YOUNG ADMIRER: Papa Bach, how do you manage to think of all these new tunes?
J. S. BACH: My dear fellow, I have no need to think of them. I have the greatest difficulty not to step on them when I get out of bed in the morning and start moving around my room.
—Laurens van der Post,
Jung and the Story of Our Time, 1975
I’ve heard it said that a carpenter with a hammer sees nails everywhere. I say a crafter with imagination sees handcrafts everywhere. I know I do. I see sparkling bracelets in a scattering of beads, keepsake journals in sheets of handmade paper, and jointed dolls in a lump of clay. An ever-present part of my childhood, handcrafts were my playthings. They were part of my home education. I was encouraged from an early age to express my ideas freely, and I took readily to arts and crafts materials, which were supplied in abundance. I was expected to know how to embroider, draw, paint, cultivate a garden, and take care of a home with resourcefulness and discipline. Through a lifelong practice of making things by hand, I have come to understand my world and my place in it, first as a daughter of immigrant parents, then as a wife and a mother, a teacher of schoolchildren, a craft designer, and an author of books about handcrafts. Handcrafts are central to who I am; they are part of the rhythm of my everyday life.
It all began with my parents. My mother was born in Finland at the beginning of the twentieth century and spent her early childhood in Kolhola, a little village near a lake where fir trees outnumbered the people. In winter, she skied across a field to a one-room schoolhouse on finely crafted skis made by her oldest brother. There were four grades in one room. Discipline was strictly enforced. After the academic fundamentals, the girls and boys were divided into two groups. Girls were taught needlework, with more sophisticated handwork introduced as the girls got older: hand sewing and knitting in the first grade, embroidery in the second and third, and by fourth grade, using a treadle sewing machine to make a man’s dress shirt. Boys were taught woodworking and cabinetry.
After school my mother returned home to a long dwelling made of hewn logs cut from the forestland owned by her father’s family. Once inside the door, hand-loomed runners painted bands of color along the wood floor, which was made of smooth planks cleaned once a week by hand using brushes and fine sand until they were as white as birch bark. Oil lamps and lighted faggots of wood that protruded from specially made holes in the log walls were used to light the rooms during the long winter evenings. On many of these evenings my mother would sit in their glow, embroidering alphabets, geometric patterns, and simple flowers onto thick handwoven linen cloth. The thread for the cloth was spun from flax that grew in the family’s fields. On Saturdays, she would help her mother make the beds, pinching the corners of the stiff, snow-white linen into knife-sharp folds and making sure the panels embroidered with monograms were carefully positioned over the blankets.
Her mother and teachers were not the only ones who believed that children should uphold high standards in the home arts. The importance of taking pride in one’s work and avoiding idleness were enduring values of social custom that the elders of the village upheld by keeping children under their watchful eye. One summer while my mother was babysitting an infant, soothing him to sleep by pressing her foot against the rocker of a hand-carved cradle, the child’s grandfather complained that certainly she could be doing something with her hands, too. And summer was certainly the time to try an ambitious project as daylight lasted until midnight, and only heavy woolen shades made from blanket-like cloth could keep the sun from streaming through the windows. Women took advantage of the natural light to sew, knit, crochet, bake, and keep their homes scrupulously organized and well-functioning. In winter, an eerie twilight brightened the sky for only two hours around noon, after which darkness enveloped the land again and all handwork had to be done by the light of an oil lamp or on weekends after chores.
My mother left Finland when she was twelve, immigrating to Canada, and finally finding her way to New York City, where she met and married my father. Born in Dresden, Germany, to a German father and a Danish mother, my father came to America in 1933 when he was twenty-five years old. When he first arrived in New York, he and a friend opened a photography store and portrait studio on Broadway in Manhattan. When the business closed several years later, he turned his trained eye and exacting standards to carpentry, a craft which provided for his growing family.
