life in an artisanal world

Archive for the tag “handmade”

I Am Because We Are

Who am I ?  And why am I here?  Two big questions. Hard to find anything bigger. You may know them in different forms: Why was I born? What’s the purpose of my life? How should I live?  Essentially the same thing.  I think about these questions from time to time.  Life changes.  I change.  It’s good to assess.  When I run out of answer pathways, I ask other people.  But they usually have nothing for me. That is to say, you can’t get any closer to your answers by asking other people how you should live your life.  How would they know?  I mean, really.

These questions came up again for me just recently at the annual Holiday Folk Fair International in Milwaukee.  This festival of ethnic heritage is a spectacular celebration in song, dance, food, ritual, history, and of course, craft.  Although not as big as in recent years, it’s still an amazing collection of people sharing their culture.  And these people have culture in droves.  They are living it right before your eyes as they play music, cook, speak, sing, dance.  It’s one of the best places to see needlework, too, because unlike a museum where you can observe a costume behind glass, people are wearing their ethnic costumes.  It’s craft in action.  Alive.

Czech Women at "Home"

Czech Women at “Home”

The festival describes it this way: “folklife . . . is the living expression of culture woven into everyday life – anyone’s culture – learned and passed on informally from person to person. It must be alive and current to be folklife, even though it may have existed over long stretches of time.”

To give you some example of this living expression at the festival:

Below is an example of Uzbek suzani, a traditional embroidery done entirely by hand using silk thread on a cotton/silk cloth.  Traditionally, a woman began embroidering her daughter’s bridal bedspread as soon as she was born.  The demand for these handmade pieces has gone up since the fall of the Soviet Union brought more travelers to Uzbekistan.  From what I have read, new pieces are just as well made as vintage ones.  An excellent example of a craft revival.

Uzbek Suzani

Uzbek Suzani

You can see it is handmade by examining the back.  Machine work never looks like this.  These pieces are made in long strips so that more than one woman can work on a bedspread.  When they are finished, women sew them together and then embroider along the seam to hide it.

Uzbek Suzani Reverse Side

Uzbek Suzani Reverse Side

The pieces above were for sale in the bazaar.  Many other people simply set up shop to show others their craft.   Here is a woman in Pomeranian dress demonstrating weaving on a table loom.

Pomeranian Weaver

Pomeranian Weaver

And Darinka Kohl demonstrating the intricate techniques of bobbin lace.

Darinka Kohl Making Bobbin Lace

Darinka Kohl Making Bobbin Lace

When you see so many people celebrating their culture together, you realize something important about the Big Questions.  Correction:  I learned something.  I learned that I’d been asking the wrong questions.  Instead of asking “Who am I?”  I should be asking “Who are we?”  It’s the community that provides identity, direction, vision.  It’s the community that sustains.  If you want to know who you are, you simply look to your community; they will tell you where you came from and where you are going.  You once ate this food.  You once sang this song.  You once survived this war.  If you want to know who you are, learn how we do things: take up this needle and thread, carve this spoon, speak this language, repeat after me.

And after you learn these things, look around and see that all cultures have their versions.  The egg roll is the burrito is the crepe.

Who am I?  And why am I here?  I am because we are.


To learn more about heritage crafts still practiced in Wisconsin, click here.


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:

Well worth it.

Lament for Lost Art


My dad, Max Ranft, made his living as a fine artist.   He really lived it.  He had a studio.  He taught life drawing.  He sketched on every scrap of paper.  He taught me how to draw.  He taught my brothers. He set up his easel in the snow.  He trekked through the forest preserves and churned out landscape after landscape after landscape.  Before he got his job at J. Walter Thompson, he traveled the Midwest doing church murals.   And he is one of the only people I ever met who knew–I mean really knew–how to draw the human figure.

Pop in 2003

Max in 2003

He hated working from photographs, whether he was painting a portrait or a bridge.  The light isn’t real.  The shadows aren’t real.  The colors are not real.  Whatever he was trying to convey was not containable in a snapshot.  He needed more than that to say what he had to say.

