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Artisans and Craft

Aurora Simmons

I wish to discuss craft and craftsmanship as a process, an experience and a creative medium. I hope this will be of interest to craftspeople and non-craftspeople alike. I also want to talk a little about why I believe that high-quality handmade items are inherently more valuable than machine made things. This might get a little bit philosophical, so prepare yourself.

I hope you will forgive the use of the gendered term craftsmanship in this blog entry. Please understand that I use it out of convenience rather than a belief that women are any less craftspeople than men. This would be a particularly odd belief for me to have since I and all of the artisans listed on my website are, for no particular reason, women, but I just wanted to make a note of this for all you gendered language enthusiasts out there.

One of the things I love about craft is its unforgiving nature. There is really no getting around the fact that it is possible to miscut a garment so badly that it simply won't fit, and all you can do is break it down for scraps or doll clothes. You can also break a valuable gem that you are trying to set into three useless pieces, leaving you to curse the darkness and then go pay lots of money for a new gem. The point I am making here is that there is a fairly hard line as to whether something hand made is successful or not.

As you develop an understanding of your chosen craft, it should become more and more difficult to lie to yourself about whether or not you have succeeded. This is one of the challenges that I love about working with the physical world. There is very little room for self-deception, and if you are making things for paying clients, there even less room for the deception of others. If a garment doesn't fit, there is no way that you are going to be able to convince a customer that it is still worth paying for, no matter how much time you spent on it and how much of a pain it might have been to make.

This is becoming less and less true in a lot of other industries, and I am not suggesting that such a black and white results system is the only valid way to make a living, but it definitely appeals to me. This is a fundamental part of the experience of craftsmanship. It's just you and the $80 per yard silk, or you and the $1,000 emerald and maybe the fast approaching deadline. High risk, but also high reward.

The other side of this, is the tremendous satisfaction in making something that someone else can use successfully. I have always found a great joy when I see a customer happily wearing something I have made, whether it be a wedding ring, or a piece of historical fashion, it is a splendid validation. I always feel a certain connection to people I craft for, even if they are paying clients who I will only meet once or twice. It is a good feeling to know that people are wearing things you have made next to their skin and using them to represent themselves to the world. It is an oddly intimate sort of relationship and one which I take very seriously.

Another aspect of craft that resonates for me, is the connection with the past. I am somewhat of a student of history, and I take great pleasure in recreating the garments and jewellery  of the past. I am regularly stunned by the skill level and commitment that went into basic everyday items in almost any period of history before the modern day, and it fills me with sadness to think how many of those skills sets we are losing or have already lost.

Nowadays we put our energy into different things, some of which are commendable, some, such as Facebook, much less so. But I think it is deplorable that time which would have once been spent sewing next years clothes, learning to embroider, or perhaps carving a new chair, now goes into playing Farmville and Tweeting. It's important to understand that there were serious professionals in the clothing industry. In the 18th century for example there was a massive guild dedicated to embroidery, but it is equally important to understand that for your average lower income farm dweller, if you wanted something embroidered, you damn well got the nearest woman to do it for you. Without the many distractions with which we are now surrounded, people had to fill the time, and what better way to do that, then in making something useful and beautiful.  As I have mentioned earlier, there is great experiential reward available in making something, even if there is not going to be any economic gain, and I think we allow ourselves to abandon these pursuits at a great costs to individual satisfaction.   

There is certainly a movement towards craft today, but it is hanging by threads if you will. I know many hobby knitters and crocheters, but very few people who sew for fun, and almost no one who regularly make their own garments for everyday wear.  Why is that you ask?

There are a number of reasons. Making your own garments is really hard. It takes dedication, time, trial and error, skill and equipment to come up with a garment you are not ashamed to wear on the street. It can be incredibly hard to motivate oneself to do something like this, when Game of Thrones is on and you really need to muck out the cowshed on Farmville or whatever it is people do in that game. The other side of this is that a jacket from H and M is only $125... and you can just buy a new one next season when you get bored of this one.

If you can't see all the things that are wrong with this picture I am frankly surprised you have made it this far in my ... rant? Why do we choose easy over difficult? Perhaps it is just because we can. One of the big drives of modernization has definitely been convenience, and thanks to technology and outsourcing we have that in spades,. But do we really want to be part of a culture that discourages us from attempting to do difficult things with concrete results?  Until fairly recently, only the very wealthy -  could afford to have throwaway garments made for special events. Now we regularly buy items we intend to wear only once, after which point they will sit in a closet gathering dust for god knows how long, until we shovel them off to Goodwill, or perhaps a landfill somewhere.

People take fine jewellery a bit more seriously, but there is still a massive trade in cheap plastic costume jewellery which will break after three wears and be so much off-gassing landfill waste itself.

I hate to use the phrase, consumer culture, but let's face it, we live in one, and the one way I can see around this - is to start taking our purchases more seriously, purchasing things that will last, making lasting things more affordable, and not mindlessly buying new cheap stuff every time we need a little pick-me-up.

This has become way longer than I intended but I want to wrap up with a brief note on value. I spoke a little bit in the beginning about the process of craftsmanship from the perspective of the creator. Now I would like to try to convince you, as a potential customer and a thinking human being, that there is a value inherent in handmade things, that simply doesn't exist in something made in a factory.

As an artisan, everything I make has a little bit of me in it, a little bit of my soul if you will. And because each handmade thing contains a bit of the artisan, the processes, plus the materials and thought that went into it, a sort of gestalt is reached that you just can't get anywhere else. It may be hard to quantify, but I think it is real, subjectively and experientially, if not quantifiably. I happen to believe that we live experiential lives, and precious things which we love deeply, help to enrich our experience. The process of making something, or of wearing something that someone made by hand, is completely different from the experience of wearing something you bought in a shop, that divorces you totally from the reality of the creation of that thing.

If you made it this far, I hope you will take a minute to look around your house, at the things you own, and wear and ask yourself, which are the most valuable to you? Is it about how much you paid? How useful something is? Where you got it? The experiences that you associate with it? Maybe even the connection you share with the person who made it? I think it is worth spending time and money on tangible things, lasting things. I would much rather spend my money on fabric that I can make into a coat for someone I care about, then on another piece of smart plastic which will be useless landfill waste in three years. How about you?  

Thank you to Nancy Watt for her help with copy editing this document. Any errors remaining are my own.