Apprenticeship of the hands. Isn’t that a lovely phrase? It comes from a moving article, Literacy of the Fingers by Beth Tilston published in Dark Mountain. Tilston is making sourdough bread, a new skill for her, and one she was astonished to discover she was bad at. How hard could it be to make bread? Her thoughts follow her bread making. As she kneads the dough she wonders why our western industrial society values the head over the hands, ideas over practical skills?

She suspects some of it has to do with how,

True mastery of a practical skill is impossible to describe in words. And how can knowledge be real if it cannot be expressed in words? How can it truly exist if it cannot be written down and easily distributed? Perhaps the head won out over the hands because of a deep distrust. The architect distrusts the artisan because the architect – the supposed thinker – lacks the knowledge of what the artisan is doing. There is no book which will make up for time spent at the workbench, learning with eyes, ears, fingers, nose. There is no book which can contain that physicality of learning.

I’d also add to this YouTube videos. I have watched so many YouTube videos to learn how to do something only to discover that the actual doing is nothing like the video. The person in the book or video already has the skill that I do not, yet I am always surprised it isn’t as easy as these skilled people make it look. I don’t get to see the hours and hours it took them to learn the skill, their mistakes, their poor results, all the things that happen in the process of learning a skill. I see them and think, how hard can it be?

I am in the process of learning that it can be pretty hard. In the summer of 2019 I decided I wanted to learn hand spinning. I bought myself a beginner drop spindle, three small bundles of roving ready for spinning, borrowed books from the library and found a YouTube video that I watched dozens of times before, during, and after trying my first go at spinning.

For the life of me I can’t figure out how to get the spindle spinning and draft the roving at the same time. So I use the “spin and park” method. I spin the spindle to put twist into the yarn but keep my fingers pinched on the yarn right above the twist. Then I park the spindle between my knees, draw out some fiber, and unpinch the yarn so the twist travels up and into the fiber I drafted. It’s very beginner, and yes, it takes a long time.

But it isn’t just the coordination of spindle and drafting that is hard, it’s also really hard to keep the yarn a consistent width. My yarn goes from a pleasing fingering weight to worsted to a string that is barely holding the yarn together. And within all that back and forthing are even fatter slubs. My consistency has improved with practice just enough so I can get a length or two of even yarn before it all goes haywire. It’s maddening and glorious all at the same time.

At the moment, I have flax I am spinning into linen. I have a beautiful handmade oak flax spindle I bought from woman who makes them in Ohio. I watched videos of a woman in Sweden who teaches hand spinning on how to use a flax spindle. It looked so easy! It is not easy.

In the fall of 2019 I learned there is a local fiber festival and they have lessons during the festival. But I found out about it too late to be able to attend so I set my sights on 2020. We all know what fall of 2020 was like. And the festival was cancelled. It’s on for this year though, so I hope in October to attend and have an actual in-person lesson where someone can put my hands how they are supposed to be, get me past spin and park, and set me on the right path before I get too many habits that are counterproductive and need to unlearn.

What’s kind of sad is that 100-150 or so years ago, I probably would have learned how to spin as a child. I probably would have learned all sorts of practical things I, and a good many people today, have no idea how to do. These would be useful skills required to run a household and keep everyone dressed and fed and perhaps earn some extra income. But these days skills like hand spinning are quaint hobbies.

Tilston observes in her essay, the “machine age” has taken these skills away from us:

As the machine age has progressed, the number of things that we are required to do for ourselves has gradually shrunk. Thanks to machines, and – crucially – to abundant oil, 21st century Man (unlike any of his ancestors) is now able to blithely declare himself ‘not a practical person’. Unhandy Man has been born. We live in a culture which has turned us into children, unable to look after ourselves, unable to decipher even where to start. Practical skills are often spoken of now as if they possess some sort of magic that only a few salt-of-the-earth folk can master.

It’s not just that machines took away our skills, but we were also encouraged to give them up. We had to so we could all become good consumers in the capitalist system. They were declared drudgery. We were to buy our bread, our clothes, our everything ready made so we could have more time to do what? We were told we would have more leisure time but we all know how that worked out. No, we gave up all these skills so we would have more time to work for wages in order to buy the things we used to know how to do for ourselves.

There are often people somewhere in the process of making the things we buy, but these people usually have brown skin, don’t speak English, and are paid wages neither you nor I would accept to work in conditions neither you nor I would tolerate. But we don’t see that part of it and seldom think about it. And if we do think about it, we find ways to justify our purchase anyway—if I don’t buy this t-shirt I don’t need, the woman in Indonesia would lose her $5 a day job. There is so much wrong with that kind of reasoning that I have neither the time nor space to unpack it here. If you don’t know what’s wrong with it, please go do some research and find out.

I consider myself lucky to have parents with skills. My dad grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota and he is truly a Handy Man. He is the one who taught me how to garden. I also learned how to use a hammer and screwdriver, how to build things, how to do minor plumbing, how to lay tile, how to do basic car maintenance, how to build a fire, and all sorts of other things.

My mom taught me how to sew and did such a good job of it that when James and I had our years of ballroom dancing I made all of our own costumes. She also taught me the basics of knitting. She taught me how to bake and, even though I hated it, cook.

Thanks to them I have skills. And thanks to them, when confronted with something I don’t know how to do, I have the skills to know how to learn and figure it out. Heck, five years ago I designed a chicken coop, drew up the plans, and James and I built it. And it’s still standing! Since I grew up in the San Diego metro area in southern California, a chicken coop was not something I had actually even seen in real life until I came to build one for myself.

