Mike and I arrived in Vancouver yesterday, and immediately headed over to Granville Island, where we are staying in the not-too-imaginatively named Granville Island Hotel. Granville Island is a tiny “island” (I think it’s really a peninsula) in downtown Vancouver – you can stroll leisurely around the island in about twenty minutes, max. And it is crammed with craft shops. Not kitschy craft, but good quality craftwork from excellent artisans.
After breakfast, Mike decided he needed a nap. (We were both pretty exhausted from the excesses of the week before!) So while he napped, I sneaked out and did the textile tour of Granville Island. I bought a few books on craft from Maiwa Handicrafts/Supply, two separate shops in the same building, and took a long look at the wares in the Silk Weaving Studio. The latter was the real gem. In addition to handwoven goods, they sell many types of silk yarn intended for weaving, some of them quite exotic. I found silk/lycra yarn (white and black), a 7000 ypp silk boucle, and a similar boucle with slubs. I bought a sample sheet and a few 15-40 gram skeins of the ones that looked interesting – particularly interested in the silk/lycra, as it would be GREAT for collapse effects in fine weaving.
After I got back, Mike was still napping, so I went down to the dock and sat in the shade, reading one of the books I had bought. This particular book was written by the editor of Make magazine, Mark Frauenfelder – Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. It’s a great book about do-it-yourself-ing and connection.
At any rate, I came across this passage in the book, where he’s talking about making espresso, which to me captures perfectly the tools vs. skill, efficiency vs. “Slow Cloth” movement discussions:
[modifies an espresso machine to use a PID temperature controller]
I ground up some Black Cat beans, tamped them down in the portafilter, and pulled my first PID-enhanced shot. Twin rivulets of caramel espresso poured into the cup, topped with a thick layer of crema. It tasted as good as the best espresso I’d ever made. Never again would I have to deal with the hassle of temperature surfing. This one variable had been locked down for good. I lifted my demitasse cup in celebration of this small triumph. I had opened a machine, modified it, and made it mine. It felt terrific.
Not everyone thinks PID is terrific. Temperature-surfing diehards say PID takes away from the art and joy of making espresso. They would really hate the machine we use in the offices of Make magazine. You dump whole beans into one bin and water into another, stick a cup under the nozzle, and press a button. The machine grinds the beans, loads the portafilter, tamps it down, dispenses the shot, and ejects the puck of used coffee grounds into a waste bin. It’s clean, quick, and very tasty.
The question is, when you have a machine that does everything for you, do you care less about the coffee? If all the skills that go into making espresso can be perfected with technology, what’s left for the home barista to do besides drink? In espresso circles, as in other areas of the DIY movement, there are two camps. One believes that the more involved you are in the process of making something, the better the experieince. Making espresso with a fully manual machine is a skill that rewards practice and invites experimentation. Others believe that DIY is a means to an end, and that designing a machine to do something faster, more predictably, and more precisely than you could on your own is the reward. I see both sides. In my experience, DIY is rewarding because you are involving yourself in creative processes, which could include making espresso manually or making the automated system that makes the coffee.
That last sentence sums up everything I could say in the efficiency vs. process debate. The essence to me is not the tools you are using or the efficiency of your methods, but involving yourself in creative processes. It’s too bad that people sometimes get hung up on the tools being used (machine embroidery vs. hand embroidery, compudobby vs. treadle loom, etc.) – the core question to me is, is this creative, is the process enjoyable, and is the quality of the result good? If so, then it is worthwhile, whether someone wove it up in twenty hours on a computer-driven loom or in an exacting pick-up process on a backstrap loom. Tools are beside the point: it’s the connection to the creative force within all of us that’s important, the sacredness that powers all creation.