Beauty and the Blade
Do you have a favourite tool? We seem to write so much about what we make but not about the tools that we use to make it with. As a lover of creative making, I also love my tools. Whether it’s a crochet hook, needle, scissors, jewellery pliers, rubber kidney, scalpel, wooden or metal modelling tools, rolling pin, chisel, sieve, stamps, cutters, burnishing stone, sewing machine, hammer, paintbrush or any number of other things, tools are crucial to whatever I am making. Tools are not like materials that are depleted as they are used, but through using and looking after them they become our steady creative companions that will see us through project after project, that feel familiar and comfortable in our hands. Eventually, with much use and practice, we (hopefully!) develop enough skill to become one with our tools, directing our intent through them as an extension of ourselves, allowing us to focus fully on the piece that we are making. Our bodies learn them, the way that we need to move them, the exact amount of pressure, the specific angle to achieve our desired result. It becomes so second nature that it is only when we have to replace a favoured old tool and pick up a new one that we will feel the very subtle differences: perhaps a slight difference in the weight, or that little imperfection that you got so used to working around which is no longer there. It can take a while.
I used to have a favourite wooden modelling tool that I used all the time in clay work. To an outside eye it looked like a wooden stick carved into a point on one end and a flat surface on the other. I never used to think about how I used it. Then one day it disappeared. I hunted high and low for it but in the end realised that somehow, inexplicably, I had managed to lose it. So I bought a new one. It looked the same on the outside, but when I picked it up it was not the tool I had lost, it felt different in my hands, I did not feel that same connection to it. Over time, the new tool became as comfortable as the old one, but it made me think about the relationship between makers and their tools and the process we go through in learning to use a new one.
I am learning to use a tool at the moment – a knife…or perhaps I should say knives, as I have realised that it is not simply a case of using the right tool for the job, but the right particular kind of knife for the job. Recently I have been learning to use knives in the course of making fires for smoke firing my ceramic work, splitting and chopping wood into batons with a bigger knife, and using a little one to practise, practise, practise making feather sticks to get the fire going.
Learning to widen my use of knives is one of my goals for this year, and yet forming a deeper relationship with this particular tool is not something I ever thought I would be doing. Like many people in this day and age, my relationship with the knife had become, while not completely phobic, fairly dysfunctional. As a small child I was threatened with the sharp end of one in ways that scared me as well as witnessing a very frightening act of knife violence in a friend’s home from close quarters. By the time my age was in double figures knives were firmly imprinted in my mind as highly dangerous objects that were an unfortunate necessity for chopping vegetables and a limited range of other tasks, that their only other use was by violent people for violent ends. I didn’t really trust people that expressed an interest in knives and believed the ongoing media campaign that portrayed all knives as bad things that were only handled and carried by people who wished to cause harm to others. My mind was pretty much closed on the matter.
Now, there is no getting away from the fact that there have been an increasing number of knife-related tragedies in recent years, and yes, knives have been linked to gang crime, pointless murders and are the source of many fears about the growth of a weapon carrying culture, sometimes involving young children (though to put this in perspective, it should be noted that almost two thirds of the homicides of children under 16 in the UK are committed by their parents, not by gangs or unknown violent criminals; an infinitely more worrying statistic, though not seen as equally newsworthy by the media…go figure).
There is also a selection of blade forms that have historically been designed and made as weaponry – humans have been arming themselves with bladed weapons pretty much since they decided to wage wars and had the basic technology to produce a blade that would help them to be successful in that – swords, seax, daggers, tomahawks and many more. While some of these weapons have been created in exquisitely beautiful forms, there are some very rational reasons to be nervous of a blade in the wrong hands.
I am not minimising any of these things and know that many people (myself included) feel very strongly about them. Nor am I for a single second suggesting that there should be no legal controls on knives, I believe there should. However, over time I have come to feel that the need for this lies in the need to find some way to control human behaviour rather than the knives themselves. This seems to have been lost in the media furore.
