One of the most interesting classes I took at university was run by the fine art department. This class was about looking at spaces, the outcome was to be a response to a specific space. I ended up making a lantern which told the story of a witch trial which took place very close to me. Something which came out of this project was this idea that a connection to the land had been lost through the persecution of witches. Witches were more like herbalists and this knowledge had been lost because of the witch trials.
It was an idea which fascinated me but as a design student, I was never really able to work on another project like it. This idea of forgotten knowledge stuck with me and as a calligrapher, it’s something I think about a lot. So when I came across Craeft by Alexander Langlands, a book looking at older crafting techniques, crafts we no longer use and in some instances forget even existed. I knew I had to read it.
Craeft by Alexander Langlands
Craeft is a historical dive into older forms of working. Specifically older forms of farming, or crafts which could be used to live off the land. Langlands makes the argument that these types of craft should be considered separate from other trades as they allow the crafter to be self-sufficient (I will share my thoughts on this later).
Most of this is told through a series of anecdotes. Where Langlands details his experience using older crafting methods such as beekeeping, thatching and grass cutting. As a result, Langlands shows some of the benefits of these crafts and why industrialisation has had such a damaging effect on the environment.
My Thoughts On Craeft
I have to admit, I did have a nosy at the Goodreads reviews for Craeft and was surprised by the range of opinions. But through all the opinions, there was one thing which seemed to frustrate many readers. That is how much of the book is specifically about Langlands’ experience.
I didn’t have a problem with this. But I think the criticism on Goodreads comes in part from the book not being what the reader expected. The blurb makes it seem that the book is a purely informational piece about historical crafts, however, I would disagree with this. It’s more autobiographical, with it being specifically about Landland’s experience with many of these crafts.
Landland is an archaeologist and his field of study incorporates many of the crafts mentioned in the book. Though each chapter is about a specific piece of forgotten knowledge. It is written from the perspective of Langland and how he has tried and in some instances uses these crafts on his homestead.
As I said, I wasn’t specifically annoyed by this, but I can see how someone going into this book expecting straight facts would be put off by how much the book is written from Langland’s perspective and more importantly, how much he adds his own opinion to the topic. If you were looking for an unbiased book about forgotten crafts this probably isn’t for you.
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One of the problems with this type of book is that it’s very easy for the author to come across as being very pro-old technology. Alexander Langland is by no means the first person to denounce advancements in technology, but unlike other authors , I’m willing to give him a pass because understanding how these old forms of technology work will help him understand the society in which they were used.
I feel that though he comes across as a bit heavy with the old technology good, industrialisation bad. He does have a point. The way we live right now is damaging the environment. People like to argue about where to place the blame, people or industries but the fact is something needs to be done. I think Alexander Langlands highlights an important fact that we forget. The problem is not that we have to find new ways to live sustainably. It’s that we have forgotten older ways of working which were better for the environment because they used natural materials and created less waste.
I thought I might share what I got from the book and how it links to my own practice because this was the aspect of it which made it enjoyable for me. For those of you who don’t know, I work as a freelance calligrapher. During my final undergraduate year, I wrote a research dissertation looking at historical methods of writing.
The conclusion I came to in that, which Langlands seems to not have mentioned in his book, is that yes, sometimes older forms of technology may be better in some respects. But there is a reason why we don’t use them anymore. If trimming hedgerows by hand, or using a different style of beehive was the best way to do those things, we’d still be doing them. You can make the argument that these older crafts are better for the environment. But in our modern society, it would be almost impossible to implement them on a large scale.
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All that aside, there was an aspect to Langlands’ definition of Craeft that I thought a bit strange. I don’t want to call it gatekeeping. But it’s almost like he’s trying to make it seem as though some crafts are more crafty than others. Calligraphy is a craft, based on the definition on Wikipedia. It is an occupation which requires a specific skill, one that a calligrapher will spend years learning. However, the general sense throughout the book is that Langlands is placing crafts which allow the crafter to subsist by their own hands (digging, beekeeping, weaving) above others.
I found it particularly interesting that a quote he used about a farmer knowing when to harvest. Stating that “haymaking is not just a simple process but one that requires the successful juggling of an inordinate number of variables – a true craft“. This could be just as easily applied to calligraphy, bookmaking, letterpress or many other crafts where the maker needs to have a deep understanding of how their tools and materials work together.
Let me give you an example, as a calligrapher a large amount of my work comes from the wedding industry. Specifically writing place cards. One might assume this is a simple process, you take a pen, ink and write a name on the card. A few weeks ago I had an order for place cards. I have a specific manufacturer I like to buy paper from because I know it works well with calligraphy. However, this particular order needed a specific colour of paper stock. When it came time to write the cards I found the ink wasn’t acting the way I expected. It was feathering and I couldn’t get a clear distinction between thick and thin lines. The hallmark of copperplate calligraphy.
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This was a problem because the customer wasn’t going to pay for less-than-perfect place cards. As a result, I had to systematically go through my materials to figure out where the problem was. I tried different nibs, different inks, I mixed various substances into the inks to give them a different consistency. I even tried different colours of paper from the same manufacturer. Eventually, I figured out there was some issue with the paper itself.
Possibly the paper was slightly damp, or there was some compound in the dye which caused the ink to behave strangely. The point I’m trying to make is that knowing how to change these factors resulted in a final product I was happy with. As Langlands himself says, I had to juggle a number of variables to achieve a successful outcome. I was able to do this because I understand how these materials interact. But according to Langlands this is craft not craeft.
I think the point Langlands is trying to make is good. There are aspects of traditional crafts we have forgotten. We used to have a far more circular economy. There were no issues with waste because that waste went on to be used in other ways. I think there is a lot companies could learn from looking at historical working methods, rather than trying to find new ways to be sustainable. I just wish Langlands wasn’t quite so preachy in the point he’s trying to make.
The problem with these types of books is that it’s hard to give them a star rating. Or even say what type of person would like the book. I know I got something out of reading it. But I also acknowledge that it’s not perfect, the varied opinions on Goodreads show that. This is by no means the only book about older forms of technology. Paper by Mark Kurlansky is a particularly good one. So if you like learning about the history of everyday things, there’s a chance you may enjoy Craeft.
 Whom I refuse to name.