Random Thoughts on the Necessity of Handcrafts

This morning I woke up with a thought lingering in my head of how far we have come as a society, and yet, how far we’ve moved away from what were typical knowledge skills of the past.  I know, there were always those who did not work with their hands, but in this age with most of our work being virtual and most items we need for daily living being mass produced and in such a small price point as to make the necessity of either making or repairing those items an option rather than a necessity, it made me seriously think about the possibility of handcrafts becoming a lost art.

Although I know many people into vintage style think of the late 1960’s/1970’s as a horrible time period, I would have to disagree to an extent.  Even if the fashions or the emerging new perception of society values at that time were not your thing (and I’m by no means up to date on the social changed of the 1970s, so I am not going to go into depth on a subject which I have little to no knowledge of), I know that at this time there was a resurgence of the lost arts and return to some of the earlier ways of both self-sustained living (like homesteading and living on your own using old techniques), and lost handcrafts (like weaving and a renewal in interest in the Renaissance and Victorian type arts and dying).  I am thankful that there was this revival then.  I think back just over the years I’ve been interested in vintage clothing and sewing, and think of how few people of the World War II generation there are left to actually speak to, and then think if I had started research into the past some 20+ years earlier… certainly there were more of the older generation around to learn from, and in turn we have forms of those arts today passed down through those who were interested a generation or two before us.

Just in the short time span since I graduated from fashion school (it will be 10 years ago this year, but that’s a story for another post), if I compare what I learned in school and how I learned it to that of a young lady friend who just graduated from the same school, the results are quite interesting.  While we did most things by hand, with computer drawing of flats and illustrations as optional for our final project and a lot of people still doing hand graded patterns, etc, and many of the people not familiar with computers in the classes I was taking, it’s now common to do many things by computers.  I am in no means lamenting the rise of the computer- in various job fields it makes our work much faster and makes a lot of things more crisp and clean- but thinking of this, combined with, as I said above, the easy to come by cheap goods needed for necessities, it’s not a surprise that working with your hands to create something or repair something are now considered optional in many cases.  Most of our entertainment comes in the form of something you view on screen.  Tv, movies, the internet, etc. I’m by no means immune to that and am not saying it’s a bad thing at all, I just enjoy a little bit of balance between the virtual and the tangible.

I have heard so many people lament the fact that they’re not creative, would love to learn to sew or craft but aren’t good with their hands, etc.  In some ways I think it’s a result of not being trained at an early age to be able to work with our hands.  I was one of the last groups of kids in junior high who was required to take Home Economics. I was HORRIBLE.  I could barely sew a straight line (my cousin, who was really a key leader in my early interest in handcrafts and history, taught me hand sewing and crafts much before I learned about sewing on machines). But it really opened up my mind to the fact that I *could* make things in a relatively speedy way.  I’m not saying that everyone takes to sewing, or any other craft for that matter, I’m just saying that practice in doing something helps us to be able to do it better.  So many of our crafts come pre-packaged today from leading craft stores that all we really need to do is cut something out and stitch or glue it together.  I *love* the fact that there is a growing interest in creating something from what are, essentially, basic materials.  In the case of sewing, we may not be weaving and dying our own fibres, but we can take basic yard goods and, with a little ingenuity and some work, create a garment we can wear or use as a household item or gift.  Often times, these days, the cost of creating these garments is far more expensive than the cost of buying ready made (for cheaper options check out my previous post on Sewing on a Budget), but we have the satisfaction of knowing that we created it ourselves, from our own hands, keeping the tradition alive of making objects on our own.

So that’s about it. I would really encourage you to try your hand at some sort of arts or crafts, if you’re not already involved in some way.  The first try may be frustrating, but think of it as a learning process.  I think it’s a wonderful thing to keep traditional handcrafts alive, and personally would love to try my hand at countless things I’ve never done before- even if I find they’re not for me.  Dying, weaving, bobbin lace making, wood carving, sewing, building furniture or other useful objects- there’s so many options out there and we should try to track them down before we don’t have anyone left to learn from. You just might find out it’s a lot of fun!  And if you don’t like it, at least you tried :)

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17 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on the Necessity of Handcrafts”

  1. I was talking to some of my peers (who have graduated high school within the last 3-6 years) and church friends (most of whom graduated high school 6+ years ago) recently, and they had a very different “Family and Consumer Science” experience in middle school than I did, which led to a different attitude towards sewing and crafting. I credit this to going to a fairly rural school district in a very conservative area.
    For FCS, over 3 years, we not only had to learn how to balance a checkbook, a budget, do laundry, iron, make several different types of meals, and clean dishes by hand, but also had to hand sew buttons, simple hems, basic embroidery and then also sew on a machine. With budget cuts, I doubt my old school will even continue these classes. At 23, my husband didn’t know how to sew a button or fix a fallen hem (he does now), or even how to use a steamer.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The interest in handcrafts in the 70’s was largely due to the Bicentennial of the USA. At that time there were still plenty of people alive who had never given up the handcrafts; my grandmother was one, she sewed and quilted; my mother did the same plus knitting and embroidery. I was not allowed to take HomeEc in school because I was too smart and on the “go to college” track. My heart wanted to take HomeEc because all I ever wanted to be was a homemaker. I learned many skills from my mother and older sister. It’s my belief that EVERYONE should learn to do the basics: cooking, sewing, ironing, cleaning. No matter what other job you have, if you live in a home you will be a homemaker!