I remember when I finally got it.  He was painting, I was sketching.  I could see him from where I sat, measuring, looking, mixing, adjusting.   We were out there for hours, a beautiful spot by a lake.  The birds, the sunshine, the sound of leaves against the wind.  I realized my father spent a good deal of his life observing nature.  I thought he was just the guy I saw at dinner.  You know, eating.  Getting mad at world news.  Fixing the gutters.  But what I realized by the lake was that what was blue or white to me was not to him.  He’d cultivated a way of seeing, a way of knowing the natural world that most people don’t know.  He knew stuff, unique stuff, and he was trying to pass  this stuff along to me.

Today he has Alzheimer’s.   Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts.

If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, then you already know what I’m going to say.  Everyone’s personal or family disease is important: it makes its own strong and particular mark, it takes you down paths you don’t think you can walk.  Alzheimer’s–I’ll venture to say–is one of the more stranger ones.  What is it–what!–that allows him to play chess (and win) but not remember what he said five minutes ago?

Not long ago, we had a visit from the great nephew of my dad’s teacher, Louis Grell.   Richard is doing research on his relative for a book and my dad was one of his closest pupils.   (If you’ve ever been to the Chicago Theatre on State Street, you’ve looked at the murals inside–those are Grells.)  My dad revered Grell.   Mister Grell, as he called him even well after he died.  I grew up with stories about Grell and the impact he had not only on my dad’s art, but on his thinking.  It’s all lost.  My dad couldn’t recall anything significant about his apprenticeship to this man.  And no one in my family had written anything down.

Winter Scene Painted from Life

Winter Scene by Max Ranft, painted from life

You think the stories you have in your youth are the stories you’ll have your whole life.  They are the stories you live with, that shape you, that make you who you are.  If you forget a detail, no matter.  The storyteller will tell the story again.  You can have the story back in all its vivid detail any time you want.  Or so you think.

So much else is gone, too.  I’ve been wracking my brain to remember what he taught me about the color of clouds, about how to paint a sky, about how to measure the human form.  What was I supposed to do with half tones?  What exactly was I supposed to look for when the weight was on the opposite hip of a figure at three quarter turn?  What did you mean when you said to soften the shadow?  These are the stories I heard every day of my youth.  Of everything he taught me about art, I internalized only maybe ten percent.  The rest is gone.  Just gone.

This sudden and desperate sense of loss has made me frantic about the lost arts of our world.  Where does all the knowledge go?  Who is keeping track?  Who’s writing it down?  Better yet, who’s practicing it, making it present?  Here are a few on my current watch list (in no particular order):

  • Embroidery
  • Bobbin lace
  • Tatting
  • Basket-making
  • Dark room photography
  • Fresco painting
  • Chair caning
  • Stained glass
  • Wood carving
  • Book binding
  • Life drawing
  • Calligraphy
  • Blacksmithing
  • and, of course, hand spinning

Maybe you know some people who practice these arts.  Maybe you practice some of them yourself.  But let’s face it.  These crafts are endangered.  My list has a decidedly Western bent, but that’s the culture I know.  Please send me more and I’ll add them.

Spinning Wheel

Another Lost Art?

Recently, someone said that she struggled with deciding when to consign an art to history.  This really took me aback.  I don’t want to lose any of these arts to history.  But then I thought how many people I know who are looking to buy a hand-tatted collar.  Zero.  Who wants a hand-carved bed?  Who needs their books rebound?  There are reasons we don’t practice these crafts like we once did.  But, gosh–is that the reason to let them go?  Zip?  Gone? Disappear forever like my father’s memory?  Maybe I’m too emotionally invested here.  If I am, talk me out of it.  But somehow I don’t think so.  Besides all the practical use I get from my spinning wheel, there’s another reason I make yarn by hand.  I do it, damn it, because there’s value in the doing.  Like my father standing in the forest, under the sun, measuring, mixing, creating what only he could create out there that day, there’s a knowledge in the doing that only comes from doing.  Do we really want to lose that to history?  Really?

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!.

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