Tag Archives: craft

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.

Crafting for Druids

When a person starts out along the Druid path, there are so many things they might potentially learn that it can all be a bit overwhelming. I don’t have (as yet) an easy route map for all of this. For those signed up to a teaching order, there’s at least a framework (The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, The British Druid Order and ADF all offer distance learning support and there are probably others). Many would-be Druids however have to go it alone.

When looking for ancient spiritual wisdom, many of us default to books. The ancient Druids didn’t write anything down, all we have is modern thinking. Arguably, there is no spiritual authority in anything any modern Druid writes. I think this is excellent because it puts the onus on each of us to find out own truth.

So, why crafting for Druids? Having traditional skills connects us in really direct ways to the lives of our ancestors. Doing the things they did will teach us about their lives and brings them closer. Traditional skills also bring a person in relationship with the living world. To make a fire, to grow vegetables, weave a basket or throw a pot you have to deal directly with real things. Too many of us have working lives that put us indoors, looking at the world through a screen and typing (I’m stuck with this too). Traditional skills ground and rebalance us. They make us a part of the living world.

Learn to do something – anything – from scratch. We’re constantly bombarded with the idea that we need labour saving, time saving for-sale interventions. There’s a radical aspect to ignoring that. Doing things from scratch gives you something unique and personal. It forms a connection between you and what you make. It allows space for creativity and inspiration. In all of this we challenge the shrink-wrapped one size fits all culture that is so stifling and destructive.

Learning a craft won’t teach you everything you need to know in order to be a modern Druid, but it will teach you a lot. The insights, like the things you make, will be entirely your own.

The Awen Rug

IMAG0386For some weeks now, much of my time away from the computer has gone into making a rag rug for my son. He’s very fond of the awen symbol, and of the squishy beneath the toes quality of rag rugs. This is the second rug I’ve made this way, and there’s been a lot to learn about textures, fine tuning methods and techniques, and working out the colours (not perfectly captured in this image but you get the gist). I still have a lot to learn on how best to handle colour. It’s a bit like pointillist painting only the colours are fixed by the fabric you have, and they go down in rows so you have to be thinking ahead. You can’t do fine detail, that’s clear, but I think I could do far more than I’ve done here…

For scale, those are Tom’s toes at the bottom of the image!

The backing was a peanut sack, my local pet store otherwise throws them out, but is happy to give them to me instead! I opened it out and hemmed the edge before starting. Every strand of fabric in there was cut by hand, worked into the hessian by hand – it’s very labour intensive, very rhythmic work that creates  a lot of thinking time. All of the fabric in this rug is stuff that could very easily have otherwise gone into the bin – small scraps, off-cuts, faded, damaged, stained, worn-thin materials from clothes and bed linen. None of it could be re-used in anything like its original form, but a rag rug transforms what is otherwise rubbish into a cheerful and snuggely addition to your home.

I put down the awen first. That meant most of the time I was working in the space an awen creates, which has given me many hours of pondering the space created by an awen, and seeing things about the nature of that space that I had not seen before. The shape of where an awen is not, is also really interesting. So much New Age thinking talks about being free from edges and boundaries, defying limitations and so forth. An awen is only itself because of its edges, and only makes sense because there are places it is not.

There’s a trancelike quality to any rhythmic and repetitive crafting. There is space to think – and that too is an interesting absence created by the shape of the thing in your hands.

Craft Life

Green man bagMuch of my crafting starts with things that are of no use to anyone else. (This may be because I am a Womble).

This project started about a month ago, when Potia sent me a box of wool scraps. I have a number of dull hessian bags, and a man who can draw. This is basically just woolly cross stitch on hessian, but the uneven nature of the underlying fabric gives it a degree of irregularity throughout. If you start with a smooth canvas and use one size of wool, you get a smoother, tidier sort of finished piece. As I am a creature of chaos and loose ends, this more bumpy outcome appeals to me more.

It’s a fine example of why I am not going to be a crafter professionally. That bag must have taken me fifty hours. I’d be hard pushed to make a pound an hour selling such things, and I have learned the hard way that it is better to make for fun and to give away, than become a person whose time is worth a pound an hour, give or take. I had a lot of fun with this, I mean to keep doing things in ways that make me happy.

