A question I’m often asked whether I’m spinning, knitting, doing living history, or doing research/fieldwork as an archaeologist is “Why do you do that?”
When it comes to the fiber arts, my why is a bit more practical. It’s about having something that I can do with my hands whenever and often wherever. I’ve never done “do nothing” well – I like to have something to do with my hands if I’m only engaging my eyes or ears. It’s my version of a fidget spinner, and it actually keeps me present in the moment better than just sitting there. I’ve been known to knit during talks and lectures, and my knitting or a drop spindle often go with me when I’m having coffee with friends. So if we’re hanging out, please don’t get upset if I pull out a knitting or spinning project – it just means that I need to redirect some energy so that I can be more present in our time together.
It also makes me feel good to make things. Yes, I can buy yarn (or even a finished item) for far less than what I spend in fiber and time. In some cases, that would even be the better (or at least faster) option. But to know that a thing that I made is out in the world, being used, is quite a nice feeling.
My why for living history and archaeology is a little more philosophical. The written and visual documentary record provides valuable information about the past, but it has its limitations. There are plenty of reasons things weren’t written down in the past. Many of these unwritten details were considered “common knowledge”, which wouldn’t need to be recorded. Sometimes a subject wasn’t written about because of who or what that information pertained to. Written information could also affect how people thought about a person, place or event in a society that uses the written word to share ideas and information. And sometimes, it was because the people involved did not read or write. So as the world changed, these details were forgotten. So the items found on archaeological sites can tell us about the past that hasn’t been intentionally recorded, or wasn’t recorded in a way that we can easily understand today.
For both living history and archaeology, learning about the “small things forgotten” drives me to keep doing what I do. Touching a small piece of the past, be it bottle glass, ceramics, clothing and textiles, or a stone tool, lets me reach back through time and consider how different from me (and the rest of us) those who have gone before really were. And by doing living history, I can reach a hand out and invite others to step back in time with me. In understanding the past, we can sometimes understand ourselves a little bit better.