issue 04: craft
thank you for joining me and what are we doing here?lily homer
Spanier arbeit atarah on a tallit (detail), likely from Poland (late 1800s or early 1900s). Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York. Gift of the family of Daniel D. Riedler. Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum. Photo: Lily Homer.
15 December 2040
The interviewer might be a columnist at Artforum.1
They are interviewing Lily Homer,2 an artist possibly having a mid-career retrospective.
Interviewer: Hello, Lily.
Lily Homer: Hello.
I: Thank you for joining me today.
LH: Thank you for joining me today also.
I: Yes, perhaps.
I: Should we begin?
LH: It’s your interview, we’re here to talk about your work. We can start whenever you like.
I: Wait, what?
LH: I said, “It’s your interview, we’re here to talk about your work.”
I: Lily, I’m interviewing you. I am a columnist for Artforum. What did you think was happening?
LH: I thought you were having a mid-career retrospective at B’érekh Gallery3 in Kyiv in June.
I: That would be you.
LH: Oh, wow, cool!
LH: Can you hold this, please?
Without waiting for a response, Lily pulls a shiny black box, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, from behind her back and puts it in the interviewer’s lap.
The interviewer looks down at the box digging into their thighs.
I: It’s heavy. What’s in here?
LH: I’m not sure.
I: Have you tried opening it?
LH: Of course.
The interviewer pauses, looks pityingly at the box, and nods gently.
I: Now, you’ve created a sort of space in contemporary art discourse for an antiquated lace technique. Tell me about that technique, tell me the basics.
LH: Um, yeah, sure. I’ll give you an overview. I’ve long been researching spanier arbeit, a bobbin lace technique that confuses me deeply.4 Spanier arbeit is the only lace technique considered exclusive to Ashkenazi Jewish production. It was likely created first in eastern Galicia—think Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus. And it’s usually translated from Yiddish as “spun work.”
In a larger sense, spanier arbeit is similar to bobbin laces in other cultures in that it’s made by winding fibres up onto wooden bobbins, then passing those bobbins back and forth to create twists, and then pinning those twists down into patterns. The maker intertwines various fibres into a complex cord, and lays that new cord down into different patterns. It’s secured into a meandering surface design and, in many cases, then attached to some other garment.
Spanier arbeit, though, is made on a big funky wooden jig with a rotating drum and a vertical frame for hanging bobbins. Gravity plays a role in the twisting process, creating tension and helping move the twists in the right direction, and distinguishing it from other bobbin lace techniques.
Spanier arbeit is an embellishment, usually attached onto the outside of a garment, largely traditional religious garments. It was also sometimes bought by non-Jewish customers and used in women’s breast plates, waist bands, collars, bonnets, and shirt cuffs. That sort of thing.
I: What happened to it? Could I still find it or buy it now?
LH: It was most popular in the late 1800s; by the early 1900s, it wasn’t as in style, so it was being made a whole lot less. Then it was almost totally decimated when the vast majority of Polish Jews—and Jews across Europe—were murdered in the Holocaust between 1939 and 1945. Supposedly there was a period of time when it wasn’t made at all. Today, it’s only practised by a handful of artisans, primarily in New York and Israel.
Having been passed from father to son through time, and being a coveted trade, the craft of spanier arbeit isn’t shared widely and remains a protected and esoteric process. Some museum collections have samples. Some of these samples were donated and some came into the museums’ care after repatriation efforts, in which museums took ownership of Jewish families’ belongings that were recovered from Nazi homes after the war in cases where the original owners or their family members couldn’t be found. Now, today, spanier arbeit can be bought online and in stores, and a more affordable version of it is made by machines rather than by hand.
I: What’s the role of spanier arbeit? What does it do?
LH: This is a confusing part for me. I’m not entirely sure. Like I said, it’s made as a decoration on religious garments. That’s all well and good. But, as becomes clear to anyone who works in handcraft, there’s more to decoration than a shiny surface.
I: Okay, sure, like pride in craftsmanship?
LH: Yes, definitely. Pride in craftsmanship is a part of why the work is valued. Skill, refinement, quality, evidence of the hand. All true.
I: What else does it do?
LH: In the case of spanier arbeit, it’s a sort of inter-religious marker. It distinguishes different sects of Hasidim who have selected specific styles of it over time.
It’s also tied to the market in a unique way; because so few people can do it, it’s always at risk of just sort of not existing anymore. It’s subject to market demand, yet there is very little market demand. And that’s in conflict with it being a coveted religious ornament.
I: Can I see a sample of it?
LH: Yes, for sure.
Lily hands the interviewer a swatch of lace stitched down to a cotton cloth.
I: What’s this?
LH: Some spanier arbeit from eBay. It’s pretty expensive, please be careful.
I: Why is it so wet?
Both stare at the pile of moist dirt in the interviewer’s hand.
LH: Oh, sorry.
The interviewer puts the handful of dirt in their satchel, then settles back into the interview.
I: Earlier, you started describing how it’s made and how the fibres get twisted together. Do the materials have conceptual purpose or significance?
LH: Mhm, sure. How the materials operate together creates so much intrigue in this project. For example, the metallic tinsel in the lace breaks down over time. It oxidises, turns green, and disintegrates. After these garments are handled a lot, the oils from our hands work their way into the metals, and they’re worn and folded and refolded, and sit in the sun and whatnot. So they start to break down. As the metal recedes, the cotton core starts to emerge. The internal material that the craftsmen tried to cover with the pretty metal fibres becomes the dominant fibre.