Lessons in life and Druidry from 2014

As the arbitrary human dates role on, it’s as good a time as any to pause and look back. Birthdays are good for this, so are anniversaries, festivals and the like. Looking back is always helpful. Seeing the path behind can give you some insight about where you might be heading and whether that was where you wanted to go. Stuff living entirely in the moment! I want to travel from past to future by ways, means and trajectories that are at least somewhat of my choosing.

I learned some important lessons about the limits of my health, strength and endurance. I learned that if I want to do more, I also have to rest more, and for that to work I need to be more selective and say ‘no’ to things sometimes. I have to get better at choosing my fights and causes and selecting where to deploy energy and how to value various options.

I thought for a while that I should be pouring more energy into politics. I even went so far as to put my name in the hat as a possible candidate for next year’s general election, but I didn’t make it through the Party selection stage. Having spent a lot of time working out whether that was a course I could really throw heart and soul into, I was a bit adrift when that didn’t work out. It may well be that I am better on the outside of the system, as commentator, protestor, and general nuisance. There’s more room for more voices on the outside, and the process made me realise how few people have any real voice at all in conventional politics.

I learned, and relearned the value of stopping, working closely with friends in Contemplative Druidry to learn again about slowing down. That’s going to be a big part of what I do (or perhaps more accurately what I don’t do) moving forwards.

I learned to make rag rugs. I also learned that the quality of my thinking and writing are much improved by spending time on crafts projects. If I want to write, then I need to craft. This works well for me, and is a general happiness improver.

Like many people, I am increasingly horrified and prone to despair when faced with the bigger picture. The sheer scale of what humanity is getting wrong right now is unbearable, and my feelings of futility in face of it have knocked my down more times than I can count in the last twelve months. I can’t single handedly save the world. I know this. I am not one of the world’s wealthiest, able to sort vast problems out just by throwing money at them. I am not a politician, able to change laws and inform cultures. I’m not a world famous author able to get millions of people to sit up and take note. So, there is nothing I can do easily or quickly, and there is not much point wasting energy on trying to be rich, famous or powerful enough to make a difference because frankly I don’t have much natural capacity for any of those things. I don’t have the right kinds of drives and ambitions, talents, skills or experiences to draw on.

I have to work with what I’ve got. All I can do is live my values to the very best of my abilities, and talk about that in the hopes that I can support others who are doing the same and help a few people move in this direction. Small ripples in a very big pond. And of course I can pray for humanity. Even as someone who isn’t very good at faith, I am uneasily aware that we are running out of time such that it will require divine intervention, or similar, to save us from ourselves. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but live as well as I can.

My hobby is subversion

Consider these things: Baking, knitting, growing vegetables, making clothes, rag-rugging, brewing, decorating, embroidery, growing fruit and making jam, paper making… it’s not an exhaustive list. If you do these things privately for the benefit of home, family and/or immediate tribe, you have what will be understood socially, to be a hobby. Only if someone else pays for your output, is it serious and worth calling ‘work’.

This could use thinking about. All of the activities listed above, and everything akin to them, results (once you’re good at it) in good quality, entirely original things for less than it would cost to buy new. Many of the above give you an option on recycling materials, upcycling, re-using and generally being a bit greener. But these are ‘hobbies’ and not to be taken too seriously. They are not generally viewed as an economic option, or a way of life. We are to view them as amusing and perhaps a little self indulgent and not very practical when compared to buying something readymade off the shelf. Paying for something someone else has made, is convenient – that’s the story. We may be encouraged to think it will also be better than anything we could do for ourselves.

Well, when we start out as independent craftspeople mastering a new skill, the first few projects may be less than perfect. This is fine – this is the necessary investment in learning your craft. With time and practice you get better, and the more you do, the better you get. The bread I make costs about half as much as regular sliced supermarket bread, but is much superior in terms of quality, keeps better, creates less packaging to recycle and has no troubling added ingredients. All the same things can be said of my cakes, pickles, and the meals I cook on a daily basis.

