Coffee Is Coffee and Beer Is Beer

 

This blog started as a rage against the misuse of the word artisanal.

Artisanal somehow became a synonym for “unique” or “well made,” and this drove me crazy.  I’ve seen it on products like corn chips and honey.  Really?

But we wore out artisanal.  Now the buzzword is hand-crafted.

My coffee from the local donut shop is apparently hand-crafted because the server made mine as I requested: no cream, no sugar.  Just coffee.  Coffee like I get everywhere.

My beer is hand-crafted because it was made in smaller batches than Miller.  Look.  I make beer in my kitchen.  If you want small batch, that’s small batch.

Food from restaurants is hand-crafted and what you get on your plate is something that looks like a failed architectural model with a sprig of mint placed just so.  Just for you.

Hand-crafted used to mean something substantial.  Today, what it suggests is, “I made this just for you.  You are unique and special.  You deserve this.”

Am I the only one who finds this deplorable?

I don’t need to be made to feel unique in this world when I buy food or beverages or internet content or entertainment or clothing because hand-crafted is a lie.  This stuff is mass-produced.  And I’m okay with it.  Really, I am.  Just serve me the damn beer.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not asking for less quality.  I’m asking for more honesty.  Let’s let coffee be coffee and beer be beer.  Let’s remember that bees make honey, not artists.  I want my steak to look like a steak.

It’s okay.  This is what things are.

Traditional Crafts Explained

The entire series, Disappearing Acts, in the Guardian is good information for anyone who cares about craft.  It hits exactly the points we’ve been discussing on this blog recently but does it 1000 times better and with great pictures.  (It helps to have funding and a talented staff!)

Here’s a link to draw you in: Traditional Weaving: http://gu.com/p/2hcm4

Well worth it.

The Urge to Make

20131111-011728.jpgMy last post was a lament over lost arts, over how much of our craft / art heritage we lose over time. Reasons are myriad: failure to document, failure to generate interest, bad teaching. There are reasons related to cost, dearth of materials, lack of time. We can also talk about need. We simply don’t need many traditional craft products like we once did. Tastes change, new technologies replace old ones. Once, we relied on horse travel and we had a need for blacksmiths. Horses were replaced by cars and now we have a need for mechanics. Once you could find a blacksmith in nearly every town. Today, how many do you know?

What fascinates me is that we still have blacksmiths at all. We still have people who make bobbin lace, who paint china, who weave seats with slices of cane. Why do people do these things when they could simply go to the store and get a length of lace or a teacup or a chair? In my post, I said there was value simply in the doing. I still think this is true, but it can’t be the entire answer. If it was just about experiencing satisfaction in the doing, then we could stop at taking out the garbage, making the bed, and dusting the lampshades–all those mundane tasks that need to be done: we could do them and feel satisfied and we wouldn’t have to take up rare craft at all.

DSCN1360I’ve been pondering this for two reasons. A friend of mine recently asked me why I knit. The way he put it suggested to me that he thought knitting was simply about the amassment of sweaters, gloves, socks, and scarves. At the end of my life, I could look at this pile of garments and feel good–or maybe superior?–over the sheer size of the wool mountain I’d built. Clearly, this guy doesn’t knit, but he was sincere and his question struck me. It had never occurred to me that someone could not see the value of knitting. He thought it was about accumulation, like collecting records or paperweights.

Yarn stashes aside, knitting has very little to do with collecting. It’s visual, it’s tactile, it’s practical. Beyond this, simply ask any knitter: you’ll hear about self discovery, meditation, self-expression, the challenge of learning, and the joy of creation. It’s this last idea–the joy of creation–that struck me as I was engaged in conversation with another friend about the ornamental clothing of the Masai. Why do we embellish clothing? Or more broadly: why decorate? A thing can just be a thing. It doesn’t need rhinestones to make it purposeful. The rhinestones do not add to a thing’s utility. Rhinestones are extra. So why add them?

DSCN1365

If we want to look at this from an economic standpoint, the answer is clear: decoration adds value. We pay more for decorated things. Part of that value is reflected in the artist’s time and materials. Talent also adds value. We pay premiums for well decorated things and even more for well decorated things that are scarce.

But what if you remove the market? It turns out that people still decorate. Even with no economic incentive, people will still make things beautiful. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. I’m thinking here of the thousands of people who–right now–are tinkering away at their craft without any hope of selling what they make. In fact, selling their work may never even enter their minds.

