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Review: Hand Made in Tasmania

Many people I know gravitate to antiques – tools or toys, decorations or devices -- for their beauty and durability. Why, however, must these qualities be antique? Age alone does not improve most items; on the contrary, antique buyers must accept deterioration as part of the item’s already high price.

What draws most antique lovers is not antiquity itself, I suspect, but craftsmanship, the hours of care and lifetime of skill imbued in the final product. A chair, a knife, or even a toy made before the energy needle often meant an investment of many hours of work by someone who had trained for years to master their craft. Such handiwork might last centuries – we have a desk two hundred years old, for example – and if the work breaks it can be repaired or the pieces replaced.

While I was writing this, as it happens, my family was watching old film footage of a shoe shop in the town of Naas, two hours' bicycle ride from us. The film, taken in the 1980s, showed the cobblers wrapping the leather to the shape of their client’s feet, adding layer upon layer, polishing, sewing and adding hundreds of tiny marks solely for decoration. I remarked on the hours and attention devoted to a single shoe, and my mother-in-law, who restored antiques here for decades, said, “Yes, but a pair lasted me thirty years – in six months your sneakers must be thrown away.”

Decades from now, our store-bought goods will not be antiques. Most of them are made of plastic or have some small plastic part, designed to break quickly and require a new purchase -- so most cannot be repaired, and those made of plastic and chemically-treated wood cannot even be safely burned.

"Hand Made in Tasmania," edited by Steven French, features 39 crafters who adopted the opposite values, who eschewed modern careers for a vocation. From luthiers to saddlers, felters to binders, each of them embraces, revives and sustains trades that we almost lost when everything became lightly acquired and discarded.

Each chapter, two to four pages long, offers a concise portrait of a single artist; how they came to their esoteric field, and why they have devoted their lives to it. Each explains the quirks of their passion, so we read whiskey distiller Patrick Maguire point out that his product can last virtually forever, or whip-maker Simon Martin explain that kangaroo leather is the strongest leather in the world.

Some of the crafts threaten to disappear altogether; saddler Rick Allen said that his profession was taken off the apprentice list in 1938, and that the last saddler in his city of Hobart died forty years later, the day he opened his shop. Martin said that only 12 whip-makers are left in the world, and that their average age is 68.

Other featured artists revive old techniques; glassblower James Dodson said he uses the same approach as Syrian craftsmen 2,000 years ago. Still others find new methods unique to their region; Joanna Gair makes paper using native plants and kangaroo dung. Some turn modern rubbish into art, like Debbie Reynolds’ baskets of found rope, driftwood and shells.

While the majority of the artists are native Tasmanians, a few came from elsewhere; shoemaker Luna Newbie from the UK, knife-maker John Hounslow from New Zealand and beekeeper Yves Ginat from France. In some cases they began in a different field that led them, unexpectedly, to their craft; Hounslow came to knives through cooking, Ginat to beekeeping from farming.

French quotes author Mark Thomson that “… our civilisation, created by technology, is simply an unstable veneer that could snuff out as suddenly as a blown light bulb, leaving us with nothing to fall back on.” Some of these artists will be the people we will turn to in such circumstances – beekeepers, cheese-makers, boat-builders and basket-weavers.

Many of the subjects, admittedly, lean in more purely artistic directions: Rebecca Coote’s glass installations, Ben Kurczok’s hand-crafted kaleidoscopes, Susie McMahon’s sculpted dolls and Emma Colbeck’s refashioned buttons. But the world needs beauty as well, and the same hands that can shape the glass of a bauble could one day do the same, or teach others to do the same, for spectacles, sextants and Sterling engines.

Tasmania might be a particularly fertile ground for artisans, but you likely have people in your area keeping traditions and crafts alive. Wherever you live, there is likely a similar book waiting to be written, filled with allies waiting to be found.

Brian Kaller has written about peak oil and related issues for The American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News and Big Questions Online. He lives in rural Ireland; he and Steven French correspond by e-mail.

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