Jon Bojer Godal


A slap on the cheek or a hit with the flat hand. Nobody is in doubt about the essential part of the message, even if there can be many nuances, some messages are true or false. We mean body language - movements give signals. There can be different successions; stamping on the floor, slamming the door before the hit finally comes. The right actor masters exactly body language. We look at him, what kind of feelings are inside and a measure for actions. We do not doubt that the movements give away the signals. 

Body language has an aspect of ability. Skiing is such an ability. Some are good at skiing, a few are really good. One says, Scandinavians were born with skis on their feet, but actually that is not true. But most of them have learnt it so early, that they do not see it as something acquired, just as little as we perceive our mother language or to stand and walk as something we actually have learnt. The way we stand enters into a cultural context. It expresses a kind of mutual knowledge, built up over different generations, but which is at the same time inseparably connected to a personal pattern of moving. Skiing does not present any other product than a covered distance, a life-happy making use of movement, often expressed in an own kind of aesthetic, like in a state of pure cultivation like in ski jumping

We can have a closer look at the word couple can and know. In the context of literature, these words are often used as synonym. We can read that the scientifically based schools offer (exact) knowledge. Yes, much of the school politics seems to be based upon this, that it is only science who produces knowledge. The logical consequence of such a point of view is that the sole true kind of teaching is the theoretical. 

Two kinds of ability

In daily life, these words function in another way. There is not a matter of can (or being able) to be synonym with know (or knowledge). We see it as to kinds of ability. An example can be to spin on a spinning wheel. There are people who know quite a lot on the spinning wheel. They know about the historical development, geographic distribution of different types, categories and variants. They know the names of the separate parts in different dialects and know basically how a spinning wheel works. They know so to say "everything" about the spinning wheel, about the different kinds of thread and yarn which one can spin, without the one who knows all this can spin. 

We consider this to be able to do something as something different from to know something. This what one can, ability, is connected to action. To know on the other hand is passive in comparison to be able to carry out an action about which one knows something. This way we can say that a man of science knows a lot, but is able to do only little, while a craftsman is able to do a lot, but he knows every now and then less than he is able to do. 

Spatial - movement ability
In connection to handwork and a lot of other practising branches of knowledge, the problem is that the executor cannot be accounted for being an independent carrier of scholarship. The verbal-theoretical approach has become clearly dominant. It is said, schools provide with abilities, but they provide very little of that. They provide first and foremost knowledge. Instead of talking about scholarship, one talks about abilities but mean actually knowledge. It creates confusion, because the actual ability, acting scholarship, which we every now and then call spatial - movement ability, is being devalued and partly renounced. 

Spatial-moving ability is a term for that ability, which is connected to physical moving, like to ski or to dance. In other kinds of ability, physical and motoric conditions, play a decisive role in how to express oneself, but the expression itself is separated from the body. To spin on a spinning wheel or to rivet a ship are good examples. We call it spatial-moving ability, when the physical is the primary form of expression or very central in being able to express oneself. The special character of handwork is, that it stands for a ability carrying pattern of actions which creates a product. The handwork is both the pattern of actions and the product. 

A fishing net is being made in the way, that the one who knots the thread/weaving to a rope. He stretches the net on a frame. It is like that when the sailmaker makes a sail of sailcloth and rope. The one who ties the net has an image of the fish which has to be caught and how it acts. He ties after the kind of fish and the water. The way it is done is expressed in a fraction: for example "half at halve" or "four at five". The work process he executed is invisible when the net is ready, but a part of what he thought is to be found in the product, put down in fractions in knotting distances in the rope and line. The ability carrying pattern of actions which it expresses can be divided in two: an action carried (transferred) part and a personally (based on experience) part. The action carried part is that which builds further on an example. The skier and the knotter have seen others doing the same. It is that example which meets the personal, and which develops the ability. 

