About Being Present In What You Make
Sometime around the age of 11, my mother was taking in knitting orders for heavy wool ski sweaters, the kind with a snowflake pattern ringing the chest. Until then, she had mostly been knitting baby blankets and clothing with fine yarn in soft pastels, so I found the ski sweaters striking. Their thick wool in navy and burgundy felt strong and masculine, and I would pull them on in secret to feel their weight hang on my shoulders, even though the adult-sized sleeves reached to my knees.
One day when my mother and I were in the car together after closing up her rented craft table at the mall, she started talking about knitting machines and how she could knit so much faster with one. She verbally worked out the math of the cost of a knitting machine versus the present costs of her supplies and time, wondering out loud if it would mean more money if she could crank out knitting like some of the other sellers.
Something inside me went cold at the thought of my mother with a knitting machine. What made her knitting hers was her style. She created beautiful stitches with such even and perfect tension. Together, they were a fingerprint I could pick out on sight. If she used a machine, her trademark style would be gone, and her knitting would disappear unremarkably into the rows of other items lining tables at shows.
Within a few minutes, I became so upset at the thought that I could barely speak through my tears in the passenger seat. I tried to express what I felt a machine meant for her work, why the death of what made it essentially hers also stole the essential value of her craft, but I couldn't. I felt this profound sense of loss at the idea that I might no longer recognize her work, which was one of the few physical connections to her that I understood.
Even at 11, I could see that my drama was running a bit high, but I was struggling to hold onto ideals against the reality of growing up into a world that pushed against them. The financial demands and time constraints of a 39-year-old mother looked tragic to a pubescent idealist whose heart wanted everyone to be a secret artist. I felt I was a secret artist.
In the end, my mother never did get that knitting machine. I think she decided she would have to work too many versions of the same sweater through the boring matter of a machine for it to pay itself off. She also quit knitting those ski sweaters. Some things, even if you're great at them, just aren't worth the time, and the world went on without mourning the loss of a great fibre artist. I eventually got my period and decided that my greater concern was to work on bad poetry in the middle of the night while listening to CBC's Brave New Waves.
That ten-minute car ride with my mother in 1984 is still what I think about, though, when the things I love and the ideals I still hold onto seem too difficult. It would be easier to be less difficult, but when I think about outsourcing certain creative aspects of my work or automating content — in essence, making a machine of what I love — the fingerprint of my mother's knitting sometimes pulls me back.
My work has a fingerprint. Your work has a fingerprint. Online, it can be easy to make a formula of what we do and stamp it out all day, all month, or all year long if we want, but the heart drops out of it when we do that, our fingerprints disappear, and everyone can see it when it happens.
It's true that not all work needs our fingerprints, but sometimes we are the value that can't be effortlessly replicated.
I still like to believe that we are all secret artists.