Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Warning: A Ramble on Perfection in craftsmanship.

Going to ramble a bit…and it is a ramble, just so you are warned.

Something I ran across today (not sure where) is this article (have you read it? you can continue the paragraphs below.  Read this one too, if you haven't before.), which talks about the difference between the real idea of handmade (where every possible detail is attended to with the utmost discipline) and the modern (and this article was written in ’59) idea of handmade (which is that it is full of flaws).  The keyword here is discipline—not settling for anything less than perfection in every step, starting with the base product for the craft; in the fit of the product to that exact customer.  Thinking about this, I believe it started with Beau Brummel, and his beginnings of focusing on the exacting details of his clothing.  When the gentleman shows his quality by the extremely finicky details of his possessions, and not settling for less, it rolls down to the craftsman (who has to figure out how to obtain the results), and the levels of apprentices; and thus, with every generation, the knowledge base of the details grows.  This is even still happening, with the finest bespoke tailors, who have a tradition of perfection; I believe that the majority of the knowledge has not been lost.  It is just inaccessible to everybody unable to take a traditional seven year apprenticeship, probably in foreign countries.

              I am not happy with the quality of my work.  End of story.  Then again, maybe it should be the beginning.  It is not even close to standards I look up to in my mind, and hold in high regard…this gap has only gotten more noticeable when I started looking in Victorian clothing, which is much closer to modern construction and led to me looking at bespoke tailors blogs.  If/when I get a compliment on something I made, my mind immediately goes “BS!” and I have to fight myself to not point out the errors and flaws.  Something that I, and anyone else who works with over 1500 years of clothing, have to bear in mind that quality varies, as do the techniques used; if you are making a Norse tunic, you are dealing with one layer of fabric, plus trim--just make sure the fit is correct, seam treatments are proper, stitching even, etc.--and even if you do not succeed, there is documentation for that; when the level of fitting and detail goes through the roof, as for a frock coat, you have all so much more, down to exactly how you press the material before working.  Before I continue, another question is; Should we settle, when it is more HA to not be perfect?
               I think we should not.  Even though errors, flaws, and imperfections are extremely common in medieval and renaissance craftsmanship (as well as later, likely), we can use working on them as a way to increase accuracy--which will be used on other things--without as much stress.
               So…how can we (I) fix this?
               The first, and most immediate thought is to stop settling (I will be concentrating on sewing clothing, since that is my main interest).  If the fit is not quite right, fix it (I suggest keeping plenty of materials for mockups on hand).  When the pattern almost doesn’t match, pull out your basting (you basted, right?) and redo it.  Your buttonholes suck?  Mine do--grab the scrap fabric and practice...something I don't do nearly enough.  However--it isn't even remotely practical to aim for perfection all the time.  There are times (say...set-up clothing) when it is pointless; do you allow quality to slip then, and possibly risk a bad habit, or look as those as practice pieces...
I can see two major obstacles for the home craftsman seeking perfection (I’m not even going to consider time): the first is finances.  I cannot afford to trash materials because we are slightly off, and I cannot afford the optimal materials.  The second (possibly), lack of the knowledge base—I’m finding that a lot of the information does not show up online, since it is knowledge that your master is supposed to pass on…and as amateurs, our masters may not have that information.
              I’m going to say that the first, while an issue, is our own problem—some people don’t have it.  However, the only way I can think of to get around the second is to troubleshoot—spend a lot of time thinking about cause and effect of every stage of construction, and not only how to get the result you want, but what that result actually is.  So, without the teacher who has the knowledge of generations, I/we have to research, ponder, experiment, and KEEP NOTES—then repeat unto eternity; even with a teacher with the wisdom of ages, I suspect the same is encouraged, in order to make you think for yourself.  I stress to keep notes, because, unless you have a didactic memory (sometimes I wish I did), you are not going to remember all of your thoughts, notions, or results.
              My point is that all we can do is keep CONSTANT VIGILANCE* against errors--I don't have a customer who will send the garment back again and again.  That has to be done all by yourself--maybe I should create an eccentric, and demanding, second personality to help myself do so.  It will take far longer for me to get to the finished product--more in time spent practicing as needed, and even more time thinking, but I might actually be happy with the result. 
              Another point, which for me is...unhelpful, is that perfection can never be obtained, only aimed at.  Sadly, I aim like a blind man with a musket, and my goal is to be firing guided missiles.

/end ramble¨.  Thanks for listening—if you have any comments please leave them (and I would appreciate it if any laurels or other apprentices reading this did)—and happy nitpicking on your craft. 
*yes, I had to add a Harry Potter reference in.
¨You may note that I went from a focus on talking to myself to discussing it with a second party.  Firstly, I tend to think conversationally; secondly, at some point I decided that maybe I should put these thoughts out there.

© John Frey, 2014. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.  Photographs of my work may not be duplicated.

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