I was cruising along on my latest project, a cashmere coat, humming a happy little tailor-basting tune as I tacked the interfacing to the second front piece of the lapel, when my eye fell on the “right side” of the interfacing, a lovely piece of variegated purple flannel. And I thought of the shop where I’d bought it, Eddie’s Quilting Bee.
Eddie’s Quilting Bee is the premier quilting shop on the Peninsula (if not the entire San Francisco Bay Area), but since I am not a quilter, it’s never had much draw for me. However, it is now conveniently located about five minutes from where I live, and they do have some things for “regular” (fashion) sewing, so I’ve been popping in there from time to time. The last time I was in there, I had been admiring the quilts they had on the wall there. Some of them are genuine art pieces.
“So,” I thought to myself, “why don’t I make one? They’re simply beautiful.”
“Because,” I replied to myself, “I hate quilting.”
Then I looked down at the sandwiched layers of fabric that I was happily stitching together and had to laugh.
But it’s true, you know: I really don’t like quilting, I find it mind-numbingly boring. Which is odd because there are plenty of things I do that most people would find mind-numbingly boring. Like spending one entire summer bicycling up and down the side of the same damn mountain (Mt. Hamilton, in San Jose), prepping for the Death Ride. Or winding and threading a long, fine warp onto the loom. Or, in this case, sitting around spending 10+ hours tailor-basting and pad-stitching interfacing to the front of a coat that is not even the coat you had planned to make, but a trial run for the “real” coat.
So I thought about this a little more, mixed it up with my “creative journey” metaphor, and concluded that, for an activity to be worthwhile:
Net value of experience along the way + Value of finished product
must be equal or greater to
Amount of effort expended in getting finished product.
Neither the experience nor the finished product has to be valuable in itself; going to see a movie, for example, doesn’t produce a valuable end product (unless you happen to be a movie reviewer), and mowing the lawn isn’t generally a valuable experience, though it does produce a useful end product (a neat-looking lawn). But the two together have to be worth the effort you’re putting into it.
This is important to remember because so many handicrafts are process-oriented, and as such are misunderstood by non-practitioners. “Why are you making that when you could buy one in Wal-Mart for a buck-fifty?” is a frequent refrain. Or, as a friend’s husband said to her when she took up handspinning, “Couldn’t you get someone in a Third World country to do that for you?”
The answer from a (non-professional) craftperson is (aha!) typically one of two things:
- (Value of finished product): I am being thrifty by making this, because the object I am making is of higher quality than what you could purchase at Wal-Mart. I could not afford to buy this for myself, so I am creating it.
- (Value of process): Because I enjoy doing it.
What I find fascinating about this particular dialogue about craft is that the value-of-product response is virtually always the first answer to leap from the mouth of an incensed crafter, but the second answer is perhaps closer to the truth. Why is it so difficult to do things for love in this society? Is it our materialistic, Puritan roots that simultaneously value productivity and decry hedonistic indulgence? (Now that is a paradox if I’ve ever heard one! What is one to do with all that productivity, in this modern age, without indulging hedonistically in all that is produced?)
And yet it’s not quite possible to escape the question of the value of craft. Because if one is to avoid the sneer that one is doing something singularly pointless, reproducing something that could be bought for pennies, there needs to be a greater purpose in it. (Curiously, I have heard very few people question why I would spend an entire summer bicycling up and down the same damn mountain in my quest to conquer the Death Ride, when lots of people asked me why I was handspinning my own shawls and what I was going to do with a lace shawl afterwards. I find this very funny considering the actual value of the end product: at least when I was spinning ring shawls, I had a shawl at the end!) And perhaps that is why the product-value answer leaps forth first: it is a rational argument for what one is doing, that will make sense to someone who does not see the love and enjoyment in the long hours.
But to see the bankruptcy of the first answer without at least a modicum of the second, consider this: if you could afford to purchase all the hand-sewn, couture outfits you desired, would you still have the urge to create, to spin or knit or weave or sew? For all the fiber artists I know, the answer is yes. It is yes because the desire to create is something that springs from the human soul, not something that is purchased for money.
I read an interesting book once, written by G.H. Hardy, one of the greatest mathematicians of his generation. In it he attempts to justify the pursuit of mathematics, with moderate results: I think he was making too great an effort to justify something that, like little girls, “needs no justification”. But he did say some interesting things, interesting enough that A Mathematician’s Apology has a place in my (small) permanent book collection.
What we do may be small, but it has a certain character of permanence; and to have produced anything of the slightest permanent interest, whether it be a copy of verses or a geometrical theorem, is to have done something utterly beyond the powers of the vast majority of men.
…In these days of conflict between ancient and modern studies, there must surely be something to be said for a study which did not begin with Pythagorus, and will not end with Einstein, but is the oldest and the youngest of all.
He was justifying the existence of mathematics, of course, but the same arguments can be made for fiber arts, which is simultaneously one of the oldest and newest of human pursuits. There is something deeply attractive about being involved in an activity so fundamental that it is literally “the fabric that binds us all together”.
Perhaps I’ll remember to say that, the next time someone asks me to justify what I am doing.