Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, by Alexander Langlands, Norton, 2017. $26.95 Amazon link
You may have noticed that there’s a handicrafts revival going on. Every month there seems to be a new craft market to shop at, another friend picking up a crafty hobby, and a new DIY social media celebrity to follow. For most of us, it’s just one more curious little corner of modern life. If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, then this is nothing new, but if you’re the sort of person who wonders what this whole handicrafts revival really means, I have a book for you.
Alexander Langlands is an English archaeologist who has spent the last few years attempting to recreate a number of traditional handicrafts, both professionally for BBC reenactments and in his own home-life in England. His book is both the story of his adventures in handicrafts and a defense of doing things the “old-fashioned” way.
He begins by defining his keyword, “cræft,” as “wisdom that furnishes the practitioner with a certain power,” which may sound more political than it really is. (There is, of course, a political element to the book, but Langlands consistently avoids politicization. It’s a little like reading Wendell Berry without the polemic.) Each chapter focuses on a different kind of handicraft that Langlands has explored. There are predictable topics like weaving and basket making, but most of the topics will come as a surprise to American readers—haymaking, skep beehives, thatched roofs, stone walls, and even ponds for watering livestock.
This is not a “how-to” book, and there are few detailed instructions. You have to read it like an adventure story. Our hero, the author himself, comes across as a fairly average person at first. Although he does have a significant lineage (his Scottish grandfather made wooden golf clubs), he is not distinguished by any exceptional talent or social status, but only by his curiosity about his surroundings, his persistence in the face of difficulty, and his willingness to take chances. He sets out to escape the soulless drudgery of modern, technological life and rediscover older, more meaningful ways to live.
There are episodes detailing the arming of the hero—he discovers a secondhand suit of Harris tweed, and he learns to use a shepherd’s crook. There is an encounters with a wise old counsellor—an old shepherd called Mr. Mudge. There are even numinous objects that, if not exactly magical, definitely have that sort of appeal to the reader—an apple left on an attic rafter is still eatable after being rediscovered six months later. As an American, I found this English hero especially attractive: like the prototypical American, he finds himself in a strange, forbidding landscape and must learn to make his way in it if he can.
Langlands is also an explorer who becomes a homesteader, and as an archaeologist, he is also something of a time-traveler, taking us back into earlier ages to discover not only what people did in order to live, but also how and why they did it that way. Often, people in the distant past made choices based on the simple availability of materials. One of the most important themes of the book is that good materials for crafts are all around us—as they always have been. It’s a different perspective on the current trend toward “locally-sourced” foods and goods. Instead of deciding ahead of time on what he needs and seeking out goods that are “locally sourced,” our hero repeatedly finds himself looking around his local landscape for solutions to immediate problems in his house and garden, and he often finds it necessary to adapt traditional methods of working to the local materials at hand. The book has encouraged me to take a look around my own neighborhood for materials I can experiment with using in my own handicrafts. Rather than bemoan the lack of locally-grown walnut and maple, I can learn to appreciate the locally-available pines and cypresses.
The book’s only major drawback is the lack of pictures or illustrations. While Langlands is an excellent wordsmith, and many of his descriptions are both technically precise and visually evocative, I would not have understood a number of his passages had I not first read an older book called The Forgotten Crafts by John Seymour, which is a richly illustrated book about all manner of traditional handicrafts. I highly recommend getting Seymour’s book and reading it alongside this one.