I remember a fairy tale that fascinated me as a child. It was from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales and was called “The Three Spinning Fairies.” The three fairies all were physically marked by the work they did as spinners. One had a big, flat foot, from turning the wheel; one had a large underlip that hung over her chin, from wetting the thread; and the third had a very broad thumb, from twisting the thread.
The story gets me thinking about the ways our activities mark us. The musculature of the long-distance runner tells a tale of her hard work. The tanned and lined skin of the farmer speaks of a life working in the sun. I knew an elderly teacher who had develop a verbal tic of punctuating her every sentence with “shhh,” after years in the classroom.
The activities I engage in are easy by comparison yet even “loving hands at home” tell a tale. The work, and play, I do have left their marks. When I play the guitar regularly, I form calluses on my left hand (when I pick up the guitar irregularly, I just whine!) During gardening season, I perpetually have soil under my nails. I wake up every morning, and my joints are kind of creaky.
But some of the marks my hands bear deserve special recognition:
The most annoying
I don’t always choose to quilt but, when I do, I prefer handwork (I’m channeling that guy in the Dos Equis ad!). During the process of hand quilting, both hands are in action, the dominant hand on top, sort of rocking the needle through the layers of fabric, and the other hand under the quilt, deflecting the needle back up.
Each stitch pricks the top of the underside finger and, pretty soon, you have either a) a sore hole in your finger; b) a callus; or c) both. I never have quite built up a fully protective callus, so this is a niggling injury. It completely stops progress because I cannot go on quilting until it heals.
I always thought I could incorporate this maker’s mark into a murder mystery. Someone is killed and the murder weapon reveals an odd pattern. The lack of a normal fingerprint on the third finger leads to a deranged quilt maker.
The most psychologically unsettling
I don’t have any actual scars from jewelry making, which is odd because I use more substantial and potentially damaging tools there than in any other hobby. But I have mental scars—I can feel, in my memories, the way the slender, sharp blade of the jeweler’s saw cuts into the side of my left index finger when I slip as I’m cutting the silver. It cuts right where the fingernail joins the skin at the side of your finger. And you know it’s going to happen. And you promise yourself it won’t, not this time. And then it does. Again. I wince just writing about it!
The most painful
The most painful injury I’ve had in pursuit of handmade heaven is a burn from hot sugar syrup. I regularly make caramels and toffee and, to do so, you need to cook sugar syrup to the “soft ball” stage—about 240 degrees. That’s hot. And sticky, so you can’t brush it off. The hot syrup sticks to your skin and stays hot and just . . . keeps . . . burning.
Last winter, during the height of candy-making season for my business, I flipped a big glob of hot syrup on my finger and it kind of wrapped around the base of the finger. I got it into cold water almost immediately but not soon enough to prevent huge blisters and scars. And, by the way, if you ever get hot food on your finger, do NOT stick your finger in your mouth! As much as it hurts to burn the skin on your hand, it’s worse on the tender skin inside your mouth. I’m just sayin’ . . .
The dumbest injury I’ve sustained came when I was working in a gallery, as a picture framer. I was handling a big piece of glass to put in a frame over a poster—it was about 3 feet by 2 feet. I finally got the glass all clean and I picked it up to place it in the frame. But a scrap of paper had gotten stuck to the underside glass, with a little bit of masking tape. It was just a little bit stuck so I figured I could dislodge it, without putting the glass down.
I gave the huge sheet of glass a little shake, just to knock that tape off, and it pretty much exploded in my hands! Glass everywhere, including one big sharp dagger of a piece that embedded itself in my palm. The good news: it could’ve been so such worse! The bad news: the scar dissects the lifeline on my left palm, creating great confusion when I get my fortune told!
People think that crafting and cooking are delicate pastimes, for those with soft lady-like hands. You and I know different! Any beloved, repeated activity leaves its mark upon us, whether physical or psychological. I look at my hands, after a lifetime of using them to make all kinds of things, and they aren’t pretty.
They do, however, look capable and strong and agile. And I will take capable, strong, and agile over pretty any day!
Do you have scars and calluses to show you’ve lived a busy life? What are your maker’s marks?