New Narratives / Transcending the Current Language of Sustainability


A new language and approach is emerging…it lives amidst the current tension that exists between nature and technology and within what’s both simultaneously possible and desirable. It’s at its most powerful and purposeful when we remember that we are nature too and that we are capable of evolving again.”                                                                                     –  Helen Storey (2014, online)

We need new narratives: a new language to talk about sustainability. This statement echoes across the words of key environmental thinkers and designers, who are generally quite concerned about where we are and how to ensure that where we are going will be desirable both for ourselves as well as for generations to come. Our current modes of living are not sustainable simply because we are consuming or polluting our resources faster than the natural processes that support them can be replenished. So we find ourselves “trapped inside a runaway narrative” (Hine and Kingsnorth, 2009a), which is, for the most part, off-putting and uninspiring. This familiar ‘doom and gloom’ scenario begs the question – what actually is sustainability? I could propose an array of definitions, however, as Ehrenfeld (2015, p.57) bluntly states, because the term sustainability “means whatever suits the speaker, it means nothing at all”. How can we therefore amend words that have become empty or, at best, untrustworthy? This essay investigates whether we essentially need completely new ones.

A couple of years ago, design theorist John Wood (2013a, online) noted, “By deliberately coining new words, some innovators have managed to bring about positive opportunities for change.” He also cautioned that “If we confuse the ‘impossible’ with the ‘unthinkable’ we may deceive ourselves and become passive and pessimistic.” (Wood 2014, online). So the words we use are important: they shape our reality – positive or otherwise. After all, “because we have language, there is no limit to what we can describe, imagine, and relate” Maturana and Varela (1992, p.212). Why would we use negativity to describe our future, no matter how bleak certain social, political or natural phenomena may seem, when we can choose to propose a positive alternative? We just need to be more creative. Consequently, my only prerequisite is that these new words are either positive or otherwise encouraging; not in a delusional way, but in the same way that Ann Thorpe (2014, online) describes design activists as being generative rather than resistant: “They most often try to bring about change by generating positive alternatives to the status quo.” I am happy to say that this is already happening – and in many ways this piece of writing itself is a celebration of both writers and designers who are forging an exciting path to our future as we speak.


This new concept, thriveability, focuses on a vision of collaboration and abundance where, instead of seeing ourselves separate from nature, we become an integral part of natural systems and embody qualities such as empathy, compassion, and creativity to guide our actions within the human community”                                                                                   – Rick Medrich (2010, online)

In conclusion, I would like to highlight another new word that I discovered only today – ‘thriveability’. The reason I am already in love with it is because one can explain and describe it without mentioning the sustainability agenda at all (see Medrich’s quote above) and yet fundamentally, ‘thrivability’ is exactly what sustainability is all about. If we are going to not only survive, but also thrive, as a human race, despite the plethora of messes we have gotten ourselves into historically, then we will need a new language to talk about this future, and not dwell on the past. As we have seen, the problem with sustainability is that it is, more often than not, only discussed in a context where we flog ourselves with all of the unsustainability that is going around. It is still by all means necessary to highlight these problems, as I have done through mentioning some of the misuse of common terms such as ‘green’ and ‘eco’, especially as we need to root out Greenwash and see it for what it really is. But the step that comes next is infinitely more exciting – we are human at a time when we are about to face the largest ecological and therefore social shift of our entire existence as a species, so we better learn how to talk about it optimistically, otherwise we will never survive it. These new narratives will transcend not only the current language of sustainability, but time itself. If our words flourish to become actions that significantly change the course of history, then they will be used to talk about it for generations to come, which is a notion of upmost quixoticy in itself.

Proposal Introduction: Removing Barriers / Pathing the way for Sustainability

The sustainability agenda is becoming more widely discussed as more and more people realise their part in returning to nature and having a less harmful impact on the world they live in. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are an example of this discourse, taking place within grassroots movements as well as widely recognised institutions. Strength in communities and the power of the local are prominent in these discussions, as people are looking for an alternative that they can instigate to counter the negative effects that consumerism has had both on our biosphere and society.