What’s really under there starts to reveal itself and the shiny covering isn’t doing its job to hide it anymore. They look a bit like decomposing bodies.
I: Oil from our hands?
LH: From our hands.
I: They’re touched so much that they disintegrate.
LH: They’re attached to clothing, so they get touched.
Another thing—and this is really important—is the symbolic nature of the way the lace is made and the form it takes. The lacemaker starts with many hundreds or thousands of feet of fibre, and winds them around each other over and over for hours and days and weeks. Then all these thousands of feet of fibre get condensed little by little, and end up within a small surface area of luscious, thick, ornamental lace.
It’s a sort of magic they’re performing. I’m not sure where this is going, but I know it’s important. Don’t tell my gallerist.
I: Why would I tell your gallerist?
LH: Oh. That was a joke.
LH: They like me to have neat, tidy answers. They like when I know things.
I: And don’t you?
LH: No. And neither do you.
I: I do.
Lily squints at the interviewer. The interviewer pats their satchel; the moist dirt is seeping through the canvas, leaving a light brown stain.
LH: What other Ashkenazi Jewish crafts have you come across in your research?
I: Um, so, Jewish crafts and arts—I mean, techniques or media that can be traced specifically to Jewish invention or production—are rare. If a group of people is pushed from region to region, restricted from participating in the main trade systems, cut off from resources, they adapt to their circumstances. Cultural products are developed within these different cultures, from these different cultures.
We have Jews spread pretty much all over, interacting and exchanging with other populations within confined conditions. So, of course, there aren’t a whole lot of expansive, well-documented techniques that we can claim ownership to. And a lot of what we have made looks like things other people have made.
LH: That could be said about crafts from many cultures. There’s usually some overlap.
I: Yes, yes, I agree.
LH: These are some nice connections you’re drawing.
I: Thank you. And thank you for asking.
LH: I’m asking you because it’s my job.
I: Does that mean you’re not interested?
LH: Do you want my real answer?
I: What are you really interested in, then?
I: Nice, okay.
LH: I like watching puddles swell during storms.
I: Me too.
LH: This is bigger than us.
I: It’s bigger than us.
Lily reaches her left hand down beside her seat and touches the top—but does not break the surface tension—of a puddle, in which both she and the interviewer are submerged up to their ankles.
Both are silent.
Outside the window of Lily’s studio is a vast field covered in pale red flowers.
A small brown bird collides with the glass pane. The interviewer turns in time to see the bird fall to the grass. Lily continues looking at the puddle.
LH: What do you like about gardening?
I: I like digging.
I: I like getting dirt under my fingernails. I like the first day when sprouts shoot through the soil, when I think, how do they do that?, and, could I do that?
LH: So, it’s the process for you, then?
I: Probably. So, why fibre? Why lace, or craft, or whatever you want to call it?
LH: I think that if fibre could last longer, if it didn’t break down so fast, if it could hang around like bronze or ceramics or marble for thousands of years in nearly perfect form, we’d have written a different history of humanity. I take this medium seriously as evidence of the possibilities and innovations of humans throughout the world through time, and as one of the more intimate and revealing forms of cultural production at that.
What people make—these things we live among or use as tools or trade, or that we value as something other than a means to an end—are reflections of the societies that produce them. I think spanier arbeit specifically tells us about the culture that made it, in the ways it’s made, how it’s used, where it spread with the diaspora, how it faded from use, and how it has sprung up now in a few instances around the world.
I: How do you think of its place within contemporary art discourse?
LH: I want this craft to permeate contemporary art discourse through the metaphors it offers us, and through its physicality and the culture surrounding it. It evokes secrecy, both in how the material is wound and hidden within the lace, and in how it’s kept close to the chest by those who know how to make it.
This can be a conversation about concealment. It can extend to the idea that decoration, in a larger sense, is about covering up or hiding something within, which can be aspirational, in that something might represent how we wish to be seen rather than how we are, or it can be deceptive, in that we can present something that represents how we wish to be seen rather than how we are.
I: So, does spanier arbeit represent a culture, or does it represent what a culture wishes it was?
LH: Can it be both? Maybe there’s no such thing as a culture, only what we project onto each other.
I: That’s inconvenient. There could be no end to the confusion.
The interviewer looks tired. They exhale and shift the small black box slightly to reveal the pink impressions of its edges along their thighs.
I: It’s contradictory.
LH: Yes, probably.
I: I’ll be honest, I’m not really into art.
LH: You aren’t being very professional.
I: First of all, I’m not a professional.
I: I said, “I’m not a professional.”
LH: What are you then?
I: I’m a dilettante.
LH: We have that in common.
I: I’ve always wanted to be a columnist.
LH: But you are a columnist.
I: No, it’s just a dream at this point.
LH: I thought this was an interview for Artforum.
I: What’s Artforum?
This interview is adapted from one that appeared in PROTOCOLS in December 2020.5
1 This interview did not necessarily happen in this reality, but may be happening as we speak in infinite others.
3 If Kyiv doesn’t already have a gallery called B’érekh (meaning “sort of” in Hebrew), it should.
4 Giza Frankel, “Little Known Handicrafts of Polish Jews in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Journal of Jewish Art 2 (1975), 42–49.