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  • Anne White

Why We Work on Crafts -- 2

The head, the feeling, the body

Quilt of the The English School
Quilt of the English School, c 1800-50

Both the craftsman who works on a craft and the seeker who works on herself understand that there are guidelines, disciplines, and laws that require our attention and respect.

We learn to be precise with our tools and with our language. We learn to take on a task wholeheartedly or not at all. We learn to listen to the quiet voice of conscience and to move forward with intention. We learn that while anyone can be forgiven anything, we strive not to miss the mark. We learn that true mastery of both craft and oneself requires a lifetime of patient work.

Freedom lies in an understanding of creative containment within boundaries.

We study the guidelines. We learn the laws. We respect them and obey. Freedom lies in an understanding of creative containment within boundaries.


Laws of Craft: our functions

In the earlier post, I mentioned the three functions as a basic teaching in the Gurdjieff work. We see them in stark relief in work on a craft -- for our team, in the experience of building a quilt. When we observe our thinking, emotions, and bodies, we often see a muddle. We work to see that each function our my three-brained selves has its own work and its own rhythm.


In his thin but powerful pamphlet The Art in a Craft, Harry Remde, master potter, master woodworker, and a pupil of the Gurdjieff teaching, posits that when working in a harmonious way, three laws act together and determine the quality of what is built. I closely paraphrase his words here:


The law of the head


The head is the watcher, the initiator of activity. It knows the most difficult of concepts to master: what step to take and in the right order. It is this knowledge of order that provides the head with the faith to move forward. The head doesn’t analyze, second-guess, or jump ahead. It is relaxed, trusting that the next step will be shown when the present step is completed well. It opens the path from the present moment into the next moment, and it provides the rhythm of how to take this path.


Tools of the craft
Tools of the craft

Practical work in the studio:


After breakfast with the larger group, we begin in the studio together. We discuss the steps, methods, and tools. First, our carefully chosen fabric – colors, combinations, orientations. Then, with our templates and rotary knife, to the cutting mat for precise cuts -- measure twice, cut once. Then pieces pinned to the design board so that we can see how the pattern will develop.

Then to the machines which we test first for thread type and machine tension -- only then can we ensure precise ¼-inch seams, without which later corners would not meet, strips would wander off, squares would not be true to angle. Then to the ironing board to press seams in a single direction – lightly, please! -- without which the back of the quilt top would be buckling chaos. Then back to the design board to ensure that the pattern, row by row, follows the “given” design of the quilt. We stop to ask questions -- much is not yet known -- and trust that the way will be revealed.

The head knows the steps. It opens the path from the present moment into the next moment, and it provides the rhythm of how to take this path.


With an attention that is not distracted, we do one thing at a time. We take each step slowly, deliberately, and in order, working precisely before moving to the next step. We check our work often. Our external work space is organized.


Together, we find the rhythm that, eventually, joins us in that locking process in which the energies of our individual functions are entrained. Think of hundreds of fireflies blinking together on a dark summer lawn. Or a room full of pendulum clocks marking the hour, each chiming its own tone and pitch, but synchronous. Our individual, internal work spaces are harmonious.  


The law of the body


The body knows every tool and every movement that is needed and with what energy and force. Not concerned with the past or the future, the body lives in the present. The body is the skillful servant of the mind. It does just enough -- now. The entire body is alive with sensation. Its tools are the hands.


Practical work in the studio:


The rotary knife, held at a precise angle to the mat, cuts through several layers of fabric. For this, we must stand and lean into it with a calculated weight of the shoulder. Careful with the unshielded knife; it is a razor. At the machine, we keep the eye on the strip of masking tape that marks the seam allowance, not, as one might assume, on the needle itself as it thrusts and returns – the practice of staying in front of the action itself.

 The body is the skilled servant of the mind.

We feed the fabric with the right hand, the hand of force, and to secure it with the left hand, the hand of restraint. We allow the machine to do its work as we do ours, and to discern the difference. No pulling, no pushing. We sense this play of force and restraint -- it’s sensed in the hands, in the whirrrrrring pitch of the machine, in the foot on the right pedal -- and to be guided by this interplay. The new-some-thing is the coming together of these forces, here and in life, in creative reconciliation.

Our aim: Impressions – sight, sound, touch; thinking, feeling, moving – received moment-to-moment, fresh and direct, without confrontation with one already received.