Although his daily work as a carpenter required large power tools, planes, and rasps, his evenings and weekends were spent making small pieces of furniture and carving sculptures of figures, street scenes, and sailing ships. He would spend hours deftly wielding his gouges, chisels, files, and rifflers, one time carving a small country village that he then painted with oils and set into a frame. I watched, utterly absorbed. Enveloped in the scent of linseed oil and turpentine, I learned how to sharpen a gouge like a razor by moving the tool in a circular motion, pushing the gouge forward before easing up on the tool on the way back across a sharpening stone. I learned to mix paint, experimenting with color on the wooden lids of cigar boxes. One year my father made three wooden banks for my two sisters and me. Each bank was an architectural model of a 1940s-style cottage with a chimney through which we could drop our allowance, listening for the sharp “tink” of the coins as they landed on the rising heap of money inside.
Of the many disciplines my father introduced to me, photography was the one I pursued with the greatest interest. I loved the chemistry involved in processing film and making prints and was enthralled each time a hidden image conjured itself, ghostlike, on a sheet of photo paper. My father and I worked together in our home in Bellerose, New York, where a darkroom was built in our basement and outfitted with the professional equipment originally used in his photography store. During the many hours spent there, my father taught me about the art of photography, as well as about the tools and techniques of printing black-and-white photographs. I also learned, by my father’s example, about the importance of commitment to good workmanship, which he explained as a seamless mix of discipline and imagination. He promised that if I put time and effort into learning a skill, I would be rewarded with moments of deep satisfaction, which, in turn, would motivate me to search further for the undiscovered possibilities in the materials with which I worked. I also would discover unexpressed potential in myself and be able to produce work that was beyond my expectations. He was right, but at that time, caught in the confusing labyrinth of rules and cautions and sorting out the variables of taking good pictures and making good prints, I didn’t see that as clearly as I do now.
My father’s practical philosophy and methodical approach to photography found a complement in my mother’s approach to handcrafts. As a child I would sit next to her and practice my embroidery; I would hold a piece of linen and a threaded needle and try to sew straight lines or form the letters of the alphabet, ultimately progressing from a modest sampler to small tablecloths and pillowcases. Today, I’m keenly aware of how my mother ensured an everlasting tie between us by passing on to me the traditions she learned growing up. What stands out is her resourcefulness—like the time she made a ballerina tutu in the style of a Degas sculpture from real parachute silk saved after the war—a quality I was to inherit from her. Encouraged to look to my surroundings for craft supplies, I learned to braid the stems of flowering clover into a bracelet, weave strips of paper into heart-shaped baskets, glue toothpicks together to make a miniature log cabin, and carve bars of Ivory soap into polar bears and rabbits.
My sisters and I led very structured lives that did not include much television. Our weekly viewing was limited to half an hour. An early favorite was I Remember Mama, a show about a Scandinavian family that had immigrated to America. Our home life was centered on becoming “well-rounded” and the American dream of getting a good education. When I was in my early twenties, I received my bachelor of science and master of science degrees in elementary education and spent five glorious years in the classroom, weaving crafts into the curriculum as often as they would support learning. It was during those years that my belief that crafts opened children to discovery was forged.
During my second year of teaching I married John Sterbenz, coupling my life and my name with his. John taught mathematics in a suburban high school, but then he became a stockbroker and we moved into our first house in East Setauket, New York. Our lives shifted seismically with the birth of our first daughter, Genevieve. Suddenly, I saw life through the lens of motherhood, and I began to measure my free time in baby naps and dryer loads. When our son Rodney was born, we moved to a house by the bay in Huntington, Long Island, where we would also welcome our second daughter, Gabrielle. As far back as I can remember, my children did arts and crafts of some sort. While still in a high chair, each began to finger-paint and squish clay. As they got older, craft activities like drawing, painting, and model-making moved to the kitchen table, or to the basement or the backyard, and sometimes to the beach across the street from our house where they tie-dyed T-shirts and made sand candles. Crafts seemed to maroon us on these small domestic islands where time slowed down. The kids had fun. I had fun. Boredom disappeared. Joy took hold. As the children became engrossed in their projects, it was as if they entered an inner world and came back out with ideas that went on to be revealed impeccably in 3-D and Technicolor. I kept their projects for years, years, not wanting to part with a single one.