As consumers in the West we are completely disconnected from the people and the processes involved in the production of all amenities that we require to live – from food, to electronics and cars, to fashion. Thus far, this disconnection has resulted in a multitude of devastating effects. These include the introduction of vast quantities of plastic to land and the oceans; the depletion of almost all oil and clean water supplies; the pollution of our atmosphere and waterways, as well as the destruction of forests and entire species alike. Of course we have also gone through a digital revolution, bringing humans ever closer to an ease of life that unfortunately is not consistent across the globe, and as aforementioned,is having a truly devastating effect on our environment.

Questions around what we have the power to change, where to improve and how exactly to achieve this are circulating by word of mouth, through online articles with long debates in the form of comments, and have perhaps been theorised upon the most in academia. However,the appearance of this debate on television has been solely concentrated around the principal topics, which, although most people seem to agree upon in terms of making a change, do require implementation within current systems in order to come to life.

Of course, change takes time, but are there actually reasons why these often pressing issues are not being implemented right away? With this series of episodes addressing the key topics where sustainability is being questioned, we propose to investigate the barriers that exist, which are preventing people aligning themselves with the discourse that is offering an otherwise feasible path to sustainability. These may be policies or governing laws that restrict certain behaviours such as the certification process for labelling produce organic; inflated costs that prove too steep for people to make the switch to a better wardrobe, for example; institutions that have been previously celebrated refusing to cooperate or even admit that there has been a change of circumstance; or simply systems and even taboos that have been put in place, which are not favourable for these changes to take place. Hopefully by exposing these barriers to the general public we can question their authority and strive to change the system.

“The loom that came to life without its heddle” – reblogged from Shane Waltener’s weekly weaves

“I have come to eagerly anticipate wintery days spent outside at Stave Hill Ecological Park with Shane, learning how to bundle up freshly harvested willow or using basketry techniques to build a heddle for our loom. All this gleaned while watching Shane’s hands dancing with (sometimes precarious) expertise when pruning or untangling gardening twine between his fingers. I now have the pleasure of sharing my words regarding the day it all came together and we made our first loom at Stave Hill, without the aforementioned heddle…

Shane and I started the morning off aiming to launch our Catalan platter inspired heddle but promptly changed our minds thanks to inspiration from Eric Boudry’s Book of Looms. A method I would normally have used simply to walk the warp or measure out the threads became the backbone of our piece, and once it was in place there was no way we could thread the heddle without cutting loose the work we had already done.

All the hard thinking and speculation was worth it when we figured out how to interpret the illustration in the book as reality on site. We then had to fine-tune it with our hands; fingers repeatedly counted and recounted threads, the warp was combed to equalize the tension and willow cross bars were put in place.

A quote from the same book by Dr Junius Bird, curator emeritus of South American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History (and possible real life inspiration for the fictional movie character Indiana Jones!) came to mind as we were musing on how to proceed with our making. Bird compares the invention of the heddle to the discovery of fire-making methods. Though the latter is much more significantly recognised historically, “both have an antiquity which, though by no means comparable, still remains a mystery”. It was this mystery we had to untangle and it happened where the areas of our expertise overlapped, with only the means we had available to us at Stave Hill.

Making a new heddle involved Shane looping an extra bit of twine around a willow pole and picking up alternate threads from the warp. A shed stick was also required to complete the plain weave structure. There was some arguing over exactly how this was to work but we persisted and suddenly the gap required to insert the water reed as a weft materialized.

The whole device needed to be operated by two arms moving laterally in opposing directions; there was no familiar up-down movement of the heddle here. The pair of heddle sticks had to alternately stand at ease and then be anchored in the ground to successfully open the right shed.

We continuously stepped back to gain perspective on the lines we had created and marvelled at these echoing the vertical growth of the trees. Close up the weaving framed undergrowth, the sky and our bodies alike with the horizontal contours we had mapped.

It is truly a unique loom, one so different to any I have worked with or built before, and which requires a pair of hands on either side of the warp. Weaving using this loom becomes a complex dance for two and a reflection of the working relationship that Shane and I have built up through the exchange of ideas and skills shared during our time at Stave Hill.

