Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Feb

Handicraft: The Ancient Tradition of Creating Things with Your Hands

Anyone who’s spent significant time creating with their hands – whether it be painting, carpentry, knitting, carving, building – can appreciate the distinctive satisfaction it evokes. (I’m using the term broadly.) Handicraft, as wide a spectrum as it can encompass, isn’t about routine chores or fix-its. There’s a difference between grudgingly doing your own home repairs to save money and savoring the experience of meticulously renovating your own home. It’s about the love of the craft on some level. Not everyone would put it in those specific terms, but the people I know who practice handicraft acknowledge they’re drawn to what they do on some subconscious level. Picking up a familiar tool feels comfortable, even calming. The balance of its weight in your hand feels sure. Spending an hour at one’s own workspace (e.g. basement studio, garage workbench), however plain or disheveled, feels like time in a secluded oasis. It’s in the craft that you find focus – flow even. The brush or needles, chisel or knife, spade or hammer become an unconscious extension of self. The mind devises, but the hand itself thinks, designs, knows. In its fullness, we lose ourselves in the full physical experience of craft – in the sensory nuances, in the emotional associations, in the intuitive energy. I’d venture we’re the happier and healthier for these endeavors.

We live in a society enamored by passive entertainment and increasingly invested in the virtual experience. Fewer of us have jobs that show us the tangible results of our efforts. Rarer still are full claim on a project or creative license in our work. It leaves a gap, I think, in how we live – in how we exercise the innate physical and creative abilities that make us human.

Although we tend to think of our pre-Neolithic ancestors as living a life stuck in the dirt with no sense of the arts or any other “refinement,” we’re far off course in that assumption. Artistry is indeed an anthropological indicator of modern behavior, but evidence of these inclinations date back tens of thousands of years before the Agricultural Revolution. Our Paleolithic ancestors were creating jewelry from eggshells and bone fragments. They were sewing clothes with animal sinew. They formed vessels and wove baskets. They created paints and dyes. They chiseled spear heads from metal so brittle few of us can even imagine the deftness required. They meticulously whittled shafts for the most aerodynamic, accurate spears. They designed vast stretches of nuanced cave art.

As anthropologists suggest, these inclinations toward craft and artistry were selected for. They increased the survival chances of individuals and their communities. A skilled spear maker added obvious value. Yet those who could design jewelry or other adornment introduced “material metaphors” and “social technologies” that enhanced kinship relationships and community identity as well as expanded the terms of inter-band negotiation.

Artistry then was usable if not practical. Today, Western society has largely segregated art to an aesthetic corner. It may represent life but doesn’t intersect much with it. However, individuals still practice crafts handed down to them by family or community members. Likewise, many traditional societies continue to pass down the art forms and crafts as “collective wisdom” that help define their distinctive cultures.

A recent study (PDF) conducted by the University of California Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities recently highlighted “the link between traditional artistic practices and mental and physical health.” Although examining such an association isn’t a simple or clear cut task with the methods of standard research, interviews suggested traditional handicraft bears positive impact on measures like “interconnected mind-body awareness,” “spiritual and emotional growth; physical vigor; strengthening of personal and community identity; and mitigation of historical trauma” as well as therapeutic “distraction from illness” and “enhanced respect for elders.”

Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities, explains that several “protective factors” are at work here. The practice of traditional arts, particularly as they’re handed down within a cultural community, affirms “intergenerational involvement” and “community engagement.” As Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, notes, cultural practices are “embedded in everyday life, in ceremonies and family rites of passage” for many traditional groups and have long played a meaningful role in the concept of personal wellness. According to the researchers, traditional handiwork also enhances more individual-based factors like “resilience” and “self-efficacy.”

The study, I think, underscores far more than the power of acculturation. Many of us partake in handicraft arts with only personal interest or perhaps familial, but not necessarily cultural affiliations. Nonetheless, there’s still a gratification that comes from its connection with tradition. We understand that we’re one in a long line of individuals who have practiced the art for decades, centuries, even millennia. The urge to create – what is useful and tangible – is deeply human. There’s something about it that releases stress and brings us back to center.

