When we consider the back-to-basics movement, there are a few questions that present themselves over and over again. Why have the crafts of the past gained so much momentum? Why do we still insist on the substantiality of books in a Kindle era? Why were knitting and crocheting at the heart of a revivalist movement among America’s youngest and most modern women: college students? And why are the unapologetically anti-establishment types purchasing land and raising livestock like their austere great-grandparents did? I have the answer. It’s the therapy of handmade.
More than a few of us are feeling disconnected from our labor. Perhaps your job has you handling intangibles, like retirement planning or information management. That would make you part of an ever-growing sector of the American economy, a sector filled with people who are itching to make something they can see. Perhaps you feel like just one cog in a giant machine, and being the guy who makes the springs go in ballpoint pens just isn’t satisfying your creative muscle. You’re curious — what would it feel like to see a project through from beginning to end? You wonder if you could make yourself more balanced, more whole even, by learning how to make something you could wrap your hands around.
What if the work you did each day wore you out — not just mentally, but physically, too? You imagine a satisfying soreness in your bones that speaks to a day well lived, a job well done. And the artisan table, the hand-spun wool, the fertile farmland, the just-finished novel, or the one-of-a-kind dress within sight, stands as a testament to your labor.
Handmade is about tactile pleasure. It’s about a certain pride in being useful. Practical. There’s a meditative calm that comes from letting your mind wander as you knead bread dough or hem curtains. An intimacy with nature that results from carving wood for hours upon hours, examining the grain up close, counting its rings, imagining a life lived out in the forest. There’s the special way that the weight of a book, the physicality of page turning and folding, can transport you a thousand miles away from the anxieties of here and now.
Handmade puts us in touch with parts of the world we don’t otherwise experience. Handmade teaches us lessons that we can only learn by doing. And it shows us parts of ourselves that have been hidden away like buried treasures. Think about the first time you knitted a sweater, baked a loaf or sewed an apron for somebody else. Chances are, you heard a sigh of delight accompanied by “I didn’t know you could do that!” At some point, you didn’t know you could either. Until you did.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s not always necessary to make our own cheese to taste good cheese. We don’t have to bake our own bread to eat good bread. If we don’t make paper, we’ll still be able to purchase it. And there are plenty of artisan woodworkers who would love to produce our next dining room tables for us. These things aren’t always the easiest, fastest or even thriftiest undertakings. But that’s not why we do them.
There is an almost spiritual quality to the process of creating things ourselves. There is a reason why hands clasped over bread dough are almost like hands clasped in prayer. Why the fragrant steam of a busy iron can have the same effect on us as a reverent cloud of incense. It’s because, no matter who we are or what we look like, we often define ourselves by our work, by the work of our hands. In our own hearts and souls, we are what we do.
Copyright 2011, MaryJane Butters.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.