Clearly I am a believer in practical skills. As Tilston says in her essay,

Practical skills matter because knowing them makes us – to however small a degree – more independent, more capable of looking after ourselves.

I love working with my hands and do not find it drudgery at all. Far from it. I find it more satisfying than sitting and working at a computer all day. I could be a very happy off-grid homesteader. If the global climate/economic/social collapse happens in my lifetime, I might get the chance.

Gratuitous Chick Photo

3 1/2 weeks old (the red light is from the heat lamp)

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10 thoughts on “Apprenticeship of the Hands

  1. So many good points here, but I’m just stuck on ballroom dancing. How did I not know/hear about this. So what you’re saying is that, in the aftertimes, you and Mr Bookman will be set for life in your own jobs as performers? That’s what I choose to take from this. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. Hee hee BIP. James and I took ballroom dance lessons for ten years. It’s been a while and we are very rusty at it now, but it was so much fun! I’m not sure we will be set for life as traveling performers in the after times, but maybe I could be the costumer for the troupe 😉

  2. Also a huge believer in the value of practical skills! I am always so thankful that my parents taught me so much and that I was raised with the expectation that I would help with all the practical things of growing a garden that fed us most of the year, preparing food, helping with harvest and, since my grandpa was a cattle rancher, helping (on the processing end) with butchering, as well as fixing up household things, sewing, embroidering, all sorts of handy things that so many of my acquaintances don’t know how to do. I sew buttons on for co-workers, fix friend’s leaky faucets. My best friend spins and it’s so fascinating! Good luck with it! I love YouTube — I have fixed so many things with the help of the handy YouTuber — although you’re right, often I’m like, “…wha?” as I struggle to figure out the missing link between what they did so easily and what I cannot figure out.

    1. I am not surprised Daphne given your art! Are you still doing pottery? You certainly did get some practical skills from your parents and grandparents! That’s a bit sad that you sew buttons on for coworkers. I had a bike mechanic try really hard to not roll his eyes once when I brought my bike in and said I watched YouTube to fix something but still couldn’t get it optimally adjusted and could he please help? 😀

  3. Ah, I need an apprenticeship of the hands! I am useless at anything practical. In Serbia, because they’ve experienced shortages and many people still don’t have the money to pay for people to do things for them, practical skills are much more important. When I take my car in to get the battery replaced or some other thing fixed, they give me the old battery or broken light or whatever, in case I want to reuse or repurpose it in some way. It happens with other things too. I think we may need these practical skills when the “use it and throw it away and buy a new one” model reaches its logical conclusion. But you make a very good point about YT videos and the way you don’t see all the accumulated knowledge and practice behind them. Sometimes you can’t beat an in-person lesson, with practice and corrections as you go.

    1. Oh Andrew, good point about people in Serbia. It’s those of us who have a certain privilege who can be unhandy, yes? My dad is so handy because he grew up on a farm in the northern Minnesota and had to be handy. The people in Serbia you know are handy because in order to get by they have to be. In the US right now there is a growing trend around mending–books and classes and even shops that will mend your things for you. And not just invisible repairs like fixing a zipper or a seam, but also turning repairs into their own art form. It’s pretty amazing and I hope it keeps growing!

  4. Stefanie, I suspect you’re right about these practical skills and capitalism. Ugh. That quote about “magic” that a few salt of the earth types have is so accurate. It’s definitely something I want to start to counteract in myself and in my son too… teaching him how to cook and how to garden is a start! I do feel like there is a growing number of people who want to learn to be more self sufficient.

    1. Cooking and gardening is definitely a great place to start with your son Laila. I know he will be grateful to you for it all one day even if he grumbles sometimes like kids do. Also important, by teaching him those skills you are also laying the groundwork for him to be able to learn other skills. Yay!

  5. Yes! Apprenticeship of the hands!

    Spinning was one of about … uh… one things that I could do right from the start. (Perhaps I was always good at growing things also since I can’t remember a time in my life without a garden… but that’s not me; that’s a team effort… and a lot of completely inexplicable magic…) I went to take a beginner spinning class, because I had this intriguing kit left over from my bookstore craft supplies pile. And that first night, the instructor asked me to join her spinning group, saying she didn’t believe I’d never done it before. I can’t sew anything more difficult than a skirt with any sort of reasonable shape. My knitting is goofy though at least serviceable. I don’t really like building and it shows. But spinning! That I can do.

    I haven’t tried flax yet. I’m sort of nervous that my beginner luck with fleece will cause me to choke on the differently shaped fibers. So I’m learning to process the plant first. It’s a slow learning curve, mostly trial and error. Heavy on the latter. But I get flax flowers every summer.

    But yes! We need to mold these hands back into the magnificent tools they once were!

    1. Oh Elizabeth I so envy your instant spinning skill! I am tempted to get a small wheel instead because I have heard it is so much easier, but I also want to learn what I can from the fiber and my hands before turning it over to a “machine” just because it might be faster and easier. Maybe when the day comes that I am ready to buy an entire fleece. Or, since my knitting is really good, maybe you can just spin everything and I will knit everything 😉

      Super excited about your flax experiment! I am working on a nettle experiment. I dew retted some from my garden last fall and now I am very slowly extracting the fibers. You may be interested in a Facebook group called Nettles for Textiles. It’s main focus is nettles, obviously, but these folks are into making stuff from all sorts of plant fibers and some of them are incredibly talented and freely share their processes. They are one of the few reasons I like Facebook 🙂

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