The law of the emotions

Quilting as craft
A stack of vintage quilts

The emotions bring life to the craft -- the deeper feeling that brings love to the craft. Without love, the head and the body would produce a lifeless thing that might as well have been produced by a robot. Feeling surrounds the thinking and the body with quiet and encompasses the whole. True craft is about love.


Practical work in the studio:


I see from witnessing this work that planning and execution alone, knowing how to cut and sew alone, cannot sustain a work on this quilt. Nor my interest or curiosity. Nor can the head and the body alone imbue the work with the quality that communicates care, devotion, and beauty. Of more importance, with head and body only, I have ceased to work on myself.


Without feeling for the work, what am I to do with occasional resistance, dryness, boredom, a slip into mechanical habit?  Attention, that free attention addressed earlier, balances the functions – the head, the feeling, the body – and I experience a return, a renewal. And there it is: the upwelling of feeling in the chest. A love for what I am doing.

Feeling surrounds the thinking and the body with quiet and encompasses the whole; true craft is about love.

When the complexity of the pieced top is complete, the work changes: the building of three “sandwiched” layers -- the quilt top, the batting, and the backing. This part of the work promises challenges writ large: unwanted wrinkling, out-of-square corners, large and unwieldy fabrics moved from table to floor. Frustration. Here, love may take the form of duty and perseverance.  


When we begin the quilting, interest returns. Quilting is creative! The through-and-through needlework of the quilting will provide the “bridge” between the quilt top of “given” pattern, and the backing, the quilt’s foundational ground. The quilting will provide counterpoint to the pattern, enhancing the harmony of the whole. It will raise the surface, bring depth and texture. Life should not be a flattened thing.


A quilt, created with love, needs a border that encircles and embraces the pattern and renders it whole. For the border, we consult the mystery of the Golden Ratio. Measuring 1.618 times the width of the most commonly used block in the quilt top, that is, 2 inches, the border will be 3¼ inches wide. Here we consult the inexplicable mathematical beauty of the Fibonacci sequence and the integrity of appropriate containment. Already we experience an upwelling of feeling -- part devotion, part faithfulness, part gratitude, part joy.


We breathe, and in this quiet space, we find a love of the craft. Not an attachment – that is, the belief that this quilt is mine; rather, an acceptance that no one’s name will be sewn into this quilt. It will be our gift to the house. Out of love, we have learned to serve.

As craft reflects life and life reflects craft, we find that we are truly alive, open to both the horizontal of our daily activities and the vertical of access to the higher, from whence cometh my help.

When working on a craft, we discover that we are helped by a source of stability outside ourselves. Likewise, with inspiration, devotion, and earned knowledge, a craft can find our internal center of gravity. As craft reflects life and life reflects craft, we find that we are truly alive, open to both the horizontal of our daily activities and the vertical of access to the higher, from whence cometh my help. It is no coincidence that the point at which the horizontal and the vertical intercept suggests the symbol of the cross, an ancient symbol of life, harmony, awareness, and connection with the gods.

Tools for quilting

Henri Tracol, student and teacher of the Gurdjieff teaching, contemplated his craft, sculpture:


“… (T)he most important thing here is to enter into the experience, to feel that one is the material on which all sorts of relatively independent forces are acting. … And that which more and more strengthens my interest in self-knowledge through the experience of art – not as an intellectual interest but one that is much more profound and comes from a deeper source.  I try to make myself available in such a way that I can be conscious of the forces that pass through me … to try to become a good instrument – and a conscious one.”


Teams renovate and care for our house of work, prepare a meal for fifty people, practice a piece at the piano, create a mosaic floor, translate an essay from the French or Russian, carve a set of chess pieces, sew a quilt. The laws are the same; the processes, similar; the products, varying. Each has become craft, transforming one form into another – including gradual transformation within ourselves -- with attention, perseverance, sincerity, and patience. While all of us are not artisans, craft can guide and teach us. It can often approach art, and what is produced can be both useful and beautiful.

Well-organized workshops where we practice our crafts, as well as well-organized inner workshops where we work on ourselves, serve not only the house, but also something higher in ourselves. Work on a craft, as a true work on oneself in life, is a transforming work of love whose aim is consciousness and being.




Remde, Harry, The Art in Craft, 2008.

Tracol, Henri, “Birth of a Sculpture,” from Why Sleepest Thou, O Lord?, Parabola, 1991.

A special thank you to our master artisan for reading and commenting on early drafts of this post.

Why We Work on Crafts -- 1

Craft, an activity in which our functions are engaged at the same time and our awareness can circulate between our lower and higher natures.


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