Tag Archives: craft

A Craftsman Reads “Craeft”

The idiosyncratic spelling of “Craft” is intended to reference the earlier Anglo-Saxon conception of craft. The 2018 American edition is titled “Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts” The 2017 English edition is titled “Craeft: How Traditional Crafts Are About More Than Just Making” Does the publisher think Americans like the “true meaning” of crafts? And the English assume craft is just about making stuff?

Book Review. Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.

People working in craft often have philosophic inclinations. We work outside of mainstream society. We make objects that are not strictly necessary anymore. Combine this with long hours working alone, extremely repetitive hand work which affects the rhythm of our thoughts, getting lost in archaic techniques, and it only seems natural existential questions arise. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this? (and the annoying corollary, why am I doing this for so little money) Does it matter? Is craft in the 21st century anything more than a marketing term for a new cider? As partial compensation, I habitually buy most new books on the philosophy of craft, which means I must be looking for some new insight or different perspective.

With a few significant exceptions, the history of craft is recorded by writers and artists who described the actions of a craftsmen, but were not experts in the fields they described. Alexander Langland continues in this tradition. “I’m no craftsman” he announces near the end of his book. (297)  He does consider himself a “jack-of-all trades, master of none”, though. There is an almost universal prohibition against attempting to learn too many trades in most languages and cultures on earth. But why? Most people I know who are good with their hands are adept at a number of crafts. Is mastering a craft a different category altogether?

Langlands writes with a poetic sensitivity detailing the activity of handwork which renders the fact he is not a professional craftsman irrelevant. I became completely absorbed in his descriptions of hand work. David Esterly’s Lost Carvings (my review here) may have been the model for this style of craft writing: you feel you are inside a craftsman’s head, thinking what he is thinking while he moves his hands and tools. Esterly is a master craftsman writing about his own long years of carving. Langlands admits he is good at talking about it. (297)

Over a dozen crafts are described in Langlands book. Descriptions of performing a craft can sometimes go on for pages, and could have easily become inconsequential and dull. With Langlands firm narrative, however, they are engaging and even exciting. For example, the chapter on making a thatch roof is almost pornographic in detail; from sharpening the scythe, selecting the stubble thatch, twisting the thatch, augering the rafter peg holes, pegging it with a square greenwood trenail, driving the spars, and more. After reading, I felt exhausted and relieved to get off the roof and have the day’s work finished.

Each chapter has a similar recipe. He starts by placing a particular craft in a historical context, mixes in a bit of etymology, describes the importance of the materials, then narrates his own experimental recreation. His background as an archaeologist and British television personality (The Victorian Farm, The Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm) serve him well in presenting the information in an engaging and readable manor. The chapter on weaving and hurtle fence making, for example, is exemplary: he unites these two disparate appearing crafts through a fundamental commonality of warp and weft. All the while he emphasizes the respect he has for the abilities of earlier craftsmen.

Though the book is filled with interesting factoids — who knew that the tines of traditional wooden French pitchforks are made out of trained branches! — the real value is in Langlands’ underlying conception of craft, “… a vehicle through which we can think, through when we can contemplate, and through which we can be.” (343)  He continues a philosophy of craft born in the arts and crafts movement, then overlaid with a bit of Richard Sennett (The Craftsman, my review here), David Pye (Nature and Art of Workmanship), and Howard Risatti (Theory of Craft). Another great strength of this book is the explication what he feels is the “craeft” way of knowing: evaluating and sourcing raw materials, working within constraints of cost and time, using your hands, and working towards a specific means. Craft, to Langlands, is not just a final product, but the sum total of the involvement in the process by the craftsman with the environment. Is this just a slight variation of farm-to-table cooking applied to objects?

For all of practical and engaging description, and his extensive experimentation, he has a romanticized view of craft, likely because he is an amateur.  “Perhaps harshly, I would not consider a topiarist who uses electric hedge trimmers a true craftsman on the simple grounds that the tool mutes their level of engagement with the material properties of the entity they are working.” (36) Attitudes toward work — even for a real craftsman —  change quite a bit when doing something day after day, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. Pecuniary pressures can also negatively impact a craftsman’s enjoyment of work. David Pye would also take issue with this statement, though on the grounds that an electric hedge trimmer takes a great deal of hand skill to operate, and the source of the power is irrelevant.

