Baba Yaga’s Slippers

I was at the Museum of Anthropology one time in 2010 or 2011 and I can’t remember what I was there to see, because after I saw THIS LONELY SHOE on display in one of the temporary exhibit galleries, I didn’t have eyes for anything else.

I’d been experimenting with the diagonal plait technique after I had noticed it in Swedish children’s author Elsa Beskow’s illustrations for Peter in Blueberry Land: Mini Edition” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Peter in Blueberry Land. It was immensely satisfying — like a cross between origami and weaving, taking long flat strips and turning them at angles to each other, upending the conventions of stake-and-strand basketry to create elegant and almost ethereally clever forms. Obviously it wasn’t a new idea because Elsa Beskow did her illustrations for Peter in Blueberry Land at the turn of the Twentieth Century. And yet, like so many things Scandinavian, diagonal plaiting had such an intriguing modern quality to it….

And here, in front of my eyes at the museum, was an entire diagonal-plaited shoe — an example of the techniques taken to a realm I hadn’t even imagined was possible. It was finished inside and out!! How was that even possible?? “Oh my gosh,” I thought, “That’s gotta be a lost art.” How crushing, to be thrilled to see such a thing, and think it impossible.

So I laughed at myself a few months later when I finally got around to researching more about diagonal plaiting and the shoes in particular, and found out that yes, people were still making them; and in fact, one person in Russia seemed to have published a book about diagonal plaiting and maybe I should order it?

When it came, Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark by Vladimir Yarish, Flo Hoppe, and Jim Widess, I had to laugh at myself again — serves me right for making assumptions. Mr.Yarish had published fully illustrated instructions for not just one, but TWO versions of the diagonal plaited shoes, ha!

I’ve now made probably about a dozen pairs of diagonal plaited shoes using Mr.Yarish’s instructions, in everything from watercolour paper, salvaged cherry and birch bark (shown above), salvaged cedar bark, craft felt, commercial-grade felt, and yucca leaves. What I’ve brought forth from all this work is a way of making shoes to fit different people — knowing what size the shoes will be before I even start weaving. Even if you are good at learning from books, that’s a good reason to take a workshop with me.

My thanks to my friend Bethany of Bristle and Stick who encouraged me to keep sharing this amazing form, and for suggesting the name, Baba Yaga’s Slippers.

A note about learning diagonal plaited shoes….

I want to be up front, so I’ll tell you: this isn’t really a beginners’ weaving project. I’d done lots of diagonal plaiting and experimenting before I ever laid hands on Vladimir Yarish’s book. Even when I got the book, I played around with some of the simpler projects before tackling the shoes; and when I did, it took many, many hours of slowly going back and forth between the book and the work in my hands. I’m persistent and humble, and I expect the same from my workshop participants. This weaving knowledge developed over who knows how many years? and our easy living hands are not going to pick it up without an earnest, humble effort.

I am a person who can learn from books, which is a very precious skill. Not everything, of course — there are many thresholds that I never managed to cross (willow, leather) before some person was willing to take me in hand, and lead me on my first journey. (Maybe that can be said of almost everything I’ve done, that someone took me in hand — from learning my letters and numbers and everything since. Something to think about…)

I read a book and look carefully at the illustrations, and it’s as if I can enter the mind of the author. I seek the underlying structure that the author gave the information, looking to comprehend the patterns and the bigger picture, get on the author’s wavelength, why they structured the book and the sentences and the steps in the way that they did; maybe it’s like tracking an animal — it’s certainly a state of flow, back and forth. When I see the structure, it unlocks the detail; then my mind ingests it all, pattern and detail together. I don’t get everything on the first round — it’s iterative. I get what I can from each pass, constantly evaluating my understanding and my results against the text and the photos. Some people think it’s freakish but it’s just a cognitive trick that some kids stumble onto and others don’t — check out A Mind for Numbers: how to excel at math and science even if you flunked algebra, by Barbara Oakley. Works with anything, but chemistry and math books definitely still take me longer to ingest than something I find fun (and easier to experiment with), like weaving.

Thank you, Vladimir Yarish. I strongly encourage people to buy your treasure of a book.