Woodwork or Latin

A FRIEND POSTED A PICTURE of something he had created in wood at school when he was about 14 or 15 years old. It looks to be an extremely competent creation. Seeing this, reminded me of when I had to attend woodwork classes at roughly the same age at my secondary school, Highgate in north London.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Once a week, under the watchful eye of the woodwork teacher, Mr Bowles, I participated in a woodwork class in the school’s specially equipped workshop. Mr Bowles was well-known for saying of the timber he supplied in the class:

“Don’t waste it. You know that wood does not grow on trees.”

Although many years later, I was able to perform complex manual tasks whilst practising dentistry, in my early teens I was not skilled at performing three-dimensional manual exercises. I could draw and paint reasonably well, but model-making and woodwork were not amongst my skills.

I struggled with a tool called the sliding bevel when trying to create dovetail joints, which seemed to be of great importance to Mr Bowles. We were set what he regarded as simple tasks. With great difficulty, I completed two of these. I produced a tea tray, which was next to useless as it was only able to rest on two of its four corners at any one time. The bookshelf which could hold up to eight average thickness paperbacks suffered the same problem. Somehow, I had managed to introduce a twist into it so that its two ends were not in alignment. My parents, for whom it was suggested by our teacher that these would make fine gifts, were totally unimpressed. It would have been dishonest of them to have been otherwise.

My prospects of becoming a skilled carpenter were not looking great. Then, my fate changed suddenly one afternoon. I had just finished the school day and was walking across a polished wooden floor, when I slipped and fell. As I began to get back on my feet, I noticed that my left wrist was bent in an unnatural way and was a bit painful. Having recently completed a first-aid course, during which we were taught to tie complicated bandages instead of learning resuscitation and life support, I realised that I had most probably broken a bone.

I walked over to the caretaker’s home across the school’s quadrangle and found him. He said that he would ring my parents and while we were waiting for them to arrive, he gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. This kind gesture meant that I had to wait several hours before it was safe for me to have a general anaesthetic for setting my arm at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

My arm was encased in plaster, which remained in place for six weeks or longer. This accident was a lucky break for me. First of all, my popularity rating rocketed. Prior to my accident, many of my school fellows believed that I was rather unexciting and unadventurous, not even a ‘nerd’. Seeing my arm in plaster, suggested to these classmates that I must have been up to no good. Maybe, I had fallen out of a tree or had an accident on roller skates or on a bicycle. I kept quiet about the innocuous cause of my fracture and enjoyed experiencing the increase in my ‘street cred’. Even after my plaster was removed, my schoolmates retained their improved opinion of my personality.

Doing woodwork with one arm in plaster was not thought advisable. So, I was excused from the second and final term of woodwork classes. Actually, I doubt that using only one arm would have affected my woodwork much, as it was already appalling with two arms. 

At the end of the school year during which we had to study woodwork, we had to make subject choices. Basically, the choice was to follow the ‘arts’ or the ‘sciences’. The choices were history or physics; geography or chemistry; and … wait for it … Latin … or  … woodwork.  To be honest, the latter was a ‘no brainer’ of a choice. Woodwork did not get my (or my parents’) vote. But, as it is good to be truthful, my Latin was barely better than my woodwork. Although I struggled with Latin at school, it has proved useful especially when studying anatomy and, also, when wandering amongst tombstones. As for woodwork, Mr Bowles might be pleased to learn that over the years I have put up several shelves that were able to carry heavy loads. Now, as you read this, do not get any ideas about getting in touch with me to put up shelving in your homes.

