The Beginning: How to Learn a New Craft

yarn and hook

Several winters ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I should learn how to crochet. This time-honored craft resides not in my immediate nor extended family; instead, I took note that my brother-in-law was a gifted crocheter, as he gratified my wife and me with hand-crocheted scarves the previous winter. In this way, he inspired me to learn.

So, on a beery, blustery December night, I was surprised and delighted to receive the very tools I needed for the craft: hooks, a needle, and yarn. Eagerly grasping these tools in hand, I sought a patient, dutiful mentor under whose tutelage I might learn this mysterious craft. The wintry weather discouraging outdoor exploration, my brother-in-law had nowhere to run.

Once sufficient beer was imbibed, the serious work began. Using simple demonstrations, my brother-in-law, in compassionate, non-judgmental fashion, exposed me to the foreign hand gyrations of minimalist crocheting. He then watched my childlike fumblings, correcting and teasing me with each turn.  That same night, the “work” I “accomplished” resembled a mangled chain of challah bread. Stabbed by defeat and a ludicrous fear of looking silly, I didn’t dare pick up the tools of the craft for the next few days.

It wasn’t until we returned home, in the liberating space of solitude, that I submitted to the peculiarities of crochet. Over the next few weeks, I committed a dutiful hour to the craft each night. Somewhere around the 6th hour, I was looping somewhat comparable stitches and my movements began to flow. My adolescent sense of accomplishment overshadowed only by what my friend, Bethany describes as the zen-like rhythm of the craft: pull-loop-stitch, pull-loop-stitch

Like the meditative qualities of crocheting, basket coiling, and many other crafts, exploring, discovering, and harnessing the rhythm of the craft represents the space in which learning occurs. With this in mind, I offer the following “orientations” or ways of approaching a new craft that will no doubt lead to embodied learning and soulful practice:

Openly explore what the craft is, how it functions and commit to doing it nearly everyday for at least a month. Josh Kaufman’s book, The First 20 Hours argues that it takes about 20 hours to learn virtually any skill. From my experience, this estimate seems fairly accurate. You’ll learn the craft more deeply and effectively if you commit to mindfully practicing it as close to every day as possible.

Identify when, where, and how you’ll start working on your craft. For example, instead of saying that you’ll learn how to sew “sometime this month”, identify a good opportunity to practice, e.g., “Wednesday after I put away the groceries, I’ll spend two hours practicing sewing.” This is called developing an implementation intention, which is, just as it sounds, about creating a time and place to implement your intention to do something.

Practice self-compassion and allow yourself to make inevitable mistakes. In our achievement-obsessed culture, it can be exceedingly difficult to practice self-compassion (recall how I initially responded to foundering in crochet!). However, when it comes to learning a craft, we must allow ourselves to stumble, fumble, and slip. Just remember: you’re trying something completely new, grant yourself the time and space to be and to learn!

Establish a specific goal for your craft. Instead of saying, like I did, “I want to crochet”, say something like, “I want to crochet a pot-holder for my mother for her birthday that’s two months from now.” This specific goal is more visualizable, which focuses your attention on your desired end result.

Ask yourself why you want to accomplish this particular goal. If you seek to learn a craft to impress others, make lots of money, or exert power over others, I recommend going no further. These extrinsic motivations will only alienate you from yourself and the craft; plus, once these external rewards disappear, you’ll lose your motivation to continue. If, on the other hand, you seek to benefit others with the fruits of your craft, or to grow as a human being, or to use found resources in innovative ways, go for it! Every once in a while, reassess your motivations to determine whether intrinsic reasons for engaging in the craft still prevail.

Practice humility and seek help from others when needed. I understand that sometimes help is unavailable, especially if you’re experimenting with an unusual craft (know more than one shoe cobbler?).  Nonetheless, you might be surprised by all the crafty, vernacularly oriented people in your life. Seeking out and humbly receiving others’ help not only enhances your learning of the craft, it lends depth and meaning to relationships.

Place your craft into historical, ecological, social, political, and economic context. Becoming acquainted with your newfound craft’s multifaceted history connects you with our forebears’ and contemporaries’ experiences of living and making in this ever-evolving world.


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