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Unravelling Strings and Tying Knots

As I’m looking back on the story of my learning to make friendship bracelets, I find it’s entangled with who I was all those many years ago, much like the way the threads entangle to make beautiful designs.

Back in 1987 I was a mess, with no real direction in my life. Then I met a gal and we found a place to live in the 7-Mile and Woodward area of Detroit. We shacked up for a while and she was the one to teach me how to tie my first knots. I didn’t realise then how life changing this would be for many, many years. Long after we had parted ways, I was making these simple bracelets and making perhaps a dollar for each one I sold. I had learned about how tension affected the way the bracelet lays and how consistent tension made them simply look better. These still were a very basic design, just straight rows of color.

Then came the real eye opener. On April 11 of 1988, the Grateful Dead had come to Detroit. I didn’t have a clue about their music or what to expect, but did know that deadheads wore the bracelets. Having around 30 bracelets already made, I went to check it out with hopes of selling my wares. It must have been fate because despite me having so very little money at the time, some guy who looked like a bum said he had a ticket and would sell it to me for $2. Skeptical, I bought the ticket anyhow and sure enough I got in. I had missed much of the first half of the show but got more than an hour of pure musical enjoyment. I found myself going, “Hey, I know this song!” but then it would fade in to the next and the next and...ok, you get it. As I wandered around (ya, I never even looked for my seat) I saw bracelets of amazing design. Realizing that mine just weren’t close to the caliber of what I was seeing, I found myself giving some away, bartering others for some drugs (ya, I was into partying back then), and just truly enjoying the evening. I know now it was that exposure that pushed me to figure out how more intense designs were made.

The start of new designs after learning there was more than straight lines. Note this was from before there were color copiers, so I did a Xerox copy and colored in with colored pencil.

My next big breakthrough came very late one night not too long after that concert. Lying in bed, I envisioned a different way to tie the same knot I had been making. It would allow for a new direction and if combined with what I had been doing, at least a few new patterns could be made. This nearly got me up to find my string but it was close to 4am and I was exhausted. The next morning, I woke up excited and before I could eat, shower or do anything, I was cutting up string to see if my vision would work. And it did! It led me to so many new patterns and finally I could sell my work for $5 and more. I was delighted and experimented with all kinds of colors and designs. I was even making a bit of a name for myself as a quality bracelet maker and that’s what led me to yet another big breakthrough.

I went with a friend to a place they called Green Acres to see a Grateful Dead cover band. I think I may have sold some of my works, but what really changed things for me was a gal who had a bracelet that she loved dearly. She had worn it till it had fallen apart and asked if I could make a copy of it. Sure of my skills, I agreed. Back home though, I discovered something strange was going on. I couldn’t get my two knots to do what I was seeing in this work. Having strong beliefs in integrity and not about to let this person down, I kept trying to find what was different. Why wasn’t what I knew working to make this pattern? Then...an epiphany! There were two more knots that I had never considered. I sat back down to see if again my subconscious had found the answer and sure enough, I was able to make her replacement bracelet. She was delighted and I had gained new skills. I have to say though, I hadn’t cared much for the pattern of that bracelet. It lacked symmetry, but had a bit of a design that I felt I could sort of modify. Based on this I created a yin yang effect, which gave it the symmetry that would satisfy my internal need for balance. This would become one of the more popular designs I have made and sold.

The start to more complex designs

In the years that followed, I explored my ideas to the fullest. I made works that were more bracer than bracelet. I made pieces that sold for hundreds and even received praise from some of the best makers and distributors in the country. I have made literally hundreds of bracelets over the years with receipts from buying materials that were over 13ft long. I learned a lot through the years from this art form of mine too. I learned marketing, I learned design. I learned about the use of color and how some draw people in and others that people found soothing.

There were many lessons along the way, including when I took a request from a guy who was color blind. He always found that the mass made bracelets had colors that didn’t appeal to him, so he requested a bracelet of a certain size and picked out all the colors from what I had stockpiled. It was almost painful to my senses as I created this work. Then I couldn’t find him for delivery and could see by the reactions of people who saw this work that I was never going to be able to sell it; it was just damn ugly. But after about two weeks, I ran into this guy and his reaction would change me. He was perhaps the most enthusiastic and excited customer I have ever had. I think for a moment he almost teared up with delight. It was crazy! I find it hard to describe what I had discovered, but I guess the closest thing was that fulfilling someone’s long desire to have something common but tailored to his unique difference in sight was something that could only happen if someone was willing to go out of their way, not something you can easily get these days. I was humbled and I learned that everyone is entitled to enjoy what they wish.

Yeah, so I guess you could say it was this art that really took me places. I had gone to a number of Grateful Dead shows and countless events at Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit. Been invited to meet interesting people who all had amazing stories to tell. I’ve run into people whom I didn’t recognize but knew the work that they had on their wrist. I’d ask how they had come by that bracelet and was given amazing stories of how they were a gift and how it had touched them, and this was all before I let them know it was something I had made and how its sale helped me in some way. This led to some great friendships as well as learning how something small can have such a deep impact in someone else’s life.

Knew this was my work when I saw it on some guy. Turns out it was a gift when he had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt and it had helped him find hope in life.

I don’t make bracelets that often any longer; there just doesn't seem to be the time these days. I guess if presented with the right challenge, I’d pick up my board, select my strings and get to work, but there are still several of my works available at my shop and I’d love to see them find a home where they can be enjoyed as they were intended.

A gallery compiled from years' worth of work.

If you were looking through the gallery, you may have noticed a strange-looking rig. That was used to make a few videos like this one...

In case you're wondering what brings this all up after all these years, well, it’s kinda simple. I learned a skill and I’d like to share, so I’m beginning work on a book to teach what I know. It will be filled with hand drawn how-tos and instructions to make your own amazing works, so share with friends because after all that’s what it’s really about, right? If you have thoughts you would like to share, please leave them in the comments below. Perhaps a story of how a bracelet moved you or made you feel special. I really would love to hear about it.

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