One might say that we decorate as a form of self-expression. Okay. But this cannot be–or shouldn’t be–the only reason. As proof, I submit my poetry students. Years ago, I used to teach creative writing to college students. In writing workshops, students share their work with each other and offer critique. Every semester I had students who would say, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand my poem because I understand my poem and I wrote it for me.” To which I would ask, “If you only write for yourself, why are you in this class?” If we write a poem that’s only meant for our eyes, then the poem can stay in the diary forever. Once we go public, even classroom-style public, we are writing for a reason beyond ourselves. We have pushed beyond our solipsism. We share what we decorate because we long for communion.

It is only in communion that we know who we are. It is only in communion that I see myself reflected in something bigger. Craft takes us out of ourselves. This is why I’m worried about the loss of our craft /art heritage. If I have to go to a museum to understand what a craft had to say about its people, that means it is no longer a living source of communal understanding. It speaks, but from out of the past. Or–my even bigger fear– it could be quite relevant today–but somehow we lost our connection to it. We failed at passing it down because we didn’t write about it enough, we didn’t expose enough people to it, we didn’t teach it well, or we just plain forgot. Maybe we even thought it was someone else’s responsibility.

Spin-Off: You Asked, I’m Tellin’

fair isle yarnSpin-Off Magazine recently sent out a survey to its subscribers.  One of the things the editors wanted was ideas for articles.  Here’s a few thoughts:

Fibersheds and the Work of Rebecca Burgess.  To use her words, a fibershed is a “geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base.”  Burgess founded the first such network in California after she spent a year of seeking out, making, and wearing only clothes made from natural fibers and dyes grown and made within 150 mile radius of where she lives.  Think about that!  Her work has inspired new fibershed networks around the country and even internationally–all with clearly established boundaries from which all labor and materials must originate.  Read her blog or visit her profile in the August/September 2013 issue of American Craft.  As spinners, we need to think more about this concept.

American Sheep Industry Overview.  Not enough spinners know about the state of the American sheep and wool industry.  They don’t know, for instance, that flock numbers are in slow decline.  They don’t know how hard it is to raise sheep, that the flockmaster often struggles in times of drought or flood, and that these conditions impact the price of the wool (or even the lives of the sheep).  They don’t know what goes into raising bummer lambs or keeping the sheep away from thistle or pooping pigeons in the barn.  However, if we’re serious about sustainability and buying local, this is exactly what the spinner should know about the wool she spins.

Two Sheep

Spinning in the Grease.  I love this technique, but it makes most spinners go eew.  They think it’s messy (yes!) and greasy (yes!).  Many spinners think you can’t get beautiful results (wrong!) or that you can’t wash out all the grease (wrong!).  Spinning in the grease yields beautiful, wearable, soft yarn.  It’s an especially nice technique for anyone who lives in an apartment or simply doesn’t have the space to wash and dry a whole fleece.  It’s my preferred spinning method and I’d like to see more spinners use it.

How to Pick a Fleece.  Most spinners pick a fleece based on the ooh factor.  We react to color, softness, and price and that’s about it.  But go to any fleece judging contest with a knowledgeable judge and you’ll quickly learn there’s a lot more to it.  A lot.  Handle, staple length, second cuts, skirting, luster, crimp, breaks–all these factors should go into your evaluation before you buy.  I was lucky with my first fleece purchase.  I didn’t know a thing: I simply purchased one that looked nice and was affordable.  Thankfully, it made beautiful yarn.  But my second and third fleeces weren’t so wonderful because I was still buying based on emotion, not evaluation.  Once I began my fleece education, I based my purchasing on data, bought better fleeces, and my spinning improved as a result.

The Hackle and Diz.  Drum carders are great if you can afford them.  A good hackle and a strong diz will do the same job at a much more affordable price–and they’re a lot more fun to use.  Why doesn’t anyone use these tools?

Just some ideas, Spin-Off.   Take ’em or leave ’em.

The Hand Spinner’s Responsibility

Have you ever noticed how most American hand spinners are not outspoken advocates of the American sheep industry?

We love working with wool but we don’t support the wool industry in our own country.

Many American flockmasters are struggling to keep their sheep, especially since last summer’s drought.  The special care required to keep a spinning flock producing top quality fleece can add up in dollars, sometimes costing more to care for the sheep than the price of the fleece.  Since summer, the cost of feed has fluctuated, making it difficult for flockmasters to project their spending.  As a result, some farmers have had to sell their sheep as market lambs, their fine fleeces of little value when times are tough.

With the Internet, it’s easy to buy wool from overseas, but great wool is being produced right here at affordable prices.  We don’t have to send away to Canada or Australia to discover the world of sheep.