In terms of usefulness to home, family, tribe and self, the things we make for ourselves can have great worth and utility. Being custom made to fit requirements, they are always a better match to what we needed than the best fit we can get from a mass producing outlet. There is a huge value, and an even greater potential value, in crafting at home. Go back before the industrial revolution, and our ancestors did a lot more for themselves. I recall reading in William Cobbett’s ‘Cottage Economy’ his feeling that there was something shameful about a household that could not answer its own basic needs and forever needed to employ other people to sort out the necessities. He was passionate about home bread making, too.

These days it is normal to pay someone else to sort out the basics for us. It is normal for a person to have a very narrow skills base, and be paid for those narrow skills, and have to pay everyone else for their skills in return. Most of us do not know how to do most of the things that we find necessary for day to day living, and as we get ever more technological, specialist and complex, we become less able to fend for ourselves. It’s not a robust system. This makes for very fragile structures that cannot flex easily in face of dramatic change or challenge. And yet our wider culture refers to this as ‘progress’.

The Transition movement, by contrast, is all about re-skilling, and learning the essential things that help us fend for ourselves. It’s not a case of knowing where the candles are in case of a power cut, it’s knowing how to make the candles.

If we were more interested in what makes life good, what adds value and comfort, what truly enriches and pleases us, then we might be more interested in being able to make things of use and beauty for ourselves and our friends, and less interested in making money for other people.

Art or Craft?

This week I did a post for the local Green blog about the politics of art.  This is a follow on, because I have been mulling it a lot, and the issues are many.

So, what is the difference, between art and craft? Both are visual, both require skill and are generally intended to result in something pleasing. So why do some activities get one label and some the other?

As far as I can make out ‘Art’ is something rich men pay other people – usually also men, to do for them, and it should have no particular practical application. Craft is made by the poor, and by women. If a very wealthy woman does it then (historically) you’d whip out ‘accomplishment’ as a term instead. Not having so much space or spare resources to lavish on decoration, those of us who are not wealthy have always tended to favour getting beauty and utility into the same item. Quilts. Rag rugs. Pottery. Gorgeous baskets. Beautiful shawls. These are crafts.

Here’s a thing though, because if people with money suddenly get excited about a craft – Shaker furniture, historic quilts, etc, then they can buy it for silly money, put it in an art gallery or display it as an Art item, and magically it becomes Art and no one uses it for its intended purpose any more. Only when we stop valuing an item in terms of utility will we see it as a beautiful piece of Art and want to display it. I think there’s a very interesting reflection of the human condition in all of this.

We tend not to value small beauty, or beauty in the mundane, or the grace of everyday items. We value things that someone can be persuaded to pay ridiculous amounts of money for. We treat utility as ‘common’ and innate uselessness as attractive.  I could take a sidestep and rant extensively about women’s footwear on these terms, too.

There is also beauty in effectiveness and efficiency. There is beauty in age and durability. There is beauty in the love that goes into crafting. I am in no way opposed to Art as a form of creativity, but I am increasingly uneasy about where it sits in terms of affluence, gratuitous displays of wealth, consumerism and smug superiority.

Historically, that which is deemed ‘great art’ has mostly been funded by either the church, or the nobility. Patronising and patronage are related words, it is worth reflecting. Our history of great art has a lot to do with who was willing to pay up, and our history of artists is frequently one of struggle and abject poverty while they were alive. The best career move an artist usually makes, is to die. They become more collectable when you know they won’t make anything better. That’s hideous, when you think about it, and the whole underpinning logic seems very wrong to me.

Fictional solutions

Since last November I have been wrestling with trying to write a novel. This has featured long sections of block, bouts of despair, existential crises over the point of fiction, gloom over the state of the industry, frequent absence of faith in myself and other entirely unhelpful things. The novel has yet to achieve first draft status.

I have over the years written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been published with small houses. Technically I know how to do this. The question of what has been going wrong, and why a thing I once loved and defined myself through has become a form of torment, has taken some considering. Some of it is because you can spend months of throwing everything you have at a project and sell half a dozen copies – most writers cannot make a living, and that can get demoralising.

Things are better at the moment, and I’ve been writing a few scenes most days. I test these on Tom as I go, which means I have some confidence that it’s not total rubbish. So, what’s changing?

