OLYMPIA — The rhythmic sound of sandpaper smoothing wood is accompanied by the steady punching of slots in leather as a handful of students focus on putting the finishing touches on knife sheathes that are as much a work of art as a tool.
The students on this particular evening — a homemaker, a high school student and a bakery worker — are part of an inaugural Scandinavian knife-making class, one of a handful of classes at Arbutus Folk School, which recently opened its doors in Washington state’s capital city. The school — which focuses on regional crafts — is modeled on others around the country that allow people to learn skills that predate a world consumed with iPhones and easy access to Wi-Fi.
“I think we very much undervalue some of the social values of these skills — sharing those skills with others, learning from a mentor … the whole community around sharing an interest with somebody,” said Stacey Waterman-Hoey, the founder and acting director of the school. Waterman-Hoey walked away from 18 years of energy and climate policy research to start the school, saying she “found a lot of joy and beauty along the way that I never would have known in my office days.”
There are currently more than 30 such schools in more than a dozen states around the country, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Classes vary school by school, but include courses on such pursuits as blacksmithing, knitting, beekeeping, soap making, archery and other skills that harken back to earlier times. Some — such as Highlander Research and Education Center, previously known as Highlander Folk School, in New Market, Tenn., which counts Rosa Parks among its alumni — focus on social justice or promote political organization. However, most of the schools that have started up in recent years focus on traditional or regional crafts, skills or music, including banjo or the fiddle.
Vicky Eiben, assistant professor of education at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., said that there are now at least double the number of such schools in existence than there were six years ago, which is when she was doing doctoral research looking at the impact of rural community education projects, including folk schools.
“I think in some ways it’s a response, a counterbalance, to a lot of what’s going on in our society, with media and technology and the fast-paced need to do more with less,” she said. “The folk school movement is very much not that. It’s much more focused on community and relationships and the arts and a sense of place. I think people are really seeking to balance the craziness of their lives.”
Eiben, a founding board member of Driftless Folk School in Viroqua, Wis., said that the purpose of folk schools — whose roots go back to Denmark in the 1800s — tap into a desire for lifelong learning outside of regular day-to-day work.
“None of us has to know how to blacksmith, but I think there is something so meaningful in being able to create something with your hands,” she said. “It feeds us in some way that perhaps connecting with technology doesn’t.”
Chris Spicer, chairman of the Folk Education Association of America, said that while there are various types of folk schools, most have a mix of practical learning and personal growth development.
“A key part of that is community,” he said. “The other big distinction is that, as a nontraditional school, it’s a noncompetitive cooperative.”
For Arbutus Scandinavian knife making instructor Tim Nagle — whose day job is working for the state’s new health benefit exchange, but who has experience with chair making — the school offers a way for him to share his knowledge of woodworking. He says that he tells his students that once you learn a skill like the ones they learn in his class, “no one can ever take that away from you.”
“You’ll have that for life,” he said.