Photography by Heleen Haijtema.

Tacit Knowledge, Rooted Material

by Claudy Jongstra

People used to be able to feel the quality of wool between their fingers. But this kind of sensitivity has been lost, no longer cultivated or schooled, as society stopped valuing the ability to understand material properties through sensory experience. As society’s values have slowly started to shift again, people are beginning to return their attention to the kind of knowledge that comes from experience. This kind of non-propositional, non-verbal knowledge—tacit knowledge—is the foundation of everything we are doing at Studio Claudy Jongstra through daily experimentation with ancient craft techniques and agricultural practices.

At Studio Claudy Jongstra, we have been experimenting with botany, natural fibers, and plant pigments for years, but it was not until recently that we began to put language to this practice as a kind of historical reconstruction for research on the transmission of tacit knowledge. We create new natural dye recipes through the study of ancient recipes and manuscripts. These recipes, layered with centuries of intuition and practical experimentation passed down through the ages, come to life in our dye studio with freshly harvested ingredients. Working in this way, tacit knowledge and scientific research compose a contemporary approach to plant-pigment experimentation. Our next challenge is to communicate these experiments as transferable knowledge.

In my making processes, I want the craft and skill to be visible, to be elevated and given respect and recognition. In this way, the qualities of my work also foster an emotional connection to indigenous craft and cultural heritage as well as the landscape that provides these precious materials. For me, it is important that people understand that material has a life, a history. That it is connected to other living beings—people, plants, animals, the earth itself. That materials are part of an environment. If you are serious about understanding a material, you need to understand all of this.

Our flock of 250 Drenthe Heath sheep live on a nature preserve on the border between the provinces of Friesland and Drenthe under the care of a masterful shepherd, Ko. On a visit with Ko, we walk along the wooded edge of an undulating grassland speckled with dry, woody bushes. Two strong, stout black horses graze just beyond and Ko points to the ground at an eroded, dusty patch cutting diagonally in front of us—this is the way the horses like to run.  He reads the landscape aloud.

We turn right, into a seemingly endless field of heath, low woody shrubs with delicately laced bristles. Heath is a characteristic component of the cultural landscape of the Netherlands that has become rare as a result of shifting environmental and economic conditions. Most existing heath in the Netherlands is on preserved landscapes like this one. 

Ko stops at a bright yellow flowering bush about waist high. This is verfbrem and the sheep do not like to eat this, which is why it is so much taller than everything else. Surrounded by low-lying heath, we look around to discover that the field is punctuated by bright yellow flowers about waist high. 

The sheep are eager eaters. (Historically used for vegetation management, they have been replaced by chemical fertilizers that destroy the biodiversity that interferes with production on agricultural land.) Ko uses this trait as a tool for maintaining a balance between the three biotopes present in the heath landscape—forest, bushland, and grassland. With years of experience managing this landscape, Ko understands how these biotopes naturally shift from grassland to heath, from heath to forest. In order to maintain a healthy and dynamic balance, the sheep are deliberately guided (with the help of an energetic and instinctive border collie) to graze according to the changing needs of the land. 

Heavy Dutch wind travels easily across the fields, carrying seeds that become tangled in the sheep’s thick waves of wool. As they graze, the seeds shake loose and fall to the ground where they will become the next iteration of the heathland.

Each spring, as days grow longer and temperatures warm, the sheep are sheared. Ko’s expertise, his tacit knowledge of the landscape with its multitude of biotopes, and of the sheep as stewards of their habitat, is present in each fleece and in everything that comes out of the studio. Introducing people to the textured story of this material revitalizes an ancient connection with tactile sensibilities, and with the earth. At this precarious moment, as the loss of human connection to these sensibilities puts earth’s delicate balance in jeopardy, we have an opportunity to draw attention to material as our vital link to a new way of seeing our environment. 

Claudy Jongstra is a textile artist and environmental advocate who has spent the last twenty years developing an entirely sustainable approach to textile design including raising her own flock of indigenous Drenthe Heath sheep and cultivating pigments in her biodynamic dye garden in the northern Netherlands. She is also the creator of WOVEN SKIN, a modular installation of sixty hand-felted textiles that explores themes of ecology, color, and community. Watch a short film on Jongstra's practice here

In celebration of Climate Week NYC, Maharam proudly supports the US premiere of WOVEN SKIN at A/D/O on 9.22–24 and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture on 9.27–30, along with WOVEN SKIN TALKS, a panel discussion moderated by LinYee Yuan featuring Claudy Jongstra, Matthew Baird, Karenna Gore, CJ Sapong, and Billie Tsien on 9.24 at A/D/O in Brooklyn.

Images: Photography courtesy of Studio Claudy Jongstra unless otherwise noted.