square represents hope, inspiration, and the unbreakable threads that connect us to the people and places we hold dear.
Tweed on the machair
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My other square was much more low effort, but it still has meaning to me. It’s a tracing of the Open Scotland logo drawn in fabric pen on cotton cut from one of my daughter’s old school shirts, and it represents the hope that one day all publicly funded educational resources in Scotland will be freely and openly available to all. Open Scotland was an initiative that I founded, along with Joe Wilson, Sheila MacNeil, Phil Barker and others, back in 2013 and I’ve poured a lot of time energy and commitment into it, so I wanted to commemorate it in the quilt. I also love the idea that my daughter has made a small contribution to the quilt too.