Craeft: a knowledge of being
At a time where our disconnection from the world around us is not just tragic but downright dangerous, recovering our status as Homo faber, the species that makes things, may be our salvation.
Book Review | Nonfiction
Before Glitter and Glue Sticks, ‘Craeft’
An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts
By Alexander Langlands
344 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.
As daily life becomes increasingly virtual, it might seem like a paradox that making things by hand is suddenly big business. Stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby feature aisle after crowded aisle of sequins, tassels, imported papers, chenille stems and pompoms. Etsy, the e-commerce platform for selling homemade goods, features nearly two million active sellers serving 30 million eager buyers. Busy creators produce one-offs using 3-D printers in “maker spaces” at major research universities as well as your neighborhood’s progressive elementary school. All this activity was worth $44 billion last year, according to the Association for Creative Industries, a group that was once, in cozier times, known as the Craft and Hobby Association. Part therapy, part self-expression, our homely obsession with crafts is poised to take over the world.
Into this unstoppable consumerist success story steps the British archaeologist and medieval historian Alexander Langlands. In “Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts,” Langlands neither jumps aboard the homemade bandwagon nor stands athwart it. Instead he simply and serenely declines to acknowledge its existence.
The unusual spelling in the book’s title is the first clue that Langlands intends to go deeper. The familiar term associated today with glue sticks and glitter has its roots in an Old English word more than 1,000 years old. According to Langlands, “craeft” is nearly untranslatable, “a form of knowledge, not just a knowledge of making but a knowledge of being.” It combines in some ineffable way skill, intelligence and virtue. For Langlands, the only way to understand it is through firsthand experience. He embarks on a series of forays into past worlds: cutting hay, building a drystone wall, making a skep for beekeeping. These are not mere academic exercises. Langlands is known to BBC audiences from his roles on shows like “Victorian Farm,” “Edwardian Farm” and “Wartime Farm,” where he and other participants lived and worked in historic settings for months at a time. He is a sort of method archaeologist, understanding ancient processes through a kind of performative osmosis.
Consider his description of the making of the traditional wooden fence called a wattle hurdle. It starts not as you’d expect with the assembly of the required materials, but with the planting and tending of the hazel trees that will eventually provide the timber necessary for the process to begin 10 or so years later. His subsequent account of the (literally) Neolithic process by which horizontal branches are woven together with upright rods into a lattice goes on for a half-dozen painstakingly detailed pages. If Langlands were providing instructions for how you too could make your own wattle, the effect would be unendurably boring, not to mention borderline incomprehensible. Instead, his genuine passion for the activity at hand makes his account hypnotic. To watch a hurdle maker at work, he says, is “almost like watching a concert pianist at one with her instrument.” He is clearly addicted to that place where labor is transformed through mastery into art.
Exploring this unfamiliar territory requires navigating a deliciously unfamiliar vocabulary: hafting (attaching an arrowhead to the tip of a spear); laying, pleaching and plashing (all required to nurture a hedgerow); carding, retting, scotching (for textile production); stooking (for thatched roofs); stocking and scudding (for leather); panning, marling and mattocking (for working the earth); flushing (for sheep farming); puddling (for cisterns); and pugging and wedging (for pottery). Of course, we no longer need these words, because most of us no longer participate in the activities these words describe. For Langlands, this loss is tragic. His obsession with successfully learning to make a thatched roof, he says, “proved to me most forcefully that it’s not that we have lost these ancient skills, it’s worse than that. It’s that we have lost the conception of those skills and what they can do for us.” Ironically, the residue of these lost skills persists today in turns of phrase like “make hay while the sun shines,” “by hook or by crook,” or having “been through the mill.” Once operating instructions, these are used by people who will never clear a field, tend a herd of sheep or qualify as a master weaver.
Given Langlands’s background, it’s no surprise that he consistently locates true craeft in the years — the millenniums, really — before the Industrial Revolution. Is it really gone? As a first-year student in design school, I remember the endless hours spent doing something as simple as drawing a capital letter A, the attention to detail that blurs and vanishes before your eyes, that moment when you lose track of time. Langlands describes the sensation as being “tamed into the work.” “You resign yourself to it. Your breathing moderates as you become methodical, more controlled. This is a marathon, not a sprint.” Practicing craeft is an experience so universal there’s even a song about it, Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat.” Making things is hard but satisfying. Langlands is talking about digging a hole in the ground, but is it so very different from staying up all night writing code?
But perhaps I’m giving us too much credit. Beyond the mastery of specialized skills, Langlands is talking about something more holistic: a way of looking at the world. In reconnecting with craeft, he begins to see not just the beauty of an object or a building or a landscape, but the deeper purpose for which each has been created. And he understands, too, the environment they shape and upon which they depend. “Archaeology became so much more than just stuff in the ground,” he says about his own journey. “It became an exploration of what it was to be human, not only because we are makers but because we are resourcers, gatherers with an inveterate knowledge of the natural world around us.” How comparatively helpless are the rest of us as we contemplate the featureless mirror of the computer screen or the smooth sheen of the smartphone.
It is a deflating irony, of course, that in a marketplace dominated by mass production, it is the handcrafted item that commands a premium. Wicker baskets, made by our ancestors the same way since 5,000 B.C., are beautiful, versatile and resilient. Langlands cites a 1926 survey that listed more than 200 varieties of them in production in England and Wales.
Today, it’s far easier and cheaper to find an ugly plastic container that will be filthy in a year, cracked a year after that and interred in a landfill a year after that, presumably for eternity. The same species that made that first basket eventually invented the machine that cranks out the plastic one today. That is progress, and it has brought our fragile world nearly to the brink.
Langlands, surprisingly unsentimental for someone who made his fame doing historical re-enactments, resists the pull of nostalgia. Yet he makes a persuasive case that the surrender of our lives to machines represents a regression. “Factory manufacture,” he writes, “robs us of a special something: contemplation.” He’s not talking about the big questions of human existence, but of the hundreds of small ones that go into something as simple — or as complex — as building a stone wall: “Which to use? How to work it? Where to strike it?” In the end, this is the case he makes for craeft. At a time where our disconnection from the world around us is not just tragic but downright dangerous, recovering our status as Homo faber, the species that makes things, may be our salvation.