The Joy of Handcraft

May 4, 2009 Length: 19:17

Is knitting a dying art?





Hello and welcome to “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”.

Since I’ve been podcasting, I’ve been asked a lot of questions when someone meets me in person and figures out “Oh, you’re the priest’s wife who makes vestments!”. Things like “What is the Most Important Color for vestments?” or “Why do cassocks have all the fancy stitching?”. But in over a year, no-one, and I mean no-one, has asked me about the title of my podcast. “The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop”? Well, they must think, I guess she is opinionated. But what is all this “opinionated tailor” nonsense? Well, the name does have a meaning, so I thought I’d give the back story for how I chose the name.

Once upon a time, there lived a woman named Elizabeth Zimmerman. She was English by birth, married a German man (who in her words, hated Hitler almost as much as Hitler hated him), moved to America, eventually lived in an renovated brick schoolhouse in a remote part of the Midwest, and became one of the best-loved and most-respected knitters on the American hand-knitting scene. For years, she distributed a newsletter (published is far too dignified a word since the newsletter was mimeographed on two sheets of paper and sold for 25 cents a copy). Each newsletter featured her own hand knitwear designs, little vignettes about her life, and lots of knitting techniques, easily and clearly explained. She had begun her career as a freelance designer, selling designs to a variety of national knitting magazines. But when she discovered that her very explicit, though wordy, directions had been edited for brevity and space, thereby incredibly complicating the projects or frustrating the beginning knitter, she decided to send out her own designs with their inimitable directions and helpful pen-and-ink sketches. She called herself “The Opinionated Knitter” in these newsletters and the compilation of the newsletters into book form goes by the same title. She took the long road, so to speak, by offering her designs to anyone who asked and she is now one of the most recognized names in knitting history in America. She went on to sell high-quality 100% wool yarn similar to that available in England and Europe at the time mint-green and hot-pink acryclics were the standard this side of the Pond, thereby opening the door to the abundance of high-quality natural fibers available today. She nurtured an entire generation of hand-knitters, educated them and cheerfully prodded them into continually developing more skill in their chosen craft.

One of the most remarkable things about Elizabeth’s knitting and designs was that she always had an eye to freeing people from the tyranny of a particular pattern or design. She liked to explain the whys and wherefores of knitting, helping your average knitter to design something on her own and no longer be limited by knitting only what patterns she could purchase in a knitting brochure or magazine. Elizabeth developed a now-famous system, called Elizabeth’s Percentage System, or EPS, that revolutionized sweater design for many knitters. She approached knitting as part math and part sculpture and what she could do with yarn was just plain inspiring to anyone who happened to pick up knitting needles.

I first stumbled across Elizabeth’s work in a library book about eight or nine years ago. I began knitting when I was 19 and my husband was in college as a way to fill the long evenings my husband was away at class or studying. I quickly became deeply attached to the soothing yet stimulating properties of hand-knitting. The rhythmic click-click of the needles, the wonders of the various fibers, and the interest of learning new techniques like cables or lace kept my soul content and my mind intrigued. Knitting is essentially a binary system, with just knit and purl stitches (a knit stitch is actually a mirrored image of a purl stitch) but as the binary system of computers can result in an amazing range of software and applications, so the craft of knitting is endlessly adaptable. Add to it that knitting has been going on for over 3,000 years and you have an amazing collection of hand-knit items from Estonian socks to Norwegian wedding mittens to Aran sweaters to Shetland shawls.

Knitting was that wonderful blend of relaxation and work and it had me completely under its spell within a few short months. But once my daughters were born, my evenings were filled with soothing babies to sleep rather than creating a fantastic English sweater and so I had to lay down my needles for a couple of years. I still remember the first night my daughters finally fell asleep at a decent hour and I crashed on the couch and looked around wondering what I was going to do with the time! That evening seemed to stretch out in front of me like a glorious wonderland of possibilities and my first thought was, “Where’s my knitting?”. I began checking out books from the library and signing up for yarn catalogs again and that’s when I met Elizabeth. I say “met” because it really does feel like that when you read her work. She was the type of writer that made you feel as if you were there—cross-country skiing with her and her husband in their fabulous, hand-knit Norwegian sweaters, riding motorcycles across country (yes, she even figured out how to knit while riding on the back of a motorcycle), or just living her life of busy, satisfied handwork.

Being the cheapskate and erstwhile environmentalist that I am, I try not to purchase too many books, but a yarn company recently had a book sale and I decided that the least I could do for Elizabeth’s influence on my life was to buy her book—I was beginning to look like a Tennessee Baptist without a Bible. It came in the mail a few weeks ago and I’ve been reading her patterns and studying her graphs into the wee hours.

