Discover more from yarnstorm
You could call it ‘flow’, but I prefer ‘absorption’ because ‘flow’ attracts suggestions of ‘being present’, ‘intensity’, and ‘proneness to flow’ and other contemporary examples of psychobabble. But finding yourself absorbed in something is lovely and uncomplicated and jargon-free; it’s when you are not rushing, just completely enveloped in a cocoon of concentration which is enjoyable because afterwards you notice that you’ve also been thinking other thoughts, wandering through time and space, and having conversations in your head.
I find I also often hear the voice of a tutor or teacher: ‘and now, Jane, you are going to make a perfect dart’. Every time I make a garment with a dart - and dressmaking for me is one of the most absorbing activities - I think of Katie at Merchant & Mills who guided me through the making of an Ellis dress, and repeated her gentle mantra of enjoying the process rather than aiming to finish. It will take the time it will take. I’d always read about people ‘running up’ a frock on the day of a party or sewing a fabulous costume for a school play in an afternoon. That way inevitable disaster lies, at least for me.
I think a lot of the joy and pleasure in crafts comes with this absorption, with the total focus on what your hands are doing: sorting, measuring, marking, cutting, folding, pinning, folding, stabbing even. I concede that it undoubtedly requires a certain level of skill for an activity to be absorbing rather than difficult or frustrating, but I find that absorption can come with the simplest of creative manual tasks such as slicing peel for marmalade, stirring a cheese sauce to avoid lumps, hand-sewing lines of running stitch, winding a ball from a skein of wool.
I’ve been absorbed in making books this week. I keep coming back to bookbinding because I love the trains of thought it sets off. Books are so fundamentally important yet require so little in the way of materials but oh, the places you’ll go with while making them, reading them, filling them. I keep planning books with content, but keep making books without any. The fun is imagining what can be done with the blank book I’m making.. But because I don’t particularly like or use books which are made and marketed with specific functions or a certain activity (address books, photo albums, recipes, gardening diaries) I’d much rather make suggestions using the materials, shape, size, colours, covers, and then be delighted when I find someone has used the pages for doodles or shopping lists or Scrabble scores or jam timings or word games or internet passwords. Being used is better than not being used when instructions for use inhibit the use.
[Kelmscott Chaucer des. Wm Morris, the antithesis of Penguin Chaucer]
Making books takes time, so it’s no wonder the handmade ones cost a lot. The more you make, the more you realise the William Morris conundrum will never go away: hand-made is beautiful, better for society, and everyone should have access to lovely things, but lovely hand-made things are expensive and only rich people have the means to buy them. So while mass-produced, machine-made books are affordable, hand-made ones can only be competitive/affordable if the maker drops her price to a level which makes a mockery of of hourly pay rates, profit, and self-respect. So I carry on making books because I enjoy doing so, and spend a lot of time absorbed in retail price calculations for future world-conquering bookselling enterprises.
My bookbinding principles mirror my quilting principles. First and foremost, these are books to be used, to serve a purpose. I don’t use particularly expensive materials, but I do like them to look and feel good. I like structures with exposed stitching, the same way I am happy for my running stitches to show on quilts. This week I’ve been practising a decorative chain stitch which, delightfully, looks like tulips (or bird footprints).
Now that I’m more sure of what I’m doing and I’m branching out, playing with ideas. Once you’ve acquired some skills - hopefully not needing the full 10,000 hours to do so - you can push out on your own, experiment, question the way things are done. Books can go pretty conceptual, to the point where you wonder if they are books at all (but then, what is a book?). I think you can only stretch the definition so far until it pings and breaks, not that artists who make non-book books would agree with me. On a scale of ‘conceptual bollocks’ (Alice’s pithy term) I’m perfectly capable of registering a score myself, but I always feel that if a piece of work stumps the viewer completely or needs a full explanation in order for it to be understood, then the concept is perhaps being pushed too far. Cornelia Parker is my bellwether when it comes to conceptual art, and her own labels are factual and often funny. I like her recent Endless Coffee (2022) (which comes after Endless Sugar (2012)), and the way she works with eminent people and institutions to carry out her unusual requests - this time it was Imperial College in her search for a ‘sophisticated squash’ rather than using a steamroller as before.
[Sewing c1924 by Harold Knight]
As ever, radio is a brilliant accompaniment when I am absorbed in making. I am still addicted to Desert Island Discs (eg David Spiegelhalter, but allow for tears), and now Great Lives (the Ivor Cutler one is great) and France Culture. I’ve not quite got into podcasts; I get the impression that anyone who is anyone has a podcast these days, and that everyone goes on everyone else’s podcast, so you could choose one and hear it all just the once instead of being in a soul-baring/hilarious/chummy/how I overcame failure to become the huge success I am today echo-chamber. Cynical? Moi? Having said that, I really like Grant Gibson’s Material Matters (eg Richard McVetis) because artists are amazingly articulate and do the most creative things with different materials, and the Modern House podcast can be fascinating when guests discuss domestic architecture.
[Woman Sewing by Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942]
With absorption comes an absence of self-awareness, self-consciousness, which is why so many painters choose subjects, particularly women, who are concentrating fully on the task in hand. I know that this level of self-containment in young girls and women was often considered worrying - what are they thinking, are they reading mind-altering books - but often I prefer to look at them with a less culturally critical eye, and simply enjoy images of the delightful state of absorption as seen by someone else. (I couldn’t find a single suitable image of a bookbinder.)
And with that, I’ll wish you très bon dimanche!