Whenever I meet someone who is skilled at making things by hand, I feel a little bit star-struck. Which I know is kind of silly, because everyone used to make things by hand in pre-industrial times, but coming across someone who can create something beautiful, functional, or both from scratch is impressive in our pre-packaged, pre-processed era of instant gratification. I look around and I see knitters who make gorgeous shawls or entire sweaters, potters who throw mugs and bowls, carpenters and woodworkers who build treehouses and furniture, fiber artists who make unique felted or crocheted toys, gardeners, painters, jewelry makers… there’s so much creativity and skill out there.
The thing is, I know a lot of people who have these skills, and while, of course, I think my friends are extra amazing, the reality is that they are ordinary people who have learned an extraordinary skill. You or I, ordinary people as well, are also capable of the extraordinary. If you think about it, you may already be on your way. For example, I like to bake bread when I have a day around the house, and each time I do (especially if I knead the bread by hand) I think about how people have been making bread, in many variations, all over the world for a very long time. Thinking of those long-ago bakers, I feel a connection to a kind of worldwide lineage of skill and care, and I like that feeling.
I feel proud and satisfied with my work, even though I’m nowhere near an expert baker. My loaves are beautiful because they’re fresh and fragrant, right from the oven, not because I’ve had any sort of special professional training. I’m a decent home bread baker, and it makes me happy. That’s the heart of being an amateur. Doing something purely for the love of it.
And then there’s the potential for gift-giving! I am currently wearing an impractically long purple-and-turquoise striped scarf a friend made me in the mid-2000s. She has never been a great knitter, but I really love my friend and I really love wearing this scarf. Handmade is special because of the effort that goes into each stitch, or loaf, or ripe tomato. When something handmade is given as a gift, understanding that effort strengthens the connection felt between the creative person who puts the work into the gift and the lucky person who receives it.
I invite you to think about your hobbies, whether you’re in the habit of making something weekly or you haven’t picked up your tools in years. What skills do you have? What do you love to make, even if you don’t think you’re very good at it? Which old arts call you? Sometimes I think of these as Lost Arts, because even if a type of skill is not completely lost there are fewer people who know their way around a spinning wheel (for example) than there used to be. Have you ever watched someone spin wool into yarn? It looks like magic, but it comes down to passion, practice, and skill building.
I used to lead a monthly library program for adults in which we got to dabble in some of these lost arts. We found expert teachers, and we learned a little bit about needle felting, flower arranging, calligraphy, yogurt making, weaving, wreath making, and lots more. It was great fun. Maybe we’ll do a program series like that again one of these days, but in the meantime, I was pleased to see that the library has a number of books and online resources for people who are interested in learning a lost art or two. Could that be you?