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Social fabric

For most of its life, Lewiston, Maine has been a city of weavers.  The Great Falls anchored the mills, like the stones that weighted the warp threads of the first human looms.  Water falling through space provided the first force with which a city of machinery, migrants, money, canals, streets, and buildings was drawn together.

Not just the cities of the Androscoggin: every place is full of weavers. Community-building itself is weaving: the action of many discrete filaments of energy, connection, ambition, negotiation, not tending in the same direction—not at all—but cutting across, under, over one another.  The beauty of community, like fabric, lies in the play of differences: color, texture, directionality.  The strength of community, like fabric, lies in its tensions and cross-purposes.


The social fabric draws strands and strength from beyond itself: from Quebec, Acadia, Michigan, Mogadishu.  Particular threads may be broken or frayed.  The fabric as a whole can absorb the fragility of thread.  Lewiston’s loom-tenders learned how to tie up broken strands.  Yet if those on the fringes—newcomers, elders, the young, the poor—are not taken into the whole, their own lives can tear, rending the fabric.

We are constantly weaving, then.  The making, rending, and tending of the social fabric looms large in the work of living together.  Could that be why all societies have traditions of fabric-making?  A woven thing takes in the social world that made it.  Its filaments come from beyond the loom: materials that are spun, traditions that are taught, human relationships that are brought to bear on the work.  The warp threads—long structuring strands, stretched taut on the loom, across which the weft is woven--can almost be seen as the matrix of community-building, threads of inheritance, history, the life that surrounds the fabric and grounds it.  The woven thing is a microcosm: the wide world teased apart, stretched, spun, and threaded through it.  And the woven thing in turn re-enters the wide world, a T-shirt, a bedspread, a canopy.

Urban Fabric

Poring over old maps, looking down on the mills from the Court Street hill, we may speak of the urban fabric.  What do we mean?  A weave of streets, buildings, parks.  But also: a weave of human intersections, daily itineraries, relationships and avoidances.  And also: a weave of histories, journeys across the planet through the Grand Trunk Depot, the Jetport, refugee camps in Kenya, summer camps in Wayne.  The urban fabric is a map of memory and hope—a palimpsest of maps, layered with stories, strategies, tales of escape and arrival.  Sometimes the social fabric is woven from plans and intentions. Sometimes it is woven from accidents and indirections.  We veered into terra incognito and found ourselves.


British soldiers in the Second World War were issued “survival maps,” laminated, waterproof, charting the way from the battlefield to safety.  Survival: literally, to live beyond.  As local elders will tell you, “survivance” is the one of the root-words of Franco-American memory.  Speak it and out pours a cascade of stories: Pépé’s near-starvation in Quebec; Papa coming home from the mill in winter, drenched in frozen sweat, ears filled with lint.  La survivance: to live beyond mere need, to make a home, a union, a pension, bedspreads for a living.  To live beyond the border, walking into Kenya and the refugee camps, fleeing to Atlanta, flying to Portland.

We were born in many places; we were borne here.  The urban fabric is a planetary palimpsest of survival maps, roots and routes, out of which a place is woven.


A prayer rug; a bedspread.  A small piece of woven space, surrounded by the world.  The social fabric makes a place, a microcosm, coming together just here, here and not there, alongside these falls and empty mills, weaving the journeys and stories into a single, cross-purposed, self-taut place.  Bates Mill. Bates College.  L-A College.  Kennedy Park.  Great Falls.


The fabric would unravel if it had no fringes.  There, on the margins, the border where it lives beyond itself, feathering into the wide world, the integrity of the fabric is sustained.  In Jewish tradition, the prayer shawl, the tallit, is adorned with four, precisely knotted corner fringes, or tzitzit.  They remind us of what is beyond and lead us to it—a kind of survival map.

What does it mean that fringes are elaborated and adorned on the Muslim prayer rug, the Jewish prayer shawl, the Bates bedspread?  What does it mean that the fringes of the social fabric are invisible and neglected?


We are constantly weaving, then, partners in the work of creation.  Moving across the earth with our maps and our stories, making a place on it, drawing together, at odds, against all odds.  Everywhere is a microcosm.  And this place, this city is a macrocosm too.  Tied by invisible, neglected threads to Quebec, New York, cotton fields, killing fields, woven into the earth’s huge, fragile fabric of life.

This cascade of threads, too, is a macrocosm, unfinished work of the unfinished work of weaving and being woven.  What shall we weave?


(Copyright David Scobey.  This final version of "A Small Piece of Woven Space Surrounded By the World" has been edited slightly from original version on display in "Social Fabric.")

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