Stitched

PONDICHERRY IS RICH in wonderful attractions, many of them souvenirs of its French colonial past. One of the most delightful of these is the Cluny Embroidery Centre on Rue Romain Rolland, a street named after a French writer and Nobel Prize winner who met Gandhi and was sympathetic to India and its philosophies.The Embroidery Centre is housed in an 18th century French Colonial building (a former residence, which was built by 1774) that forms part of a religious centre under the aegis of the Order of Cluny. It is believed that one of the former owners of the house donated it to help poor women in need. This must have been before 1829, when the Embroidery Centre was established. Every day except Monday and Sunday, at least twenty women of various ages arrive at the centre and take their places at tables in a large room with tall windows that open out into a verandah supported by neoclassical pillars and decorated with elaborate stucco bas-reliefs. The verandah looks out onto a courtyard surrounded on three sides by other buildings, parts of the convent, and the outer wall with a decorative entrance gate.This ensemble of buildings forms only part of a much larger complex of buildings, some of which surround another courtyard filled with a garden.After singing what sounds like a hymn, the women begin working on their elaborate embroideries. They stitch according to patterns designed by artists who work at the centre. While they work away silently with needle and thread, a simple sound system provides background music at a low volume.Dressed in white habit, Sister Agatha, who runs the convent, watches over the ladies at work and organises the sales of their labours to visitors who step into this peaceful sanctuary a few feet away from the noisy outside world.The resulting products are exquisitely beautiful. They embroider everything from coasters to handkerchiefs to napkins to pillowcases to table cloths and bedcovers. Visitors to the centre can purchase these treasures of fine needlework. Or, customers can place orders for specific items they need. The women who embroider at the centre get paid on a piecework basis. Some of them have had a history of mistreatment before joining the centre. Visiting the Cluny Embroidery Centre is a moving experience. It provides a very good example of how a religious order can work for the benefit of the ‘common’ folk.

Hooked on rugs

burke

 

I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed reading a book about rug-making cottage industry in Nova Scotia, but I have. Recently, a Canadian friend brought me a book that focusses on hooked rugs and their promotion by a lady called Lillian Burke (1879-1952), who was born in the USA.

Just in case you (like me before reading the book) have no idea what comprises a hooked rug, let me explain by quoting from Wikipedia: “Rug hooking is … where rugs are made by pulling loops of  yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crotchet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage.” 

Edward Langille’s book discusses in detail Lillian Burke’s significant involvement with the hooked rug manufacture carried out by housewives in small settlements in the remote Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia. Ms Burke, who was born in Washington DC, was  highly acccomplished in teaching, music, and art. During both world wars, she helped pioneer what is now known as ‘occupational therapy’. She was a highly-regarded teacher. It was this skill that brought her into contact with the family of Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist and inventor of telephony. The Bells employed Lilian Burke as a tutor for their offspring. She developed a lasting friendship with the extended family, who owned a country retreat in the region of Nova Scotia where hooked rug making was a prevalent occupation of the local housewives.

Langille describes how Ms Burke helped to develop what had been a local craft into a viable money-making venture. Using her highly developed artistic skills, she helped the housewives produce rugs with artistically sophisticated designs that made them appealing to fashionable interior decorators in the USA (mainly). 

Traditionally, the housewives of Cape Breton wove their rugs with scraps of  coloured material. Ms Burke designed the patterns and the housewives did the ‘hooking’. She encouraged them to begin using locally-produced wool which they had dyed. One thing that particularly interested me was that Ms Burke showed the ladies how to use knots and paper masking to dye a skein of wool in varying colours, so that a single thread of wool would vary in colour along its length. This technique is used in Patan in Gujarat (Western India) to produce the silk threads with patterns of varying colour, which are used to produce the highly valuable woven Patola textiles. I would be curious to know whether Ms Burke had been aware of this century’s old method of dyeing.

Langille’s book is a remarkable, well-written, and readable biography of a remarkable woman, who is probably hardly known outside of Nova Scotia and beyond a few enthusiasts of hooked rug making. She deserves to be better known, especially in the light of what Langille’s book reveals about her dedication to the development of rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Professor Langille’s detailed and carefully researched book may well help give Lilian Burke the wider recognition she deserves.

REVIEW BY AUTHOR OF “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”, about Indian patriots in London between 1905 and 1910

 

ISBN: 9781926448404