Monday, November 14, 2016

Happy are the makers

When Veronica and I were in Montreal and Quebec City last month, we inevitably spent some time in "Old Montreal" and Quebec City's Old Town.  I never quite know how I feel about places where we have restored original historic buildings only to turn them into pubs and souvenir shops selling stuffed snowy owls and wooden boxes decorated with maple leafs.  Yet the buildings retain their charm if you can look past every effort to create a twee streetscape.  In Montreal, for example, we really got off the beaten path by going down a little alley that ended in a courtyard of pop-up artisans' stalls.  And both Veronica and I found gifts for ourselves in a kind of "handcraft house" that carried the work of dozens of gifted artisans--potters, glassblowers, jewellery makers, wood carvers, spinners, weavers, knitters, quilters.  In Quebec City, we found many shops that tastefully combined tchotchkes with examples of craftsmanship.  A shop in Old Town comes to mind where you could buy the aforementioned wooden box with a maple leaf.  Or you could drop $14,000 for the most remarkable rocking (or reading) chair and ottoman made of silken-finished sculptural wood.  In one of Old Town's picturesque squares, modern, woven canoe shapes floated above the old streets and between  buildings.

Our travel habits took us to many places where craftsmanship was in the foreground.  In the Jean Talon Market, we found artisanal honey and cheese, home made pickles and jams.  In the quilt and  yarn shops we visited, we found groups of women sitting comfortably around a large old oak table now painted white, drinking tea and knitting lace.  We found hand-made buttons and quilts.  In the Marche Bonsecours we found hand made clothes, probably designed by the makers.   In Old Town we watched a woman blowing a glass snowflake and I found a glass paperweight for Bill.

Haida carver Bill Reid has observed "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."  Why else do we collect old quilts and Victorian hair jewellery, or flock to Wintergreen?  I suppose some of us have political motives, particularly at this time of year:  we are trying to avoid mass-produced gifts for the people in our lives who are all so wonderfully individual.  In a mug or a quilt lovingly made, something of the craftsman remains, so that the owner is almost touching the maker's hand or spending a moment inside the maker's intentions each time it is used.  Thus, perhaps, comes Bill Reid's sense that well-made things speak to us.

But I have also wanted to think about makers--people involved in the act of making something.  When I am quilting, piecing, or appliquing, I feel simple happiness that is only equaled by gardening on a glorious day.  (Writing is a much more complex happiness:  there's the frustrated pleasure of getting the idea down in some gawky way, and then the more sublime pleasure of bringing the words into their own--or at least approaching that point.)  Making something is its own pleasure--the tactile pleasure of watching it grow under your hands.  If we're talking about craft rather than art, we don't need to belittle the everyday things that people do to give themselves pleasure--whether it's crocheting doilies or throwing an elegant teapot, maybe because the point is not to embody a profound idea but to do something well.

Let me intrude with an awkward political point.  I love knitting socks.  I love knitting complicated socks and simple socks.  For years, Bill resisted the very notion of handmade socks until, when we were visiting Seattle, he saw some Kaffe Fassett wool in Churchmouse Yarns and Teas on Bainbridge island.  I am now working on his fourth pair of handmade socks, made of Montana wool.  (His new socks are above, photographed against one of my favourite quilts.)  I have often said, whimsically and ironically "When the end times come, my people's feet will be warm."  Since Trump's election, this statement does not seem so far-fetched.  Yet the pleasure I get making socks is described in a psychological model of human needs and motivations called "self-determination theory," postulated by Deci and Ryan.  (Link to their website below.)  They suggest that human needs or motives can be described by three qualities they contribute to our lives and our sense of well-being.  We need to feel we belong.  We need a sense of autonomy.  We need a sense of competence.  Self-determination theory explains, for example, why I practice the piano after a hard day's writing:  my written work only approaches my ideal, but I can measure how much better my performance of a Mozart piano sonata was today than it was yesterday.  I have (some) competence.  (I will never be a truly good pianist:  I make different mistakes every time.  How do you practice to eliminate that?  It isn't a matter of having the discipline to practice the same six bars many times every day--which I have in spades.)

Self-determination theory also explains why I like to knit socks, insofar as making them illustrates not only my competence, but my autonomy--hence my fanciful remark about "my people's feet being warm."  And of course, if I have a group I can call "my people," then I have a sense of belonging. Trump and his voters fail the self-determination theory test.  Competence?  He hasn't a single idea about governing a complicated country.  Unless you call getting mobs to believe your lies competence, he has none.  Autonomy?  Hardly.  His entire life consists of someone else declaring he's the biggest...You fill in the blank.  Belonging?  In TrumpWorld, it's every man (literally) for himself. 

Making things--socks or quilts, mugs or wooden boxes--has another quality I can't quite explain.  But I can tell you a story--two stories, actually.  In 1863, Jane A. Stickle finished a remarkable quilt that consisted of 225 different blocks--many of which are seen nowhere else.  She signed it quite simply:  "War Time 1863.  Pieces 5602.  Jane A. Stickle."  Brenda Manges Papadakis saw the quilt nearly thirty years ago, and wrote a book for quilters that allows us to at least approximate this work of inventive patience, but despite Papadakis's research, little is known about her.  So what might one imagine?  That she identified her quilt as a work made in "War Time 1863" suggests that focusing on the quilt was one of enduring through a very difficult time.  "Pieces 5602" might suggest that she purposefully set herself a very difficult task as a way of distracting herself from the war.  When you are making something, history doesn't go away.  But you feel as if your creation is a kind of counterbalance, a way of keeping alive creativity, joy, inventiveness, and beauty.  At the end of the difficult time, you will not only have something to "show for it," but you will have kept those important human qualities in the world while other people have lost their heads and pursued chimeras.

When Veronica and I were in Paris, I went--of course--to the only quilt shop I could find in the city, which happened to be very close to where we were staying on the Left Bank.  I walked in and was immediately struck by seeing Jane's quilt on the back wall.  The owner, a lovely British woman, explained that she and her mother-in-law had made it (by hand!) while her mother was dying, and that doing so was a source of profound comfort.  Jane A. Stickle would, of course, have smiled.  I don't know how many quilters have a similar story to tell:  how making a quilt at a difficult time created an oasis of sanity and meaning in the puzzling world surrounding them.  After all, death is puzzling, war is puzzling, politics is certainly puzzling.

Jane A. Stickle was born in 1817--two hundred years after Trump's inauguration.  I have decided to make her quilt during his presidency--at least one block every couple of weeks.  And I'll blog about it here, letting the blocks lead me wherever they might--into worlds, I hope, of pleasure and meaning.  And of determination to keep everyday life focused, productive and sane.

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