I was getting reasonably tipsy at a party once, making wobbly needlebound stitches on a sock I was halfway done with. Some guy took real offense and was very upset I was yarning at a party involving alcohol. Such an uncool, grandma thing to do! What were the young ladies of his generation coming to?! How could I?
We had words.
Rabbit holes are everywhere. People do the weirdest things for fun, expensive things, amazing and stupid things, things that take up their time and their homes, interfere with their relationships, and lay claim to their entire disposable income. Reenactment is certainly no exception.
The Wabbit hole of history
The re-enactor metabolism tends to go like this: you enter the history field and find yourself in visceral need of period clothing and kit (and weaponry and housing and a horse or a tank or a palisade) – as historically correct as you deem necessary at your Time of Entry. All economic priorities go haywire from here. Unless you are very wealthy, or never see the point of getting anything apart from off-the-rack, store-bought stuff, you will try to soften the economic blow and dig deeper into your new hobby by making at least some things yourself. Choose your craft.
Let’s say you start by sewing your own clothes. With a helpful friend and some basic supplies, this is more accessible than most other crafts, and you really need at least one set of clothes to join the fun. (You don’t need a lot of the other stuff, but you really want it.) You make a few items of clothing to avoid being naked in the field. Now, another person with less inclination to sew will approach you and ask that you make them the kit they need. In exchange for other goods, services or (likely) a much smaller sum than your time and the material is worth. You say yes, because you want to be nice and also you don’t know any better, and isn’t it nice to get some practice? Suddenly you have made five of whatever first item you chose to make, you have become officially known as That Dumbass That Sews For Free, and your own precious firstmade is also the worstmade in camp. You have had no time to replace it, due to all your kind stitching for others.
Chances are, in the meantime, the Craft has also found you, in whatever form it may have manifested.
And now you are a crafter
The Craft gets you weird places. It has impacted every aspect of my life for nearly two decades, from altering the way I look at all other things (are there other things?) to the way I spend money, arrange my home, and relate to other people. It has led me to perform full-blown standup routines in front of horrified, elderly ladies, to try and account for my insanity in relation to cultural heritage, and raise awareness of a frequently undervalued field – but mostly to gain an opportunity to show everyone the ugliest needlebound hat I have ever found in the digital archives. The Craft has garnered me more weird looks and conversations on public transport than I can remember. It has nearly gotten me into fights at parties. Any fights would have been worth it.
I am in awe of the human hive mind. There seems to be many Important Things to remember in order to maintain our kind as something other than shivering primates at the mercy of larger, more charismatic predators. Important Things, some of which are more difficult than others to write down and pass on to those coming after us.
I have little talent for most of these things. To safely deliver a baby, to grow crops, to write balanced source code – all of it seems infinitely more important than the craft niche I have chosen, or even my day job, which is all about making it easier for you to find things that other people thought you ought to be able to find out, so you can read them for yourself, should it please you.
The Craft that found me happened to be spinning. Making string. With sticks. However, most of what follows probably applies to any other craft as well. I often get asked why I do it.
– To understand the craft and how it is done, and how it was done, and how it developed.
– To connect with the people of the past, in a way writing has a hard time helping me with. This is why reenactors are foaming at the mouth, emitting a DarthVader-esque “Noooo…” when reading archaeology reports. I’ll be blunt: archaeologists tend (too frequently) to misunderstand things that proficiency within a craft would have greatly clarified. A better understanding of practical matters and crafts would rid the academic world of some problematic (and much-cited) notions that only serve to perpetuate errors and wild guesswork eventually repeated as fact. Some mandatory hands-on experience would certainly improve the training of any archaeologist. That said, reenactors as a group need to improve also, and maybe emulate the academic field a little better, to rid themselves of notions such as “absence of evidence (is not evidence of absence)…”. That would end once and for all the discussion about the plausibility of pancakes; “They had all the ingredients, but how can we know for sure they made them?” vs “Well, if they had had pancakes in the olden days they would have USED THEM!” To this date, this particular matter has not been laid to rest, due to the lack of fossil finds.
– To retain the knowledge once I have learned it, and pass it on as well as I can. We carry the flickering matches of civilization, and this is one. It makes me terrified, and humble, and infinitely curious. I feel a great urgency to absorb as much as I can concerning this skill and knowledge. And because these things tend to not be our day jobs, or if they are, so closely tied to our personal passions (in a way that ticket inspecting, middle managing or retail suffering rarely are), it’s suddenly no trouble at all to spend a 90-hour week volunteering to, say, building a drystone wall around the nearest historical village.
– For the therapeutic qualities. It used to be about making things we needed for our daily life. That might be the case again, at some point. It still is, in many places around the world. But here, I think the entertainment and therapy are vital aspects of any crafting practice. My inner monkey has an incessant need to sew and carve and braid and scrape. If I get some visible and maybe even useful proof of my efforts, that’s an added bonus. There is loads of scientific evidence backing me up here. I should make a footnote or something.
