This fall, Melanie Falick traveled the country on her book tour for Making a Life: Working by Hand and Discovering the Life You Are Meant to Live. Along the way, she handed out cards asking a question: Why is making by hand important to you? Melanie has been collecting the answers on her website, and also on Instagram using the hashtag #makingalife. It’s a fascinating and inspiring conversation.
As we looked back on our own year of making, and forward to the year that is about to arrive, we posed Melanie’s question to a few of the most dedicated handworkers we know: MDK contributors. There’s a lot to think about in their responses. Thank you, dear contributors! —Ann and Kay
Amy Routman: Making by hand is always an adventure which is a source of endless discovery, surprise, challenge, joy, self-discovery, and accomplishment.
Carol Feller: Life is busy and frantic, making something by hand slows me down. It forces me to work slowly and do it to the best of my abilities in a thoughtful way. The deep satisfaction that this creates can’t really be matched by anything else!
Cecelia Campochiaro: Making by hand was always important to me. I was privileged to have a family full of makers and who valued work by hand. My mother was an avid cook and needlepointer. I have aunts, uncles, and cousins who are professional creatives and I grew up watching them. One of my late uncles, Peter Gilleran, was a wonderful artist. I would spend summers with him and my aunt in Michigan and will always remember how he had to draw every day—it was a primal need. He would tape a big piece of paper to a masonite board and draw like a pointillist-painter paints, with tiny stipples. If we went on a road trip, he would pack the masonite board in the trunk with the luggage. I cannot remember a single evening when he did not draw. It was a discipline, and a primal need.
In my own life making has always been there, intertwined with more traditional business work. When I knit, the rhythm of it slows me down. It is a mindful and calming antidote to our modern fast-paced, computer-driven lifestyles. I’m thankful for the relief.
Cristina Bernardi Shiffman: I’m an all-over-the-place amateur when it comes to making by hand: I bake, cook, embroider, knit, crochet, weave, practice calligraphy, draw, paint, throw and hand build pottery. I’ve achieved various levels of skill in true “master of none” style. That’s ok by me. Joyful engagement with glorious stuff is at the heart of why I work with my hands.
Cristina Bernardi Shiffman
DG Strong: Here’s the thing: there was nothing in my hands for a quarter of a century that wasn’t a wine bottle or a rocks glass. To be able to make something with my hands that doesn’t directly contribute to my own early demise—a muffler instead of a martini, a blanket instead of a black Russian—seems to me faintly like a miracle at this point in the game. And you benefit too! I used to give you an empty glass, demanding a refill. Now I give you a hand knit hat!
Dana Williams-Johnson: Making by hand is important to me because it’s a gift I like to give to myself. I love that I have that skill. I’m always learning something new, challenging myself—and in the end I have something special I made with my two hands.
Dianna Walla: Making by hand is enjoyable and can also be practical, but for the most part it is my main creative outlet and it contributes to my sense of self. I don’t think I’m alone in enjoying learning about how things are made (or the TV show How It’s Made would never have taken off, would it?), and I feel like getting to try my hand at different things in the real world is the natural extension of that curiosity. I primarily knit, but I’ve also learned how to do basic crochet, spinning, and weaving, and all of those things contribute to a greater awareness of fiber arts and textile history, and what goes into making things that we wear or use around the home.
Franklin Habit: My parents were big on doing things yourself if you possibly could. Because if you can do it yourself, you can get what you really want or need instead of what someone else thinks you want or need. They passed that on to me. I’m notably short, but if I knit and sew my own clothes, they’ll fit. In handmade clothes, I’m not size this or that–I’m size me. It feels good. It looks good. Also, they don’t sell nineteenth-century knitted dollhouse coverlets at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. No real man outfits his dolls with inferior soft furnishings.
Gale Zucker: I NEED to make things.
I also WANT to make things.
Making has always been my happy place.
I am an optimist. I love optimism. Is there anything more optimistic than an idea and choosing materials to start a project?
Making things is a super power. It is immensely satisfying to stare at something and figure out how I can make it just the way I want it. Or how I can make it better next time.
Making by hand feels good. The part of my brain that adores problem-solving is happy at the same time as my color/ texture/light-loving soul.
When life presents challenges that have no solutions or conclusions I can control, making by hand gives me what I can do. I can produce something NOW in the way I want it, rather than waiting and hoping and feeling powerless and trying not to worry.
Making things means less shopping. I really don’t like shopping.
