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.