In the Trades

Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers. Aldo Leopold 

Greetings Dear Ones!

 It has come to my attention that quite a few carpenters and “handywomen”  read this blog! One might not think so but it can be pretty difficult to tell carpenters and seamstresses apart: We use a lot of the same tools, materials, and methods—just on different scales. We both “measure twice, cut once” and swear like naughty sailors when we get it wrong.  We both deal with bolts, though with differing meanings for that word, and in the end, we each produce a lot of scraps.  We both find ourselves doing the most ridiculously simple and menial chores for people whom, had they not eliminated Shop and Home Ec. classes from the standard high school curriculum in the 1980’s, (or had a conscientious grandparent!) should have been able to do for themselves. As we work, we both visually tessellate items in our minds—turning things inside out and backwards in our imaginations. We have the kind of brains that can imagine things “taken apart.” We are both dependant on the reference points of “plum” and “level,” though we seamsters are more apt to refer to it as a garment’s “center line.”

 Recently,  I had a conversation with a professional designer/builder and told him all the ways our work was similar.  He laughed and said that being a seamstress was more like being a shipwright—that making clothing was more akin to building a boat. Everything has to be accommodated in biomorphic shapes, dealing with rounds; there are no perfectly square edges on a human. “Plum” and “level” become only relative reference points that must be read with a skilled and experienced eye in relation to the ship or body itself, rather than a fixed point on earth.  Humans bob around in air the way that boats bob around in water. If only every hemline had a gimbals! (that mechanism, typically consisting of rings pivoted at right angles, for keeping an instrument such as a compass or chronometer horizontal in a moving vessel or aircraft).

 In both carpentry and tailoring, there is a difference between being a “tradesman” and a “craftsman.” Sadly, we don’t get to be craftsmen (or craftswomen) very often.  We are too busy fixing people’s stuff! A woman comes in to have us stitch a label back on her husband’s tie.  A mother needs her daughter’s uniform skirt hemmed. A young man needs a button sewn on his coat. Another man has ripped his jersey.  A debutante has bought a bargain at TJMaxx only to discover that the shoulder, stitched on with a chain stitch, has given way and is now unraveling the way one opens a sack of dog food.  “It’s just a little thing,” they say, “I wish I knew how to do this.”  So do I, Dear One, so do I! 

Craftsmen devote themselves to making Lovely and Useful things and harnessing Beauty in wood or cloth or metal.  You find a lot of them on Etsy. “In the trades,” we are more often relegated to serving the public than the Muses.  It’s much dirtier work.  Here, I want to avoid creating the wistful, romanticized notion that mine is a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic or more democratically valorous for being “working class.”  However, I do wish to rehabilitate the honor of the trades.  There is a great sense of agency and competence that comes from doing manual work that is better than any therapist or self-help book in terms of building one’s confidence.  I have been told many times throughout my life that those who work “from the neck up” have way more money and opportunities than those of us who work from the neck down and that does seem to be true.  However, our increasing manual disengagement in a “post-industrialist” society is leading to some terrible things. What ordinary people once made for themselves or each other, they now buy. Instead of fixing things, they just discard and buy new. Our landfills cannot take this.  Also, and I mean this kindly, people seem to be getting dumber about basic, practical stuff they should know how to do.  Not a day goes by that Prudence doesn’t look at some item and say to herself, “Seriously? How is it that a grown-arsed-adult doesn’t know how to x___ y___or z___?” If they are simply too lazy, that’s one thing and we are happy to help.  If they are truly Ignorant, in that unsullied, delicate, exotic way that Oscar Wilde talks about, well then, we as a Society need to look into some things!

