Almost everyone who begins a craft also begins with a long list of things we won’t do because we think they’re too hard.
When I originally began knitting back in the early 90s, my very first project was a sweater and my second was a vest with cables and moss stitch; my third–I think by Reynolds/JCA, which had superb patterns!—had cabled sleeves; and then I quit when my ex-husband displayed no interest in the sweater I wanted to make him. Fast-forward some ten years, and I began again, this time with a long list of things I wouldn’t do. Seam. Cables. Lace. Colorwork. Also, no charts. I knit in a very awkward, inefficient style which limited my abilities. Basically, the only thing I would do was knit in endless circles from the top down or bottom up. I would do a bit of ribbing. But I chose to master a new technique with every new project—including, rather shortly, teaching myself a far more efficient style, as well as learning to read charts. Both skills make practically any complex pattern far more doable.
Now, I regard charts (which used to scare me) as the most incredible visual shorthand because charts are no more than a picture you compare your work to so you can instantly see your mistakes. And five years, one Shetland shawl and (long before that) a colorwork project that would have been far easier and cost no more had I decided to knit Henry VIII by Alice Starmore later, I find myself knitting a pattern on 2 mm needles. (As a knitter, I speak metric to simplify calculations and because US, UK and Japanese needles have widely different numbering systems: a 3 mm needle is a UK 11, a Japanese 3, and a US 3 is 3.25 mm.)
The garment pattern is Elizabeth of York by Alice Starmore from her out-of-print book Tudor Roses. This is a long vest in beadwork, which is the use of knit and purl stitches in the same row to create texture, just as lace is the use of decreases and increases to create void and structure. The pattern calls for a gauge of tension of 28 stitches by 48 rows per 10 cm square, or 1344 stitches per square. One stitch is about 1.4 x .83 millimeters. I am using both a finer yarn and smaller needles than the pattern calls for to get the gauge measurements it calls for. I am still uncertain if the yarn I am using is right for this pattern: it’s a cotton-wool-angora-cashmere-viscose blend, a pleasure to work with in a beautiful color, but it’s not as crisp and defined as perhaps the pattern deserves. So I hesitate each time I knit a row. This slows me down—and yet the gauge swatch I knit bloomed into something like cut velvet. Incidentally, if you covet a copy of Tudor Roses but can’t justify its prices, wait, unless you’ve got a friend with a copy he’d like to sell: the current word is that Tudor Roses will be reprinted with reknit samples for modern yarns in about a year and a half. I purchased my copy in a knitter-to-knitter sale that while still expensive in terms of what it will cost when it is reprinted, was far cheaper than anything hosted by Amazon.
These pictures are of the lower rear of the vest; stitches will be picked up along the interior edges a border matching the bottom will be worked and the mitered ends sewn to the existing fabric.
When you find yourself doing such work and thinking this level of effort is not demented but rational because it gives you the definition and detail you want, you realize that you are in another realm.
And that is the realm of the craftswoman. As a craftswoman, you understand that nothing you do is really difficult because each finished project is the culmination of dozens of different components, each of which are executed separately and are not terribly difficult. The end result may be maddeningly complex but each component is executed separately and sometimes one stitch at a time. Of course, no one enters this realm without effort and discipline: what my husband calls cow patience is required to create the beautiful and the excellent and the useful.
Entering this realm changes your view of the world to such a degree that malls become saddening. I was in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago and decided to walk to Ramat Aviv mall. I really liked the mosaic tiling around the low walls of the water garden although it was obvious where tiles that had fallen had been replaced with inadequate substitutes. And I noticed one spectacular fish amongst all the brilliant koi, its bronze scales overlaid by a green-black patina—such a beautiful color.
I went in looking for the possibility of craftwork and found a temple to overpriced consumption. I am sure that perhaps somewhere there was craftwork tucked away, but the closest I came to finding it was a spritz of Hermes’ wonderful Eau des Merveilles in a ridiculously overpriced cosmetics store.
It wasn’t the prices that bothered me. I spent 200 hours knitting my first Shetland shawl and would not accept less than $2000 for it—and even that is a ridiculously low price for extremely skilled labor. (Compared to sewing and weaving—even if you spin your own fiber—handknitting is enormously labor intensive.) It was the cheapness and shoddiness of the merchandise and the coarse vulgarity of the advertising that troubled me. The advertising did not say to me: come in, here there are beautiful, well-made things worthy of your money—which is the fungible equivalent of your time, of that period of your life you spent earning it. The advertising said to me, here, wear this and you’ll look hot, like these very young models and Nicki Minaj with her breasts spilling out of her dress, on all fours, while a pale male model loomed beside her holding a giant, uncapped tube of lipstick. Thank you, but even when I wear tight jeans, I neither look like that nor want to. I’m not meat and I won’t present myself as meat. No one should and no one should want to.
The clothing was a worthy accompaniment to the advertising. To say the clothing was expensive for the quality is to be kind. I have seen tunics for 300 shekels—about $75—that were printed after they were sewn into gathers around the neckline. It took no specialized knowledge to realize that: the fabric underneath the gathers was white, with the ink bleeding into them. (Ideally, you would structure both the print and the cutting and sewing so that the gathers would open the fabric and expose the fabric in a ground color or another print in a regular rhythm.) Seams were often uneven, and the cut often poor—while not everyone needs a long rise, nothing good can be said about low rises for anyone of either sex. This is what Israelis are told their money—and thus their lives—are worth. It would almost be acceptable if the goods were produced in Israel and Israel had a relatively flat socio-economic structure. Neither is true, of course, although to a far lesser extent than in America. Walk into Walmart and see the price we have sold our country for. I remember with longing the K-Mart blue light specials of my childhood, and the S&H Green Stamps with which I purchased fishing tackle, and the old ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union) tags on clothing I found in consignment stores, clothing I couldn’t possible wear because my figure was different but was nevertheless often beautiful and dignified and shockingly well-made. Most of all of this was made in America—which hasn’t run a trade surplus since 1975.
With the loss of these industries, the knowledge of how to actually create has also been lost: craftsmanship precedes technology, which precedes science. And along with the lost knowledge of creation, the knowledge of quality has been lost. When you are used to making something well, you are rarely fooled by glitter and sparklies and sequins and bright prints. They may be just the thing to ornament good work—but they do not substitute for it.
To set yourself the task of mastering a craft is to set yourself the task of learning how to create the useful, the beautiful, the excellent: to sustain and contribute to human civilization. But it is also to learn to see again: the beautiful, the useful, the necessary, the enduring, that should be there and is not.
Once you have this knowledge, it’s yours. You live with it, work with it and are cursed by it as well as blessed by it.
In a store at Ramat Aviv, I saw and wanted a short, elegant cape of knitted mink in a beautiful shade of grey. The sales woman wanted me to try it on and I refused for two reasons. I was sweating, but even more than that, I didn’t so much want to buy it so much as I wanted to make it, and I was wondering how I could get my hands on some fur yarn at reasonable prices. I also wanted to see the seams, and to see if I could do better.
There is no English word for this. The Spanish word aficionado comes close but it has implications of lightness, of unseriousness—not of longing.