I’m showing you two Snugs today and frankly, I never imagined I’d be making such a thing once never mind twice. These are Sweat Lodge tea cosies. I had no idea what a sweat lodge was when somebody came to me with idea of making one for a couple for their wedding present.
(Firstly let me apologise for the quality of the photographs. In both cases, I didn’t have a proper set up and I was just trying to get shots to document the work before they had to be delivered)
I listened tentatively as this project was proposed to me. I didn’t know what a sweat lodge looked like, I didn’t know if I could make one out of wool and I didn’t know if my abilities would be up to scratch. As I said in a previous post, I was in a place where I was challenging myself to say YES to new ideas, new commissions and new tests to my capacities as a maker.
I was brave in the moment and said that I would research sweat lodges, look for images and get back to the person if I thought it was possible. The day you are asked to make a sweat lodge tea cosy is the day you are grateful for Google images and Wikipedia. I’ll add the Wiki link below if you want to read for yourself in a bit more detail about what a sweat lodge is. I would also recommend putting sweat lodge into the Google image search to get a range of images to see what they can look like.
From my understanding, a sweat lodge is a hut like structure that is used for ceremonial purposes in Native American, Scandinavian, Baltic and Eastern European cultures. In the example I worked from, heavy blankets cover the lodge and stones that have been heated in a fire are placed inside the hut. Water is poured over the stones to create steam. Traditional prayer and song can also be part of the ceremony. The sweat lodge practice holds special significance for the couple this gift was being made for and so the client wanted to commission this unique tribute to them.
When I saw the images for the first time I was still feeling sceptical about my ability to make something that just didn’t look like scraps of material sewn on to a tea cosy. The images of the real lodges looked very rustic to me. It seemed whatever was going on in the inside of the sweat lodge was much more important than the aesthetic quality of the outside of it. But there would be tea on the inside of my sweat lodge and I found the challenge was how to convey the emotional and spiritual resonance of the practice of the sweat lodge onto the visual aspect of the exterior of it. I also wanted to make it personal to the couple for whom it was being made for.
I decided I would make a natural looking basic cosy to fit over the tea pot. Although it would never really be seen I wanted it to be representative of the foundation structure that had to be built for the sweat lodge. I then decided to make individual blankets, each one a little art piece in itself. I used the personal information the client had given me about the couple to pick the colours and to create some symbols. I embroidered these images onto the small blankets.
Then the experimentation began. I laid the blankets over the basic cosy in many many different configurations, trying to settle on the most visually pleasing arrangement. I finally picked the arrangement I liked the best and sewed the blankets into place. I used one of the blankets to create a doorway into the lodge and I embroidered the couple’s initials inside as a little secret surprise to be discovered later.
As you have seen from my other work I love to bead and embellish but with this piece I tried to use a restrained hand. I only used some tiny shell beads I had collected to compliment the themes of nature and being in the wilderness.
When I was finally finished this piece I was over come with relief. It was so different from the other things that I hade made, that I don’t think I knew how to evaluate it properly. I just had to go with my gut and my gut said I had done the best I could with the challenge presented. I had thought about the piece long and hard, I had problem solved and tried to be creative.
I’m very happy to say that the client was delighted with the work and again I felt flooded with relief. I had undertaken a challenge and by all accounts it had proved successful.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when somebody else who knew I had made this tea cosy asked me to make another one.
She had done a placement with a Native American group who work with sweat lodges as part of a recovery programme. She wanted to send them the tea cosy as a thank you present for having her over with them and sharing their experiences with her.
Although I had already made the aforementioned sweat lodge, I felt a new kind of pressure. I was making something for people whom this practice meant so much and was part of their culture. I wanted to be totally respectful and handle this new commission with more than my usual care. I decided with the client that I would research symbols that held meaning in the Native American culture and use these to convey how the client felt about her experience and what she had learned from it. I embroidered these symbols onto the blankets and also a shamrock to represent the client herself. I slightly changed the structure this time to include a more defined doorway as well.
I never imagined that my art archive would include two sweat lodge tea cosies. Looking back now I feel glad that I said yes and accepted the challenge. It helped me in little ways to be more confident about my abilities and to trust that I can come up with something for even the most unlikely of commissions.