Toeing the line
After a while, other things sneak into your crafty tunnel vision. Things related to it by proxy. You spend so much time ogling thy neighbour’s sheep, that thy neighbour considers calling the cops on you (and you have to wait until things calm down before you sneak into the pen at midnight, wielding the kitchen scissors, since thy neighbour wouldn’t let you buy the damn wool up front.) You notice other sources of material (see: roadkill), you fix the instruments of your craft as you come across them in museums, set up in pitifully inadequate ways. I have sorted more wayward drive bands on warped old spinning wheels in museum displays than is fit to print. If your craft is portable, you start taking it places. Souvenir items need not be bought in a particular place, but rather made on location, from materials you may or may not have brought along, or found on the way. The resulting item will become a memory of your process, as it played out in a particular setting. I treasure the yarn I spun in the compact, eerie darkness of the Copper Mine in Falun, in the Province of Dalarna. When the light goes out, all you can hear is the incessant dripping of water and your own breathing. Encased in the rock like a pebble under the full weight of the mountain, I am still, but my fingers keep moving, the thread is measured out by touch, the spindle ever spinning. I pity those who are bound by their Craft to a forge or a lathe or a pottery wheel – seriously, how do you guys manage your OCD? I will interview you. I need to know.
Portable crafts invite shenanigans. This might be a social drawback, if you care about weird looks and boring people assaulting you for ruining their party mood by making things. What it really is outwardly, though, is an ice-breaker, a conversation starter, and the perfect way of distinguishing your potential allies and creative people from those you might want to spend less time with.
Loved shit lasts
Another vital reason for learning how to make and mend things yourself, is the sustainability aspect of home made stuff, and your improved capacity for making modern items, too. Do not cheat yourselves. Making everyday useful items yourself is not a sustainable practice in itself, but done frugally, with emphasis on mending and repair to extend the life of your possessions, it may contribute to less consumption, and improve your understanding of materials and objects, to release you from the grip of online shopping. It is unlikely I will ever have a 21st century wardrobe made entirely by hand, by me, and good luck being office appropriate for online meetings wearing those P52 tortoise brooches – but I have come part of the way (to wearing P52 at meetings). I realize that caving in and making my own woollen underwear at some point will be a Line to Cross, but I fear I am irrevocably lost already.
And no matter how much I want to, I could never have explained to that Offended GuyTM at the party, that I was maintaining a small piece of civilization, and if things really go south from here, maybe HIS grandchildren will be grateful that someone kept track of what was once a considerable component of the backbone of civilization (but is currently considered niche crap) so they don’t have to freeze to death after the pocalips.
The post-apocalypse might treat us to the endless warehouses of various clothing manufacturers for a while, but eventually, we will have used up every single pair of Adidas sweatpants we’ve managed to scavenge, and will be forced to make our own stuff. Besides, synthetic materials really don’t age particularly well. Exhibit A: my old 1990s goth wardrobe, which incidentally, by now, holds THE most period correct examples of historical clothing in my possession. Crumbling glow-in-the-dark piping comes to those who wait. I wore many of these treasured, unthrowawayable items for years after I bought them. They were all acquired during a relatively focused period around the turn of the century, and the shelf life of said items expired over the course of what seemed like three weeks in the early 2010s. All the elasthane in my thumb hole crop tops and belt-skirts (you guess if it’s a belt or a skirt) suddenly imploded at once, much like the elastic in my even older baby clothes, that just ruptured in a cloud of plastic powder upon inspection.
This is our warning: all the elastic waistbands worn after the apocalypse will one day expire simultaneously, and the remains of humanity will lose whatever sweatpants they pulled from the ruins in a single, deafening frrrrrrrrp. This incident will be followed by a long period of frustration, going down in the disputable annals as the BareArse Ages, and documented in emojis scratched with shrapnel onto the blank sides of equally crumbling CDs. Later, people will get their shit together and make new garments with other fastening methods. There is an imminent risk things won’t look very Mad Max, where most hairspray wins the skirmish war.
For the future
Can you see where this is going? I’m standing mid-apocalypse, hyperventilating with my craft skills. They will need us once the pesky warpocalypse is over, and the tactical gear no longer holds up. You have all seen it proven in social media how the bushcraft phalanx and their gas station knives will fail us, by building nothing but pointless contraptions fit only for instagram, and using up all their tactical bag space for wrought-iron waffle makers and beard grooming kits. There might, possibly, be a few American prepsters who survive, but they won’t approve of our Ethics Policy and will stay well away to avoid being infected by our pro-vaxx propaganda.
I predict good chances of survival for reenactors who have taken the trouble to learn how to make a Real FireTM, and for the semi-self-sustainable homesteaders who bokashi their own bog bodies for that authentic feeling. And of course for the old people in the books by photographer Dan Korn, in case the apocalypse comes soon enough for any of them to still be around.
Ok. Here I am. Did I just spend a lot of money on my hobby, and write all this to make excuses? I could motivate it economically, and say it takes up too much of my life to not be taken seriously, in terms of time, effort and money spent. I could motivate my crafting politically, particularly in the case of crafts traditionally perceived to be women’s work, to improve the perception of its worth. The last spindle I bought was made by a genius, who is also getting on quite a bit. I rarely know the makers of my tools personally, but their skill and passion is evident in their work. Regardless of whether they know it or not (and I bet they do), they help me connect with the long line of crafters before me, the line reaching back into the dark in all its mundane and glorious detail, never recorded in any chronicle.
Is the apocalypse already here? Or will it be a while longer before we need to make our own things? Can we hold it off by making more, and buying less? For reenactment, and for the days we are forced to spend in the present, rather than in our idea of the past.
What I’m saying is we need to remember and pass on our craft, too, among all the other things that make life a little easier to live. I want to communicate spinning, so that we can, in theory, one day make new sails and set out to meet other people. And hopefully behave, and be nice, and exchange our nice stuff for other nice stuff, and for new exciting things to eat – when we remember our manners, and not just raid people and steal their goats.
Which is why a sail is on my bucket list. To me, what it represents more than anything, is curiosity.