Langlands pays little attention paid to how craft skills are passed on or inherited. For all of his emphasis on craft as a integrated system and way of thinking, this is a significant omission. When discussing a Viking longship, he theorizes “It’s a craft that relies on building something relative to the materials employed… allowing the materials to speak for themselves, to answer back, to tell you what the natural shape must be…” (333) This sounds more something you would hear from an exercise guru or in a Monty Python skit, not the way a craftsman would think about constructing a ship in the ninth century. “Thor, let the keel timber be what it wants to be!”

There are several chapters where he describes the actions of a skilled craftsman, but he does not investigate the transmission of knowledge. Re-enactment, etymological history, and the study of extant artifacts are his primary methods of inquiry. But this was is not how craft was taught and transmitted for most of human history.

At the risk of coming across as a mystic, but I do believe Craft (with a capital “C”) resides outside of objects. Craft objects are the result of Craft. Learning or experiencing this way of thinking is traditionally taught through close contact with skilled practitioners. But I also think you can get there on your own, it just takes a lot more time. Before the nineteenth century this took place in apprenticeships; now it is more commonly acquired during internships. The transmission of craft knowledge is an important part of the entire craft ecosystem.

Upcoming Live Stream Lecture. Cabinetmakers of German Origin in Eighteenth-Century Paris: A Chapter in European History of Migration and Transfer of Knowledge and Craft in the Age of Enlightenment

Dr. Ulrich Leben’s upcoming lecture, “Cabinetmakers of German Origin in Eighteenth-Century Paris: A Chapter in European History of Migration and Transfer of Knowledge and Craft in the Age of Enlightenment” sounds fascinating. He apprenticed as a cabinetmaker then received a PhD. A very full quiver for a scholar interested in craft.

The blurb: “The fact that a large number of cabinetmakers working in Paris during the eighteenth century were of German origin is well known. It is therefore surprising that there has never been research on the lives and work of these more than one hundred craftsmen. This talk will present various aspects of a project currently being undertaken by Dr. Ulrich Leben and Miriam Schefzyk on these craftsmen and provide insight into archive-based research in France and abroad exploring questions regarding social, economic, and cultural circumstances. A major goal of this project is the publication of a dictionary of these craftsmen that will be a tool for further work in the field.”

If you are in the New York City area, you can attend a brown bag lunch Monday October 9, 12:15 – 1:15 at Bard Graduate Center, located at 38 West 86th St. You need to preregister. I’ll be there, say hi!

If you are not in New York City, the event will be livestreamed on youtube: <https://www.youtube.com/user/bardgradcenter&gt;

Do Tools Matter When Making Historic Book Structures?

I made this reproduction 18th century French wooden straightedge. Does using it to make a historic bookbinding model *really* affect the process or outcome? Am I heading down the road of wearing a faux French craftsman costume while I do this?

Skillful use of hand tools often depends on their embodiment. They literally become become extensions of our consciousness and body.  We think through them in use, not about them. Don Idhe’s example of driving a car is useful. We don’t have to pay conscious attention to where we are on the road. We just drive. The car is a complex tool that has become embodied. We constantly unconsciously adjust to keeping it on the road. In bookbinding, paring leather is a similar unconscious complex activity. If you are interested in this kind of thing,  Don Idhe’s Technology and The Lifeworld is a exceedingly readable philosophy of technology.

All craft activities have a greater or lesser degree of embodiment, it accounts for some of their joy, relaxation and pleasure. We get out of ourselves for a while.  People often remark on how a tool fits their hand, or is an extension of it, and that it disappears in use. And how time quickly disappears when engaged by using it.

In teaching historic bookbinding structures, however, that these ingrained habits can be counterproductive when trying to recreate, or at least understand in detail, the nuances of earlier techniques.  This is one reason for using historic and reproduction tools. They can help take us out of the familiar, and challange our ingrained craft skills.  They force us to rethink our relationship to a particular tool, and by extension our relationship with the object being crafted. It is all too easy to slip into 21st century work habits when trying to construct a 16th century Gothic binding.

