I Make, Therefore I Am


This article is by Gillian Montegrande , the founder of Made by Hands of Britain, which promotes British craftsmanship and makes work from otherwise remote regions available for sale online.

Work by Rachel Carter featured in Made by Hands of Britain

Work by Rachel Carter featured in Made by Hands of Britain

There are many things we can say about the failings and ills of our society, but the most worrying are the apathy and abstinence from positive and proactive input from certain sectors. Many have become spectators of life rather than participants; television for example, in the form of reality shows creates confusion between fame and achievement and because of its accessible nature and selective (edited) exposure of facts, gives the false impression that such things are easily gained without the investment of learning, effort or struggle. As a result viewers, particularly but not exclusively the young, find themselves disconnected and struggling to find a purpose in a world that does not match their expectations.

What to do?

While there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution there are, in my opinion, things that can be done to provide these people once more with a sense of doing, being and purpose; to justify their existence.

What better way to show evidence of our existence and identity (apart from creating children), than to leave behind a tangible object created by hand?

Today the media is full to bursting, of programmes and articles dedicated to the tangible handmade achievements of the past, such as the Antiques Road Show, Victorian/Edwardian Farm and most recently, Handmade in Britain (to name but a few), where experts extol the virtues of craftsmen and craftsmanship. They talk about the detail, the design, the skill, the workmanship and the fact that many of these items are still in working use, literally hundreds of years later.

These antique objects and artefacts were as a result of ‘skilled manual labour’ the by-product of which was being usefully occupied. There was a time when the term ‘manual labour’ meant and (maybe in some eyes) still does mean today, demeaning, soulless work. However, we have forgotten (or choose to ignore) that manual labour, although sometimes hard, was also associated with an honest day’s work and more often than not there was something tangible to show for the efforts expended at the end of the day. In that time, it is possible, even likely, that when such a person put their head on the pillow at night, tired and aching, they did not realise the significance and importance of their exertions and maybe would not have been aware that they were satisfying an innate need to be manually as well as mentally occupied.

Today, not only is very little built to last but also few people expect things to last, in their constant search for ‘the next thing’, this ‘have it all and having it now’ approach has been of no help and indeed has caused the financial mess the planet now finds itself in.

Nevertheless, there are some who are fully aware of the significance of such noble exertions, which I repeat; we celebrate on a regular basis. Manual occupation is still one of the best ways to satisfy this primeval need and that there is nothing wrong in going to bed tired and aching, knowing that the day has been used to its full with something to show at the end of it. Some have become obsessed with jumping the gun, to get to the destination without going on the journey, let alone enjoying it! The concept of physical struggle is now perceived as bad, to the extent that we are desperately trying to eliminate it (in the western world at least), to our cost. The advancement of human knowledge and discovery has done much to improve the plight of humanity but it has also done much to take away the privilege of physical occupation and endeavour. Many children, from underprivileged and privileged backgrounds alike, with their parents’ blessing are very ready, to replace hands-on experiences with virtual ones; the gaming industry was worth $105 billion in August 2010.

But physical exertion, endeavour, struggle even, is still to this day, necessary in every human life. When that is not present, an emotional as well as physical vacuum is created, which as we all know, must be filled. Are our lives any “easier” today? I doubt it. We’ve simply replaced physical struggle with mental anxiety.

Art, Craft and Manual Production satisfy that need on every level.

When making, a process is gone-through, which uses pretty much all of our faculties, including desire and/or need; concept; design; sourcing of materials; establishing the strengths and weaknesses of both material and maker and then through trial, error and ingenuity working with or around those attributes and limitations, to finally be confronted with something that is real, knowing that so much of oneself has gone into the very fibre of the work.

But there are obstacles in the form of modern-day fears and insecurities that currently pervade every aspect of modern life which is so readily passed on to our children. They are no longer allowed or encouraged to go out, to discover the world around them, in order that they might take risks, to discover how things work, how they themselves work and how the two work together. They no longer have the opportunity or are encouraged (as previous generations were) to find discarded raw materials such as pieces of wood or old bicycle parts, to transform into go-carts or wooden boats, that really do work. Making is as much a way of discovering how they work as how the world around them works. We need to restore this human right to them and making – structured or otherwise, can do that.

Using our hands to create things of beauty, use or both; using the raw materials we find around us, where a battle of wills ensues between maker and material, grappling and tussling with that material, until a truce – a compromise and understanding – is achieved and something beautiful emerges. It is this struggle that helps define us as human beings and we need this affirmation, pretty much on a daily basis, to keep us sane and healthy.

If we know this then why can making not become once more an integral part of our society and the way we (parents and teachers) teach our children? What happened to Woodwork, Metalwork, Needlework, Home Economics in the classroom? The old adage, “The only way to learn how to do something is to do it” has never been more true. It is in the classroom and at home where we need to start again, showing little children that those appendages called hands have a direct link to the wellbeing of their mind and psyche as well as their sense of place and belonging. Today, a three year old child has far more idea of what to do with a computer game controller than he does with Plasticine, Playdoh, Lego or Crayons. I fear that the prophetic vision depicted in the (ironically) computer-generated animation Wall-E, is much closer than we think!

If such a vision is to be believed, then we may be further down that path than is comfortable to admit. I would argue that the recent inner city riots have been carried out by people who have come to believe that there is no point in having a go at anything because it “won’t work” or at least they have not been shown that it could. Some of us know it can work and that trying is part of the fun, adventure and fulfilment. These unfortunate people are afraid to take the risk of discovering how to do something that may or may not have a positive outcome, but from which they can learn and improve. Instead they do something, which achieves instant gratification with the least effort and ironically they feel more secure in doing because they are sure of the outcome. You throw a brick through a window; you know what’s going to happen! But that is all that is ever going to happen- no wonder frustration and violence are never far away. With making, there is always new territory to be discovered, in the skill and in oneself.

If we could only pass on to others that sense of achievement and what it feels like to stare upon the tangible and positive result of one’s own useful endeavours, then it will go at least some way to improving the lot of individuals who currently have no hope.