Part of the ability carrying pattern of actions can be put to words, part cannot. We have comforted ourselves with a kind of division of the procesual part of handwork. The part of it which is gone when it is ready. It is like a melody. The sound, the music is gone when the melody is played. The difference is, that handwork is both a living process and something that gives a visible result, a product, which remains when the handwork is practised. 

Feeling of motion and use of the body

Before the body, there was rhythm. The body and organs are spinning around each other in a basic rhythm. It is a structured complex movement over time and in practise it makes motion easier. Motion is culture as well. That is the way it is in dance, as in handwork. It is motion culture that we take to us when we combine movement and motion patterns. It requires that we work closely with another person and that we develop the ability to listen to that body language which the person concerned passes on. 

In handwork, movements are built up to certain patterns of action. They stand for a certain summation of this what we can and what we know. If we do this and this, the result will be just like we want it. We call that knowledge in acting. It is when ability carrying pattern of actions are being passed on from one craftsman to the other, that we talk about ability carried knowledge. It is a kind of traditional knowledge. The procedure often takes the character of a ritual. The pattern of action is so much worn in, that it has become a reflex. Many regard steady patterns of action as an expression of a lack of thoughts connected to the process. The ritual is the condition for being able to discover the new and surprising, to solve problems and to create a background of the knowledge which was accumulated both in our own life as in previous generations. 


Agility has to do with the ability to make use of the senses, first and foremost in the hand, but actually in the whole body, and it is firmly created to our movements. Good examples of highly developed agility we can find in spinning. The one who spins knows if the thread has the right thickness and twining. The precision in this can be very high. The usual way of expressing the dimension of a yarn is to give the weight of a certain length. For the old test of ability at the ropewalk it counted to spin a certain weight of hemp to a certain length of yarn. This, the master should literally said have in his fingers. The development of agility is central in many different kinds of handwork. 

Sight, by the eye and hearing

Sight is very important for craftsmen. We experience dimensions in different ways when we bend over, touch, walk past it and away from it again. In many cases we experience seize in another way than by means of seeing. Probably the development of the measuring system is up to a point connected to the use of body related measures. We think about finger width, hand width, pail, elbow and arms length. The traditional crafts have largely used such body related measures. When we work, we hear what we are doing and we react on what we hear. Hearing is both related to the experience of space, to the understanding of this that gave sound as to the much including, which we call musicality. During the practical work, hearing can tell about the qualities of a material and the development of processes. It can give away how tools work or if something happened with the object we make. 

Experience of colour, air and taste

In many crafts, colours play an important role. The blacksmith steers his work by looking at the colour of the steel. The basket maker steers the thickness of the chips by seeing how transparent they are. The cook steers the frying by looking at the colour of what he fries. The use of sight and the sense of colours has to do with much more processes then those in which the colour is part of the product, like painting or ... More or less are smell and taste involved in many crafts. The blacksmith can realise on the smell if there is a good fire in the hearth. The weaver realises if the yarn smells right. The woodcutter can taste the wood if he doubts which kind he has in his hands. In the cooking business, smell and taste are decisive qualities for the work. 

Understanding of space

Something special for the craftsman is the three dimensional way in which he is thinking, that to understand something in space instead of in plane. A shape is spatial. Understanding of space is a criterion for understanding of shape, and understanding of shape has an influence on the experience of a room. That is also the case in craft which produces "flat" products, like for example in painting, where you hear the movements, which the painter makes, in the room itself. The linear yarn we spin is spatial and we should think of it spatially tin order to understand its structure and way of working. The book scientist thinks in 2 dimensions. He has taught himself to see three dimensional shapes projected on paper, to a drawing. A "theoretical tour" takes place on a map, while a tour in practice takes place outside in the country. 

