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How wonderful are books?

by Sayraphim on April 19, 2009

I love books. They’re so wonderfully inspiring, you know, when you find the right ones and all, but I’ve lucked in recently and I wanted to share them with you.

It all started the other day when I was in an antique store, and found the History of knitting (also known as Sacred History of Knitting and The Sacred History of Knitting, recent discoveries) by Heinze Edgar Kiewe in the KNITTING section.

It’s a strangely written book from the 70s, and has a number of unsubstantiated claims (for instances, his theory is that the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ that are constantly mentioned in the Bible is actually a mistranslation of a Latin word in an old version of the Bible, and should have been translated as ‘knitted cloth’. However he doesn’t say which Bible or even what the Latin word was, so it’s totally impossible to check out for yourself) but for all that, it is a fascinating read. It also sparked a curiosity in me as to how and why knitting started. Kiewe states that it’s one of the earliest crafts, and has identified what he claims is the oldest surviving knitting needle, which is “probably pre Bronze age”. However, during the rest of the night, researching on the net, I found a claim that it’s very difficult to correctly identify an object as a knitting needle, because it’s basically a long thin rod with a point at one end, and there’s a bunch of things that fit that description including hair decorations and cooking implements.

I found a wonderful article on Knitty.com by Julie Theaker about the history of knitting which I think is much more accurate and seems to be better thought out than most of Kiewe’s claims. If you’re interested, do take the time to read it, it’s very informative and well written. Amongst other things, it explains that the history of knitting is hard to pin down because before people used two needles to knit, they used to knit with one in a process called nalbinding which arguement still rages wether that should be called knitting or wether it’s the precursor to knitting. Upon reading the Knitty article, and others found on the net, it appears that Kiewe ‘s book mostly suffers from the fact it was written in 1969 (or 71, it’s hard to say) and that discoveries and research since then have changed the accepted facts. His book suffers from our hindsight, as it were.

But so this book got me started thinking on the history of craft. I’ve had some thinks about it before, but more to do with the historical distinctions between ART and CRAFT, which can be boiled down to ART is produced by the upper classes and mostly decorative whereas CRAFT is usually more functional and created by the lower classes. Lords, Ladies and those with time and money have leisure time to create beautiful things that have no other function. Lower classes, who have to work long and hard, have little time and money to devote to things that have little actual use. The working classes need to devote what little spare time they have to making things they need, tables, bedclothes, pottery plates ect, whereas a Lady of means has all these things already and lots of time to paint and draw.

I’ve never really thought about the history of the skills themselves, which is strange because a) one of the things I love about knitting is that it makes me feel connected with generations of women who have come before me, and b) I’m a curious young thing. So I decided that I’d embark on learning more about the history of Craft.

The next book I found was Early Decorative Textiles by W. Fritz Volbach in the antique section of a second hand book store (how cool is that? First one was the book section of an antique store, the second was the antique section of a book store) Volbach walks his readers through ancient textile patterns and colours. Unlike most books published in the 70s, this one has all full colour pictures, which really helps with understanding the text. I can’t tell you how many art and craft books I’ve read that specifically mention colour as the important point in the work they’re discussing, yet only have black and white photos to refer to (the History of Knitting also suffers from this problem.)

Next I was in a second hand book store in a little village outside Melbourne which had a huge craft section, and in that I found The Gentle Arts. 200 years of Australian women’s domestic and decorative arts by Jennifer Isaacs which was published as part of the bicentenary celebrations in 1988. It’s a history of Australian women’s domestic and decorative arts. She placed ads in country and community papers calling for people who have heirloom craft items in bottom drawers or packed away in boxes. She was interested in finding not only beautiful works but in the history that accompanies them. The many photos scattered throughout the book are often accompanied by the artist’s name and history. It’s a beautiful book and wonderful to be connected with not just the works but the personal histories behind them. It’s also nice to have a book full of Australian stories. I’m not really that patriotic, I don’t think that Australia is the best country in the world and I don’t own any kind of Australian flag, but it is nice to hear our stories occasionally in books and films, rather than stories of people from across the other side of the world.

Having said that, Isaacs does occasionally draw a long bow on some of her theories (for instance, that the women embroidering Christian images which are based on ancient pagan symbols would probably have subconsciously taken comfort from creating things that recognise the goddess) and she also occasionally misses some important information. For instance, she spends almost a page talking about the Eureka Flag and a replica made by Val D’Angri, a descendant of one of the original flag makers, Anastasia Withers, but doesn’t mention the other two women by name who made the original flag. A quick google search brings up the Wikipedia entry on the Eureka Flag which mentions all three women – Anastasia Withers, Anne Duke and Anastasia Hayes. I’m not suggesting that in 1988 Isaacs could have done the same, but since some of her information comes from the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery which now houses the flag, and she spoke with D’Angri, surely she knew the other two women’s names? For a book dedicated to promoting the forgotten names of those who made such incredible craft work in our history, this seems like a glaring admission. But apart from small things like this, the book is a wonderful history. A nice aside is that one of the 6 or so photographers who have documented the crafts in the book is Julie Milowick, who was one of the photography lecturers at my uni. So it feels like the book has been created by members of my community, which adds another layer of warmth, familiarity and ownership to this book and the crafts within.

At that bookstore I also bought the book Dolls and puppets by Max von Boehn which is a history of dolls, and one I didn’t come across while researching Totem. I’m looking forward to diving into that next!

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