The Literacy of the Fingers

by Beth Tilston


“We consider that the architects in every profession are more estimable and know more and are wiser than the artisans, because they know the reasons of the things which are done.”

– Aristotle, Metaphysics

“There is no instrument in my bag of baker’s tools more useful and adaptable than my two hands, and as long as I can use them to make and shape bread, I will.”

– Dan Lepard, ‘The Handmade Loaf’

The leaven is sour with me when I get it out of the fridge after its five month holiday. There is an inch of dark hooch on the top. I pour it off, confident that I know how to sweeten it up. For four days I get rid of half and feed what’s left with warm water and rye. It bubbles over the top of the jar in appreciation.

Back at my desk, starting to write this essay, I think back to my first sourdough loaf. It was dense, wholemeal, overly-acidic from being left to prove for days. It was made at the start of what I have come to think of as my ‘apprenticeship of the hands.’ The apprenticeship started after I had emerged, idea-battered, from a master’s degree in English Literature. My degree certificate told me that I had a distinction, but all I felt qualified to do was to build castles in the air. This was 2008; the year that everything broke. I looked at myself and realised that I could write 20,000 words on the Derridean idea of the archive, but I couldn’t bake a loaf of bread. I was an expert in frame narratives but I felt completely unable to look after myself. Theory-sick, I turned my back on the world of ‘thinking’ and embraced the world of ‘doing’. And I found that I was terrible at it.


How did this happen? How had I reached the age of 28 without being forced to develop at least some practical skills? The short answer is, it was allowed to happen; in fact, it was encouraged. Despite gardening and cooking with my mum as a child, despite helping my dad to put the family’s collection of bikes in good order, I was given a strong message by the society I grew up in that the head ruled the hands. That the thinkers of the world were superior to the makers and the menders. Two millennia on from Aristotle, we had indeed made the architects more estimable than the artisans. It suited me fine: I was good at being a thinker.

This mind-body problem has a long philosophical heritage. Rene Descartes grappled with the idea in the seventeenth century and came up with the notion that we now know as Cartesian dualism. Descartes thought that the mind and the physical brain were two separate entities. In his view, it was the mind that was the seat of intelligence rather than the brain. It was the mind that was conscious and self-aware. He did concede though that whilst mind and matter are separate, they are irrevocably linked. The mind cannot exist outside of the body – and the body cannot think. This, I think, is the view that many of us hold of ourselves: disembodied, thinking minds encapsulated in dumb meat. It explains why it seems logical to raise the mind above the meat.

As the machine age has progressed, the number of things that we are required to do for ourselves has gradually shrunk. Thanks to machines, and – crucially – to abundant oil, twenty-first century Man (unlike any of his ancestors) is now able to blithely declare himself ‘not a practical person.’ Unhandy Man has been born. We live in a culture which has turned us into children, unable to look after ourselves, unable to decipher even where to start. Practical skills are often spoken of now as if they possess some sort of magic that only a few salt-of-the-earth folk can master.

The triumph of the head over the hands starts at school, as those fully embodied, fully physical creatures – little children – are clustered around tables, given pens and paper and encouraged to bed down in their brains. They emerge from the schooling system believing that the only thing of value they possess resides above the shoulder and beneath the skull. But why can’t the hand-worker also be a thinker? And is our mind really the only site of intelligence? Do our bodies, and the things they are capable of, not have an intelligence of their own?


I weigh out my flour on the balance scales, then I take out a few tablespoons of strong white and replace them with spelt. I add enough spelt to give the loaf a more interesting flavour but not enough to inhibit the rise. Then I weigh and add the right amount of leaven.

The timer goes off for the first kneading. I wet my hands so that the dough doesn’t stick and begin to fold it over and over. Beneath my fingers I feel the start of an airy sponginess as the wild yeast start to metabolise the sugars in the flour, farting out carbon dioxide as a by-product which makes the bread rise. For the next half an hour it needs me constantly. I fold, re-cover with a tea-towel, sit down, write 150 words and then – beep – I’m needed again.

