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  • Anne White

Why We Work on Crafts -- 1

Work on Self, Work in a Group                         


In the upstairs studio in our house of work in Cambridge, a small team bends over a quilt-in-the-making.

Antique quilt as art
"Triangles in Squares," American artist unknown, Philadelphia Museum of Art

In virtually all times and places, quilts are ubiquitous. Geometric Amish quilts. Painterly embroidered quilts. Quilts displaying traditional or modern patterns. Quilts as cultural history – Native American, Southern Black, small town New England, Midwestern prairie. And countless others. The oldest surviving example of a quilt is a linen piece discovered in a Mongolian cave, dated between 100 BCE and 200 CE. We surmise that early quilts were “sandwiches” of cloth layered and stitched together for warmth -- and, we imagine, for the quilter’s artistic expression. Since the mid-1800s, quilts have been collected as craft, then as art.

Participating in craft at a house of work is so important to a work both on oneself and in a group that Dorothea Dooling, a founder of the Gurdjieff Work in Cambridge, asked a newcomer, “Do you have a craft?” When he responded, “No,” Mrs. Dooling, a woman of clarity and frank speech, but with her characteristic twinkle, said, “Get one.”

The craftsman’s idea is a gift

How is an idea born? Inspiration – from the Latin inspiratus “to breathe into” and, from Old English usage, “divine guidance” – is that mysterious moment of receiving from “above.” The artist or craftsman has recognized a need, has opened, clearing the mental clutter, and has received an idea for some-new-thing that will be both useful and beautiful.

“He is called to its service. He is vital to it. … but the message itself is not his to change.”

We don’t understand the source of the idea -- one that in our hands will transform one substance into another form, one that will support the weight of a project through the long process of creating, one that will open our hearts, enlighten our minds, and connect us to our bodies. One of us has received an idea. Gratitude follows. Respectful of its source, we remember Mrs. Dooling’s words: “He is called to its service. He is vital to it. … but the message itself is not his to change.”*


(Writing in 1985 when the word “man” was still used to speak for all of us, Mrs. Dooling surely would have written “man and woman” if she were she writing today.)


The clear shaft of her words pierces through our messy thinking and supports a project for a team: a particular quilt.

Sewing quilt pieces together
Sewing quilt pieces together

Practical work in the studio:


We who work in this bright upstairs space embrace the idea for this quilt. One whose design -- symmetrical in its repeating pattern and obedient to the laws of Nature in its balance and harmony -- will not overwhelm the small, quiet bedroom for which it is intended. A gathering of 20 carefully chosen fabrics that blend colors both analogous and complementary – all calm. An overall effect that seems complex but is, in reality, simple and forgiving. Anyone in the house can learn to work on it.


As we work, each of us may struggle with our persistent inner voices – all variations on “I have a better idea” and “Let’s add some pizazz here” -- and may recognize these voices for who they are: interference, ego. Yes, we shall bring our own individual and group sensibilities and interpretations to the "given" idea -- it is not a restrictive box -- but we know there are boundaries, as there are in a disciplined life, which, while sometimes challenging to discern, will be found with sensitivity and careful watching. We seek balance between self expression and containment, between creativity and boundary. We take ourselves in hand, aware of these opposing forces. We need them.



A rigorous work on oneself requires a new attention. Not our usual attention – mechanical and easily distracted, or tensely laser-focused and driven, or concerned chiefly with results. Moment by moment, we receive thousands of impressions through our senses. We also, as three-brained beings (Gurdjieff’s word), register thousands of impressions of the inner workings of our functions – our thinking, feeling, and physical states. When relaxed and reasonably free of tension, when balanced and inwardly quiet, we can discover this new attention. It is not distracted; we can more objectively observe impressions and our functions, and the relationships between them. Free attention is not alll mine; think of it as a gift.

When relaxed and reasonably free of tension, when balanced and inwardly quiet, we can discover this new attention.

 Mrs. Dooling saw this new attention as a mysterious human property:


“… not a merely mental attention, but an attention which relates and mobilizes the sensitive intelligence of the body, the affective intelligence of the feeling, and the ordering intelligence of the mind toward a more total openness to what is."

Insight like Mrs. Dooling's is essential to digest, but without a means for opening to this attention and for observing impressions and functions, the individual’s study of the self can become abstract, intellectual, or psychological.

