About Practical Skills

Jane \ Jan 24 13

The term Practical skills although self explanatory comes from my bookshop days and the Practical Department was the first specialisation as a bookseller  that I knew. I was drawn to books because I loved to read novels but everyone wanted to work in fiction and I was the new kid, 15 years old and lucky to have a job and Practical was what I got.This department as opposed to Arts and Technical then contained those everyday always wanted how to books on practical everyday useful skills such as cooking, gardening and self improvement, on raising babies and children, on sports and pets and other animals, on hobbies such as chess and bridge and on crafts such as macrame, knitting and sewing.

It is the largest selling area of books after fiction and very little has changed since I first started in it nearly 35 years ago. Mr Purdy, a very old gentleman used to hand deliver his staple bound copies of how to play chess and they sold for 30c. Today the book is still available at a modest $7.00 or thereabouts, the cover has not changed nor has it been revised and it now comes along with other books from a distributer, but this is one small example of a book that has lasted unchanged despite so much else changing.

The fact is that practical skills don’t need to change their instruction. Lace is still made as it was hundreds of years ago for those with the patience for it. If new knots have been invented then there might be reason to write new books about them but most books on knots vary only as regards the text on their usage. Macrame was very big in the seventies and women knotted rope for hanging baskets of plants and made screens and handbags. String and nail art was very popular as well but there were very few books available on this.

Knitting books come out often because fashion and colours change and the book’s pictures reflect this and change their patterns but the basic stitches haven’t changed and one could easily adapt a pattern from an 18th century book to a modern design because of this. Even so the craft department has shrunk because the computer has stolen all our time. Where once craft books would take up a wall of space, many bookshops will now fit the whole range on a single shelf, not because people don’t buy as such but because they don’t need to buy, the demand has decreased as the internet will often tell them the basics.

People still knit and garden and enjoy being creative. To learn a skill is never wasted but to learn a skill that we will use often is more practical. In times past there’d be a blacksmith in every village now there’s a garage and petrol station. In times past there’d be a habadasher with huge rolls of fabric and now it’s rare to find a girl who knows how to sew but for those who enjoy sewing it is still a practical skill. DIY is still popular because there is a desire to be creative and make things but unfortunately these days we have little time available for it.

As times change and the popularity of skills waxes and wanes, people who want to learn new skills do so for the peace and joy of creating and to create something unique for their own space, an individual special something that no one else has, that pleases them. Learning new skills can often be frustrating and hard to master because it’s so hard these days to learn from someone who actually does it and so we turn to books and the internet for instructions.

Generally the internet has limited practical information of the kind one reads in magazine articles. A brief explanation of what the skill involves and what it’s used for. When people decide that they truly want to learn and master a new skill they need a book that is dedicated to that subject with details of materials, illustrations of techniques and explicit patterns to follow or design source books with examples.

With bookshops no longer providing a large range of titles and libraries downsizing to keep only more popular titles the opportunity to find books that cover the rarer topics you want information on get even harder to find. The information age has saturated the internet with data and yet its like a huge attic where you put a box of fabric away for a rainy day and when that day comes it is so full of boxes that it will take you a day to find it.

My aim is to find the information and collect and classify it in much the same way a library will, whether as articles or as digital books you can buy, or as bibliographies of books that give good information. This is a time consuming task and will take a long time to present but this is where I’m aiming to go and I hope you enjoy what is here.

JA Francis.