One of the answers is that I have greater financial stability. I’ve picked up other work that pays steadily, the flat is bought, the mortgage is cheaper than renting was, so I’m under a lot less pressure to produce commercially successful work. Rather than trying to write something that will sell, I’m rediscovering something I had in my teens and early twenties, and lost in the need to make writing pay. I’m putting the words down like my life depends on it, not my livelihood. It’s much more emotionally exposed, and a little bit like going mad in an organised way, but I am now giving this book everything I have, and I feel better as a consequence.

The other issue, is time. I can’t switch from my blogging, marketing press officer day job head to creating fiction at the switch of a button – I have nothing lined up to write about, and if I stay at the computer, things from my other jobs will flow in and I end up doing those instead. I have learned it is critically important to make spaces, every day, where I can think about what I’m going to write next. To do that I have to get off the computer, but then what? I can’t just sit round waiting for inspiration to strike.

The answer appears to be crafting. I love working with my hands, so that’s a happy thing all by itself. If I’m making something I’ll pay it a fair amount of attention, but it leaves some bits of my brain free in a way that encourages ideas to pop up. Working on developing ideas is nothing like as effective as holding the right pace, not working at it and letting things pop up in their own time (or me). If I’m crafting, there is space for that to happen, but it’s fine if nothing comes because I was doing something anyway. I’ve made two rag rugs and am working on an appliqué wall hanging, and around this a book is slowly getting written. I’m much happier. For now at least I have found a solution to the writing side of the problem. In terms of the commercial – I’m going to do what I love and see if anyone will buy it. I just don’t have what it takes it write fiction for a market, and there is no point pretending otherwise.

While I was writing this blog post, I got into a conversation about a possible joint project for next year. There are a few things in the pipeline, so long as I can keep my head clear enough to see them through. I’m going to need embroidery silks, and dead t-shirts, apparently.

Druidry in a crisis

While I’m mostly going to take the Druid angle for this blog, it could equally be about parenting, or being an author, an artist, or learning to cook. The same broad things apply (I think) to all areas of human endeavour.

There are always setbacks. If you care about what you’re doing and how well you are doing it those setbacks can be brutal. The point of finding out how little we know about ancient Druids is a classic crisis moment for many. The ritual that is a depressing failure. The first time someone calls you out over what you believe and how you express it, the second time… Life experience at odds with spiritual expectation can give us crushing blows. There are a number of ways to go at this point.

You might put belief, including belief in your own rightness before everything else. That can leave people disturbingly at odds with reality. You might be so overwhelmed and distressed that you quit. As possible for parents as for Druids. Neither of these are good outcomes. All that exists on the other side, is getting in there and wrestling with the problem.

When we start anything, we tend to see the bits we’re naturally good at. I have a lot of bard skills, which gave me a mistaken degree of confidence in my ritual skills. It took me a while to learn how to take care of a circle; there were people skills I only later realised I needed. I think this is often the way of it. Only when things go awry do we start to see what we always needed to know but weren’t aware of. That can be a huge confidence blow. There is always more to learn and more to know, and a consciousness of that creates a good degree of insulation from the pain of hitting one of those setbacks. If you know there will be some, you can at least recognise it when it happens, and get on with coping rather than flailing about. It is often only when we start doing things that we get to see where our weaknesses are, and what we need to swot up on. There is no one way of being a Druid, a parent, an artist, so no one can tell you upfront what you ought to try and learn before you start.

That said, trying to learn something, anything, before you start confers significant advantages. Not least, when you hit a crisis, you’ll have some idea where to go to find what you need for moving on. You’ll be more aware of the myriad ways in which other people are doing things, so you won’t expect one right answer, either. That helps. A knowledge base isn’t the same as wisdom, but it is useful!

Sometimes, natural talent is the most destructive thing to live with. If all the evidence says that you are naturally brilliant at a thing, it won’t occur to you to study and craft, to consciously try and develop that. It’s so easy to coast when you think you have natural genius. As far as I can tell, there is only so far anyone can get with that coasting. For some it’s a long way, but always finite. The further you go, riding the wave of innate brilliance, the harder it is when you hit the wall that is your natural limit. The person who expects to have to work, study and practice will get plenty of small bumps along the way, but they tend to be more survivable, and less traumatic.