    I so agree with you that first tries can be frustrating. But just as we wouldn’t expect to pick up a violin and play a concerto like Itzhak Perlman, we can’t expect to produce haute couture on our first try at dressmaking. Skills are built little by little with lots of practice. Fortunately, sewing skills come much faster than violin playing skills. I know, I began violin lessons at age 50.

    There is something so noble and great about using our hands to create beauty. It satisfies the soul, gives expression to inner feelings and blesses the lives of others. Keep up the good work!

  3. That’s exactly why I got into sewing. My day job is a web developer sometimes designer, and while it is technically “creative” I really do miss working with my hands and creating something tangible, as opposed to say a website or an iPhone app.

  4. I don’t like 1960’s styles as a matter of taste, but a lot of them are not awful, and the mid-1970’s actually had a lot of nice, cute, practical, stuff going on. I mostly have 1940’s patterns but 1970’s run a close second.

    I don’t even think it’s simply an entertainment thing: I think a lot of it is just a plain old time thing. I love to sew and don’t have a lot of extra responsibilities (I’m single, no kids, renter without a big house to manage, not particularly plugged in to a lot of online time sinks, etc.) but I can still barely squeeze in time to sew around the things I have to do just to keep my life running. Work, commuting, cleaning, laundry, grocery-shopping/meal-planning/cooking, etc. So, basically–a few hours on the weekend.

    If I were a housewife in 1963, or could work part-time, or could work from home and have my commute time back, I’d have a heck of a lot more time to sew. I got home early last night and, between dinner/clean-up/dog-walking, and bedtime, had two hours to devote to re-drafting a couple of pattern pieces, and that kind of time is a rare luxury during the week.

    We didn’t have the money to do a lot of extracurricular activities when I was a kid so I actually did get to see my mother sew, but she didn’t have time to do it a whole lot, either. We technically had a Home Ec class when I was in middle school but we learned nothing. Home Ec in high school was basically aimed at teen moms who didn’t plan to go beyond high school; agriculture and industrial-type classes were in direct scheduling conflict with honors classes (I’m still mad that I couldn’t fit in auto shop, equine science, and small engine repair). I learned to cook at home, too, so it wasn’t an issue for me, but there just wasn’t any way to take those kinds of classes if you were in the college track.

    I didn’t really take to sewing until I was well into my twenties. My mother showed me the basics of her machine–a high-school graduation gift from her own parents in 1966–and turned me loose. She says that what I do now (alterations, resizing patterns, etc.) is a lot more sophisticated than anything she ever tried.

  5. Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts. The interest in handcrafts in the 70’s was largely due to the Bicentennial of the USA. At that time there were many people still alive who had the skills to teach others. My grandmother was one, skilled in sewing and quilting. My mother had those skills plus knitting and embroidery. I learned from both of them and also my older sister.

    When I was in school, I was not allowed to take HomeEd courses because I was “too smart”? and on the “go to college” track. My heart longed to take HomeEc because all I ever wanted to do was be a homemaker. No matter what other job one has if you live in a home, you’re a homemaker. I believe knowing the basic skills of cooking, sewing, ironing, cleaning, etc. can make life rich and wonderful.

    Creating with our own two hands is such an empowering action. It fills the soul, gives expression to inner feelings, and blesses the lives of others. I so agree with you that first tries may be frustrating. We don’t expect to pick up a violin and play a concerto like Itzhak Perlman the first time; so we can’t expect to produce haute couture on our first attempt at sewing. Learning the skills takes time, effort and practice. Fortunately, sewing skills come much quicker than violin skills! I know, I began violin lessons at age 50. Keep up the good work!

  6. Hi Lauren, I agree entirely. As the daughter of a very gifted mother who had the patience and perseverance to let her stubborn daughter make her own mistakes and try inapproriately ambitious projects as well as attainable one, I am truly blessed. I grew up surrounded by craft in the 1970’s, reading Golden Hands magazines and making stuff. And so, this year I am running a monthly craft group for the kids of my friends who are too busy or not so into it, because I want these girls (no boys, just a coincidence!) to have the choices I have about my creativity.
    I suggest it as an idea for anyone creative to try – kids give you permission to make crazy things out of cardboard, glitter, macaroni and stick on colour paper that would be odd out of context! heehee!

  7. I definitely agree with trying *something*. I started with card making and a little bit of scrapbooking, moved on to clay (fimo type things), beading, crochet, knitting and then finally settled on sewing. If I hadn’t tried the card making I may not have, finally, discovered that I enjoy sewing the most.

  8. I so agree with “the first try may be frustrating.” We don’t expect to pick up a violin and play like Itzhak Perlman on our first try. We shouldn’t expect perfection in anything else we try, like sewing. It takes time, effort and practice to improve our skills. Fortunately most handcraft skills come much quicker than violin skills; I know, I began violin lessons at age 50! The act of creation is both empowering and nourishing to our souls. It’s difficult to put into words, but once you’ve done it you understand, and want more. Keep up the good work.

