Emily McGiffin, "The flying shuttle"
In collaboration with the Canada Council for the Arts, Canada Writes is proud to bring you "Close Encounters with Science": a series of personal stories about science or technology by winners of (and finalists for) the Governor General's Award for Nonfiction.
In addition to presenting their original stories, we will also present true stories written by writers who each of them have recommended to us as a "Writer to watch".Today, Jan Zwicky, who’s won the Governor General’s award for poetry and subsequently been a finalist for both poetry and nonfiction, recommends Emily McGiffin:
"Emily McGiffin is one of the most original writers I’ve encountered in years. She will have none of our age’s irony—she simply sidesteps it. She perceives the world from new angles, giving voice to what others may have glimpsed but have been unable to articulate with such force and clarity. Our relations to the scarred, impoverished, luminous world, and to what is scarred, impoverished, and luminous in ourselves, are rendered with uncompromising honesty in her work.”
"The flying shuttle"
by Emily McGiffin
The three of us stand together in what used to be my living room. Otto holds a large adjustable wrench. Els, a ball of Kevlar parachute cord. The pair—a Dutch couple in their seventies—have spent the morning helping me haul an assortment of large beech cylinders and 4x4s out of their basement and into my tiny cabin. Now an enormous contraption occupies the entire space beyond the kitchen like a robust scaffold. It towers above my head. When I pull the wooden assemblage suspended across its front, an impressive array of cast iron cranks, cogs and pulleys creaks into action.
The machine is a European production loom of uncertain age. It almost certainly dates back to the mid-1800’s—quite possibly earlier. Generations of working hands have burnished the wood to a coppery lustre.
As Otto kneels to torque the last stubborn bolts, Els draws something out of a bucket of miscellaneous supplies. The slender, scarred wooden tool is about a foot long and two inches wide. Its ends, tapered to twin points, are tipped with brass, giving it the appearance of a pre-industrial, double-ended torpedo. The centre is hollowed out and fitted with a metal pin that holds a spool of yarn. Two short wooden rollers cross its underside. This is a flying shuttle. It changed the course of history.
Prior to 1733, a broad loom of this size would have been operated by two weavers passing a smaller, lighter shuttle back and forth across a warp too wide for a single pair of arms. Things changed when John Kay, a young English craftsman and obsessive tinkerer, found a way to improve the efficiency of the era’s looms. By mounting rollers on the bottom of a shuttle and designing a mechanism to launch and catch it, Kay made it possible to shoot a weft thread back and forth across a swath of fabric simply by yanking a cord.
The flying shuttle doubled the rate at which cloth could be produced. John Kay had no inkling that his simple act of ingenuity marked the onset of a revolution.
The decades that followed saw the mechanization of spinning, then of weaving itself, the rise textile mills, an escalating enclosure movement, the emergence of a landless working class. He was a figure standing at the edge of a world about to plunge into profound and rapid social upheaval.
Otto finishes with the bolts and the two of them leave me with a sheet of instructions, some words of encouragement and their phone number—to be called when I run up against the loom’s foibles.
Now, alone with the loom, I run my hands over the old wood struts and sit down at its wide bench. The idea of rescuing it from a basement, of learning an ageless craft, of making my own rugs or towels or blankets suddenly seem like quaint projects in its weighty and dignified presence. This loom certainly is not quaint. Instead, it is a reminder that humanity’s restless creativity will launch us perpetually into uncertainty and change, that we carry the past with us, making and remaking the fabric of society as we go.
Emily McGiffin's first book of poems, Between Dusk and Night, was published by Brick Books this spring. She was shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize. She lives in northwest BC.
Read "Stikine Country," Emily's shortlisted poem for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize »