03/07/2018 An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts
My brother in-law gave me a gift of a new book that is making the rounds, Cræft, by the British archeologist and BBC presenter Alexander Langlands.
Most of the book is a collection of stories on various craft activities that he participated in -- and how the activity historically played a role in various communities. Cræft identifies how the particular craft developed the way it did in each area as it evolved due to environmental, economic, and social change.
I ended up with very mixed feelings about the book. Langlands has a very romantic view of craft. Most of the crafts he discusses are rural: fence making, roofing, weaving, etc. in their most idealistic terms. While he does talk knowledgeably about rural crafts of the 20th and earlier centuries, for me craft is far more urban and abusive.
It is entirely one thing to romanticize a thatcher coming to redo a farm roof. The story of how regional materials play a part in crafts is compelling, as is the understanding of the environment. But it is entirely another thing to ignore the incredible, highly specialized skill a grinder, for example, needed to earn a living, and the avoidable dangers (known at the time) of inadequate ventilation leading to silicosis. I also can't square ignoring the difficulty in making a living as a cabinetmaker in the face of constant pressure on wages.
It's great reading about making waddle hurdles to herd sheep to even out the fertilization of a field. It's less inspiring to read about the hard life of the chair bodger (see The History of Chairmaking in High Wycombe by Leonard John Mayes), who worked at breakneck speed, at piecework, making greenwood chairs.
There was a very very good reason that cabinetmakers and other crafts formed the first unions and societies back in the 18th century, and rural craftsman never did.
If you wish to read a contemporary account of a rural carpenter, I highly recommend The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose. Rose describes a world of skill and quality of life that I think many of us can wistfully envy. Langlands' stories are in the same vein. If you wish to read about the other point of view, the world of the garret master and the slaughterers, and the low end cabinetmakers of the 19th century, I highly recommend reading "London Labor and the London Poor" by the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew, a contemporary of Charles Dickens. Below is a link to Volume III of the book, which contains the section on cabinetmaking.
I think Langlands' major point -- you cannot look at craft as an isolated skill but as part of the entire fabric of society -- is an important idea. I am a huge fan of skilled craft. Langland might look at craft as a skilled approach to the necessities of the environment, but for me craft is more about an expression of skill that gives one options. And in that sense, craft today might have more of a future than in did a century ago. It was rare in the 19th and early 20th century craftspeople for someone skilled in craft to have many options. Typically people specialized because otherwise they could not work fast enough to make a living. Certain crafts - woodworking, for example -- had more options than most. An architectural woodworker or joiner would do different work depending on the job at hand, but the bodgers had to excel just in one area to be competitive, and the work could easily be stultifying.
Today being a skilled craftsperson means so much more and is more in line with Langland's ideas. For example, professional chair makers might not be as fast at the pole lathe as their forebears, but they will be able to build an entire chair from scratch. They will be familiar with many different techniques and methods of making a chair - all within the vernacular of a hand made chair. They will not restricted to a region or style - unless that's what they want to do. To make a living, the modern craftsperson needs to be far more in tune to what the customer wants, and also how to entice a customer. The chairmaker of a century ago competed on price and quality at all levels of the market. Today, the low end is either done by machine or by extremely poorly paid craftspeople living far away. The craft chairmakers working in prosperous countries world compete on quality, originality, and ability to get "likes" on Instagram. These multi-pronged obligations may seem exhausting at times, but they make the job more interesting - a good thing. Langlands' depiction of the craftperson's connection to the community deeply resonated with me. Indeed, the future of crafts in the US, Europe and other wealthy areas of the world is intimately connected to a sense of community and belonging to something bigger than oneself - no matter what specific product is created.
But at the same time we should not forget that as a society we are very inconsistent. Langland's very encouraging. He's right that craft is both satisfying and has very much been part of the culture of civilization. I hope this book inspires people to work more with their hands. To explore any craft. But let's also not forget that most of clothing we wear while we practice our crafts, and the phones we use to snap pictures for Instagram, are made by another group of craftspeople, who are paid terrible wages even by the standards of the countries they live in, and yet have real skill and craft and also take pride in their work.
Join the conversation
All I would add, is that here in the States there's another VAST aspect of the history of our woodworking and all allied crafts, from logging right through farm crafts and furniture to coffin making, that nobody EVER seems to talk about: slavery, and all the work done by enslaved people. Their stories, and the story of how slavery pressured pricing throughout the American economy, need to be told, listened to, and remembered. NOT for the sake of either inflaming or assuaging white guilt, but because there are so many inspirational stories of both craft skill and human strength and ingenuity that we'll all be better for knowing.
Thank you for your newsletter, it is always a pleasure to read.