I think our society has made a mistake in demonising knives rather than looking at what can make them dangerous; rather than asking why we have people in our society, young or otherwise, that either feel so threatened in their daily lives that they believe they need to carry a weapon for their own protection, or have so little empathy for others, are so entirely alienated, that they believe it is their right to cause harm or even death with such an object.
Creating such an intense paranoia about knives to the extent where we see adults question whether a primary school child should be allowed to use a normal eating knife (as seen on an episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution TV programme that some of you from the UK may remember) seems to me to serve no other purpose than to disempower children by making them scared of using the tools that they will have to master in growing into their adult life. These kinds of restrictions seem to be nothing more than a sticking plaster over the wounds in our society, something that is done because we, as a society, feel something must be done, but have no clue how to address the real issues. Sure, a knife has a sharp edge on it that will cut you if you do not handle it properly (just to be clear, I am not for a moment suggesting that children should be left alone to work this out for themselves!), but this could equally be said of any number of other ‘sharp’ things that have not attracted the same level of fear and condemnation. Additionally, let us not be fooled into thinking that only something sharp that we name as a weapon can be used as a weapon.
I once took a course of self-defence classes in which we were asked to state at least 4 weapons that we had at home in our bedroom. After some looks of confusion around the class, we began naming them: bedside lamps; drinking glasses; keys; perfume/hairspray bottles; scarves; nail scissors; vases; jewellery boxes; torches…but like a knife, these things only gain a lethal potential if we pick them up with an intention to cause harm, or perhaps with carelessness. Like our less controversial tools, they become an extension of the person whose hand they sit in. Left alone on a table they will not hurt anyone. Ultimately, if somebody’s intent is to harm, then short of banning everything we habitually use quite safely, they will find a way to harm.
Of course, usually, those handling knives have no intention other than to get a job done, as they have had for thousands of years. An article in the New Scientist magazine presents evidence that humans were making heat treated blades from iron-rich stone as long as 164,000 years ago .It is clear from this evidence that the humble blade was one of the earliest tool developments. This is probably because it was one of the most useful, for everything from hunting and food preparation to making shelters, making fires, and any number of other tasks. Without the knife we could wonder whether humanity would ever have been able to survive, develop and thrive in the way that we did.
My partner once told me a story about a bush-crafter who was travelling a river in a wilderness area miles from anywhere. His boat developed a fault and started to go down. As it sank he had to make a quick choice about what to try and save – his pack with all his provisions in, or his machete knife. What would you choose?
He chose the machete. The contents of his pack may have provided him with what he needed to survive in the short term, but the machete would enable him to survive indefinitely by giving him the tool he needed to make shelter, fire, food, more tools. For many many centuries it was entirely commonplace for people, both women and men, to carry a knife on their belt. It was not a statement of intent to harm, but a necessary, everyday tool that was regularly used to carry out these daily tasks. In many parts of the world where the carrying of knives is not so heavily controlled and people live in environments where they regularly use this tool, it is still not uncommon for people to do this.
So, getting back to my own story, what prompted me to begin my own journey to reclaim this tool? Well, some years ago now, I was firmly locked in my old mindset. I ended up cutting myself every time I picked a knife up, partly because I was so nervous of them and so had never learned to handle one properly, and partly because I refused to sharpen them in the mistaken belief that they would then be less likely to hurt me. I now know that so long as you handle a knife properly (i.e. in a slow, controlled manner and not cutting towards some part of yourself without a stop) then a sharp knife is infinitely safer than a blunt knife. Blunt knives that are not sharp enough to do their job will lead to more accidents through having to apply excessive amounts of pressure, increasing the risk of the blade slipping or moving in an uncontrolled way. You live and learn…
Things started to change when I met my partner: a collector of knives; an occasional knife maker; a keen bushcrafter and an active member of the biggest online blade forum in the UK. He presented me with a terrible dilemma. What I knew about him as a gentle, intelligent, considerate man who would never set out to harm anyone, refused to sit comfortably with what I thought I knew about knives and the people who were interested in them. Either I was wrong about him or I was wrong about knives. In the end I decided that I would at least try and understand what his fascination was.