For aspiring writers, the first crash is usually the first novel. Either unfinished, or eventually loathed, the first novel teaches a person exactly how much they do not know about writing a book. Usually it’s too short, there weren’t enough ideas, its clichéd and overtly a fantasy-autobiography. Doing it can make apparent that you haven’t found a voice yet, don’t have a style, don’t know about pace, or how to handle perspectives or a hundred other things. Hours of work, for something you want to burn. I’ve done it, and seen people do it, and convince themselves that it means they can’t be an author. The awful first book is actually a rite of passage. If you’ve already written a lot of short fics, or poetry, or worked in another form, or have the nightmare of a natural gift, you might skip this, but there’s much to be said for going through it.

This is one of the reasons focusing on superficial measurements of success doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. What you learn about how you need to develop is more important than word counts, or nice robes. There is much to be said for feeling uneasy about what you’ve done and having to go back and find out about all the things you didn’t know. Sometimes, it is good and helpful to fail. The first rejections, the first gaffs and humiliations, the rituals that go wrong because you didn’t know and hadn’t thought, the people who get angry, the mistakes made… these things teach us. They remind us that failure is always an option and that there is always more to strive for. They remind us to try and be patient with other people who fail, and never to get comfortable imagining that we have it all sussed. We never will.

Plastic and Disposable

I hate disposable plastic throwaway culture. I hate the environmental impact it has, with all the worthless, use once tat we make just to send it to landfill. Disposable plastic bags, because it’s too much hassle to take one with you. Throw away cameras. All that packaging. All the vast array of resources, energy, land and human effort just to chuck it in the bin. It makes me want to cry.

I feel exactly the same way about much contemporary pop music, television, films, games, food products, clothing, gadgets… a whole human culture premised on making things to have them for a little while and then chucking them out in favour of the next must have.

I like handmade pottery, although I can’t afford it. I like handmade clothes, although I lack either the talent or the budget. I can at least make my own food out of raw ingredients, that’s something, I do not have to eat the plastic. I stay away from televisions, and commercial music stations. I don’t buy and read disposable fiction, either. Anything that looks like a means of killing time, I leave well alone. I’m not interested in killing time. I’m interested in living. I want things that are rich, vital, engaging and inspiring.

I care about quality. I think things made with love, passion and dedication are worth more than mass produced, careless things meant to be thrown away. I think if you set out to do anything, be it clean a toilet, make a soup or write a novel, that needs to be done with a heartfelt desire to do it well. Otherwise, you get this drab, mundane life in which nothing matters and nothing means anything. I don’t want that life, and so I choose to care about everything. My choice. My right to choose. This is not about whether you do it for money, or have status. This is a basic choice about how to live and how to relate to your life. Most of the things I do, and care about, I do not do professionally. Often, I don’t even do them well. I’m mediocre at a lot of things. Middling and striving, and not asking anyone to take me even a little bit seriously with those.

I’ve been told off along the way more times than I can count for taking things too seriously. I’ve been told off a fair few times for being elitist, and snobbish and self-important. I’m passionate about creativity, and about encouraging and enabling it, but I don’t think we achieve that by undermining the forms and ignoring the issue of quality. I offend people when I say this. So be it. Every time we champion that which is shoddy and mediocre, or excuse carelessness, we disempower the good stuff, we take away from the people who are genuinely brilliant and who deserve far more attention than they get. I’m not talking about me. I am talking about a lot of other people.

I care about quality and integrity and because I think it matters to at least try and do a thing well. I have all the time in the world for people who care about what they do, who are driven, and passionate and interested, who strive and study and want to do the best they can, at whatever level they can, in any aspect of life. It’s all fair game.

Quality is not a drab, joyless, miserable po-faced thing. Joy, beauty, happiness and delight are all valuable qualities. It’s just that if all you’ve ever eaten is Turkey Twizzlers, you may have trouble enjoying food that has some nutritional value and a discernible texture. If your only reference for music is the Chart Show, you may struggle with not only anything interesting in the mainstream, but all the more complex music genres as well, and by that I mean the popular genres that are just outside of plastic pop. Taking things seriously does not mean failing to enjoy, or inability to play. It means valuing, daring to love, treating like it matters. Laughter matters. Pleasure matters. Real things matter, and all too often we are sold hollow, empty soulless things that take our time and give us nothing in return.