We need an activity. An activity that can teach us.

Craft as a work on oneself
On the design board: calm colors, simple pattern

Craft is an activity, accessible to all, in which, first, our senses and functions can be fully engaged at the same time, and second, our awareness can circulate between our lower and higher natures, opening us to the whole of ourselves. In the first instance, I can observe how impressions entering through my senses affect my inner functions.

For example, how I react emotionally when someone, who is being rather candid, speaks to me. In the second instance, I can choose, now, to make a small movement that opens a space within, concedes that I may not know, hears a previously obscured question, and allows the higher self to participate. For example, in my interaction with that candid person, I can allow light to enter and feel gratitude for what has just been revealed to me about myself.

Craft can become teacher.


Craft can become a vehicle for a search, for self-observation -- seeing myself in a moment of being myself in all my fascinating and bewildering complexity – and for small revelations. I need these revelations. They accrete. The faithful practice of a craft can reveal muddle and clarity, chaos and unity, instability and balance, and both the earthly and the divine within myself. Craft can become teacher.


But wait, there’s a trap here. As suggested by Michel Conge, pupil and teacher of the Gurdjieff teaching, neither a work on oneself nor a work on craft can be approached as a “knowing about,”** that is, being satisfied with exploring the periphery, or gathering information only, or relying primarily on the senses, or leaning heavily on the thinking function, our comfortable default. Rather, a work on oneself and a work on a chosen craft are aimed at constant questioning at the core. Or, if you will, at the nucleus, the center of universal forces where transformation can occur.


A transforming work


Mrs. Dooling saw true craft as a crucible, that dedicated container into which raw materials are introduced to special conditions -- fire, curiosity, effort, struggle, risk, sacrifice, aim, patience -- that alter their original forms, creating that new-some-thing. The craftsperson, respectful of his living materials, learned in craft-specific tools and methods, and calling on knowledge and experience, shepherds the process with devotion. Through the slow transformation of the original substances, he oversees the birthing of the new. This mysterious process is as alive today in craft as it was when ancient alchemists strove to transform lead into gold.

Into our individual crucibles, we add our own materials: habits, resistance, wool-gathering minds, run-away emotions, passive bodies, and our individual angels and devils.

In the process of bringing attention to a craft, we find that a work on oneself is also a transforming work. Into our individual crucibles, we add our own materials: habits, resistance, wool-gathering minds, run-away emotions, passive bodies, and our individual angels and devils. A true search requires that we take up the methods and tools of the teaching: attention and self-observation, relaxation and inner quiet, intelligence and perseverance, sincerity and patience, acceptance of a down-pouring of grace, and when we lose the thread, which we often do, repetition. A struggle to awaken to our real selves – gold.

Quilting as craft
References and calculations

Practical work in the studio:


Building a quilt is moment-to-moment work. This sought-after silence, both in the room and within ourselves, does not mean, however, that our individual inner struggles have abated.

Our thoughts want to take over, or our opinions, or our tongues. Midway the morning, we can lose the thread. Our minds can wander into dreams, or the work descends into habit, or each of us privately relives an emotional conversation of yesterday. This will not do. (We love our tales, and it is in this place that we can unharness ourselves from our weary stories.)

When attention wanders, we make mistakes. An error here will not “quilt out.” Use the seam ripper. Sew the seam again, precisely. Heal the past now, and move on gently and without judgment.


The quilt reflects our state. If I can discover a new relationship with myself and with the craft, this new relationship will be reflected in the quilt -- and possibly felt by others who see it.

The quilt reflects our state.


When we see our inattention, we hear a call from within to return. We understand that the effort needed to return – a struggle, a practice in itself, here in the studio and in daily life -- is as essential a work as is precision in craft.


Who does not struggle with doubt, resistance, excess, distraction, boredom? These obstacles are ours to see in ourselves. They are a help. They are essential. What authentic spiritual work is not, in part, struggle? What authentic spiritual work is not practice in attention and repetition?


We learn to be grateful for each moment of conscious struggle, for each return. Return is both renewal and growth. Our aim is for a gradual becoming of who we really are. Our aim is to be.




**Conge, Michel, Life: Real Life Behind Appearances, 2017.

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


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