Using historic tools may or may not be the easiest way to do a particular task. When conserving a book there are many other considerations, including the safety of the original artifact, so many historic tools and techniques are not appropriate. And of course, the skill, experience and ability of the conservator is a significant factor. But by in large, the traditional tools of hand bookbinding have not been mechanized because they are an efficient and accurate way of working.

Possibly the most important aspect of using historic tools, or reproductions, is they aid in interpreting historic techniques. Binding a book in an historic style, even inexpertly, helps us understand deeply how older books were made. And isn’t this type of knowledge at the core of any book conservation treatment?

Wooden Spoons and the Price of Craft

I had a sudden and strong compulsion to make wooden spoons around nine months ago.

Part of it was a way to avoid some extremely tedious conservation work. Part of it was a desire to emulate the beauty, at least in spirit, of traditional Swedish wooden spoons. Part of it was an excuse to buy some new tools.

I also wanted to test out some longstanding questions; primarily, as where does technique reside? Traditionally Western craft technique is taught by close contact and imitation of a skilled practitioner. Now it is common to learn by reading a how-to-manual, watching a video, or maybe taking some classes. Technique is often regarded as solely residing in the practicioner.

Many aspects of technique may also reside in the tools themselves. Since I didn’t know anything about spoon carving, this might be a good test: How much could I learn by letting the tools teach me how to make a wood spoon?

spoons

It only takes a few simple tools to start making wooden spoons. On the top, a small vintage (ca. 1970’s) Norlund hatchet with my handle, which split when mounting the head. Grrrr. Still, it works fine. Under it, on the left, a Mora knife, next to it a sweep knife made by Robin Wood, and a hook knife made by Pinewood Forge.

Of course, I had to start with the best quality tools I could find. The odd thing was, after I made a dozen or so spoons, the compulsion disappeared almost as quickly as it came on. This may be explained by the thrill of accomplishment when beginning to learn a new craft: mastering the final 20% can take a 1000% more time than the original 80%. One reason many people jump around to different crafts; jonesing for a new quick rush, weary of the long path towards mastery.

This was not a true test of technique completely residing in a tool.  I have been whittling since I was a kid (ball in cage!), professionally make and sharpen knives, and use axes quite a bit. Nevertheless, it does speak to the relatively easy transference of tool based knowledge, rather than traditional object based craft education. Does the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” serve to warn against tool based knowledge? Could it be dangerous?

spoons1

A wooden spoon I made out of Swiss pear wood.

I still use the spoons I made and didn’t give away, they are serviceable and some ended up quite elegant, in my opinion. The one above sees the most use in my kitchen. The handle is comfortable in a variety of grips, and I intended the shallow bowl to be good for tasting while cooking. Wood feels weirdly sticky in my mouth though, like a tongue depressor, so I don’t do this.

*****

I’d forgotten about this episode until a couple of days ago, when I received a blog post from a professional wooden spoon maker, Jarrod Stone Dhal.  The Trouble with The Green Woodworking Community or I Don’t Want to be Poor.

There are many aspects of his post that anyone involved with crafts will find of interest. One of his questions revolves around the almost impossible desire to make quality handmade objects at an affordable price. When craft objects get too expensive, people put them on a shelf and are afraid to use them. This might also be part of the reason many craftspeople sell their wares absurdly cheap, and are regarded as failures at business.  I doubt that large companies like Walmart care if what they sell is used. People who make functional items want them to be used.

But how many handmade books — including etsy style blank books, seeming sold for less than the cost of materials — actually end up getting used?  many books get read?  When I worked in an academic research library, I bet almost 10% of the books I recased had never been read.

Much modern craft philosophy emphasizes the making of something as the primary fulfillment. Being in the moment when making, zen like, and so on. This romantic attitude might have inadvertently contributed to public reluctance to pay for the time and skill of craft. “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be doing it for the love? You want to get paid too!?”

unchopping

“Tree Down!”   Jeff Peachey, 2013.