During the period when I was fully engaged in child-rearing and home-keeping, I also got together with my friends, meeting weekly at one of our houses to catch up with what was going on in our lives while doing crafts. Whether gathered around a kitchen table or spread out in a living room, I felt the uncomplicated pleasure of belonging, the comfort of sharing laughs and worries, advice, and know-how. Through crafts our friendships deepened and our crafting repertoire grew. Each of us had a special skill that we shared with the others—quilting, sewing, beading, or whatever seemed like fun. One year we made beaded Christmas trees, sitting together for hours and hours, painstakingly counting and threading tiny beads on wire branches and adding ornaments that were only one seed bead wide. As intricate as the maneuvers were, I only remember the easy camaraderie. I look back and wonder how among the demands of organizing a home and raising my children I could focus on so small a project, but I did.
As I look back, I can see that I always carried an unbridled love for making things by hand. I know that I am not alone in this. There are countless numbers of crafters who persist in making things by hand in spite of the fact that our super-automated society can supply us with material goods to meet our every need. We leave these mass-produced items on store shelves and retreat in goodly numbers to work spaces tucked under attic eaves, to kitchen tables cleared of the evening meal, or to professional studios to take up our handwork and make something brand-new. I believe we are motivated to make things by hand for several reasons, but being practical isn’t really one of them. Frankly, it is often easier, quicker, and less expensive to simply buy stuff, but we don’t. I believe that, in part, we enjoy creating something from scratch, one at a time, no two exactly alike. We take pride in our ability to transform raw materials into objects of aesthetic and functional value that help us realize and express our personal style. We like knowing precisely how to apply a smooth coat of finish, how to restore a chandelier with good bones, or how to wrap a gift and tie a loopy bow.
I believe we draw closer to the heart of the matter when we speak about connection. Connection is a powerful motivator for picking up our set of paints or turning off the television to teach a young child to mold clay. We present our handmade things as gifts, we show them off at fairs, we affix them to our refrigerator doors. We use our hands to establish and solidify the connection to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the spaces we inhabit. Making something by hand makes us part of a community of kindred spirits who speak the same language. Sitting with friends hour after hour, week after week, gluing photographs and embellishments onto the pages of our scrapbooks or waking before sunrise to pick out the most perfect green roses for a daughter’s wedding bouquet when a New York City floral designer would gladly have done it seems, well, excessive . . . and yet necessary, because doing these things keeps us connected.
But the crafting instinct goes even deeper. I believe we are driven by an innate ambition to express ourselves. Creativity powers our search for the perfect bead, the right color paint, the secret to unblemished gilding. While we strive for expert craftsmanship, it is not for its own sake, but rather, to bring a project as perfectly close to our vision of it as we can. When we give our handcrafts to others, we pass on more than a tangible object, we pass on our ideas, initiating a transgenerational relay that is endless and soothing. Making something by hand is our way of announcing our human presence, to become known and to leave a witness of our presence here on earth.
Over my many years of crafting, I made some discoveries that remain as true today as they were when I was a total beginner. Foremost was my interest level; I discovered that when I had a genuine interest in a craft, I had more fun doing it and was likely to achieve better results. The more I learned and practiced, the more accomplished I became.
The materials used in crafting were a definite draw. When I allowed my senses to guide me, I tended to choose new crafts that held my interest for years to become fulfilling, long-lasting pursuits. The strong connection I felt with certain materials motivated me to continue working through the difficult parts of a technique or to try to find out what a particular craft material could do. Photography pulled me in from the moment I saw a sheet of photo paper change from the color of moonlight to layered tones of gray and black and finally to a recognizable image—I never tired of making pictures. The shimmering hand of rayon velvet inspired me to try embossing it with a coil of wire and a household iron.
A particularly appealing aspect of crafts is their accessibility. Any craft I ever tried always had a nonintimidating point of entry. I could begin at an elementary level, or I could build on an existing foundation of experience and skills. I could always proceed at my own pace. If I got stuck, I knew I could find another crafter who would be willing to help me. Crafters consider themselves part of a sharing artistic community. Being a part of a crafting group always made my crafting experiences richer, so I made a habit over the years of starting or joining crafting groups wherever I lived.
