Friday, 7 May 2010

Craft perfection and craft perception.

Do you know that feeling that to some events, there is something like a secret topic? One of the main chat-topics at Freienfels was quality in crafts and the ability or lack of that ability to discern good craftspersonship from bad craftspersonship and good material from bad. It seems to be a thing very much on the surface of the mind of many sellers and of many crafters at the moment - both joy about the fact that there are still people who value good craftspersonship and sadness about them being quite few and often restricted to medieval markets and fairs.

That is, in my opinion, largely due to the fact that even basic skills in craft things are not much valued in most parts of society today. It is no longer obligatory for girls to learn how to sew and embroider or for boys how to carve and build little wooden boats, giving both sexes at least a small grounding in fine motor skills and a glimpse into craftspersonship. After this gender-specific basic instruction in crafting had been in use for a long time, I was one of the lucky generation(s) when I was in primary school - because in my time, all boys and all girls had to learn how to crochet, sew, embroider, saw, file and drill, in the aptly named "Handarbeit und Werken" (Handarbeit referring to "traditionally feminine", textile-centric work, and Werken to "traditionally masculine" work involving hardware and wood). Back then, I mostly hated the Handarbeit part and especially sewing by hand - there are machines for that, after all! However, these lessons gave me the basic knowledge about seams, stitches and textile work and they schooled fine motor skills. Some of today's schoolchildren do not get any of these lessons anymore - and that does indeed show when they try to get started with the stuff. While I will gladly accept the necessity for the next generation(s) to get acquainted with electronics in a young age and develop their computer skills, I think that neglecting a basic craft instruction is not good at all. For example if you don't know how to mend clothing, you can either walk around with the torn garment or throw it away and buy a new one. And if you have never tried your own hand at making something, how will you be able to evaluate good quality?

There is a special, deep joy in seeing a masterly piece of crafts, even if you know you can't afford to buy it. I have had tears coming into my eyes quite a few times, standing before a thing awesomely well made - a knife forged to perfection, a felt bag masterly done in a very difficult technique, a pair of shoes where every seam, every stitch spoke of the abilities of its maker, a spherical wood capsule that closes just firmly enough, turned to perfection on a lathe. The ability to perceive good quality of material and craft does not come by itself, but has to be trained - it is easiest to see for somebody who has already dabbled into that specific craft, because then you will know or at least have an inkling of the difficulties in making the piece. And then a masterpiece of craft - it can be well and truely mind-boggling.

I am sorry for everybody who has not gotten some grounding in basic craft skills when still a youngster, and I am sorry for everybody who cannot get this joy through craft perception for at least one single craft. And then, quite related to that... I am still hoping that the awareness of good quality and the appreciation of craft skills will creep back into our society, and I am expecting the day that a well-made handcrafted one-of-a-kind item of good material will again be something to show off your status - because that is when we craftspeople will be sought after once more. And when joy through craft perfection and craft perception will again grow in our world.


Chris Laning said...

I did pieced-work cloth squares for a quilt with a high-school geometry class some years ago, and I was amazed that not only did the *students* not know how to thread a needle and sew a seam, their mothers didn't either!

I asked a few of them about it, and they said that these days if you need pants shortened or repairs done, you take them to an alterations shop. (And probably pay quite a lot, though I didn't ask that!)

But unlike in parts of Europe, in the USA hand sewing, basic carpentry and so forth have *not* traditionally been offered in grammar schools for at least 75 years now -- and in the last 30 or 40 years, not in the high schools either. Those who introduce such things as optional extras are looked on as daring innovators ;)

BTW, I have fond memories of my father doing the "wooden toy boats" thing with both his daughter (me) *and* son ;)

Cathy Raymond said...

I agree with you, in part.

I do agree that it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a true appreciation for the value of a craft, any craft, if one has no idea how it is performed or what it involves. If one doesn't know how many hours it can take to embroider a design, or make a quilt, one is unlikely to understand why such items are so expensive when they have been made entirely by hand.

On the other hand, I think it is still possible to appreciate ordinary quality in every day objects, just from looking at them carefully and ascertaining whether they appear sturdy or fragile.

For my part, I did not receive craft instruction in school. Whatever I learned about sewing, or knitting, or the other crafts I have experimented with over the years I have learned from books, from having someone teach me, or from attempting them until I had an understanding of at least the basic principles.

I agree it might be better to make basic handicrafts instruction available in our schools. It would be, I think, more useful than the "art" we were urged to make with colored paper and crayons in primary school (the only kind of "craft" education I received), even if most children like it no better than what passes for art education in many American schools. However, I suspect this change won't happen--if only because of the difficulty in finding individuals who are both willing and able to give craft instruction on a primary-school level.

ceil said...

when I was in grammar school (US) back in the 60's it was still obligatory to take sewing - all the girls made their graduation party dress in sewing class which was quite the accomplishment. I and most of my friends learned things like embroidery and knitting from grandmothers - it seems though there isn't time nowadays to sit with the youngers and pass the skills on.

To my mind - this is not just about crafts saavy but about self sufficiency.

Arachne said...

My experience with learning (or trying out, I should probably say) different crafts at school is pretty similar to what Katrin describes (except I didn't like the "Werken" bit because the teacher was mean and nasty). But today when 13-14-year-olds come to the Textile Museum where I work, a lot of them don't even understand the concept of seams. I had to explain very thoroughly to a couple of girls that clothes don't stick together by themselves; you have different parts held together by seams! I had to actually show them two pieces of cloth, a threaded needle and what happened when you pushed the needle through the cloth before they understood.