There’s a delightful TV program on BBC called Mastercrafts, which focuses on traditional crafts practiced in the UK. I recently watched an episode that followed three people who aspired to become weavers. As was commented by the show’s host, master gardener Monty Don, most people think of craft in glowing terms, like it’s all about flow and spontaneity. But weaving is slow, hard, technical work. Before you can begin a project you must divide your string into fixed lengths by winding it through a series of evenly spaced pegs (they call this winding the warp). Then you must set up your loom by threading each string—up to a thousand—through a slender metal rod (called a heddle). The preparation takes absolute concentration: if you make one mistake—the strings are incorrectly positioned, their tension varies, or skip a heddle—then your work is doomed from the onset. Depending on the complexity of the fabric design, it can take up to a week to wind the warp and set up the loom. And all this meticulous effort is just so you can start to weave! (1)
Threading heddles (2)
The Mastercraft episode was structured as a kind of a reality-show boot-camp, where over a grueling seven-week period the trainees were required to complete increasing complex projects. It was fascinating to see how the three distinct personalities responded to the challenge of learning to weave under such stressful conditions. First there was Holly Berry, a clothes designer with a background in fashion, who enjoyed painting intricate patterns and had an emotional connection to fabric. The second trainee, Tref Davies, worked as a business analyst (until he was made redundant), and aspired to become a theatrical costume designer. He felt that his business experience—being systematic, organized, and attending to the multiple strands of various projects—would lend itself to the intricacies of weaving. And last there was Momtaz Begum-Hossain, a craft journalist and blogger, who as a self-proclaimed free spirit hoped to challenge the weaving tradition and infuse it with her own style. As she said before beginning her training, “I’m not a perfectionist. So if I’m sewing something, if I’m knitting something, and I drop a stich, I don’t go back and pick up the dropped stitch, I just make it part of the design.”
Holly and Tref took quickly to the technical complexities of weaving. They carefully attended to the mechanics of how the fabric pattern was related to the winding of the yarn, the threading of the heddles, and the coordinated operation of the loom’s foot pedals. Momtaz, on the other hand, was confused and frustrated by the planning and organization, and had to deal with many mistakes.
Momtaz winding her warp
As the trainees moved on to more substantial projects—for example, weaving a product to sell at the Hereford Crafts Fair—their differing approaches became more pronounced. Holly was enchanted by the intense, coordinated effort entailed in bringing fabric to life. “It’s actually changed my life doing this,” she tearfully said, “and it’s not just about learning new skill anymore. I didn’t think it would connect with me as much in soul as it has.” Tref was fascinated with how complex patterns can be translating to the layout of a loom, and found a computer program that allowed him to play around with different designs. Momtaz, meanwhile, resented being forced to be so formulaic and perfect. She was annoyed to have to fix two missing threads in her weave to make it acceptable to a weaver’s standard, especially given that the fabric would be sold to the general public, who she felt wouldn’t mind a missing thread or two. As she struggled to fix the problem, she lamented, “My life is too precious for me to be doing this at the end of the day.”
For the final project, the trainees were asked to make their “masterpiece”—a three-meter length of fabric that would be evaluated by two judges. The trainee judged to have submitted the best piece would be awarded an apprenticeship at master weaver Margo Selby’s London shop. Tref and Holly got quickly to work. But Momtaz, still shaky on the fine points of setting up a loom, had many false starts; of the seven days allocated for the project, she spent the first five winding her warp and setting up her loom. (3)
Holly ended up finishing an elegant, double-sided fabric. (Because her piece featured two sides with different designs, she had to make twice as much fabric as the other trainees). Tref created a sophisticated piece inspired by street life in Cuba. Momtaz persevered to create a cloth expressive of the natural autumn shades. When the judges evaluated the trainees work, they thought that Momtaz’s fabric was simplistic and representative of early stage development. Holly’s piece, although thought to be professionally executed, was deemed too derivative of existing commercial designs. (I wondered if these two rather stuffy judges resented the obvious commercial appeal to Holly’s work); Tref’s fabric was viewed to be technical brilliant and daringly creative, and he was crowned the winner and awarded the six-month apprenticeship.
Tref's final fabric (4)
Although the TV episode ended here, I felt the story was incomplete. So I did some sleuthing to find out what happened after the three trainees returned home. Momtaz, who continues to work as a craft journalist, commented on her blog that she realized that weaving was not for her, although she might try it again under less stressful conditions. According Tref’s Facebook page, he is working as a capital administrator at a public art center, and remains passionate about weaving, doing commissioned work for interiors, upholstery and fashion. For Holly, her weaving traineeship was transformative. Upon returning home she wrote on her blog, “I loved every moment of my experience, and I will be a weaver whatever it takes!!!” (5) She purchase a loom, enrolled in a weaving diploma program, and proceeded to open her own shop. Her blog provides a fascinating account of the development of her craft—visits Antwerp, Scotland and Hungary to study weaving techniques and manufacturing processes; experimentation with different colors, textures, and geometrical shapes; photographing and studying urban scenes to inform her designs. Her fabric has proven to be commercially popular and is carried by exclusive shops and online retailers. Her signature piece, the “LOVE Blanket”—with a colorful block pattern spelling out the word “love” in Morse code—was featured in Dwell magazine in the US and the Sunday Telegraph Magazine in the UK.
Holly Berry in her shop
Holly's design wall
For many of the TV viewers who watched Momtaz’s struggles, there is a simple moral to the story: You can’t cut corners--you’ve got to put in the hard work to master your craft before you can do serious work. To this effect, Momtaz noted in her blog that some of the show’s viewers commented that she appeared lazy.