  9. This my fourth try at leaving a comment. Hopefully it works.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I so agree with them. Building skills takes time, effort, and continued practice. Handcrafts, hand work, what ever you want to call it, is such an essential method of self-expression. Creating things, the workmanship of our own hands, is empowering and enriching. Keep up the good work.

  10. Bravo!!! Almost every time I tell someone I sew, knit, cook, etc., they always say something along the lines of “I wish I were that creative”. The thing is, I think everyone has the capacity to be creative, you just have to devote time and effort to working towards your creative goal! Plus, as you said, it’s a great way to keep handcrafts alive. That is what has always partially fascinated me with my sewing and knitting (cooking, lace-making, and forays into various other handcrafts) is that it connects me to an earlier time period. Which is probably why I like sewing with vintage patterns so much: I’m a huge history nerd. ;)

    I have to say I love how you included the revival of handcrafts in the 60s and 70s! :) I have quite a soft spot for books and patterns from that era, because those were the ones I could find in public libraries and thrift stores as a child, that inspired me to gain an interests in developing my handcraft skills. Without them, I dare say I wouldn’t have pursued some of the things I have, because growing up in the 90s, it wasn’t popular to want to DIY things as it is now.

    Thanks so much for posting this, Lauren–lots of food for thought! :)

  11. I definitely think we’re seeing people longing for a return to the handmade way of doing things…not just in terms of handcrafts, but even in the realm of food (i.e. the slow food movement). Anyway, handworks for creative outlet is one thing; I think it is surprising how few people I know have any idea how to do even basic jobs by hand, like stitch on a button. We’re giving away a lot of our money and personal autonomy by having to pay other people to do these things for us. Not only that, but people often end up just throwing away an item that just needs a quick stitch; clearly, there’s something larger at stake here when we consider the decline in people’s knowledge of certain hand-done skills. Your post makes me want to re-visit the works of William and May Morris…

  12. Oh, Lauren! You have definitely brought up a topic that resonates with your readers.
    I looove handcrafts of all types. Like so many areas of expertise, I am a Jill-of-all-trades, master of none. I treasure the simple home crafts, even with imperfections, or make-do materials. I have yet to take up quilting, but it’s always whispering to me. I know I will never make a beautiful quilt, though. It will be a tribute to the heritage of quilting, made from scraps of fabric, in scraps of time, with an old blanket for batting, and an old sheet for a backing. But I really like the knowing-how-to-do-it part of any domestic activity. And I’ll always respect the early-to-mid-20th-century values borne of necessity: Use it up, wear-it-out, make it do, do without. I love mending, darning, and re-presenting leftovers deliciously.
    Thanks for the post, and the forum for the comments.

  13. I absolutely agree with you. I can’t bear people…and I have heard a few… who get snotty about crafts and sewing etc. And the sort who titter that they can’t boil an egg, and make out to be so innefectual, makes me want to shake them! We can’t all be good at everything, but until you try, and more importantly, make a proper effort, you won’t know. Personally I don’t like to cook, but I do it, and I’m not bad at it, because it had to be done, and I refuse to eat, or feed my family, trash. I was brought up to do all these things, no matter how brainy you were, my grandmother insisted you should still be able to do things for yourself if you had to. And besides being useful, there is the sheer pleasure to be had from indulging in something you are good at and can enjoy, it’s theraputic.
    Sorry to rant, ha ha, but it is one of my soap box issues!

  14. Thanks for sharing these thoughts! I’m also sometimes afraid that some skills will disappear because they represent crafts that are too expensive, like bobbin lace. It’s sad to imagine that skills that demanded centuries of hard work and innovation might simply vanish in a few decades!
    Crafts are not particularly promoted here in France, we don’t even have the equivalent of Home Economics, I don’t know exactly when it disappeared from the curriculum, but I’m 31 and never had a single crafts of Home Ec class at school between 1985 and 1997 (after that I went to college). My mother left school around 1969 and she had learned to sew there. Crafts and what is called “manual work” are strongly disparaged here and heading in that direction in school is hardly a choice made by the kid, especially if he has good grades in Maths of French. I remember spending a few weeks in Germany when I was around 12 as part of a school exchange and we had a craft course and it was sewing! I was too young to ask if it was common in Germany at that time, but I remember thinking that it would be great if we still had some. I’ve also spent some time in UK schools between the ages of 8 and 16 and don’t remember any of these classes, but again it might not have been the rule.
    All in all it means that a few generation of young people don’t even know basic stuff, and it’s sad!

  15. “Often times, these days, the cost of creating these garments is far more expensive than the cost of buying ready made . . . ”
    Interesting point: cheaper than the *monetary* cost of buying ready-made, yes. That’s one of the causes of massive job-outsourcing we’ve experienced in the US: we’ve collectively decided we deserve a bargain at any cost, human, environmental, spiritual, etc. Manual labor is something delegated to illegal immigrants and the Third World. I think doing something – anything – with your own hands is a small protest against this attitude.

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