It wasn’t easy. I had years of fixed beliefs and fears in my head that led to a lot of arguments. Fortunately he is someone who is able to stand his ground. He knew how afraid of the knives I was, but he didn’t get rid of them. Instead he sat with me for hours while I forced myself to hold them in my hands, turning them over, looking at them, touching them, examining them. I realised how much my fear had been making me disconnect from knives as I used them because at these times when I let my attention be focussed on the object, all those beliefs and frightening memories came rushing to the surface. When that got too uncomfortable I would hand the knife back, sit for a while and look at it from a distance then pick it up again. As this went on I started to realise that I was holding these knives and they were not leaping up out of my hands and cutting me! I started to relax a bit. The artist in me started to wake up and I began to notice the shape of the blades, the shape of the handles and the way they related to one another, the proportions and contours that were pleasing. I started to notice the colours, textures and surfaces of the handles; the huge variety of natural and man-made materials used in the creation of a wide-range of decorative techniques including:
Micarta – a layered fabric such as hessian, denim, linen, canvas or even satin, impregnated with resin that can be sanded and shaped as a block. Commonly used to create knife handles:
You can find some fascinating step-by-step posts on how to make this micarta over on Warren’s blog.
Scrimshaw – a process of engraving into a material such as bone before highlighting the design with a stain or dye:
This technique reminded me very much of the some of the decorative processes I use in ceramics, of engraving into clay, then staining into the lines with metallic oxides.
Carving and Piercing:
Inlays (again this reminded me of ceramic techniques, of the inlaying of slips into contrasting clay backgrounds – mishima) – this example shows silver wire inlaid into wood:
Stacked Leather Handles:
I even realised that there were some knives that didn’t look like knives at all!:
I learned about different kinds of tangs and how this affected the way in which a handle was created:
I learned about different kinds of metals, how damascus steel can be formed through forging layers of metal to create exquisitely beautiful patterning (this reminds me very much of agate-ware techniques in ceramics):
I learned about the heat-treating processes a knife blade goes through to make it tough enough to hold a sharpened edge, yet soft enough to not be brittle:
The more I learned, the more I stopped seeing the dangerous object I would have seen through my old eyes and started to see instead beautiful, skillfully crafted objects. I could see so many parallels between this practice and my own ceramics process both through aspects of their physical crafting and the kinds of creative considerations in play, that it was becoming harder and harder to hold on to my limited viewpoint.
So this was definite movement, but using a knife of any size for anything more than chopping an onion or crafting projects was still a big deal. It took many months, probably years, but over time as I watched my partner use knives to carry out all kinds of tasks, the desire to be able to do those things for myself, rather than find a way around it, started to overwhelm my fear. As I started to use the knives myself something started to change in me. I could now feel the relationship between the tool and my intention, realised that I was in charge of the knife, not the other way round. I found myself using it to achieve things I had ached to do for so long and it gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was experiencing a thrill at the thought of learning to use this tool, seeing the new creative possibilities that it opened up. It seemed to be able to help me with so much.
My partner made me a beautiful Yew handled knife for my last birthday, that I keep exclusively for harvesting the medicinal herbs that I grow. This birthday he commisioned Warren Smith to make me a little Yew handled knife and striker (I have a particular love of Yew!), then crafted a matching fire steel for fire lighting. Just beautiful!
I feel proud of these tools, not just in the new skills that they represent, but in the journey that I have made in myself to take ownership of them. My new relationship with them has been hard won, but worth every minute!
I have included a gallery below of some beautiful knives from talented makers across the world, some stunning pieces of work that demonstrate the impressive level of crafting and artistry that is evident in modern knife-making. Click on the images to go to their websites. I would also like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has kindly given me their permission to use photographs of their work in the writing of this blog.