We’re so happy to share today an excerpt from Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live, by our editor and friend, Melanie Falick. We’ve been spending time with this book since its release at the end of October. The more we read and explore its thought-provoking and beautiful pages, the surer we are that Making a Life will have enduring relevance and importance for knitters, and for all makers. Through close observation and listening, Melanie has distilled the essence of why making by hand is important to our lives. This excerpt is from the conclusion of the book’s Introduction. Our thanks to Melanie and her publisher, Artisan Books, for granting permission to publish this excerpt. —Ann and Kay
Making by hand, it helps to remember, goes back to the beginning of human history and has developed in its own unique way in every culture. It is, in fact, our hands, especially our opposable thumbs (which allow us to make and use tools)—as well as our abilities to stand upright and make fire—that differentiate us most profoundly from our ape forebears. For hundreds of thousands of years, every object in the world that didn’t occur in nature was made by hand—vessels like the ones the Mateo family still make, tools, cloth, shelters, wagons, ships, musical instruments, and on and on. Hands and human ingenuity assured survival. The purpose of each day was to do what was necessary to stay alive, which meant many hours of handwork.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution began in parts of Europe and North America, that water and steam power and then electricity began to mechanize, and thus speed up, production, in turn reducing the necessity for human touch and increasing the ease of acquisition (and subsequent dispensability) of material possessions. And then the twentieth century saw the emergence of the digital revolution. Over the course of just a couple of hundred years in the so-called developed world, we have become passive consumers of products, services, and information rather than active makers, fixers, and even thinkers. Most of the time, what we buy is made somewhere else, by a machine or by people we’ll never meet, sometimes working in conditions we would not accept for ourselves.
Given these circumstances, it’s not surprising that some of us are discomfited and feel a need for a grounding counterforce. Just as the mechanization and mass production of the industrial revolution led to the Arts and Crafts movement (a late 1800s revival of interest in skilled handwork, craftsmanship, and refined design), the speed and anonymity of the digital revolution and the profit-driven globalization it fast-forwarded have led to what I call a DIY renaissance: a renewal of attention paid to the value of handwork as well as a concern about how what we consume is affecting our health and the environment. No longer required to make with our hands in order to assure our survival or make a living, more and more of us now do so by choice. What was once a necessity has become, for many, a joy, a privilege, and a call to action. The DIY renaissance is part of the same impulse that continues to drive the slow fashion, slow design, and slow food movements.
I believe that impulse to use our hands to make things and, in the process, to make them beautiful, is our evolutionary birthright. It is this concept that scholar Ellen Dissanayake has spent her life studying, and it is with a conversation with Ellen on the following pages that I invite you to join me on this journey. From there, I hope that you will enjoy reading about the lives of the many makers I met and spent time with during this extraordinary adventure. I’ve loosely organized their stories into five chapters—Remembering, Slowing Down, Joining Hands, Making a Home, and Finding a Voice—each one an answer to the question of what it is we stand to gain when we make things by hand.
All the people featured on these pages are, without a doubt, very talented; however, I chose them not because they are “the best” but because the way they are leading their lives is both relatable and inspiring. For some, making by hand is a way of earning a living—but more important for each of them, it is a way of taking agency over their own lives. They have shown me what their version of a good life looks like. I, in turn, am sharing their stories—and my own—with you.
We all make many choices in our lives, more than we sometimes recognize. I hope that reading this book motivates you to carve out some space in your routine to listen to what your inner voice, your soul, is telling you about what matters to you most; to tune in to the small decisions you make each day that determine how you spend your time and ultimately, shape the life you lead.
And, of course, I hope you will keep looking at your hands. They may hold more answers than you realize.
Excerpted from Making a Life by Melanie Falick (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019. Photographs by Rinne Allen.