Making? Whoopee!

Work in progress. Blocked felt crowns drying in the sun. Crown and brim workshop, Stockport Hat Works, May 2016.

Practice, practice, practice. Blocked felt hats drying in the sun. Work-in-progress at the ‘crown and brim’ workshop, Stockport Hat Works, May 2016.

As the academic year – with its teaching, timetables and general bustle – rolls to a close, I have found myself with time to turn to creative pursuits.  I have to tread carefully here in order not to be contrary.  I firmly, very firmly, believe that (academic) writing is itself creative practice.  For me, filling a blank page or computer screen with text is very much a making process.   But all too often and too frustratingly (and here I begin my manifesto), writing, especially of the academic variety is overlooked, or even misunderstood, as ever being a creatively-led production or as requiring deliberate practice.  Publishable, peer review-ready, words and sentences do not just fall from the sky (nor this professor’s fingertips).  Not at all.  Practice makes perfect.  And even then it still hurts.  (I’ll go ahead here, albeit reluctantly, and cite Gladwell’s spurious-seeming claim that it requires 10,000 hours* of practice to achieve mastery in any given field).

At school, we’re often encouraged to be scientific in our reporting and to attempt objectivity.  The academic world is  viewed by some as  being about the production of facts, of figures and – heaven forfend – the pursuit of truth.  The Age of Reason (back in the long eighteenth century) had a lot to answer for in this regard, since it gave rise to a scientific method that priveleged reality over myth (if you’ll pardon the philosophy-lite explanation).  The point I’m getting around to making is that theory and practice sometimes, too often, seem to inhabit different worlds and are pursued by different people as different concerns.  (Yes, that, too, is a vast simplification).  In many ways, I’m referring to myself  and my own situation here.  I’m acutely aware of the dilemma whereby I tend – or have tended – to write and to theorise about the (products of) creative process without being, well, very creative about it.  My thinking has been (somewhat) divorced from any making or the materiality of that which is made.  I’ve been busy producing words about things rather than producing things or engaging with them as things.  At least, not until fairly recently.

This dilemma between my positioning as a theorist and practitioner isn’t easily reconciled or quickly resolved.  The dilemma has, however, opened up a welcome and fertile avenue to explore further and I am inching along it little by little using a variety of means, as follows.

Firstly, I’ve been trying to become more familiar with some of the literature on practice-led research, creative knowledge production and materiality.  There’s any number of authors to go at in that regard from Heiddegger to Sennett.  Tim Ingold’s work, emerging out of anthropology, has been useful.  In his celebrated article, Materials Against Materiality (2007), he makes a compelling case for the study of things through a practical engagement with them.  He gives the examples of sawing logs, building a wall, knapping a stone and rowing a boat (and, invoking a similar thesis, Martin Heidegger, famously, writes of the hammer).  Discovery and knowledge about the material world is, for Ingold, about processes rather than finished products.  He asks (2007, p. 3):

might we not learn more about the material composition of the inhabited world by engaging quite directly with the stuff we want to understand…could not such engagement – working practically with materials – offer a more powerful procedure of discovery than an approach bent on the abstract analysis of things already made?

Interesting?  I’ve charted some of this terrain in a bit more detail in my latest essay (published THIS WEEK as part of my bigger The Dress Issue project).

Secondly, and to return full circle to the point at which I began this blog entry, I’ve dedicated much of the summer (so far) to making things (and particularly, but not exclusively, to developing my millinery practice).  I’ve been under the expert tutelage of Sue Carter and Marie Thornton, taking their excellent hatting workshops at both the Stockport Hat Works and, now that I’ve relocated to the hills near Huddersfield, The Millinery Studio, which, as chance would have it, is right on my doorstep.  I spent last weekend, for example, working with (read: ‘wrestling with’) a material called buckram in order to make foundation shapes for covered headpieces.  Success comes in small triumphs as a novice hat maker and I was delighted to win the close-fought battle of stretching, shaping and pinning the wetted, absurdly sticky, buckram into a form that was wrinkle-free yet suitably head-shaped.  Whilst Ingold may endorse working practically with materials, he says nothing of those materials intent on working against you.

*10,000 hours?  Apparently, that’s 90minutes every day for twenty years.  So, let’s get cracking.

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