Although it might be easy to see Momtaz as a slacker, this doesn’t jibe with her life’s work. She’s an active designer and maker of custom clothing, papercrafts and jeweler, the editor of the UK’s oldest craft magazine, an author of craft books, and an active TV host; in 2016 she was nominated as one of the 100 most influential people in UK craft scene. (6,7) She’s clearly not allergic to applying herself. But weaving is most certainly not her thing. Unlike the other trainees, she never had the burning desire to build fabric from scratch. (She had originally applied to be a trainee in the thatching episode, but had been placed in the one on weaving.) The precise, repetitive actions involved in preparing and working a loom did not suit her temperament nor her strengths, and were experienced as tedious and unpleasant. (In contrast to Tref and Holly, who were enthralled by every bit of the weaving process).
There’s a lot of talk these days about how you need to practice 10,000 hours to become an expert (although I think that this is a bit of an exaggeration). This is often interpreted to mean that the road to mastery is paved with misery, and that success is contingent upon a superhuman capacity for boredom and pain. What’s missing from this perspective is that craftsman love their work. The meticulous, difficult, mentally draining and physically exhausting labor that goes into their craft is their life’s blood, and they can’t live without it. It’s though the day-to-day battle of creating that they discover who they are and find a meaningful rhythm to life.
No one loves every minute of what they do. In fact, any creator can describe (at length!) the misery encountered in her work. In an interview, Holly talked about the emotional highs and lows she experiences while weaving:
It’s definitely not easy all the time. I think the thing with weaving is it can go from a set of threads all behaving in a certain way because you’ve put them in that order and the magic of turning that into a piece of cloth – it can be incredibly euphoric. When you feel like, you know, the world is in order. But then something can go wrong, with the tension, or one of the fibres can snap or it doesn’t do what you’re wanting it to do. I’m a very emotional person, anyone will tell you, and I shed a lot of tears. But if something goes wrong I get into a real flap, but then next minute I’ll be euphoric again. I find it a very emotional process. Very up and down. I’m very dramatic! (laughs). (8)
My friend Jorge is an ultra-marathon racer who competes around the world. Presently, he’s running a 1000-mile race across the ice of Alaska from Anchorage to Nome. One day we were chatting and he described the agony of hill climbing. He said that although it can be miserable running up a mountain, every step resonates with him and feels like part of an unfolding story. For him, it’s a worthwhile pain. My worthwhile pain comes with writing. Some days, I’m so depressed by my trivial ideas and lack of progress that I want to bash my head on the table. Then I sit down and get to work, because writing nourishes a need that nothing else can touch.
There’s an entomologist named Justin Schmidt who has been bitten and stung close to a thousand times by all sorts of unpleasant creatures. He developed the “Schmidt Sting Pain Index” to quantify the degree of pain inflicted by different insects. The scale includes a numerical ranking from one to four (with four being the most painful), along with a verbal description of the feel of the sting. For example, the Sweat Bee, which ranks a one on the scale, is described to feel “light and ephemeral. Almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” (9)
Schmidt notes that pain is often unrelated to actual damage. With a score of four-plus, the bite of the Bullet Ant is perhaps the most painful in the animal kingdom, feeling like “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.” Yet the Bullet Ant’s bite inflicts minimal damage; for most people, it won’t even leave a red mark. A sting can thus be characterized in two ways: by its sensorial pain (how badly it hurts) and its toxicity (how badly it harms you). (10)
The distinction between pain and toxicity is important when thinking about the hardship in your work. If, like a beekeeper, you get stung as part of your daily routine, but without lasting damage, then it’s no big deal. But if your work inflicts lasting harm--you’re forced to engage in actions that deflate your spirit, deplete your sensitivity, negate your values, undermine your strengths, or diminish your sense of worth and efficacy—then its toxic and you’ve got to move on.
Coming back to the weavers, I think the important message is the following: You’ve got to love your work process... and accept the pain. If your annoyed and put-upon by the techniques and nuts-and-bolts practices of your work, then it will always be a struggle and it will always make you miserable. In my coaching work, I’ve run into too many people who’ve forced themselves to pursue toxic work for extended periods of times, and in doing so have become bitter husks of themselves. (The good news is that the process is usually reversible.) If you’re going to invest your hands, heart, and mind into your craft, then it should make your heart sing, so that the inevitable stings along the way are worth it.
1. BBC. Mastercrafts. Weaving, episode 5 of 6. March 12, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rl51q
3. Momtaz. Mastercrafts – my thoughts. Sunday, 14 March 2010. http://cosilikemakingstuff.blogspot.com/2010/03/mastercrafts-my-thoughts.html
4. Holly Berry. Mastercrafts Exhibition. March 16, 2010. http://hollyberryideasdesign.blogspot.com/2010/03/mastercrafts-exhibition.html
5. Holly Berry. My Mastercrafts!. 12 Mar, 2010. http://hollyberryideasdesign.blogspot.com/2010/03/my-mastrcrafts.html
6. Momtaz Begum-Hossain. personal website. Accessed February 27, 2017. http://www.momtazbh.co.uk/craft-expert
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momtaz_Begum-Hossain. Wikipedia. Accessed February 27, 2017 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momtaz_Begum-Hossain
8. Verity Inett. Interview: Holly Berry, Woven Textile Designer. November 12, 2013. http://meetthemakers.co.uk/holly-berry-interview/
9. Science Friday, NPR. From ‘Nettles’ to ‘Volcano,’ a Pain Scale for Insect Stings. 06/24/2016. http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/from-nettles-to-volcano-a-pain-scale-for-insect-stings/
10. Avi Steinbergaug. “The Connoisseur of Pain”. The New York Times Magazine, 06/24/2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/magazine/the-connoisseur-of-pain.html