We develop a reverence for the craft and even a relationship with the tools themselves. They can become more personal than the items we build or create. For those of us who know or have known a craftsman/woman, we honor that association. We pass many things on through the generations. What means the most, however, are the things that our forebears used and made. A decorative item reminds us of a great-grandparent’s home, but a tool or even a baking pan that we saw a grandparent use over the years makes us absorb his/her very presence. We see the years and feel his/her hands in the wear of the item. Likewise, in the creations they made, we preserve a glimpse of their creativity, a parcel of their lifetime. In our own arts, we enjoy and undoubtedly share the same.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the healthful benefits behind handicraft and traditional arts.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Seems to me there are parallels between bread and sugar and all of our digital technology.

    Both are incredibly addictive.

    Both are incredibly unsatisfying.

    Unlike handicraft.

    jturk wrote on February 16th, 2012
  2. My husband and I by choice fix our own cars (we have 3 projects in the pipeline a mini, a charger and an rx7), we also renovated our own house (currently on to second house). I also make jewellery. All of these things are things that don’t feel like work, they give us joy, they make us proud. Everyone around us thinks we are loony for not paying someone else to do them. Whereas we love the fact that we do what we want in exactly the way we want it done, and later on get to enjoy the fruit of our labour. The glass blowing that was mentioned earlier sounds amazing, I will have to add that to the list of things to do!

    AussieCaleña wrote on February 16th, 2012
  3. I recently wove a stone sling from a leather chord. it was a lot of fun making this very ancient hunting weapon. I may take up flint knapping this summer. It may be fun to learn the skills our ancestors used for daily survival.

    PaleoDentist wrote on February 16th, 2012
  4. Herzog. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Watch it.

    I’ve done a few drawing classes in times past, and I was absolutely mind blown by the dimensionality and the emotional dynamics of THIRTY THOUSAND year old drawings in Chauvet Cave.

    Joe Brancaleone wrote on February 16th, 2012
  5. In the last few months I’ve enjoyed a return to dressmaking and knitting, simply for the pleasure of the ‘doing’ and the satisfaction of the ‘wearing’ something I’ve created. And there’s nothing like wearing bespoke one-off creations!

    It has brought my mother and I closer again after a period of familial discord triggered by my wayward daughter. My mum and I have found a neutral ‘zone’ in exchanging tips and talking about my creations and thereby an ability to communicate again.

    And to add to the intergenerational theme I’ve been using vintage 40s patterns which hooks me back into the era my mother’s mother was making clothes. It was she that taught me to knit, my mother I watched sewing through my childhood.

    What will today’s children learn from their parents I wonder …

    Kelda wrote on February 16th, 2012
  6. I love this post. It’s spot on what mark says.. for me when i create something, there’s nothing else like it. I draw and paint when i get a chance and my work is based on design and manufacture. All in all it’s pretty much what i do all of the time. Does it make me happy ? hell yeah :o)) I finished a canvas painting last week in fact, my three year old daughter asked me to do a picture for her, of a tree with some pink hearts on it. So i grabbed a canvas and some acrylic paints, swallowed my testosterone and painted away.. you can see it here if you’re interested :

    Carl wrote on February 17th, 2012
  7. Learn it…Make it..Master It…beats the hell out of “go buy it” any day>>>
    Tap into the Instincts you have ….make something or do something without a machine>>>>
    GROK ON>>>BY HAND>>>

    Dave PAPA GROK Parsons wrote on February 17th, 2012
  8. I am a trained artist. I’ve learned fiber arts, jewelery making of a few sorts.As modern illnesses robbed me of energy and concentration (and added a perfectionistic streak), the striving for quality needed to create “good” or “better” items overcame the stress relief of the process. Spinning wheel, loom, knitting needles and jewelry making materials got stored away so that they didn’t cause more stress and illness.
    Now I am a mother of an active 4-year-old and the labor-intensive and thought-intensive craft work don’t mix well with supervising and teaching this growing mind adequately. All while maintaining a home and feeding the family.
    That said, I had a wonderful experience creating a homemade Valentine for my husband by carefully coloring a mandala. It slowed my mind, centered me and gave me creative outlet as I chose colors and carefully hand-wrote my message to my love. The mandala-coloring experience is a great stop-gap at this season of my life.

    Dineen wrote on February 17th, 2012
  9. I could not agree more! I have been thinking quite a lot lately about how most things in our society are mean to be thrown away. I like having things that last and that are well made or hand crafted. Things that I cherish. Things that my family has made or passed on to me. I truly believe that this creates a sense of connection, meaning and decreases stress.

