The Artisan-Intellectual, or Thoughts on Self-Identity

Dear Readers,

Some of you know that a few months ago I left my job at The Fort in order to begin a masters program in American Material Culture at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Going back to school represents a significant change in my life. In some ways though, this is just the end effects of an older and more painful change. Reflecting on this has inspired some ideas around thinking, craft, and self-identity.

The summer before my final year in university, my right wrist started to hurt whenever I sewed. It kept hurting over that whole school year, as I worked through my final year of a combined honors degree in Early Modern Studies and Costume Studies. It got worse, and after graduation, I began looking for a remedy. I managed to get my arms to a place where they were mostly free of pain, so long as I adjusted my activities around what they could handle, but gripping a needle for more than ten minutes was beyond what my wrists could take.

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Asked to enact my identity in a headshot the summer after graduating with my BA, I wore a thimble on my right middle finger, as if ready to stitch. 

Three years later, I am still processing this ax-blow to my sense of self. I have been making for as long as I can remember, and at 23 I had been sewing for almost two decades. They say you need to put in ten-thousand hours to truly master a skill, and I had done my time. Now it didn’t count. Making my living through the meticulous hand-stitched replicas of historic garments that I loved was no longer possible, so who was I?

 

It was the summer of 2014. I thought about grad school. I’d earned a combined honors degree after all — half in craft, and half in hardcore humanities — and I’d done it because as much as I like to make, I also like to think. Environments that focus on craft work can be frustratingly shallow in the intellectual department, and so perhaps this was my opportunity to explore another side of myself. I very nearly got in to the one program I applied to, and then I didn’t.

I got offered a job at The Fort, and I spent a couple years as a costumer (in a position where someone else did the hand sewing). I spent my long commute thinking about history, gender, and identity. It was that thinking which inspired this blog. But underneath that train of thought were other ideas – ones that didn’t have to do with dress, or women’s roles in military history, or hairy legs. They were ideas I hadn’t dared to think back when I was a seamstress, because they had been so thoroughly off topic. I thought about what it meant to make; about the process of inventing; about the evolution of technology. I thought more than I dared to admit about my mysterious fascination with water powered mills.

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One of the many 19th-century black powder mills at Hagley Museum, just around the corner from Winterthur, and utterly enthralling!

Injuring my wrists had thrown my life off it’s course in a profound, if not particularly dangerous, way. After two years stagnating in my comfort zone, it seemed like the only thing to do was to embrace the new direction. I re-applied to the program at Winterthur.

Now, a week into our Summer Institute, I’m pondering self-identity again. I am so very excited to explore a range of interests that I might never have given the time of day if circumstances hadn’t forced my hand — or perhaps I should say my wrist. At the same time, I’m not ready to give up being an artisan, even if I’ll never be the seamstress I was, uninjured, at 22. I don’t want to get out of school and go back to spending my commute thinking big ideas, because it’s the only spare time I have. Neither do I want to relegate craft work to the realm of “hobby.” I would like a life where mind and hands work together to create a greater whole. I’ve got two years to contemplate what that might look like, and I hope I figure it out.