It Pleases Me

working handsA folklorist, traveling in rural America, meets an elderly farmer. The old man is tired, from hard work with his herd and his land, yet works in the evening to make chairs he needs for his home.

The chairs he has crafted could be considered finished—they are strong and sound—but the old man continues, with weary hands, to carve flourishes and curlicues into the wood, to decorate his utilitarian creations.

The folklorist, a specialist in material culture, asks the man, “Why? Why do you take the time to decorate the chairs when they are perfectly serviceable?” The old man is silent, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about his motivation, his desire. And then he answers:

“Because it pleases me.”

I heard this story, told by folklorist Henry Glassie, many years ago as an undergraduate when Glassie came to visit my college. Since then, I have thought often of the story, the old farmer, and his desire to create beauty and to please himself.

The fact that this story, and none of the others Glassie undoubtedly told, has stuck with me suggests to me that it touched a nerve with me, even as a young person just starting to make things with my hands.

It seemed, and still seems, so profound to me.

In my painting classes, I was taught to follow rules of perspective and color theory. In my jewelry making classes, I was taught design principles and told that my designs were too predictable. In my communication courses, I was taught that good speeches are audience-centered. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I was taught to please others.

No one ever suggested that it was okay, a legitimate undertaking, to make something a certain way just because it pleased me.

And the idea that an old farmer, a man of practical considerations and hard work, with his feet firmly planted on the ground, would find pleasure in making beauty was also a revelation. I knew old farmers; I was genetically bound to old farmers! Did old farmers feel things like that? Might I?

Since I heard this story, it has informed my understanding of other makers and my understanding of myself. True craftsmen are pleased with what they create, with the skill it takes, with overcoming the difficulties of the task, with the mastery and the creating, not just of a thing but of some thing, beautiful to their eyes.

So, I’ve thought hard about what pleases me and sought to make things accordingly.

I’ve made a lot of different sorts of things in my life, from embroidering on my jeans as a teenager to majoring in metalsmithing in college to calligraphy to spinning to weaving. I’ve worked in polymer clay, beads, yarn, paint, silver, linen, and chocolate.

Along the way, there have been many other creative outlets that moved me not at all. I’ve tried some and moved on. Others . . . just never spoke to me.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been tempering chocolate and packaging candy these last few weeks. I’ll write more about my thoughts in the next couple of weeks, I’m sure, as my schedule calms down and my thoughts become clearer.

I’m hoping, right now, that you are thinking about what you make and how it pleases you. I imagine that what pleases you is different, in some ways, than what pleases me. And yet we share the deep satisfaction of feeling fulfilled, in important ways, by the making.

What aspect of your work, your craft, do you do simply because of the pleasure it brings to you?

Buying New or Making Do?

fabric and threadIt’s time to start a new project!

How will you approach it? Will you buy new or make do?

Will you shop for the love of shopping and stockpile fabrics, yarns, beads, foodstuffs on speculation? Will you choose a project, and then go looking in the stores for the perfect materials? Will you look at what you have on hand and plan a project from there?

And, if you choose the latter, will you feel you’ve settled for less?

As a maker, I’m faced with these kinds of decisions all the time and, honestly, my first instinct is to go to the fabric shop or the craft supplies website and shop.

I’m trying to consciously re-evaluate that impulse. When I wrote a post recently about why do we do the things we do, I got thinking about all this and about what motivates me to make. Two of the things I mentioned were that I liked to solve problems and I liked the idea of connecting with people who came before me.

What I didn’t say, but a commenter did and I realized it applies to me, too, is that making things is a way to step outside my reliance on “store bought” and to make do with what I have and what I can make.

Our consumer culture has taught us to buy, not just finished products, but also lots of pretty materials with which to make things. We buy fabrics and craft supplies the same way we buy electronics and clothes and home décor items. We choose new and plentiful over that which we already own.

Sometimes we don’t bother to choose at all; we buy it all.

But, you see, I’ve always been disdainful of this consumer culture. Or at least I talk that talk.

When you get me talking, I’ll say that one of the things I admire most about vintage handmade items is the evidence of “making do” that resides in the pieces. I love old quilts that are imperfect because the maker used scraps or obviously ran out of fabric and substituted another one instead of buying more.

I love reading an old recipe, with notes in the margins about substituting ingredients.

I love the idea of dividing and otherwise propagating new plants from the ones I already have, to fill in the bare patches is the gardens.

Making do leaves its own marks of loving hands—I look for those marks and they make me smile.

My love of these things reminds me that, when I myself am gathering materials for a project, I should look around at what I have to work with. I should more consciously walk the walk of making do.

This isn’t easy for me. I realize that, to some extent, I’ve unlearned the ability to make do, or perhaps I’ve never really learned it to begin with. And I also think that, in our minds, “making do” equates with “settling for less.”

I wanted to make do with my last weaving project. I wanted to make dishtowels and I wanted to use material I had on hand, from the stash of yarn we got when we bought the secondhand loom.

If I had bought new yarn, the packaging would’ve told me how many threads to use per inch, based on the weight of the fiber. But I used what I had, made a guess about how many threads, and ended up with pretty striped fabric that more closely resembles mosquito netting than dishtowel. I felt like I had settled for less.

Disappointed, I immediately decided I would buy new, “right” yarn, and re-do the project. But wait! Maybe I should use what I still have on hand and figure out how to make do and make better! To do so would give me the chance to a) solve problems, b) connect with people who came before me and who had to make do, and c) step out of the cycle of buying more.

Hey! Those are the things I claimed motivate me to do the things I do! Walk the walk, girlfriend, walk the walk.

I could learn a lot from my foremothers, whose choices were constrained by practical considerations. They often made their choices from what they had on hand and re-used scraps of old fabric or used ingredients available on the farm to decide what recipe to make. They used highly developed problem-solving skills to substitute and piece together and adapt materials and still create beauty.

They still had choices aplenty but different kinds of choice. They made do, out of both necessity and temperament.

But I’m no purist on this subject. In an age where we have so much available to us, the choice between making do and buying new doesn’t have to be absolute.

Sometimes, buying new makes total sense. If, as makers, we are motivated to make purely for expressive and creative reasons, then buying the exact right materials is probably necessary.

When I made the “Cot to Coffin” quilt recently for a War of 1812 bicentennial, the constraints were so specific that it made sense to buy new.

In so many cases, though, for those of us who look to build on a tradition and to get in touch with history and rely less on store bought, why not re-evaluate our impulse to go shopping?

So, for my next quilting project? How about if, instead of starting a new top with new materials, I finish one of the dozen vintage quilt tops I have in the cupboard? Or use up some of the myriad of leftovers pieces of fabric from the quilt I finished last year?

How about I weave with what we have on hand, and just think harder during the planning stage?

What if I “shopped” my pantry before deciding what to bake?

I’m saying all of this out loud not to judge or promise or set anything into stone. I’m only seeking to remind myself, imprint in my own thoughts, the value I see in making do so, when I’m tempted to buy a lot of stuff, I might think twice.

Because making do might mean settling for more.