    Heather wrote on February 17th, 2012
  10. This is a beautiful post. I hope you start a category of posts like this. I think our modern life not only divorces us from healthful food but separates us from the things of our lives. I am no artist, but I have engaged in crafts like basketry and shoemaking. I play musical instruments in jam sessions with other people even though I’m not very good at it. I don’t have to be good and they welcome me. We play in the park and people stop to listen and dance and I can’t tell you how many people have never seen spontaneous accoustical music that is not a performance, that is just simply there for free and for fun.

    Diane wrote on February 17th, 2012
  11. I would love to see some research on perhaps the Top 5 best ways to learn the basics and advanced skills of carpentry/woodworking. By this I dont mean, “Simple, go to engineering school” or “work under a carpenter for 10 years”

    Some simple Pareto’s principle stuff.

    Perhaps the top how to DIY book
    The best classes or certifications
    Top 10 tools to own

    Etc. This would be super helpful for those who didn’t grow up learning these very important skills.

    Marcus Wolford wrote on February 17th, 2012
    • The Woodwright’s Shop book series come to mind…you might want to try those!

      Cathy Johnson (Kate) wrote on February 17th, 2012
  12. Very crafty here! Sew, knit, crochet, quilt, rug hooking (not latch hooking, though I did that back in high school), bobbin lace, inkle and card weaving, counted cross-stitch n embroidery, beading, cooking and baking, and doll making. Oh and cold process soap making. On my to learn list is nalbinding, which is Norse knitting and needle punch, which is ‘kinda’ like rug hooking.

    I started crafting at age 6 when one grandmother taught me needlepoint. Sewing came at 7, quilting and counted cross stitch came at 16, embroidery at around 11. 29 brought knitting, crocheting, inkle and card weaving, and so forth. I really enjoy working with my hands and having something to show for my time spent.

    Karen wrote on February 17th, 2012
  13. Last Sunday I went to the hardware store, bought a length of rope, and leant how to splice a loop in order to make an extension for my dog leash. Felt good to be doing something like that with my hands, plus I saved about $20! Bonus.

    William L wrote on February 21st, 2012
  14. I enjoy sewing (making/designing clothes) so much that once I get started on a garment I don’t want to stop—had to spend most of my days off work the last few years with one eye on the clock at all times so couldn’t enjoy the flow experience of seeing all the parts of a garment come together. Now, my situation is totally different so I have an old joy back at last.
    I also sang for many, many years (trained opera singer) but now that voice is 90% gone am looking for other musical expressions, starting w/ the bodhran (traditional frame drum) I bought in Ireland. Something deeply satisfying about creating a rhythm for others to build upon w/ other instruments or just to get up and dance!!

    shrimp4me wrote on May 7th, 2013
  15. Handicraft
    Handicraft is a unique expressions of art which represents a culture, tradition & the heritage of a specific country. It beautifully keeps the age old culture alive & maintains the craft’s exotic legacy & tradition. Every country has its own unique handicraft style bringing forth the diverse historical aspects in beautiful forms of handicrafts. Highlighted with distinct designs & finishes, the handicraft items speak loud & clear about the excellent artistic skills of craftsmen which makes the pieces absolutely invaluable.
    Handicraft industry
    Handicraft is a part of almost every country where the artisans & craftsmen indulge in bringing forth the rich heritage of any country focusing on it’s history, culture & tradition. In this context, the rich cultural countries of Asia as Nepal, China are deeply immersed into the production of handicraft items which are in high demand in the global market.
    One of the best collection of Handmade handicrafts is placed in this site. The export business of handmade handicrafts of Nepal had flourished and it is still in demand from most in the european and american countries.

    When the market is demanding quality handmade handicrafts, it equally becomes important to manage the supply of these products. Vender Management is what we have implemented. Whether you are a Wholesaler, who needs a lot of handmade handicrafts of Nepal or a client, whose purchase requirement is few, the handmade handicrafts products displayed here are collected from many different vendors around the Nepal.

    sajan wrote on June 26th, 2014
  16. Working in the earth – YES! It is a form of meditation for me, too. I’ll definitely try this. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    Diana S wrote on July 20th, 2016
  17. I LOVE BUILDING!!! My Mom taught me to cook and my Dad taught me craftsmanship since a very young child. Currently I am building many things one of which is strength training logs.

    Christian wrote on August 3rd, 2016

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