Art, Creativity, and Working With Our Hands

December 11, 2023

(This is from my graduation speech for the International Handwork Program, given on December 10, 2023)

Photo of Rodin’s stone sculpture The Cathedral

My mother crochets the edges of handkerchiefs and embroiders tablecloths. I don’t know when she started, or whom she learned it from, but she clearly enjoyed it. As a child, I didn’t express any interest in learning how to do them, but I was happy that she found something she liked doing.

My father could work wonders with the sewing machine. We needed a new couch cover. He bought fabric at the five-and-dime store, and with a few straight pins hanging between his lips, he figured out the pieces, cut and sewed them, and voila! We had a new couch cover. In high school, I needed a prom dress. We bought fabric, and he made me a lovely light blue airy dress.

I knew from watching my mother and father that making things gave them a sense of enjoyment and power. Some projects were there for beauty, and others were practical. After these experiences, I always knew that I could use my hands to make what was needed. It was just a matter of figuring it out. But my own handwork journey had not begun yet.

My first project was in sixth grade when we had to make a pull-string bag for our sneakers to take to middle school gym class. We had to embroider our initials on the bag. I moved away from New York City, and I didn’t have to go to that middle school, and I have no idea what happened to that bag. 

In my seventh-grade home economics class, I made a skirt from a pattern. It was my first attempt to sew an article of clothing. We were required to find a pattern we liked and buy fabric. We were introduced to using the electric sewing machine. I struggled with the pockets of the skirt and had to redo the piece several times. The project was satisfying, and I realized that I had gained a skill I could use for the rest of my life. Sometime during college, I started knitting and made my first scarf. From then on, I was always working on a knitting project.

When my children were born, I made many of their clothes. I enjoyed embroidering dresses and shirts. (So, I did use the skill I had learned with the pull-string bag in sixth grade.) I learned smocking and more complicated kinds of embroidery. Sometimes. I used patterns, and at other times I created the designs myself.

One summer as I thought about the long car trip from Vermont to California, I decided to try another craft and began making my first quilt by hand. That was the beginning of a series of quilts I made for grandchildren, new babies, and friends. And after many years, I decided to make one for myself.

We go through phases in our handwork biography. First, we identify a project. We know what it is, and what tools and materials we need. Then we learn how to do it either because we learn it in class or we imitate a person teaching us. Then we practice it and sharpen the skill, and eventually, we become creative and make changes out of our imagination or adapt the project for other uses. It is at this time we are no longer an apprentice, but become a master and feel agency and power.

We each have a handwork biography, the moments when we realized we could do something with our hands that brought great satisfaction. What is your handwork biography?

When I began teaching handwork, I realized what an impact this had on my students because they would go through this same process. Once they have gained these capacities, they are able to decide how, when, and where to share their handwork experience with others. They have this possibility for their lifetime. Each student is engaged in developing their handwork biography, and you, dear teacher, are able to bring this about.  

Each project you introduce as the students move through the grades offers an opportunity for them to broaden their perspectives on how to relate to particular materials, solve problems, and produce objects. They become powerful agents of making. They become makers. They can look at a finished project and say, “I know how to do that.” What a magnificent moment that is.

Matthew Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soul CraftAn Inquiry into the Value of Work, writes, “The disappearance of tools from our common education is the first step toward a wider ignorance of the world of artifacts we inhabit. A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our relationship to our own stuff: more passive and more dependent. What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves replacing an entire system because some minute component has failed.”

Matthew Crawford held a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, and became an executive director of a Washington “think tank.” He was always tired and had a sense of uselessness. After five months he quit to open a bike shop- motorbikes. He describes the sense of agency and competence he has always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as “knowledge work.” In addition, he often found manual work more engaging intellectually.

There are some students in every grade who struggle with intellectual work, but when they work practically, they are able to solve problems and use their thinking because it is connected with a task they are doing. It is meaningful and useful. Look out for those students. You will be able to help them far beyond your handwork class. They will gain a measure of self-reliance.

In handwork class, they not only learn to make things, but how to fix errors they made, and also when to take something out and start again, and when they can repair the problem. This helps students realize they can be self-sufficient. What they are working on has a process from start to finish. There is a wholeness to it. This is completely different from buying a piece of something and fitting it in. Or buying a kit where someone else has designed the process and you are following directions until it is done. There is a sense of satisfaction from completing it, BUT it is a very different feeling from starting at the beginning and working all the way through to the end. Instead of fitting into someone else’s thinking of what to do, like working on an assembly line. Instead, you have integrated your work, making changes along the way because you see they are needed. The sense of accomplishment is so much greater.

Doing handwork offers us an opportunity to consider our hands. Please look at your two hands. Move them about, twisting, turning, open them, close them, grip, push, pull, pat, hold, hug, beckon, circle.

With our hands, we bring thought and language together with our will.

As Frank Wilson says in his book The Hand, “Whatever you can do with your hands gives you a small world that you can actually cope with, as opposed to the big world, where perhaps you can’t.” The person gains a sense of freedom.

Let’s think about what that means. With your hands, you have been making an object. Problems arise. These problems are not social problems, they don’t have to do with relationships. These problems are limited to the project itself. Did you make a mistake that you have to correct? Did you misunderstand the directions? The problem is right there in front of you. At first, you may not know what the actual problem is, but something isn’t going well. The problem challenges you to consider different possibilities. Is it because I wasn’t paying attention? Did I work too quickly? Did I not have the right tools? Do I care enough to take it all out and start again? Is that possible?

Every project we take on or teach our children offers us challenges. Problems occur that we don’t always anticipate, but when we learn that we can rise to the challenge, we can transfer the feeling of satisfaction to other things in our lives. This is also true of the children’s handwork teachers teach. Whether it is a square of knitting to transform into a bunny or a flute case that has big holes of dropped stitches, pajamas they are sewing on the machine, a five-needle pair of socks where the number of stitches has surprisingly increased, or a felted ball that feels lumpy, we have the opportunity to help children meet the challenge and gain a sense of competence and agency. They are makers and we are helping them feel what it is to use their thinking, their feeling, and their will together to make something that was not there before.

When we work with our hands we join the long ancestry of human beings. Frank Wilson writes, “There is growing evidence that Homo sapiens acquired in its new hand not simply the mechanical capacity for refined manipulative and tool-using skills, but, as time passed and events unfolded, an impetus to redesign, or reallocation, of the brain’s capacity.” 

 This is expressed more concretely by the Finnish neurophysiologist Matti Bergstrom when he says, “The brain discovers what the fingers explore. The density of nerve endings in our finger tips is enormous. Their discrimination is almost as good as that of our eyes. If we don’t use our fingers, if in childhood and youth we become ‘finger-blind’, this rich network of nerves is impoverished – which represents a huge loss to the brain and thwarts the individual’s all-around development. Such damage may be likened to blindness itself. Perhaps worse, while a blind person may simply not be able to find this or that object, the finger-blind cannot understand its inner meaning and value.”

Our hand is an expression of humanness, separating us from the animals and offers us a sense of freedom, of capacity, of being makers and givers. 

As handwork teachers, you have the opportunity of helping your students begin their handwork biography, meet problems, find a way through, and come to a feeling of satisfaction and completeness. You are helping them find meaning and a sense of purpose.

Those That Do by Ellen Palmer Allerton

Beautiful hands are those that do
Work that is earnest, brave, and true,
Moment by moment the long day through.

Dear Handwork teachers, blessing on your journey and congratulations!