Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Ah. The old myth.

It's been a while since I last heard (or read) it, but today was the day. Someone on Facebook, in a group for Experimental Archaeology (including Experience Archaeology) posted it.

"Unfortunately, the modern tailors just do not stitch as fast as people who started as children and have sewn all their lives."

I've heard this a lot over the years. Now that I think of it, though, I get the suspicion that it was predominantly textile stuff... spinning, especially, as well as sewing.

Well. Here's what I think.

Modern crafters are not necessarily slower than their historic counterparts. First of all, individuals have different working speeds (then as now). Once you have reached the end of your working speed development, there you are. I've tried sewing as fast as I could, so I'd see how much of a difference it would make. The result? I was not faster at all compared to working at my relaxed normal speed, only the seams were not as nice. Unless I have to get acquainted with some new fabric, or fiddle with a particularly difficult bit of seam (such as a weird corner), my normal sewing speed has reached my personal maximum, and that's where it will stay.
It's perfectly logical, too. Think about it: If you are running every day to become a faster runner, you will at one time find your maximum - and that will be it. There'll be fluctuations, of course, but there's an end point to speed.
Similarly, crafting speed has a limit somewhere and you can't get indefinitely faster with more practice. If that would be the case, it should not be possible to see the needle, or shuttle, or hammer, or saw of a very experienced crafter with 30+ years of daily practice anymore, because that thing would move that fast. Just like our materials have limits, and our tools have limits, so does the range of movements and the maximum possible speed of going through those movements while still efficient.

Thirdly, "crafting speed" is hard to compare between individuals, as you do not know the exact circumstances of the work and the exact materials. There's a difference between spinning raw wool fresh from the sheep or clean combed wool. There's a difference between forging something from iron or from high-carbon steel. There's a difference between sewing a heavy silk or a loosely woven linen. There's a difference between carving a spoon from wet hazel or dry oak. And that's not even taking into account the use of different tools, or working styles.

I am firmly of the opinion that there is no reason why a practised crafter today should not be as fast as a practised crafter from 10, 50, or 500 years ago.
Case in point: There is an attempt at calculating the approximate time spent on sewing types of garments in Textiles & Clothing (the London publication) from documented garment prices and tailor wages. The times do roughly match the times that I need for tailoring and hand-sewing the same types of garments. (The day I discovered this? That was a happy day for me, and the first time I really started thinking about this "we are never as fast as they were" thing.)

What do you think? Have you been told that we can never reach the fantabulous speed of those gone by? And, most interesting to me: Have you ever heard that applied to something outside of textile context?


Anonymous said...

As you say there are to many factors for which to control.

Perhaps the "pros" make fewer mistakes and therefore get through more work. It doesn't necessarily mean they sew each stitch faster than me, amateur, it means they seldom have to stop and pull their stitches out.

Panth said...

I think your argument makes sense, with a proviso:

Often when people say this, they are talking about modern amateurs. Comparatively few of us have the time to dedicate to learn any one skill to the level of "experienced craftsperson". Also, few of us dedicate ourselves single-mindedly in the way that a professional craftsperson would as we are flighty creatures doing this as a hobby (and here I'm speaking of myself!).

I agree with the previous commenter that part of the 'speed' of experience is not having to remove and re-do mistakes. I also agree that materials and tools make a VERY big difference to time - sometimes I wonder if we will ever be able to truely estimate how long something takes by recreation because we simply don't know enough about the material preparation and the tools (and the techniques).

a stitch in time said...

Panth, I would say nothing against somebody remarking that a modern amateur will not be able to match the speed or efficiency of a professional crafter. But the way this statement is usually phrased is more like "nobody today can match the speed of someone from the 15th century, because they started earlier and that just made them so much faster". And that's where I call bullshit.
Comparisons between contemporary hobbyists/amateurs and professional crafters will in most cases show the crafter to be faster or more efficient, regardless of the time. As will comparing a modern hobbyist with a historical crafter (provided they use similar tools and materials). But I'm talking about professionals or those working on a comparable level - which are included in that sweeping statement about "nobody today".