You all know if you’ve been here before: I sew historical clothes. That is to say, I research the styles and methods originally employed in garments made over two centuries ago, and I attempt to recreate those styles using those methods. I remember the moment distinctly when I decided that what I was doing was important.
I was stitching while watching Netflix—I believe that this was a compromise reached with my toddler, who wanted me to read animal books, and my desire to finish a project. I found a geography documentary series and pulled it up. (Wildest China, and unfortunately, it’s not streaming any longer—I checked for you, but others in the “Wildest” series are and they’re worth a watch.) It had plenty of animals for her, but made a unique departure from most animal-centric shows in that it also explored how humans had traditionally encountered the ecosystem depicted, and in what ways this lifeway persisted and in what ways it was changing.
The ecosystem depicted was the Chinese steppes. The people were nomadic herders. They also hunted with golden eagles.
Very few hunters remained—most young men from the community were moving to cities to find modern, more stable jobs. They didn’t hunt for subsistence, though they did eat the meat—instead, it was vital to them to keep this folkway alive. Later I read an article about one of the only female golden eagle hunters. One article stated that though tradition dictated that boys apprentice as hunters, not girls, the fact that most men were leaving the community forced an exception. (And for good measure, another female golden eagle hunter, with stunning images, in Kazahkstan)
I watched the magnificent spread of wings, the powerful talons outstretched toward prey, the obedient return to the mounted hunter. And I looked down at my hands, a length of linen spread between them, a neat line of stitches running down a seam I was working on, and it struck me. What made my breath skip at the golden eagles and their handlers was the same thing that drew me to historical sewing.
It was preserving a disappearing art.
Now, golden eagles are far more exciting than backstitches, and mounted hunters far more interesting than rainy-day seamstresses. Still, something links us. We believe that the task which is “no longer necessary” is in fact intrinsically necessary. We can’t bear to let a skill honed by generations before us die. We want to invest time and effort and learning into a lifeway that isn’t exactly thriving—in the case of the nomads, it’s fading, in the case of the historical seamstress, it’s been dead for decades.
But it’s worthwhile.
The only known female golden eagle hunter in Kazakhstan is also a lawyer. I hear her, because I understand the sentiment exactly, in her when asked how she plans to combine office work with bird handling[. S]he said “I don’t need to give up being a berkutchi. I will do both things at once.”
We guardians of antique lifeways don't have to live in the past. We can live in both places at once.