It’s time for the third folding. As the dough rolls around the bowl, it is homogenising into a smooth round ball the exact consistency of a baby’s chubby arse. The dough is starting to feel ‘right’ to me. I try to put that ‘rightness’ into words, pin it down in description and specificities. It’s impossible. Proper description remains elusive. ‘Spongy’ is not quite right. Similes and metaphors are better – ‘like a baby’s arse‘ gets a bit closer to the truth. But the fact is, I lack the words to describe what the feeling of half-risen dough is like. Words cannot easily hold the material world. The literacy of the fingers does not translate to the page.

I wonder if it is this fact that made Aristotle and those that followed him (including us) turn against ‘the artisans.’ True mastery of a practical skill is impossible to describe in words. And how can knowledge be real if it cannot be expressed in words? How can it truly exist if it cannot be written down and easily distributed? Perhaps the head won out over the hands because of a deep distrust. The architects distrusts the artisan because the architect – the supposed thinker – lacks the knowledge of what the artisan is doing. There is no book which will make up for time spent at the workbench, learning with eyes, ears, fingers, nose. There is no book which can contain that physicality of learning.

In The Case for Working with Your Hands, Matthew Crawford, an academic turned motorcycle mechanic, describes a conversation he had in his teens with his physicist father. It was on the subject of shoelaces:

“One day, as I came into the house filthy, frustrated and reeking of gasoline [he has been trying to mend his old VW Beetle] my dad looked up from his chair and said to me, out of the blue, ‘Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it is a double knot?’ I didn’t really know what to do with this information. It seemed to come from a different universe to the one that I was grappling with.

Thinking about that posited shoelace now, it occurs to me that maybe you can and maybe you can’t undo it at a stroke – it depends. If the shoelace is rough and spongy, and the knot is tight, it will be a lot harder to undo than if the knot is loose and the shoelace is made of something slick and incompressible, like silk ribbon. The shoelace might well break before it comes undone. He was speaking of mathematical string, which is an idealised shoelace, but the idealisation seemed to have replaced any actual shoelace in his mind as he got wrapped up in some theoretical problem.”

I have come to think of this story as ‘The Parable of the Mathematical Shoelace.’ To me it represents the ‘world-blindness’ from which architects such as myself can often suffer. Clearly there is a place in the world for generic knowledge – knowledge that can be transmitted far and wide through words. But to imagine that this is the only knowledge that matters is to overlook a vast compendium – an encyclopedia – of human knowledge which is carried around between the ears and in the bodies of makers and menders. It’s a specific, localised kind of knowledge. A knowledge which recognises what the salty air of a coastal town is likely to do to the bodywork of a car, a knowledge which says, ‘add a cup of extra water when making bread with this flour.’ And there is a difference in the timbre of the knowledge. Book learning gives the confidence to make grand statements, such as the one about the mathematical shoelace. Bench learning is more modest, has learned how to listen, understands hubris. It suggests – ‘maybe this?’ – because it understands that every situation is different.


Real materials, like real people, can be disobedient. They don’t respond as we expect to the ideas thrust upon them. When I return to the dough after its first long rise, it is swampy and loose. This is a problem which I do not yet possess the specific knowledge to solve. Dough which is the perfect consistency when you start can often shrug off its structure as it rises, leaving you with a loaf that seeps at the sides. I fold it once more and put it into a banneton – a wicker basket designed to support the shape during the final rise.

I will have to wait and see whether the dough will hold its shape, or whether my lack of knowledge will be written into the bread for all to see. This strikes me as another reason why artisans have been denigrated down the centuries. With material things, there is no hiding failure in pretty words. There is a truthfulness about the product of hand work – the wall is straight or it isn’t, the bread rises or it doesn’t, the car will start or it won’t. It is obvious when you aren’t good enough. There is no argument, no window for rhetoric. Who would choose to be an artisan? To be repetitious, thoughtless, to fail and fail again before you succeed?