Looking back, it was great to exchange perspectives both verbally in the moment from our mirrored standpoints, as well as afterwards with the physical exchange of photographs. Repeatedly seeing the animated concentration on my face and in my hands, captured by Shane, brings back the magical wonder at making these two trees into a loom with as little as a few willow sticks and some gardening twine.”

  • weekly weaves, March 2015. Text by Jessica Smulders Cohen

“waving not drowning”

I recently submitted a paper for the journal Textile: Journal of Cloth and Culture, which will be coming out in the next special issue. I was selected to write on my time with the Ewe Kente Weavers of Ghana. Here is an excerpt:


Looking back at two wonderful summers spent in Ghana six years ago, I can appreciate the experience with a different kind of awe to the one I expressed at the time. Having since become more knowledgeable in regard to woven cloth, both as a researcher and a maker, it is interesting to reflect back in the context of this journal. As far as I could see, and can clearly remember, traditionally woven Kente cloth is without a doubt on the waving end of the “waving or drowning” scale, although one might need to scratch deeper than the surface to observe how this is manifesting itself, both locally and in global markets.

Before I highlight the cultural, physical and historical nuances of this special cloth, I would like to wholeheartedly celebrate it by commending the robustness it possesses in terms of changing just enough to keep up with the whims of human evolution, whilst maintaining the integrity and uniqueness of its very particular traditions and origins. In this respect, Kente cloth is very much waving with all its might, and I hope to flag in particular the Ewe tribe, with whom I studied while on holiday from my BA at Goldsmiths College, University of London. As an outsider to the Kente village of Agbozume, where I conducted most of my research the second year with my teacher and companion, Bob Dennis, I was an outsider in several ways, as besides my pale skin amongst the ebony tones of the Ghanaians, I was very much alone as a female figure (weaving is absolutely a male dominated craft, which I will elaborate on in due course). Despite this distinction, I was very much welcomed, and, in part due to my then basic training as a weaver, even respected, as my skills were very much demonstrable, if not as refined as the youngest of apprentices. I was nevertheless a keen student, and patiently wound bobbins for one of the head weavers on my first couple of days – a task normally reserved for 4-6 year-old boys, who of course sat at my feet and giggled at me as an “obruni” (white) woman who was amusingly not afraid to join in and prove myself from the bottom rung of the process.

The above said, there are some aspects of Kente that are drowning, but as this is part of its rebirth, perhaps it is necessary for progress to shed the old and irrelevant. For one, there is no proper local institution that celebrates and preserves its history. The National Museum in Accra is shabby at best, and one can visibly see the cloths suffering from the humidity, as there is no method in place to create the right conditions for preservation. Furthermore, so many cloths have left Ghana to reside in both private collections, as well as those of museums around the world, such as the British Museum, where I saw close to a hundred such cloths, most of which had sadly not been taken out of the archive in years.

As the old cloths are not seen to be of value locally, collectors and antique enthusiasts have easily taken many away, for very little money, directly from villages, when elders have passed away. The only thing that is valued is the “sesia” basket, which is something of a family heirloom in the form of a recipe book and is guarded vehemently. It takes the shape of a basket the size of my fist, with multiple strips of cloth about 5cm by 1cm stuffed inside, each one revealing enough of the fabric for it to be remade. In addition, although it has been attempted multiple times by a good friend and colleague of mine, the cloth has failed to be recognised by UNESCO as historically and culturally significant. This is a real shame, as it would have provided the status and pride required by the government to invest in its conservation. However, there is still plenty to celebrate, which is what I intend to share in this examination of the progress of this fine weaving tradition. What follows is my construction of the prose version of my Kente cloth construction, where I pull supplementary threads of observation and fix them onto the surface of the background weave that is my theoretical investigation of this marvellous phenomenon.


Welcome back

Hello there, and welcome to my brand new blog. I have decided to re-vamp, seeing as now I am a Serious Published Writer (more on that in a minute). Watch this space for musings on textiles, sustainability and my Life as a Weaver.