Reading her inspiring words and competent instructions has reminded me yet again of the joy and satisfaction in handwork. There is a focused peace that comes with working on something with your hands that is very unique. I find myself using my mind to work through a tricky lace panel or calculate the number of stitches I need for a given dimension, but it’s almost like yoga for the mind—a little bit of work and a lot of relaxation.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about knitting and handwork in general lately. Because I work as an ecclesiastical tailor, I’m frequently asked about the “current” state of handcraft and I sense a lot of despair in people who perceive that handcraft is a dying art. In fact, if I had a nickel for every time someone has said “dying art” to me, I’d be sipping coffee on a Greek island by now! It seems to me that we as humans have a need to make things by hand and we know this deep down and we get a little scared when it doesn’t look like anyone’s making anything. People don’t seem to get too antsy if noone’s making Really Important Things like a hand-embroidered heirloom christening gown or a 12-foot long crocheted tablecloth, but when you’ve got a nation of people who can’t sew a kitchen towel, much less a button, then everyone seems to get worried.

If you expand the category of handwork to include things like cooking and building things, then going down the aisles of your run-of-the-mill grocery store shows how much of our handwork, even our food, is done for us—peeled baby carrots, little packages of chopped broccoli, bagged salad, pre-sliced cheese. We don’t seem to have many outlets in our everyday lives to use our hands in a creative way, be it cooking or knitting or gardening. Sure, we type on computers and drive cars, but these things don’t take the kind of skill and knowledge built up over years that true handwork does (my eight-year-old could drive a car as she frequently reminds me). One of my recent trips to the local women’s monastery found me chopping vegetables in the kitchen one evening, something I’m not nearly as comfortable with as I am with a needle and thread. A younger novice was directing traffic and began chopping red peppers, wielding the knife with more deftness and skill than I had ever seen on a cooking show, fingers flying. I held my breath and tried to keep my chin from hitting the table.  It was beautiful to behold, both in its prayerful rhythm and startling speed.  I felt completely inadequate with my slow, cumbersome onion chopping. But, her life had necessitated that she chop vegetables, and chop them well, and I could imagine myself and the satisfaction I would have in both acquiring and using such a skill.

But the only way this sister became such a good vegetable chopper was with practice. Chopping vegetables or knitting are very similar in that it’s one basic action that you repeat over and over again until you have it down. It’s definitely work, but work with skill—it doesn’t come easily the first time or the hundredth time, but by the thousandth or ten-thousandth chop, you start to feel like you’re getting somewhere.

One of the projects many new knitters begin is a dishcloth. Wait a minute, you say, spending five bucks on a ball of yarn to make a dishcloth?! Isn’t that kind of pointless? But, it’s not really, because you need the practice and most people want something fairly small and achievable for their first project. Besides, I have knitted dishcloths that have held on for years, far outlasting their cheap dime-store counterparts and giving me a little tiny sparkle of satisfaction every time I go to the towel drawer to get a fresh one. In addition to the practice, beginning with a dishcloth underscores the necessity of knitting to be beautiful. Yes, it’s to scrub out pans, but it will be as beautiful as it can be while it’s conquering baked-on spaghetti.

So, is handcraft dying out? Yes and no. No, in that I’m frequently hearing people who have started learning some kind of handwork be it sewing or knitting or woodworking—in fact, if you run into me in public and mention that you just took up knitting, well then, watch out, because I’m gonna send you some yarn—I just get really excited when I hear another person’s taken up this ancient and venerable craft. But on the other hand, Yes, it is dying out, in that it’s considered the exception rather than the rule that a person has some kind of hands-on skill—how many of you have knit a sweater for someone recently or built a cabinet or put up a jar of tomatoes? These are all things that would have seemed run-of-the-mill two generations ago. In some ways, this is due in large part to our technologically and globally-minded society. Why spend a week making a dishcloth when you could find one on the Internet in a few minutes? Why make your own clothing when it’s more expensive than picking up something that has been outsourced to China or India? Mass-produced items seem so much cheaper and better and faster. 

We have access to so many more things in the current world due to this technologically- and globally-influenced economy and we enjoy many more luxury items than ever before, but I sense in the underlying despair of the people I speak with a deep dissatisfaction with the very superficial nature of our modern existence. We are somehow much more attached to ephemeral things, and yet, conversely, much less attached to things of beauty and lasting value—our furniture is made from particleboard and won’t last through one house, much less an entire generation. We don’t have a great-uncle who made our sideboard that our mother always kept her dishes in or a grandmother who made quilts for each family member. We live our lives on a somehow shallower plane. We have more, much more, and yet, somehow less. Our lives seem transitory, leaving no impression, passing on no heirlooms.

And I think this stems from the fact that in our modern world we often have the luxury of money (especially by historical standards), but not the luxury of time. Each knitted sweater, each quilt made by hand, each piece of furniture made by our ancestors was a fabulous display of the luxury of time. It can takes months to make a quilt or craft a piece of furniture and most of these kind of projects are worked in one’s “spare” time, in the evenings or when all of the other work is done. In a large part, I suspect this is why we respond to hand-crafted items on such a deep and very human level—we immediately try to picture ourselves spending that kind of Time and we just can’t see it. Six months piecing and quilting a blanket? You’ve got to be kidding. But my husband’s great-grandmother took this kind of work seriously and we still cherish the beautiful quilt she made that was passed down to us. In fact, it’s these items—the quilts, the knitted lace, my embroideries, that would be the first thing I’d run for if there was fire in the house. These are our greatest legacy because they give the gift of time. Not just the time the actual thing took, but the time spent in honing the skill, in getting good at something.