As it turned out in 2008, I would.

What happens when an architect decides that she wants to learn to be an artisan? In my case, what happened was sour bread, runny jam and ailing seedlings. In short, plenty of moments of frustrating, no-holds-barred failure as my idealistic mind came face to face with material limitations. To start with, there was a kind of disgust with myself. How could I – with all my education! – not be capable of a simple task like getting jam to set? Constant failure made something of a dent in my self-regard. There seemed to be some practical part of my brain which was missing. Over yet another pot of strawberries suspended in a sloppy mess of hot sugar (it could not really be called jam), I realised that not only did I lack jam-making knowledge and experience, I was missing a whole raft of knowledge that made learning practical things possible for me. Not only did I not know how to make jam, I didn’t really even know how to learn to make jam. It was this meta-knowledge that was missing. I lacked the skills to think about doing.

But, I persisted with the bread and the jam and the seedlings and I began to fill in that gap in my brain. I learned – quickly – to submit. Working with your hands is a constant submission to and conversation with your materials. It is a process of listening and looking, a subtle dance of noticing and making small changes until one day you realise you have learned the necessary steps. This is what practice – the act of doing something again and again until you get better at it – is. When you submit to a practice you are admitting you are not in charge. I learned to submit – feeling ridiculous – to dough and to jam, and it changed the way that I think. Materials, I found, are not as easily manipulated as ideas.

Our mental image of the person who works with their hands is someone who spends an awful lot of time looking at things. Sometimes, when we are in a favourable mood towards hand-workers, this image can take the form of an ‘artisanal’ carpenter communing with a piece of timber in a dim and dusty workshop, mulling over where he needs to plane off a millimetre of wood to make it perfectly flat. When we are feeling less favourable, it takes the form of complaints about why there are eight road workers staring into one hole as we sit in a traffic jam on the motorway. Whilst we are sometimes awed by the mystery of the craftsman’s contemplation, more often we are critical of the ‘doer’ when they appear to be ‘doing’ nothing.

It is true that much of working with your hands is not about using your hands at all, but instead your eyes and your brain. There is much, in other words, that is about observation. But quite what happens during this period of observation is not obvious from the outside. We see someone staring at a piece of wood or several people staring into a hole. They look as though they are deeply focused. To begin with, though, this is not what is happening. In fact they are holding their attention open, getting a general sense of things, gathering everything they know about form and function, handling tools, using materials efficiently. They are holding those things in their minds half-unconsciously and at the same time. What they are doing is ‘problem-finding’ – a very different skill to problem solving.

As someone who knew nothing about making or fixing things, I did not know that this period of open observation was a stage in the process. The concept of problem-finding had not occurred to me. I focused, as I thought I should, but too soon or on the wrong things. I once made a spoon from cherry wood, only the fourth or fifth spoon that I had ever made, and felt quite pleased with the result. Then I looked down the spoon – from the end of the handle down to the bowl – and realised it was crooked. I had never once looked at the spoon from that direction when I was making it. This type of learning was not like the learning I had done at school or university, where the boundaries of the problem were clearly delineated and all I had to do was fill in the blank. Before I could do that I had to work out, from the mess of information in front of me, what the blank was.

As I learned a variety of skills, slowly and painfully, I realised that one of the key things I had been missing was an awareness of the importance of ‘material sense.’ Bread dough is soft and spongy and easily shaped, but when heat is applied its interior architecture sets into a firm structure. Metal is the opposite. Cold, it is strong and unyielding, but heated up it becomes elastic and can be shaped and manipulated. All materials have properties, and understanding that fact brings you a lot closer to being able to work effectively with that material – even if you don’t yet know what those properties are. There is a tendency, as a beginner, to focus on the tool and not the material – the plane, not the wood, the hammer, not the molten metal, the jam thermometer, not the jam. Technique, to start with, is all. As you practice and improve, your gaze moves to the material. You realise that it is necessary to almost become your material. To quote Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsman:

“We are now involved in something, no longer self-aware, even of our bodily self. We have become the thing on which we are working.”