Following my intuition has proved reliable in crafting. Intuitive choices unfailingly felt right, not just in surface things like color or pattern, but right in deeper ways too, like choosing to do what was important to me. Intuition told me that it was impossible to create and judge at the same time. Creativity and critique are both essential, each at the appropriate time, but put together, they work against each other. Judgment shut down my creative flow and slowed my work, so I stopped listening to judgment from myself and others and turned instead to my own creative voice.
Of course, I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. Frankly, I still make them; they are fewer in number than before but often more complicated in nature, though rarely catastrophic enough to warrant starting a project from scratch. I have come to appreciate mistakes as an inevitable part of the crafting process and have also been pleasantly surprised to find that some “mistakes” aren’t mistakes at all, simply unexpected outcomes that I end up liking better than the result I first pictured. The ordinary, obvious precautions—practice on scrap materials, read project directions thoroughly, take my time, stay organized, keep my tools in good working order—become so easy to forget as I become engrossed in the creative process. Mishaps of any nature always raise my awareness, providing insights into how I might do something differently next time.
As I continue to craft, I am sure I will make new discoveries to direct and guide me. No doubt, you will develop your own inner guidance system as you go along. Learn to connect with your inner voice, gravitate toward materials you love, and you will find that your crafting hours are filled with fun and satisfaction.
The idea for this book first came to me a decade ago, and it finally took shape in the last four years when a series of serendipitous events moved all the cosmic tumblers into place at one time. I wanted to write a comprehensive one-volume reference work that informed and inspired the crafter, that was based on extensive firsthand experience and in-depth research, that presented a broad cross section of handcrafts, and that took the crafter from the beginning level of each particular craft to the more advanced. It was a book I looked for and couldn’t find anywhere.
My many years of making things revealed that while there would always be new and evolving styles to influence the outward appearance of my craft designs, the underlying set of technical sequences remained fundamentally the same. Alterations usually came through advancements made in technology, tool design, or chemical formulas. With this in mind, I decided that instead of presenting a synopsis of traditional handcrafts or focusing on the hip craft du jour, I would take a deep look at techniques that had stood the test of time, often longer than two centuries, along with those that were developed recently, and present an amalgam of both in a style that was fresh, reliable, and contemporary. To that end, I reexamined many traditional crafts, reinterpreted archaic methods, and when it seemed wise to do so, updated the methods and techniques to arrive at the best methods for ease of crafting and the highest possible standard of workmanship and beauty.
The book is organized into seven broad chapters, each featuring a handcraft category that is popular and easy to learn. All that is required to practice any of them is an interest (or better, an enthusiasm), some basic dexterity, and a bit of time. The book works for both the beginner and the veteran crafter, providing a dependable working manual from which to learn a craft from the ground up or develop the expertise to advance to the next level.
The following handcrafts are featured: beading, floral arts, paper crafting, hand printing, decoupage, decorative embellishing, and children’s arts and crafts. Each chapter is composed of two distinct parts. “The Heart” speaks to the personal and historical practices of the handcraft, and “The Science” is an illustrated guide to all the salient materials, tools, and techniques. A collection of original projects based on the featured techniques rounds out each chapter. The techniques and projects are presented in easy-to-follow step-by-step directions and are often accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations and diagrams. Each numbered step begins with a one-line synopsis of what you are going to do, followed by a clear explanation that details how to accomplish the task, including some of the pertinent reasons behind the instruction. Of course, there are many ways to do things; I am presenting techniques that have worked consistently for me. At times, there may appear to be a lot of information, but the format of the book is designed to give you an immediate choice by separating the general crafting goal from the in-depth explanatory text; you can skim the headings to get a sense of what to do next or you can read all of the text. Proceeding in this way, you can establish your own crafting rhythm based on your level of experience. Working tips, troubleshooting guides, and cautions call attention to the more arduous or complicated parts of the crafting process to help you avoid pitfalls. Original patterns and artwork, referenced throughout the text, begin on page 681.
It is my hope that this book will become a trusted resource, one that you reach for when you are seeking reliable information, inspiration for new projects, or just some company along the way as you pursue your crafting.
© 2011 Carol Endler Sterbenz