Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading “Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work”

Coffee and craft

Julian Baggini writes in a thoughtful essay that high-end restaurants in the United Kingdom have thrown out the idea of “artisan” espresso and bought Nespresso machines, which use factory-sealed capsules of precision-ground coffee and can be operated with the push of a button. In fact, as Baggini discovered in a blind taste test, Nespresso is consistently better, or at least more consistently good, than “artisan” espresso made by hand. But, he asks, is a cup of coffee just a cup of coffee — just the momentary pleasure it gives us, a mere utilitarian instrument? Or is it something more — the sum of its relationships to other things? Continue reading “Coffee and craft”

Craft and ornament in baking

One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt. Continue reading “Craft and ornament in baking”

The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft

Time to get serious, now. Thanksgiving is only a day away, and if you haven’t started your preparations yet, you’d best get cracking. I don’t mean brining the turkey or kneading bread dough: I mean being thankful. The point of setting this day aside isn’t just to eat. And yet, of course, to show our gratitude, we hold a feast. How, exactly, is a feast supposed to make us thankful?

I was thinking about this question after reading my local newspaper last week, which wants me to breathe easier about Thanksgiving. Continue reading “The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft”

Of pancakes and elbow grease

One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore. Continue reading “Of pancakes and elbow grease”

Two stools

Since I’ve written a couple of times about working on a shaving horse, I suppose I should post some examples of what I’ve been able to do on it. So far, two stools, functional and good-enough looking, and good projects for building skills.

For my first day working on a shaving horse out at Duke Homestead I just grabbed whatever potentially suitable wood I had lying around, which happened to be some pieces of Bradford pear and dogwood branches I’d trimmed the previous spring, still with bark on. The dogwood was easy enough to work, the pear considerably more challenging: not only is it harder wood, but none of the branches was straight, and each had side branches that had to be trimmed, leaving knots. Back home, after I built my own shaving horse and bought a spokeshave, I had another go at the pear branches. The tricky grain made a good exercise for learning to use the tools, and with considerable patience they turned out gorgeous. So I dug out a piece of butternut I’d bought years ago, cut it for a seat, and made a stool. Continue reading “Two stools”

Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school. Continue reading “Keep home economics in the home”