“You are wasting wa-a-a-a-y too much time on that chair,” my wife commented. She thought there were more productive things I could be doing and she may have been right. Nonetheless I wanted to try something I had never done before to see if it would work out; to weave a rush seat in a Shaker chair I had put together. Rush may be an oxymoron in terms. The chair was not done in a rush. It could not have been. All told, it took me a day and a half to weave the rush seat. Partly because of my own clunkiness and of course because I had never done it before. This is the first world. Who in the first world, weaves a seat for a chair? Isn’t that what the third world is for?
And so I had a first-world dilemma on my hands, at least according to the calculation of my wife. She thought the time spent was unprofitable. Perhaps it would have been more worthwhile if it was fast, cheap, and easy like most things we get in the West. Why bust your cans on something you can buy relatively cheaply? That is, the labour can be bought dirt cheap. Though the skills are all but forgotten, they are dismissed out of hand as non-essential, and worse, mundane. Nobody likes mundane tasks. They are the mark of the servant.
Hegel famously weighed in on the value of time spent on “task” kind of work, in his master-slave dialectic. The master has all of the power. The slave has none. All of the slave’s time, is subject to what the master wants. He is therefore a poor man. But… not so fast notes Hegel. The rich man sits idle. He gets rusty and unaccustomed to doing even the most prosaic things. He relies on everybody else. The servant on the other hand, becomes skilled, knowledgeable and capable, things not normally attributed to a slave. And so he is enriched by his own labour, strengthened, made wise, and able to navigate the world around him.
That, really is why I built the chair. I wanted to see if I could do it, and what was involved. My results would likely be a fail by a chairmaker’s standard, but I was nonetheless pleased, and learned a few things. First of all, how hard it is to weave a chair seat. There are many little nuances involved. The jute is wound onto the chair frame in a clock-wise manner, doing a clover leaf kind of loop over the rungs as you go, and alternating what is over, and what is under. You have to pay attention. It is easy to get derailed. More than that, you have to unwind the jute onto a dowel, so that it is thin enough to pass through the rungs, and through the hole itself as it becomes smaller in the middle. You have to avoid knots which is hard to do. If you have to join the strand, you make the tie so that it is UNDER the chair and out of view.
Really, it’s an exercise in the value of labour. Truth be told, most things I did which were creative were hard. They were also worthwhile. They pitted my pale humanity against a history of craftsmen who had laid the way, and in a lot of cases passed on their skill and knowledge. They made me pay attention to the order and patterns that exist within nature, a nod to a Creator somewhere else, invisible to the eye.
The original “unions” were in fact guilds, intended to guard the secrets of a trade, and to ensure that the workman was respected. Represented as a group with some solidarity in interests, they ensured that they were well paid for their cleverness. That is, unless the lord of the manor chose to pick up a few thousand pounds of stone rubble himself, and work them into a private fortress. Good luck with that.
There are also a few Christian notions in here, mixed in with the idea of work, and what it is for. Today’s standards ensure that work is ONLY ever valued by a dollar/cost ratio. Its stock and trade is imbalance. Buy low, sell high. Go where labour is cheap. Take advantage of disadvantage and leverage it for the best dollar value. It is a particular part of the modern work ethos, known as supply chain, also known as a race to the bottom. It is premised on the idea of devaluing things, so that they can be had cheaply. The people subject to these calculations, can also be had cheaply it would seem.
John Ruskin famously wrote a treatise he called “Unto This Last”. The phrasing likely falls dead upon the modern ear. For readers of the King James Bible, they will recognize it right away as the punch line for a parable Jesus told about some workers, found in Matthew chapter twenty. Some were picked up from the curb and called early to the harvest fields. They laboured all day long. Later on, the owner of the fields saw some more men lounging around on the curb and invited them to make some money as well. They came to the fields, and at the end of the day when the workers were collecting their pay, those who came last who spent half a day labouring, were paid the same as those who came in the morning and worked through the heat of the day. Those first called complained. They felt they had been unjustly done. The owner of the field replied, “Take up that which is thine, and go thy way; it is my will to give unto this last, even as unto thee”.
Ruskin’s point at the end of his treatise, was that wealth in the end has little to do with money. It has to do with life, and those efforts which support life. Ask any rich person who has cancer, and they will tell you right away where true wealth lies. John Ruskin was not against making things, he was rather FOR people, which set the capitalists of his day’s teeth on edge. He was excoriated in popular journals of the day. Nobody wanted the cost of labour to be messed with.
And yet… I think Ruskin had something there. Trying to figure out how much a chair is worth, perhaps it is worthwhile to weave one and see how it goes. You may end up with squinty eyes, and a sore back, envying the skill of the accomplished worker who can pull it off faster than you can. We are all making something. Some of what we make is visible. It is to make the world a beautiful place. Khalil Gibran went so far as to say that work is “love made visible”. I like the visible part myself. I like to see what I have made with my own hands. It saddens me when inevitably, my skills are subjected to a cost-benefit analysis of how much someone else can make off my labour, and how cheaply I am to be had. It makes me wish that artists everywhere had trade guilds to guard their precious secrets, and the real value of the beauty and order they are making out of chaos. The bean counters of life, well, we all know that money must be made. It is the truck and trade of living, the need to buy things to serve our needs.
Still, it is probably a worthwhile venture to sit down and try to make the things you buy so thoughtlessly. It will change your persective on everything. It may elevate your view of the labourer and his world. To think lightly of those who make things, makes it easy to think lightly of the one who also made people. Some, self included, would call that a sin.