Many American flockmasters are working to preserve rare breeds or different breeds, a treat for any hand spinner who knows sheep and wants to work with great fiber.  These fibers are not hard to come by: you can find them at festivals around the country or over the Internet.  I buy my fleeces direct from sheep farmers because I value what they do and I don’t want a middleman to get money that could go directly back to the farm. Wary of buying a fleece you haven’t seen or inspected yourself?  Most producers are happy to send a sample.

I’ve spun Coopworth, Romney, Corriedale, Jacob and East Fresian-Polypay Cross.  Each fleece taught me more about spinning long wools.  And I’ll tell you this: once you connect directly with the flockmaster who cared for the sheep you’re spinning, you learn so much about your place in the production chain and how much we owe the people who tend these animals.

As I happily spin up my fleeces, I’m reminded that I’m lucky to have them at all this year.  Whenever I see cheap lamb for sale from Australia or a hand spinner who’s willing to get a Merino fleece from New Zealand, I think of all the struggling American flockmasters I’ve met.  There’s not a one who wanted  to sell a sheep due to hard times.  It’s tough out there and American hand spinners have a duty to support the industry that supports them.

If you want to learn more about the American sheep industry, read Sheep!.

Do Knitters Dream of Electric Sheep?

Images of yarns and fiber from Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival last week in Jefferson.  This fiber fest has everything a spinner or knitter could want: a fleece show and sale, two barns of vendors, three days of classes, and plenty of sheep.  Oh, and inspiration!

Braided Roving for Spinning
Braided Roving
hanging yarns
Long Skeins for Big Projects
dyed locks
Dyed Locks
Colorful Batts
Hot Off the Drum Carder

Urban Girl Looks Longingly at the Horizon

Sheep Herd

Ever visit a place for the first time and find you’ve already been there?

I don’t mean literally, like you remembered you’d been there once before.  I mean something more visceral: you find your true self has been waiting for you there, waiting for you to discover that you belong there.  In fact, you have belonged there all your life–if only you had known enough to look.

This happened to a friend of mine when she visited California.  She got off the plane, took one look and said, whoa: this is where I’m supposed to be.  It hit her that hard, and she’s never really come back.

This is what happens to me every time I attend the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival (it’s this weekend: Sept 7, 8, and 9).  As soon as I get there,  I feel so me, it hurts.  It’s the land.  It’s the sheep.  It’s the spinning.  I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.  There’s only one problem: the Sheep and Wool Fest isn’t a place, it’s an event.  It’s over in a flash.  Then it’s back to work.  Back to urban life.  Back.  Back.  Back.

Blackface SheepDon’t’ get me wrong: I enjoy my life.  It’s just impossible to live it outside a major urban area.  My husband and I could give up a lot to live in a rural small town.  We could say good bye to shopping malls and the Art Institute.  We could do without 4G and Lake Michigan water.  We could happily trade the Cubs for a lawn tractor.  What we can’t give up is our jobs.  Our jobs keep us tied to the city.  By living one dream, you say good bye to another.  Sometimes, you don’t even realize you’ve made a trade.

Nobody told us when we were young that pursuing our careers would tether us to city life.  Frankly, this was the last thing on our minds anyway.  The young think everything is possible.  It would never have occurred to me that my choice of profession meant I couldn’t live in the country.  If I wanted to live in a small town, why, I’d just move there.  Simple as that.  But it’s never that simple.

long view of a barnFor decades the movement has been out of small towns into the cities.  Who would have thought people would want to go back?  Whenever my husband and I drive in the country, we are sure to pass by the remnants of old towns.  My mother-in-law can pick out the crossroads of Wisconsin towns she once knew as a girl, now marked with just a few collapsed houses and a vine-wrapped chimney or two.  It always makes me sad.  Who lived there?  What dream fell apart?  I’d love to live out in the country, but where are the jobs?  Even in thriving small towns, it’s hard to find a doctor or a clinic.  What if you need a good lawyer?  What if you need a gasket to stop your faucet from leaking?

With small town life out of reach, we thought of moving farther out. We scoured the map of Chicagoland: if you want to get out of town, I mean really out of town, you’re looking at an hour commute–at least!   And we’re not big fans of long commutes.  What a waste of time, resources, and spirit.  So, we’re stuck, at least for now.  I’m grateful to the city for the life it gives us; but, in a few days, I’ll be walking through the dusty barns, searching for the perfect fleece, feeling very much myself and as close to the horizon as I can get.