Understanding of form and understanding of material

The craftsman does what he does intentional. He anticipates what he will produce. It is up to a high degree the product which steers the work. The craftsman must know a lot about what he intends to make. How he acts, that is how he works. That is how he meets certain needs of a buyer et cetera. 
A part of understanding of form is based on tradition specific patterns to reach specific shapes. For example in weaving, shipbuilding and house building it is in a high degree about the relations between shape and number. Partly it is almost purely proportioning with a comprehensive set of fractions which lies at the base of a form concept. Some of the notions for space, which one has to learn, are therefore connected to fractions and calculation. Thus the pupil has a need for training in proportioning based on geometries and relations between numbers. The special thing for craftsmen is that understanding of form often is integrated in material construction, technique, process, function and execution. In this relation, form is something far more comprehensive than understanding of the outermost layer. 

The third main element in craft is the material we want to work in. We must have both near acquaintance with it and we must know a lot about it. It is important that the process of getting familiar with the material takes place over a longer period of time. We should start early with basic materials in our environment and our culture like for example wood, wool and different kinds of plant fibres, iron, stone, sand and clay, and leave them late. 

A central element in different crafts are the aids which we need to get the material take the whished shape. In speech we make a difference between tools and instruments. Instruments are all kinds of aids while tools are the more concrete, that kind of tools which we keep in our hands. For craftsmen, tools are important and special instruments. In the use of tools knowledge is connected to the skill. 

Common mental development

The continuing eager to learn, to work on solving problems has among others a relationship with being creating. It is a striking feature for the "old" craftsman type to be interested in his profession. Even if tradition in certain ways has set narrow borders for the product, we still see that the individual practiser still is in a personal development and that every product is "created" like an independent individuality, out of a high demand for quality. The demand for quality has to do with self esteem, engagement and professional ethics. It is an expression of this that we do more than just a job. It is a way of life. 

Many crafts are being conducted in cooperation with several people. If we look carefully, we will see that cooperation in a well tuned team has several things in common. For example there are different patterns of action which are the same throughout the group. The communication is about signals which are connected to known points in the pattern. Cooperation in connection to conducting craft has very often a worn in culture of non-verbal communication

To be a good craftsman has up to a high level to do with attitude. Some of those who work with understanding what craft is have the opinion that it is exactly the attitude to it which characterises craftsmen. Many of those who work with education of craftsmen to special tasks like restoring of monuments, put decisive weight on developing an attitude to the work. 

When the melody has sounded, the tones are gone. When the play is over, one does not dance anymore. The points we have mentioned before are the "music" or the "dance" in the craft, which is gone when the things are produced. Therefore it has become clear to us that in education of craft we have to face especially this dance. Teaching a craft should waken, develop and train ability to think and express oneself with the aid of spatial-motional concepts, which crafts are built up of. 

We are in need of a translation work

In comparison to traditional science and exploration we must remember, that crafts have their own field of abilities. Craft is primarily something one can, but also something one knows. The recognition lies in a logical coordination of many impressions of different senses. Knowledge of craft is more complex then the verbal-philosophical knowing. The expression lies in motion, material, technique and shape. When the process is ready and the craftsman is not around any longer, there is only the product which can tell. Both motion and process and product can carry knowledge which has a value reaching much further the value of the product and its narrow meaning. There is a potential for new recognition in the intersection between craft and more traditional science. In that connotation we are in need of a translation work. We should be able to change from science to craft and from craft to science. Both directions are important. It would be wrong to scientificate craft without science getting recognised between crafts as well. 

We can al talk, write and read, but not all of us can build a boat, knot a net, spin, forge or weave. With other words, it seems to be more difficult for the one who got theoretic education to get into crafts than it is for a craftsman to get into the theoretical. This should have consequences for education, training and valuation of competence. Crafts-skill should get the same level of valuation as, what a person is fit for. 

Translation: Arne Kold & Roeland Paardekooper, 2001

Jon Bojer Godal is advisor to the well known Norwegian museum De Sandvigske Samlinger, Maihaugen. The article has earlier been published in the Norwegian journal SPOR, no 1, 2000. The article is based on a lecture given at the seminar "Seilet som kvinnene spant" in April 1999.



Institutet för Forntida Teknik 2001-03-04