Slow Craft

Posted by jerry on December 16th, 2007 — Posted in DIY, Journal, Theory

Sharon has been blogging lately about the notion of slow craft and slow cloth – as aspects of the Slow Movement. The aims and aspirations are laudable, because there is so much emphasis these days on craft in the fast lane – make this thing in 15 minutes and watch it break the record for the fastest gift to go from wrapper to bin…

I guess my table is an example of slow craft – showing respect to the origins of the timber (the tree that burnt in our yard during the Canberra Bushfires), and producing something irrespective of the time taken to produce it, and with the greatest of care in the making. And sure, I use machines where my hand skill is not up to the task, leaving me the time to do the processes I can do well by hand.

Years ago I had a blacksmith’s forge in my back yard and made some nice fire tools and brackets for hanging baskets and stuff like that. I guess that too could be called slow craft – I knew the sources of all the materials, I even built the forge myself using an old metal desk and a vacuum cleaner working in reverse. Using coal and coke I could get welding temperature on that thing!

There is an environmental aspect to the slow craft philosophy. And here is where I wonder if I come unstuck? It’s great and very satisfying to make something yourself. And it’s great to take the time to develop a real skill, like playing your own music. But my forge? I was burning coal – very inefficiently which would have produced more greenhouse gases in in a hour than my car ever would in a week. Now imagine if everyone did that! At least big industry has SOME regulations about operating cleanly and safely – and they have the resources to develop catalytic converters to reduce the bad stuff. I certainly don’t – not for a home-scale forge. I was in Papua New Guinea some years ago and found that out in the villages you could rarely see the stars at night – because everyone had open cooking fires, and home forges – it was as polluted as any major city I’ve been in!

And my table? Yes I used ethically produced timber, but the machines I bought in order to do my own processing – imagine the resources used in China to make my jointer and the drill and the circular saw and the industrial processes for making the sandpaper I used and the electricity to run those inefficient home-level machines – I wonder if my table cost more than I realised, not just in the investment of money on tools, but in the environmental impact of producing these specialised machines for me to use rarely and on occasion just because I feel like making something with care myself with fresh tree timber or recycled pallets. Hmmm…

Now don’t get me wrong – this is not to denigrate the slow craft movement – and part of it is to make something once. With care. For life. And that is a great way to live. One of the reasons we bought just one car, and have driven the same car since 1984 is that the resources that go into producing a car can’t really be justified for the sake of change of style every couple of years. I guess my point is that we need to look carefully at the cost – including to the environment – of individual production versus well-resourced larger production. And to make reasoned informed choices.

I think Linn makes a good point – that there are some things we produce quickly to satisfy a need – like a quickly made blanket to keep out the cold, and there are other things that are produced quickly as a step in another process, so as long as it is fit for purpose it can be made quickly and without elegance – it does the job. Then there are those things we make because there is meaning in it – like my table, or my violin – and these are made with care and as much skill as can be brought to bear and taking as much time as it takes to do it right the first time. And these will last a lifetime. I guess the idea is to strike a balance based on the purpose and meaning that each object has, and to be aware of all of the resources that go into things – then make the decision as to whether or not to consume it, or to make it, or to keep it simple.

With my table I made a conscious decision that it would not be a Malaysian rainforest timber mass produced number, but balanced that with the knowledge that the power tools I have mean I can get sufficient accuracy to produce it myself.

The same goes for textiles: if you are quilting – sure assemble it with a sewing machine – especially if it frees you the time to hand-embroider the seam embellishments.

My jointer means I can recycle pallet timber that would otherwise have just been burnt. It also meant that I could produce a professional edge to make a seamless table top and allow me to make something beautiful in honour of the tree that saved our house. And I think that is what it’s all about. Doing it reflectively and with consideration.



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[…] Late edit: Jerry has just written a very thoughtful post and raised some interesting qustions about slow craft over on his blog   […]

Posted on December 16, 2007 at 9:26 am

Comment by Linn

Right On Jerry!! As you point out sometimes we need to have the sense required to combine methods. The technology to do the rather mindless bits of a project leaving the parts requiring an artist for us to do in a slow manner.

I agree. Suit the purpose to the method. I don’t get out a medieval drawplate to produce gold wire for embroidery, but I hopefully apply it in a way that reflects thought, understanding of the medium and a bit of aesthetic ability.

Your table will show your ability to use the best of methods and skills for the purpose. A machine can’t choose the right bits of wood or understand how they best are used. However, after you have achieved this higher level of thinking, it can make your goals more easily accomplished.

I too try to think more of the footprint I am leaving. Back to the creed of my ancestors. Make do, use it up, wear it out, mend it, turn it to another purpose.

Posted on December 16, 2007 at 11:12 am

Comment by Tara

Thanks for sharing!

Posted on December 17, 2007 at 1:14 am

Comment by Paula Hewitt

Jerry – I agree. I struggle with the environmental impact of a lot of what our family does… my husband makes furniture – it will not have to be replaced, but impacts on the environment as you mentioned. I make quilts – I buy material to cut up and sew back together! I am in the process of writing about voluntary simplicity and ‘living conciously’for my blog. I think this idea is one more people need to consider – Do what you need to do- but be aware of what you are doing.

Posted on December 17, 2007 at 8:32 am

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