 Today, most of our schools, with the exception of a tiny number of Vo-tech schools, give manual trades little Value—celebrating instead the ideals of “potential” rather than achievement. Craftsmanship is about learning to do one thing really well.  Traditional colleges, especially those championing what is known as “a liberal arts education” are designed to give one an open passport to a future, rather than any concrete or saleable skills.  Yes, we are taught rhetoric and logic, but it is not the logic of the skill saw, lathe or sewing machine that could bite or maim us.  It is not even logic one can stub her toe upon.  It is the type of learning that propels smart people into the cubicles of middle management.  As a result, rather than producing skilled workers, our highest levels of educational institutions are churning out hordes of compliant “generalists” untethered by any single set of useful skills, qualified only to go on to more schooling. Plato himself makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric in that rhetoric has “no account to give of the real nature of things and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.”  I just LOVE rhetoric.  I could sit and talk about it for days.  But there is a certain submission one must undergo when dealing with the logic of Things, rather than fantastical arts of persuasion.

Give me a good, old fashioned system of indenture! Let us learn by doing. (Think how good this would be for those whose alternative learning styles don’t conform to the factory model of today’s educational system.)  Skilled manual labor involves a very systematic encounter with the material world.  Experience is key.  In days gone by, a young tailor would expect to be an apprentice for a minimum of seven years to be called a master.  As one who works with her hands daily yet still feels the ache of all I am not yet “good” at, seven years to Excellence seems like a dizzying pace.  The wonderful ladies I work with have more than sixty year’s worth of professional experience between them (Which is amazing, considering they are both only “29!”) and yet they are still learning and trying new things. There is a joy in making things. I know the enclosure of my skills and I feel a secret thrill when I am drawn over the edge of them into new experiences, new learning, new patterns and ways for the hands to manifest what the mind imagines.  This is going to take me WAY longer than a mere seven years to master! It is a path, not a destination. 

 The dictionary defines a Trade as “a skilled job, typically one requiring manual skills and special training.”  It is also the exchange of something for something else, typically as a commercial transaction.  I like digging deeper and finding out that the modern word came into Middle English from Middle Low German, and literally meant ‘track’ (of West Germanic origin).  It is also related to “tread.” Early senses included ‘course, way of life’, which gave rise in the 16th century to ‘habitual practice of an occupation’, ‘skilled handicraft’. The current verb senses date from the late 16th century.  A trade is not just a skill but a way of life, a thing one “trades” for things like money (or help building a chicken coop), and a way of knowing and navigating one’s world. I like the notion that “Trade” embodies, at its root, the notion of Life’s Path, or vocation.

We don’t just shape things; they shape us as well.  They literally change our Minds, our very brains. I am also beginning to suspect that manual dexterity is far more easy to cultivate in the young.  It is not impossible at any age, however, the odds are stacked against the older learner, who will require more repetitions than a more malleable younger brain. The cognitive demands of skilled manual work are very high.  They involve a kinesthetic learning over time that creates skill that cannot be had by reading about or watching a task.  I had to do over two hundred button holes by hand before I could reliably create buttonholes that were of consistently uniform size and shape and quality and more than seven hundred before I was actually proud of them.  The intellectual “knowing” or understanding of “how one makes a buttonhole” and then there is the ability to make one.  The two are vastly different things and can only be synthesized over years of practice.  The “brain” must extend all the way to the fingertips and into the tools that are being used—and dendrites grow slowly!

There is literally and figuratively a lot to be said for the hands-on approach to problem solving. Sometimes it begins with the realization that the assumptions and demands of formal education must be ignored or actively resisted.  Once launched, this process of exploration-by-doing, the self-education and development never stops.  There are infinite ways to explore a craft.  No two problems or situations are ever the same. People become skillful and thoughtful only when they care what they are doing.  Through our work, we begin to link the wisdom of the body with the wisdom of the Spirit.  There is no fundamental separation.   Only by pursuing knowledge through our hands do we come to appreciate the interdependence of human skill, intelligence, and soul.  “If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it,” writes Matthew Crawford, author of the brilliant book Shop Class as Soulcraft.  I could not agree more!

Be well my Dearies!  And Do Good Work!

Yours Aye,