“Start with the leaves, the small twigs, and the nests that have been shaken, ripped, or broken off by the fall; these must be gathered and attached once again to their respective places. It is not arduous work, unless major limbs have been smashed or mutilated. If the fall was carefully and correctly planned, the chances of anything of the kind happening will have been reduced. Again, much depends upon the size, age, shape, and species of the tree. Still, you will be lucky if you can get through this stages without having to use machinery. Even in the best of circumstances it is a labor that will make you wish often that you had won the favor of the universe of ants, the empire of mice, … .” (the rest of the poem)

W. S. Merwin’s “Unchopping a Tree” is a wonderfully meditative poem/essay that will resonate with anyone in craft, conservation, technology, or environmentalism. It articulates the hubris of humans when working with natural materials by emphasizing the complex and one-directional time-bound nature of growth and craft.

There is not a backspace key for craft. Only starting over, or more rarely, working around a mistake. A second of inattention can create hours or days of extra work when dealing with physical materials. Possibly even failure. Chopping is quick. Unchopping takes a long time.

We can all appreciate the section on the structural inappropriateness of trying to glue back the severed fibers of the tree, which will never function as the original. It is as futile as gluing a spinal cord nerve.

The poem ends by zeroing in on the insecurity at the heart of all art and craft. How can any human construct even begin to compare to Nature?

On Rushing

rushing

 

Rushing is an insidious demon in craft work. Its lures are many. It occludes the memory of its last appearence, trapping you once again. Resist with constant vigilance!

A Passion for Perfection: Two Recent Movies About Craft

jay

Deceptive Practice

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/36319857″>Jiro Dreams Of Sushi – Trailer</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/curiousdistribution”>curious</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Traditionally craft is learned through close contact with skilled practitioners. Currently most professionals I know have cobbled together an autodiadactic path that often consists of reading, experimenting, practice, formal classes, weekend workshops, and hanging out with others in the field. But what happens when a craft is “mastered”—however you define the term— and how do practitioners keep learning, refining and performing at peak levels? And why do they keep doing it? Both Deceptive Practice and Jiro Dreams of Sushi explore this question.

At an age when most are ready to retire, Jiro cannot stop making sushi. When interviewed, he candidly admits his family and life outside of work have suffered because of his obsession of crafting the most prefect sushi he is capable of. His Tokyo restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars. But he can’t stop, and still doesn’t feel his son, who is 50 years old and who has worked by his side most of his adult life, is ready to take over. The act of crafting is rewarding to him, but it has become such a large part of him, that he can’t let go of it. Jiro’s story bypasses much of his formative experiences, but instead concentrates on a perhaps inevitable paradox: many enter into crafts in order to reestablish some kind of physical/ mental balance in their lives, yet craft at the highest levels becomes singular and obsessive.

Ricky Jay began performing at the age of 4 (there is home movie footage to prove it!), and much of this film discusses his influences and mentors. Most of his education was informal and his skills learned through intensive practice.  He mentions he still practices card handling seven hours a day, though I wondered if this might be a bit of magicians patter. Yet Jay is not only one of the most accomplished sleight of hand magicians (he can pierce a watermelon with a playing card), he a scholar of the history of magic, writer, and actor. His books, such as Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women or Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, are facinating and well written. I had the chance to watch him perform a couple of years ago, and left more impressed than ever. I was picked from the audience to play poker with him on stage; for the finale I shuffled, cut and dealt the cards. He didn’t touch them except to turn them over. He had four aces and I had nothing.

Both films feature photography that verges on pornography in their larger than life closeups. An excusite piece of sushi glistening with a brush of shoyu that fills the screen, Jay’s incessant fondling of cards which he watches his hands by using three mirrors. Again the separation of the hand and the head is emphasized. Together these films give an unusually revealing view of the work that craft involves. Attentive practice, trying to improve and trying to maintain one’s skills are never ending. For Jay and Jiro there is no rest. There is only the need to do something very, very well. And do it again, and again, and again. Ars long, vita brevis.