Vol 8, Num 12 :: 2009.06.05 — 2009.06.19
Hand crafted. Hand painted. Hand woven. Hand quilted. These terms bring a higher value, represent a special touch, and mark a rare individuality. Before the Industrial Revolution, “by hand” was taken for granted. Gradually, mass production and machinery changed our world with no thought of turning back. Speed, efficiency and quantity made sense to a progressive society. We’ve all reaped the benefits of the ideas and dreams of inventors and entrepreneurs. We’ve also borne the consequences of a fast-paced, throwaway culture in which standards of quality have been lowered and the personal element lost. Perhaps this is the reason we treasure items made by hand. They represent time, warmth, durability and something unusual, unique.
Technology has also changed the way we work. We have our own set of “servants” in our homes: a washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, food processer, vacuum cleaner, hairdryer, etc. Our cars, complete with push button windows and locks, zip us to destinations of our choosing. Businesses have gone paperless. Banks offer direct deposit and automatic withdrawals.
I appreciate the ease in which we live, but I’ve also made some choices that leave my kids shaking their heads. I have a small kitchen where I cook from scratch-without a dishwasher. I’d rather use the space to store my ingredients. Though I use e-mail a lot and Facebook a little, my handwriting finds its way into the mailboxes of others. Who doesn’t appreciate a hand written note in the mail? It feeds my soul to use a needle and thread, work in the garden or knead bread.
Nestled in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm represents life of another era, a time when German settlers used their hands to clear land, build cabins, plant and harvest crops, and dig a well. Last summer I donned a petty coat (skirt), short gown (blouse), apron and cap and spent two months of Wednesdays representing the family who lived there 150 years before. In the process, I learned about a people who worked hard, wasted nothing and did most everything by hand. No nail polish or soft hands for those girls!
Quiet Valley is a working farm. The grunts, squeals and squawks of farm animals can be heard coming from barns and pens. Many roam freely. The bake oven yields lingering smells of bread. Pots of homemade soup warm over fires contained by a circle of stones. Hand-dipped candles drape over wooden racks. Hemp twists into rope by turning the handle of a simple early invention. Wool from the sheep is dyed using local plants, then spun and woven on looms into ribbons, belts, rugs and blankets. Straw tubes, soaked and braided, become hats.
One of my jobs was to shuck corn from the garden and blanch it in a huge caldron of boiling water over an open fire. If we needed to turn up the heat, we simply added another log. Then we piled the steaming ears into metal pans and let the water from the hand pump splash them cool. I also brought my thimble to the open barn where several of us gathered around a quilt stretched out over a wooden frame. I hand quilt at home using a plastic Q-snap, but I found something special about many hands working together to complete a common project, loose chickens at our feet notwithstanding!
Many differences exist between the two time periods, but I also found commonalities: the laughter of children, flowers and weeds, colorful butterflies and pesky flies, a sense of accomplishment and of frustration, gratefulness for a simple drink of cool water on a hot day…. Drawn to the familiar, I often detoured to the garden on the farm to identify the plants (and puzzle over a few I didn’t know). We, too, have a large garden where I like to look for blossoms, pick a mess of green beans for supper or find a zucchini for bread. Time stands still there. It wears a hushed expression. And when I stroll back to the house, hands loaded, I carry a bit of the stillness with me.
A thousand years before the birth of Christ, an ancient writer’s pen scratched out his thoughts about the influence of a very capable, “virtuous” lady who worked willingly with her hands (Proverbs 31:13). Her entire description (vs. 10-31) paints a picture of excellence, dedication and care for family and others along with self-respect. The use of her hands enhances her relationships at home and in her community.
Likewise, the fruit of our hands has many faces: A hand-made quilt. A woven tapestry. A hand-knit sweater. A letter. A hand-painted plate. Pieces of pottery from the kiln, lined up on a wooden shelf. Hand-crafted jewelry. Loaves of warm homemade bread. Freshly weeded garden beds. Wooden carvings. Bright melodies from a recorder. A pot of soup simmering on the stove. Clean soapy dishes rinsed and dripping, waiting for a towel. A patch, neatly sewn, on the knee of his jeans. These expressions foster a healthy sense of accomplishment and competency, adding richness to our inner souls and perhaps even depth to our relationships.
Not everyone is handy. Some prefer being able to open a can of something, send a quick text message or purchase a bedspread from Target. Pressing responsibilities may squeeze out the time and resources it takes to plan and execute a by-hand project. But the capacity to “fear the Lord,” live a fruitful life and reach out to others need not be defined by either our creativity or our technological aptitude.
I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the wide continuum between modern conveniences and doing things the old fashioned way, our preferences are not inherently good or bad, better or worse. There’s something far deeper. For though I work with the hands of artists or pioneers, and though I have the gift of creativity and patience, without love, it is nothing. On the other hand, though I work with utmost efficiency and the latest technology, and lack love, this, too, has little profit. To exhibit noble character and grace the choices of others in this regard demonstrates “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31 – 13:1-3).
I appreciate the unique touch of all that encompasses “by hand.” I like to give hand-made gifts and receive them. I enjoy the simple pleasures and satisfaction of doing what I can by hand (while trying to function respectably in an almost “handless” society). But maybe what matters most is not what we do by hand, but how and why we do what we do — what our hearts are saying while our hands are doing, how we connect with God and love the people He has placed around us.
In the past, “by hand” was a way of life. In the 21st century, we have more choices. A wise old sage gave timeless advice: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” — for the glory of God (Ecclesiastes 10:9; 1 Corinthians 10:31).