Woodworking. Jewelry making. Embroidery. Felting. Pottery. Knitting. Gardening.
I am fascinated by handiwork, as art, as personal pursuit, and as cultural artifact. Just as much, I am fascinated by the psychological benefits of creating something with the hands. Certainly, there’s pride that comes from making something beautiful. There’s learning that comes from the challenge. Science even tells us that making things with our hands can help counter depression. Indeed, as the article “DIY Therapy: How Handiwork Can Treat Depression” reports:
… multigenerational surveys have shown that people born later in the 20th century, after the dawn of modern conveniences, suffer more bouts of depression than those born before World War II. Studies have also found low rates of depression among members of Old Order Amish communities — one-fifth to one-tenth those of the general population … the Amish, who sew their own clothes, tap their own syrup, and drive handheld plows through dry furrows, could be getting a serious neurobiological lift from all of their effort.
I can corroborate this theory anecdotally. When I started teaching college students 24 years ago, the biggest problems they brought to class were hard-won hangovers. Nowadays, though, in these times of tablets, smartphones, and online socializing, at least a third of every class suffers from anxiety, depression, or both. Tied in to these issues is often a resulting problem with addiction. Again massively anecdotally, I’d say less than three percent of my students make things with their hands. Even those who are into Pinterest are more about looking at the pictures than completing the crafts.
Mind you, I’m not drawing a clean line between lack of handiwork and troubled mental state. Of course, of course, of course, depression and anxiety have myriad causes. It is, however, interesting to contemplate the therapeutic benefits of creating with one’s hands. Just ask the next occupational therapist you run into.
Personally, I don’t necessarily have a handicraft-based hobby outside of baking and gardening (and including these might push the strictest definition of handiwork). In previous decades, I would make some of my own clothes–badly and inexpertly–and I also went through a few spates of cross-stitching. What I find therapeutic are writing, hacking away at the piano, reading, and jigsaw puzzling. Perhaps each of these, in its own way, is a kind of handiwork.
So I’m in a mulling kind of mood, when it comes to the activities we pick up for three minutes here, a half hour there. My mulling comes partially from living in a house with a guy who occupies his spare minutes like this:
SONY DSC Somehow, I don’t think Ma Ingalls had a tumbler of vodka on the rocks nearby when she sewed Laura’s gingham dresses. It’s well documented, however, that Ma wore a black wool hat when she sewed. Pa always did build drafty houses.

Figuring out embroidery as an extension of his drawing has absorbed Byron’s attention these past few months. When he draws, he is all about black ink on white paper–and lines.

Telephone Wires

Now he’s seeing how he can translate black and white lines to a textile, and he’s having ever so much fun with it, particularly because he can stitch in the car, in front of the tv, while hanging out on the bed–places where an open bottle of ink and super-fine-motor control aren’t always possible. You can check out some of his blackwork embroidery on his blog, Laying Fallow, by clicking on this: Lake Superior Blackwork Series.

Part of my mulling, when it comes to what this handiwork is doing for Byron, focuses on the intersection of gender and hobby. Traditionally, when males work with their hands, tools like saws, hammers, and blowtorches are involved. The kind of handiwork Byron’s engaged in has generally been the purview of women.

Relatedly, I’ve always said Byron’s the closest thing to a woman But With Male Private Bits that I could find. Had I frequented more transgender night clubs, though, I could’ve ended up with a version of Byron who brought dresses to the marriage, and what a bonus that would have been. Maybe next time.

I like watching a man embroider, the same way I like watching a woman (not me) open the hood of a car with an eye towards fiddling with the carburetor. In essence, I like it when people find what they like to do and then do it.

Underlying my musings about gender and making things with our hands are thoughts of those who came before me and how their handiwork is a powerful legacy. Because I am a woman, I tend to look back at the women in my family and consider what they made and why they made it. My brain tries to weave my greats- and grandmothers and aunts and mother into the larger fabric of women throughout history who moved from making purely functional things into making functional things of beauty…and then into making non-functional things of beauty. My brain conjures up images of straight-backed wooden chairs, fire light, and tiny silver needles flashing up and down. My brain floats to contemporary times, and I recall my aunt Geri, an accomplished seamstress, teaching my children how to sew themselves pairs of denim shorts. I think about how Geri knits mittens for the poor every year; how she blows young girls’ minds with the gorgeous dresses she makes for their Barbies; how she sewed the wool vest that Byron wore when we married; how she has sewed, knitted, crocheted, cross-stitched, embroidered, tatted, quilted and amassed huge stashes of material all throughout her life.

And then I think about Geri’s sister, my mother, and how she, too, has provided me with an example of what a seamstress, knitter, crocheter, cross-stitcher, embroiderer, tatter, quilter, and fabric collector looks like.

