I wrote this for a mailing list I’m on, and thought I’d share, as it sums up how I feel about the whys and hows of craft:
I used to be a handspinner (until I fell in love with handweaving). This is about as basic as it gets: you take fiber and convert it into yarn. It’s also clearly an impractical pursuit, since you can buy yarn for a whole lot less than the amount of time/cost it takes to spin it.
Spinners, of course, will insist that they do it because they want control over the finished product, because they can make custom blends that are simply not on the market, or that handspun yarns are made of higher-quality fibers than the stuff that goes into knitting yarns (all true). However, the real reason spinners spin is because they enjoy the process of spinning. Being able to get cool yarns you can’t buy elsewhere is a bonus.
I tend to think that crafts are about process as much as they are about finished product. I think the finished product is important – I have never understood people who like to weave dishtowels, for example. To my mind, if I’m going to weave something it should be something treasured, something worth the time – not something to run through a load of dirty dishes. (On the other hand I must admit there was something magical about Guatemala, where even the dishtowels were handwoven.)
Back when I had my 1800 square foot mini-farm, I never saw a point in cultivating anything I could easily buy. I mean, why put in all that effort to buy something you could find at a farmer’s market? I had 83 kinds of heirloom tomatoes, 8 kinds of potatoes, nine kinds of garlic, etc. and was breeding my own tomato varieties – basically because it wasn’t *just* about process, it was about leveraging that process to produce something I couldn’t have gotten any other way. But fundamentally, if I hadn’t enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have been doing it, even for the opportunity to taste a Purple Calabash tomato. (Delicious, by the way – rich deep flavor reminiscent of red wine. Topped only by the mini-cherry tomato Fruity Mix, which I don’t think is available anymore, alas.)
Anyway, I think it’s great to be able to get stuff you couldn’t achieve by machine, but to me it’s more about the journey than the end result. Reminds me of a passage from The Phantom Tollbooth (I think I’ve quoted it before, but it bears repeating):
“Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry. The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”
“Didn’t they have any place to go?” asked Milo.
“To be sure,” continued Alec; “but, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes, you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”
Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.
“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”
To me that’s what craftmanship is like, and what it’s about. It’s great to get to beautiful places (or beautiful cloth), but the real value is in what you see/get along the way. If you mechanize completely, it’s just like walking down the street staring at your shoes – there’s no soul left, and what you’re left with is a thing.
Not that I’m against “things”, mind you – I’m a product of the mechanized age myself – but I feel there is something beautiful and human about creating something with a journey – a story – rather than leaping straight to the end product.
I actually wrote an essay on this while I was at Caltech, which was titled “The Loss of the Creature” (after Walker Percy’s essay of the same name – worth looking up if you can find a copy). It’s on my website at http://www.travelingtiger.com
. I’m a little embarrassed about it today, because it badly needs cleaning up (and I am a far cry from my militant twenties – not a vegetarian anymore, for one thing), but structurally, I think it’s pretty good. At least, it expresses my respect for the journey, which is really all there is.