Which is why, in my mind, handcraft is beginning to be on the rise again and I take it as a very positive sign. We have a very human need to leave a legacy and share our time, not just our money, with others and handcraft seems to be filling that need. Eight years ago, local knitting stores in my city were going out of business left and right, but now, quite a few new stores have opened, often in little neighborhoods as a place of community and shared skill. I know several children who have received sewing machines as Christmas or bithday gifts, and I am quite excited by the prospect. In the handcraft world, people like Elizabeth Zimmerman are being re-discovered and appreciated by a whole new generation who wants to become expert at their respective crafts.

Because in addition to being a gift of time, handcrafts provide gifts to the craftsman, the one making the thing. Handcrafts give the gift of skill, of learning to be good at something, and the gift of patience and peacefulness. You just can’t rush things made by hand and with that comes a certain knowledge that you must lay aside your own expectations or desires of immediacy and accept a much longer and more drawn-out experience. Learning something by hand, be it knitting or cabinetry or watercolors, is a humbling experience since you will frequently spend many hours working on something, only to discover that you’ve done it wrong and the stitches need to be ripped out or the piece started over again. You learn your own fallibility and weakness—I’ve actually cried in frustration over some projects, which is quite humorous when you think about being bested by something as inconsequential as a ball of yarn! But, there’s quite a bit of character-building that comes afterwards when you pick up the project again, knowing you may face failure. When you do finish something with which you are completely content, there is a deep and abiding satisfaction, a gratitude that for me, always makes me give thanks to the Creator of All. Knowing how much I struggle to create a tiny thing of mere earthly beauty reminds me of the smallness of man and the great mercy of God.

But once you’ve gotten past the first initial struggles and disappointments in learning any craft, you become more open to the peacefulness, the downright prayerfulness of work of the hands. When I’m clicking away on my knitting needles, perfectly content, the Desert Fathers often come to mind, and I picture them making their baskets by the side of the road while saying the Jesus Prayer. We tend to think of their extreme ascesis and the difficulty of their vocation, but I’m guessing that they were content, too, sitting there, weaving and praying—kind of sounds like a perfect day to me. As you become more skilled in your chosen area, your hands seem to know what they’re doing, which frees up your mind and your heart for prayer. And in addition to prayer, the quietness provides ample opportunity for reflection. Occasionally, I find myself doing a kind of whole-life analysis when I’m working on a particularly mindless bit of knitting—am I being a good wife? Am I being a good mother? A good khouria? Where can I improve?

This inside/outside dimension to handcraft—that you’re developing something with your hands on the outside and yet at the same time, developing something with your soul on the inside—is what I think keeps many people coming back. That quiet guy in the back of church who makes fantastic cabinetry? That sweet woman who’s always giving out jam? Well, they’re in on the secret, too. But you don’t get here just by showing up for the first class or making a birdhouse—you’ve got to go “farther in and farther up” in the words of C.S. Lewis. Because handcraft, true handcraft, is really a journey.

Since handcraft is a journey, then I’m all for starting out as soon as possible. That’s why I’m so supportive of children being taught handcraft. They won’t develop the same skill level as quickly as adults, but they will get a lot of their failures out of the way while they’re young and flexible—somehow it seems easier to rip out your first scarf at age 8 than at age 60. And, if they’ve been exposed to various types of handcraft, they’ll mostly likely be narrowing in on their handcraft or two of choice by the time they’re young adults, thereby effecting their choice of life’s work and vocation, and helping them to be that much further along the journey. And, for the record, I don’t think lots of lessons necessarily do the trick. I find that providing the various tools and some instruction and then letting children discover for themselves tends to work best. I taught both of my daughters the basics of knitting, but now they work on whatever projects they want to. Both of them recently laid aside knitting to take up embroidery and I’m sure this will get laid aside later on for some other project. With children, it’s not so much about finished projects, but about practice.

But at whatever age, I strongly encourage those of you who haven’t given handcraft a try, to at least experiment. The field is quite broad—painting, sewing, woodworking, woodcarving, gardening, mosaics, metal-smithing, even cooking. I know Lent just finished and it can seem like adding one more thing right about now might tip the balance of your sanity, but I don’t necessarily mean you have to do it now.  Start by doing a little planning. Sign up for a class or buy a ball of yarn and some needles or just stop buying baby carrots and chop your own—it doesn’t have to be difficult. The best handcrafts are those that become seamlessly woven into your daily life and make you feel more connected to your nous, that quiet part of your soul that is best-attuned to the love and mercy of God.

So, get going. And let me know if you need yarn!