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.
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!)
This blog started as a rage against the misuse of the word artisanal. As anyone interested in American craft knows, this word has been bastardized by corporations to the detriment of true artisans honing real skills. It should only be used for handcrafted items, and I thought this blog was a way to protect that usage.
Wrong. That ship has sailed. Long ago.
I found I had more to say as a practitioner of craft than as a gadfly of language. I’m an urbanite practicing a craft that depends largely on rural capacity to raise, produce, and market my raw materials. I can’t even find most of what I need in the Chicago area. I must go rural. And much like the city kid who suddenly realizes where her food comes from, I’ve found great benefit in knowing what makes my yarn possible.
The Internet makes this rural dependency easy to ignore. What can’t you buy online? I could easily purchase everything I need in a few faceless transactions every year.
But spinning is tactile. It’s present. It’s immediate. It’s not a craft of intangibles. I could buy my fleece online or I could go out and get my boots dirty. I could–gasp–leave the city.
While this flipped dichotomy is not wholly unique (again, think of food production), it is unusual in a modern landscape that provides almost everything for the urban consumer within a few minutes.
The intersections of these flipped worlds–the urban handspinner and the rural materials producer–is what interests me. Towards that end, this blog will never be about my latest project. You won’t read details about why I only knit 8 rows last night. You won’t get updates on my latest random thoughts. What you will get are articles that touch on and around the relationship between urban practitioners of an ancient craft and rural producers of the raw materials we use.
It seems to me this is a largely contemporary phenomenon worth thinking and writing about. I hope you’ll join me.
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!
As soon as you walk in the door of Midwest Fiber & Folk Art Fair, you see the colors just beyond the gate and hear the noise. You realize that this is a big show and that it’s probably going to overwhelm you and that you don’t care. It’s exuberating when you set out into the vendor booths because you know it’s all ahead of you: hours of joy. The more you lose yourself in this world, the better. This is why you work hard all week.
I had the pleasure of attending the MFFAF this past weekend with my cousin and her daughter, a beginning knitter (and as of Saturday, a spindler, too). Not having children myself, this was the first time I’d had the pleasure of seeing a young person take an interest in a craft I love. I had little to do with her taking up knitting, but it was a singular treat to be present as she discovered firsthand what the world of fiber arts has to offer.
The MFFAF is a good show to make your first because it showcases fiber artists along with musicians and knitters, crocheters, quilters, spinners, and rug hookers. As I’ve said before on this blog, we can’t lose sight of the artists. They inspire us and–I firmly believe–we inspire them. Just like my cousin’s daughter who has newly taken up her needles, I, a knitter of some twenty-two years’ experience, draw inspiration from her excitement over the new world she’s entered. As she discovered that she already knows all the stitches it takes to make a sweater, I was reminded that there are still many ways to push my own skills. No doubt the fiber artists who entered their work at the exhibits felt the same way when they saw so many hundreds of fair goers crowding the booths, enjoying their work, thinking up new projects.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Cynthia Boudreau fashioned this Felted Tunic from Nuno silk and merino wool. She used the wet felting technique to mesh the wool to the silk and then added beads. Besides the design, which reminds me a little of Monet’s waterlily paintings, I love the shape and presentation, which reminds me of Japanese kimonos. I wish you could see firsthand how light and refreshing this piece is–like a breeze. Here’s more about Cynthia:
Two entries in the handbag exhibit caught my eye. To gain entry, artists had to construct a handbag by riffing off an older pattern–this year’s pattern was from 1945. Click the link for a picture of the pattern and exhibit details. You’ll be astonished at how different these entries are from the original. But believe me: all the entries were wildly different. In fact, in all the years I’ve been attending, no two bags are ever alike, like–not even close.
The beaded purse (below), entitled Dancing Abundance, by Marianne Biagi, was made using an altered peyote stitch. Biagi describes, “I don’t have a plan. I design as I go, letting the colors and shapes of beads guild me.” And this I love: “I finish when the art tells me to stop.”
The reverse of this bag is in a different color scheme, which is equally beautiful.
Beyond color, texture plays an important part in Biagi’s work. Her beaded art deserves a more careful look. Here’s an article I found that provides more pictures and background information on this artist from thecity1.com.
Another piece that needs mention is Boa Bag by Judith Reilly. It’s a knitted and crocheted piece that uses Reilly’s own handspun wool along with commercial novelty yarn. I love the colors as well as the creative use of mitered squares. (Modular knitting is great for free-form knitters and satisfying for anyone who only has a small amount of time to knit each day.) Equally inspiring is Reilly’s description of how she created it: she started with the beads. In her words, “I thought they’d be a nice echo of the diamonds on the top of the bag. Then I found the perfect colors in the roving. . . and the rest is history.”
Just like Biagi, Reilly’s approach reminds us that we don’t always need a pattern or plan. What we need is to be open to inspiration. Fairs like the Midwest Fiber & Folk Arts Fair help us all–hobbyist and artist alike–find ways of pushing our craft and our skills. As important as it was for my cousin’s daughter to attend as a new knitter, so it is equally important for longtime practitioners to refresh ourselves, see the latest trends, and connect with the vibrant community that makes up the fiber arts.
Artisanal Flowchart Postscript:
Incidentally, all four of these pieces featured above are artisanal (did you expect anything else coming from me?). They all express the artistic vision of the fiber artists who made them and they all possess utility: they can be used. Will they be used is another question. Sometimes the potential for use is enough.
Reader Jeremy P. recently helped me understand a bit more about how high-end saxophones are made. He was responding to my recent flowchart test that used musical instruments to determine when an instrument maker can apply the artisanal designation. Jeremy’s point was that automation has improved saxophones: many high end makers use computer-aided technology to determine precision tuning. Can we begrudge them an automated process if it results in a superior product? Certainly not. Again, as long as automation is not facilitating mass production, we’re still on the chart.
Now, let’s apply Jeremy’s question to something more commonplace: how much automation can we allow and still call an item homemade? We throw around the word homemade far more often than we use artisanal, so this discussion should be even more juicy.
The question, again, is one of definition. What does homemade mean? For starters, it must be made at home. This ought to be obvious, but it’s not. For example, why do restaurants routinely call their food homemade? That can’t possibly be true. (More fascinating is that diners don’t object–but I digress.)
Second, a homemade thing must be made by hand. We can say this because homemade can be used as a synonym for hand-crafted. People who use the term hand-crafted to describe their item may not like the comparison because homemade bespeaks a sense of homeyness or crude, even slip-shod construction; but, it can also mean made from scratch and made by oneself and this gives the word a sense of ingenuity and self-sufficiency.
The made-by-hand requirement, however, is also where the trouble begins. Especially today, automation is almost impossible to overcome. To show just how difficult it is to avoid, consider baking. Most people who bake do not mill their own flour. They use store-bought flour that was mass produced using automation. Nor do they make their own butter or harvest their own sugar. But few people would object to calling a cake made in a kitchen homemade. In fact, many people would be pleased to call a cake from a mix homemade.
We just don’t live in a world that will allow us to mill our own flour or churn or own butter. With a few exceptions, we just don’t have the time or the resources. We did once, and this indicates to me that the definition has shifted. Maybe not when a person bought the first bag of milled flour. That moment was probably a celebration of survival. But that first cake mix must have been a threat. Is a box cake a real cake?
Once, this was a big deal. Today, we think nothing of it. Homemade is a shifting target, and that’s why restaurants can claim it for their own. Just like artisanal, we no long know what it means.
I don’t know about you, but I find this slippage exasperating. Too much arbitrary shift.