All these elements – submitting, observation, material sense, and others I have not yet learned – form the bedrock upon which the hand-worker builds their own practice. You will often hear an artisan talk of their ‘process’ – of what they are doing – but you will rarely hear them talk about their thinking. This does not mean that they aren’t doing any, nor that they are inarticulate: it means that it is simply impossible to put this type of experience into words.


Returning to the kitchen, I find the dough has risen so much that it is nearly spilling out of the banneton. The moment of truth. I turn the baking tray upside down on top of the banneton and then flip them both over. The dough does not come out easily. It is too wet, too loose. It sticks to the inside of the banneton. Eventually it flops out onto the tray, but the results are not as pleasing as they could be. I am disappointed, but I suppose I haven’t done badly for my first time back. I chalk this one up to experience – number 65 of the 500 not-quite-good-enough sourdough loaves I’ll have to make before I can be assured of making good ones. I slit the top with the grignette, put the bread in the oven and return to my writing practice, to essay number 47 of the 500 essays I will have to write before I can be assured of writing good ones.

Dancing back and forth between dough and words, dough and words, it strikes me that these two practices – baking and writing – have a great deal in common. The focus needed is the same, the observation and attention needed are the same, the uncertainty of outcome is the same, the frustrations of not getting it quite right are the same. I wonder whether perhaps all practice, whether intellectual or practical, has something in common.

If so, what is it that differentiates writing and baking? If all process is essentially the same, what is the fundamental difference between the product of an intellectual process, and the product of a practical one? It could be argued that one of the differences is that ideas last while material things don’t. In some ways, that is true. This loaf will not last long. On the other hand, consider what is uncovered by archaeological digs on the earliest human settlements: all we have are their material things. From these we try to extrapolate their evaporated ideas.

The real difference is in how we value the product. All my loaf of bread does is keep me alive. As we have grown richer and richer, we have started to believe an unwritten rule which states that the closer something gets to being core to our continued physical existence, the more mundane it becomes. The gods that used to protect our crops have retreated from the fields. We have stopped singing songs to John Barleycorn. We no longer think about the products of our hands.

The head has come to rule the hands because we have set up a false dichotomy between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers’ – between architects and artisans. In reality, we are all both. From the moment we emerge into the world as an infant, we set about learning to be more and more practically adept – sitting up, crawling, manipulating things with our hands. The western phenomenon of ‘Unhandy Man’ has come into being for a few reasons – our wealth, our lack of need in an oil-powered mechanised world, and the process of education and socialisation which degrades the manual arts and lionises the intellectual ones. All of these things have contributed to the ‘disembodiment’ of large swathes of the population.

Practical skills matter because knowing them makes us – to however small a degree – more independent, more capable of looking after ourselves. We cannot criticise the excesses of capitalism or the inexorable rise of inappropriate technology if, in our mundane day to day lives, we are still reliant on it; if we are still sucking on the teat of the machine.

We make the dichotomy between architects and artisans real, or otherwise, by how we define ourselves. If we fall into the architect camp then we can do our bit to chisel away at this division by allowing the artisans a thinking mind, and allowing ourselves a working body. We can recognise how much of doing is really thinking, and the myriad ways in which working with our hands can improve our minds. If we believe ourselves to be artisans, we can recognise how we – with all of our experience, humility and lack of hubris – are particularly suited to the act of thinking, because we have learnt through practice how to do it.


The bread is out of the oven now, and cooling on a wire rack. It has split across the top as if a much larger loaf was fighting to get out. It’s clear to me that I still have much to learn about the expansion of hot air and the stretching limitations of gluten. As soon as it is cool, I cut a slice. Despite its saggy appearance it has risen well and the interior is full of characteristic sourdough holes waiting to be filled with butter and jam. The world can be changed by our hands as well as our heads. Either does its work less well without the other to help it along