Sunday, December 5, 2010


Near Bill Reid's magical sculpture, "Raven and the First Men" on exhibition  at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, there's a small card that quotes him:  "One basic quality unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human, recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture, and space:  the simple quality of being well-made."

 While craftsmanship may speak to the future, it is always tied to the past.  The craftsperson, whether potter, carpenter, knitter, or quilter, is always aware of the lore that makes their craft possible.  The potter knows the age-old recipes for glazes.  The knitter has cable and lace designs going back hundreds of years.  Quilters still return to the patterns found in the remarkable old appliqued Baltimore quilts made in mid-nineteenth century America or return to the simple log cabin pieced out of strips of leftover cloth by a woman settling the prairies.

The craftsman doesn't hurry.  Time, in the way we normally parcel it out, doesn't matter.  What matters is only the quality of the work.  The hand quilter may take a single stitch at a time if the quilting design twists and turns.  Knitters too work a stitch at a time, and often slow themselves down with complex but beautiful patterns.  We're moving forward, but in twenty-first century terms, we're moving at the pace of a tortoise drawing a very long thread.  At the same time, because people have knitted and quilted since time out of mind, that long thread is tethered to the past.  If time doesn't matter, beauty does, as does being truthful to the craft itself.

Having written that sentence, and feeling that it's somehow accurate, I had to stop and think about what I meant.  There are many ways of distiguishing between art and craft, most of them focussing rather narrowly on the fact that we use craft, while art is gloriously useless, happy to be itself.  This is a problematic distinction (and fodder for another blog?); much art is useful in an ineffable way; much mature craft poses questions that are not unlike those art ponders.  Perhaps a more useful distinction is this.  Art is only art once it's fully achieved, whereas craft admits of a process.  A simple scarf, knit on large needles, if the stitches are even and care has been taken with the tension, can be well crafted.  We learn our crafts in simple steps; a first quilt might be made of straightforward, easy to piece four-patches, quilted in a grid.  Pay attention to colour, sew your seams evenly, try to make your quilting stitches even, and you are learning the craftsmanship needed to make the most complex quilt.  When you do these things well, you are being truthful to the craft, regardless of where you are in the learning process.  Because craft can be done well at the most basic levels, it can feed a hunger in us to make something skillfully, a hunger Bill Reid alludes to.

Earlier this fall, I went to see one of my favourite craftspeople, Sue Turtle.  I met Sue last year when I bought the hand spun, hand knit shawl you see on the right beneath the woven scarf I bought this year.  The shawl is spun out of various fibres, including Qiviuk, the downy under coat of the Musk Ox.  It's extraordinarily warm, yet very light.  Sue loves the whole process:  filling the sink with stinky fleece that still smells of an animal, spinning the fibre, designing a project, and knitting it up.  Fibres, which can be rough and full of all kinds of debris, apparently bloom when they're washed.  Spinning, she tells me, is certainly repetitive, but it's like having a mantra that feels wonderful in your hands.  When her mother knit, she simply followed patterns, but Sue likes to experiment with the interplay between a particular wool and the designs it can make. While she depends on the lore of knitters--books that collect every decorative pattern of stitches ever tried--she wants to make something no one has quite made before.  The last ingredient in her satisfaction is giving it to someone who loves the work and who will gain pleasure from it.

Lest we think that knitting is falling by the wayside, undertaken by retired nurses like Sue, I should tell you that Ravelry, a website for spinners, knitters, and crocheters which contains everything from patterns to advice to blogs and chat rooms, recently admitted its millionth member.  Its enormous library of free patterns speaks to the craftsperson's desire to make it new, to conceive of something no one else has thought of. Cookie A, for example, can't seem to stop creating new and astounding patterns for socks that make inventive use of the sock's three-dimensional shape.

Today I am going to spend the day working on the hand knit mittens my nephew asked me to make him for Christmas.  When I asked him what colour he wanted, he said orange, purple, and black.  I suspect the colours have something to do with sports teams, but what do I know?  I just knit.  It was a challenge, but I found a Noro purple and orange on the edge between attitude and cheer to go with my black merino.   I'll be using a pattern designed during the Second World War to make dense, heavy mittens on tiny needles for the men at the front, largely because someone took the time to work out a pattern of decreases that give you a beautifully-shaped round top.  (They won't look like the toe of a sock, as some mittens do.)  Because the sleeves of his coat are quite open, I'll be adding a purple rolled stockinette cuff before I begin the orange ribbing.  Because he's a handsome young man and needs mittens with some class (in spite of the colours), there will be a complex cable up the back of the hand.  Each thumb will have a tiny, different-coloured stripe so he'll always know his right mitten from his left. I love knitting on four needles, so the craftsmanship will be more pleasure than challenge.  I do know that no one will have mittens quite like these.

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