As I wandered through the Blarney Woolen Mills built-in 1823, I touched products made in every county in Ireland. The sweet musty smell of wool perched next to the milky white bone china captivated all of us throughout the 40,000 square foot store. We walked through the history of this once water-powered mill in the Irish countryside and thought of how many times we have been surrounded by all things handmade during our time in Europe.
Last week, just before leaving Italy, we ambled into a handmade fair situated on the grounds of a magnificent villa. What is unique about these fairs in Europe is that there is an authentic exchange of knowledge happening between generations of teacher and apprentice, father and son, grandmother and grandchild, neighbor, and shop owner. The artists and craftspeople we have met are dedicated to the tradition of their craft and the passing on of their wisdom.
In Bruges, Belgium our boys were pulled into a stall to try making a blanket on a loom. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, our daughter was invited into a farmers market stall to stir and pour traditional pancake batter while the boys were taught the felting process. In Portugal, the kids each tried their hand at a very delicate embroidery technique with women sitting on a park bench. In Tuscany, winemakers taught them to sift sandy soil through their fingers and blacksmiths showed them how to make horseshoes by hand. In the French countryside, a group of masons explained masonry marks which the kids then hunted for on every brick wall in Europe. I will never forget the rhythmic sound of the lacemakers’ bobbins clicking as I stood in awe of hands that create such beauty.
What struck me with each experience is that artists pulled us in with an insatiable desire to teach anyone interested in learning. We were not in heritage centers or educational facilities. We had these experiences at local markets, in village squares, and in-country cafes and park benches. The passing of wisdom was intentional and full of passion but not forced. There was no staging or even positioning between teacher and student. It was an open invitation to absorb the past and present in order to preserve something beautiful for the future.