Jillian Moreno: Making simultaneously grounds me and sets me free, it’s pause and puzzle. The flow of threads and fiber brings peace, solace, and the best of company. There’s a quote I love from Kenneth Rexroth: “Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense: the creative act.”
Judy Wright: Digging in dirt, planting seeds, tending plants, harvesting colorful herbs and vegetables, discovering how to cook, photograph, preserve, press to make oils and syrups, manipulate to make dyes, and eventually try to collect seeds and do it all again next year—these are all activities that cause wonderment in my life. The food that I grow and then cook is often gone within 24 hours, but hopefully the sensual pleasure, nourishment, and remembrance of it lasts a lifetime. As back-up, I photograph much of it!
Julia Farwell-Clay: At a knitting weekend years ago, the fashion show was the first time I had ever heard knitters talk about the things they were modeling by naming the animals that contributed fleeces to the garments, some over the course of a few years: “The collar is Victoria’s Moorit fleece, and the sleeves come from her second year; the body came from her twin brother, Albert,” and so on. It seemed such an intimate way to dress oneself, and affection for the animals rang clear and true. I knew that I had to learn to spin even if I couldn’t keep any sheep handy. I bought a wheel and fell in love. As with knitting, it felt rhythmic and steady. My hands quickly took to it almost as if they already knew how to make yarn. Something just clicks for me when I work with yarn: we are connected to all the hands that have made and worked with yarn before. Hearing about Victoria and Albert’s fleeces opened a door for me so that now when I knit or spin I think of them and all their ancestors and mine and it feels ancient and spooky and I love it.
Juliet Bernard: Making by hand is my soul food. It connects me with the real world, it nourishes and protects me, it makes me whole.
PHOTO BY GALE ZUCKER
Kaffe Fassett: Making anything by hand is a sanity saver for me. Cutting fabric, sewing binding on a quilt, stitching a needlepoint canvas and, above all, knitting up a new idea, all create a tingle of happiness that few other activities come close to. A clarity of purpose descends, giving time to make good instinctive choices.
Kirsten Kapur: Making is so fundamental to my life that it’s hard to pin down why. The need to create gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me up later than is reasonable. There is satisfaction in wearing, using, or simply admiring something I’ve made by hand, but the process and the ideas are truly what drive me.
photo by Gale Zucker
Max Daniels: Making by hand is important to me because it keeps me human. I’m producing beauty! I’m not just a unit of consumption machinery.
Michelle Edwards: Making and creating is where I live and breathe, break my bread, and sleep at night.
Patty Lyons: We live in a world where computer “assistants” seem to be everywhere, reducing what we actually do ourselves to the bare minimum. (Really, is saying “Alexa, turn on the TV” so much easier then hitting one button on a remote?) There are times when I feel like I control very little in my life, but when I take sticks and string and make a sweater, I control everything. I can make something that only I can make. That is a miracle, every time, a miracle.
Samantha Brunson: Making by hand is my connection to family members that came before me. It gives me time to reflect and calms my soul.
Sonya Philip: I think the answer is rolled into a combination of creativity, thrift and curiosity. These days, it’s become more of an exercise in sustainability: can I make the thing I need, or remake something I already own?
photo by Samantha Brunson
Thea Colman: Making by hand was not something ingrained in my childhood. Yes, my Grandma Pearl knit and I loved the gifts she made me—the matching sweaters, the curly clowns, and the big afghans—but I didn’t think much about the act of making them, nor did anyone really impress upon me the work and love that went into these gifts. When she first taught me to knit, I’m pretty sure I lasted about five minutes and then wandered back off to the condo pool (in a plastic bathing cap for the “kidswim” hour).
But I did eventually come back to it, and the act of making has shaped the rest of my life, giving me a career I enjoy, introducing me to friends I love dearly, allowing me to travel around the world. All because I like to do this thing with sticks and string so much that I decided to try and make it a job. I find making is one of the most satisfying acts I get to do with my time, and I can truly say I’m someone who really does love their job.
And this career is unlike any other I’ve had, as it goes beyond a paycheck. Because I am truly creating the thing I sell, the return on my work is more personal, more satisfying. The ability to use my hands to support my family, to send my kids to school, and to change the world in small ways when I feel the need has come to define who I am in a way that I don’t think another life would be able to. I’m grateful every day that my fingers and my brain do this.
Vilasinee Bunnag: Making by hand allows me to slow down, focus, and be immersed in the process of learning and discovering.