When I think of these women who came before me, who practice their arts still, I am not only full of admiration; I am also full of wonder. I wonder at the energy, the hours, the thought that go into every piece. I wonder, awe-struck, at how they continue to grow as artists because they try one thing–nope, didn’t work–so the next time they try a different thing, thus refining their talents over decades.

I wonder if their handmade creations have provided therapy during the tough times. I wonder if their projects are, in some ways, their most steady friends. I wonder if my mother knows how much I love the quilts she’s made. She can read and hear a “thank you.” But I wonder if those words can convey how much I treasure her stitches.

Perhaps the words in my next blog post will deepen the thank you–because next I want to write about a couple of her quilts. Stay tuned, chums.





12 responses to “Handiwork”

  1. magpie Avatar

    yes, wonder. my mother was a crafty soul too, and kept exploring. your fine husband does good work BTW.

  2. ilyanna Avatar

    At the very bottom of my linen trunk is the quilt my mother made for me from scraps of dresses, which she also made for me. It’s tattered and well-loved; it would be on my bed now if it wasn’t on the verge of disintegration.

    I’m a mediocre maker. I sew, some. I knit, some. I’ve made hats for the members of my family and scarves and baby blankets for friends. My greatest triumph, however, is the quilt on Miss Awesome’s bed. It’s got mistakes that would have a “real” quilter tearing out her (or his) hair. But I love imagining it travelling to college with her. I hope someday she can find comfort in my wandering stitches, or wrap it around herself for an interim hug. I believe thing making is a kind of love.

    And for the record? baking/cooking is, indeed, makery of the finest and most ethereal sort.

  3. kmkat Avatar

    I have a crocheted afghan made by a friend of my husband’s parents. The woman gave it to me because she had no children and she thought I would appreciate it. And I do (although it will forever be stored in a moth-proof place because I detest the pink and red colors she used).

    Small repetitive movements increase the theta waves in the brain, iirc. The Yarn Harlot (google her) often speaks of the cognitive and emotional and psychological benefits of knitting.

  4. kmkat Avatar

    Forgot to add, tell Byron I LOVE his blackwork. He should start a separate category for it on his blog so I can look at it. That’s what he cares about, right? That The Kat is not inconvenienced?

  5. Deborah Avatar

    I’m all in agreement with your anecdotal analyses, having (re)started my winter knitting project of last year and (re)discovered how ridiculously satisfying it is to make thousands of knots over and over and over. The bonus being when you can actually wear all those knots! I love having something to do other than WWF when I’ve got some down time (red lights, waiting for a pickleball court to open up, waiting for airplanes – no that’s a lie because I’ve never dared to take my needles through airport security) and find it calming in its repetition and orderliness. I am pretty much in awe of Byron’s skills, especially as he is the only person in the world that I know of who does what he does. Being able to create and fix are the best things ever, and that includes creating music. Keep on playing!!

  6. actonbell Avatar

    There certainly is something meditative about these kind of activities–they force one to concentrate and be mindful of the present. And, afterwards, the end products are mighy satisfying! Your husband is doing beautiful, intriguing work in black and white. I’ve never seen anything like it.

  7. Lil Avatar

    Last year was a really bad one for me, and along the way, I pretty much gave up everything I love best. Things started looking up when I began flinging paint around again in my visual journal and, more recently, working on refinishing beat up furniture.

  8. Secret Agent Woman Avatar

    I encourage patients to find something creative to do – I really believe that (much like exercise) it is a huge boon for your mental health.

  9. PIsham Avatar

    Love this post! My daughter goes to a Waldorf school where knitting, crocheting, embroidery, woodwork, etc. are part of the curriculum and I’m part of a handwork circle with other parents Wednesday mornings. So appreciative of these opportunities to keep in touch with art and craft.

  10. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    I do believe in all this–one more reason I really want to take up knitting. I used to do quite a bit of cross-stitching and hope to get back to that one day as well. The internet sure does suck up a lot of time–though I also do good things with it. One day I will find the balance.

  11. Jess Avatar

    I love Byron, he’s the coolest. And I love your mom’s quilt.Crafting is actually harder for me when I’m depressed (motivation, i guess?) But it does help immensely.

  12. lime Avatar

    YOu know, I do believe there is value in handiwork for so many reasons and I can even get behind the anecdotal observations you make. Then I read of Byron and think of my grandfather who was an embroiderer himself. I have pillow cases and table clothes and tea towels he and my grandmother labored over together. I treasure them. And then I remember his soul-crushing depression in his final years. I think that has more to do with coming from a generation and sub-culture that did not ask for help because it was a sign of moral failure. the handiwork though…maybe it stitched him together gently for longer than he might have held it all without it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *