Mission

A modern blacksmith

When cottage industry ruled the world.

It was a time when most everything a person, a family, and a community needed and wanted was made by highly skilled individuals in small shops, using tools, materials and skills that were within the reach of just about anybody.

Since the Industrial Revolution, things have become pretty different. Now, most of us in the industrialized world have little idea where most of the things we own come from: how they are made or by whom, or what they are made of.

Even in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, there was a concern that this change might represent something of a loss. Renowned weaver Ethel Mairet put it very succinctly:

…there is a tendency [now] to avoid Quality Street. We are choosing rather Quantity Street & the Bye paths of Facility & Cleverness; we have become accustomed to the hum of Time & Labor saving machinery; and we are in danger of forgetting the use of good things: indeed the tradition & practice of goodness has been lost in a considerable number of trades.

Ethel Mairet, A Book on Vegetable Dyes (1916)

But, honestly, why does it matter?

Who cares about the who’s, what’s and wherefore’s, as long as we can get what we want, when we want it?

We’ve all heard many times why it does matter, that (for example) a food is preserved with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) instead of butylated hydroxyanisol, or that it’s made by workers treated fairly instead of conscripted or child labor. Those things are extremely important, don’t get me wrong. But questionable materials and bad labor practices are symptoms. There is a deeper issue.

Peruvian hand weaving

It’s clear that the word “handmade” has potency. Next to “green” or “eco-friendly” it’s got to be one of the most popular marketing terms around. The profound success of Etsy and the rise of Amazon Handmade tells us that there’s something important there. But what is it, exactly?

I believe it’s this: there is a deep bond created between a skilled craftsperson and the raw materials, and with the finished item. That bond is passed along to the person who acquires and uses the item, and is expanded to include the craftsman himself.

In other words: We need stuff. We care about connection.

Cottage industry creates connections, and therefore it has the power to uplift.

There are three primary pillars that provide the uplifting power of cottage industry:
  • Natural Resources: An understanding of and appreciation for the resources and raw materials found in the natural world.
  • Legacy Skills: The preservation of and continual refinement of legacy skills. Legacy skills are those that have been proven over time to be fundamentally and widely (often universally) useful and valuable. Legacy skills can most often be learned and performed with knowledge, skills and tools within reach of most people.
  • Efficient Markets: An adaptable and efficient system of getting the goods and services to the people who need and want them. Efficiency means less waste (especially with regard to transportation and packaging), less cost to the buyer, and more money going to the actual producer of the item.

Crazy Useful is all about inspiring, educating, and promoting people to build and rebuild these pillars. To that end, you’ll see here a fair amount of information about the current state of things, and about up-and-coming innovations, but you’ll especially see a lot of information coming from the past.

Book cover, Basketry and Weaving

Why look back, when where we want to go is forward?

I can tell you that — at least, as far as I’m concerned — it’s not about wishing or pretending that we can go back to living just like they did in (fill in the blank with your favorite time and place). But, I also know that we very much live in a time and place that is all about rocketing forward, because “new is better.” The fact is though, that the past is a gold mine of incredibly valuable, relevant and hard-won information.

There is a lot to be learned from the past, that can help us move forward to a brighter future.

Humans have an incredibly long, rich, and diverse heritage of the material arts.  We do ourselves a disservice when we assume that skills or materials fall out of favor or are abandoned simply because they’ve been replaced with something better.

Change is not always progress.  Sometimes the move is not forward, but lateral.  For example: is a factory-made plastic doll house inherently better (more durable, more beautiful, etc.) than a handmade wooden doll house?  Not necessarily, if the toymaker is skilled.  But the reason that the vast majority of dollhouses are factory-made in plastic, is because it’s far, far cheaper to make. So, reviving the skill of toymaking does not represent a step backward. Intuitively, of course, we know that. The thing is, that there are many, many (many) valuable legacy skills that fall into this category . Many trades that were once a vital part of life and the economy have fallen into disuse, while others live on as hobby or boutique skills, and some have more or less been forgotten altogether — much to people like Ethel Mairet’s dismay.

Boots, buttons, and bobbins. Just a few of the thousands of handmade items found on Etsy. Clockwise from left: Boots by Anthony Veer Footwear; stone buttons by StoneAlone; tapestry bobbins by artisansworkbench.

On the other hand, being able to recognize true progress is important. Is nylon (synthetic) rope superior to natural fiber rope?  Generally, yes.  Does that mean there’s no practical place in the world today for natural fiber rope?  Nope. There are still plenty of settings and uses where natural fiber rope is superior. Additionally, the refined knowledge about the nature of various natural fibers and how and why rope is made and why it “works,” is millennia old. You can’t make nylon in your kitchen, but you can make a natural fiber rope in your backyard, and understand why it works and why it’s valuable — and what it means to make it “better.”

Which brings me to my second point about the value of looking backward.  Today, the material world seems so complicated and the skills and people and machinery behind it seem utterly remote and unfathomable. In some cases, this is actually true. But in many ways, for many of the things that we use in our daily life, what seems complex is actually underpinned in large measure by very basic, foundational principles that have not changed in centuries or longer. 

Ronan Finn, thatcher

Looking backward allows us to peel away the layers of complexity and see what is foundational, what is important, what endures. 

Photo credit: Ronan Finn of Galway, Ireland, roof thatcher and inheritor of a trade that has endured virtually unchanged for several centuries.

My mission is to inspire you to start your own personal cottage industry revolution.

Cottage industry is a circle in which everyone has a meaningful place. Whether its as a producer of raw materials, a skilled artisan, an appreciative consumer. Why not start finding your place in it today?

So, here is a recommendation about how to get the most out of this site. As a first step, I would encourage you to do a walkthrough of your own home and community.

Next, there are three ever-evolving pages, each representing one of the three pillars of cottage Industry:

  • Crazy Useful Things – an exploration of the astounding diversity, utility, and beauty of the raw materials that our incredible world has to offer.
  • Crazy Useful Trades – an exploration of the enormous world of the skilled trades, the people who provide the raw materials, goods and services that comprise the material arts.
  • Crazy Useful Markets – an exploration of the ways and means by which the things that we want and need get from maker to user.

In addition, the blog portion of the site is broken down into categories. At the bottom of each page on the website is a drop-down box where you can filter the blog posts according to category:

  • Crazy Useful Thing of the Day. Each post is an entry from the book Crazy Useful Things: A Dictionary of Natural Resources and their Products, illuminated with photos and drawings.
  • Word of the Day. Each post highlights a word — in most cases, probably one that you’ve never heard of — having to do with cottage industry.
  • Masters of Cottage Industry. Each post profiles an inspiring master of cottage industry, usually someone that I have personally met on my own journey through the world of cottage industry.
  • Why This, Not That? These are longer entries that are explorations of questions that I find interesting, having to do with natural resources and our understanding and use of them.

Finally, there is the Crazy Useful Catalog. Because the mission is to inspire and educate, print publications are a natural part of fulfilling that mission. Here you will find original books, reprinted books, and journals.

This website is for you, use it as you see best.

With love and hope for the future,

Heidi

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