Part 3 Research Point – Crafts

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We are asked to consider why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society.

Top of the list when undertaking a Google search on the definition of “craft” gives the definition “An activity involving skill in making things by hand.”  Man has been making things with his hands from the moment he found he could fashion a sharp edge on a piece of flint.  To make something by hand entails knowlege and skills learned from practice of the craft and training from watching and being instructed by another skilled practitioner.  It takes effort which sometimes means physical strength or endurance in the case of blacksmiths or glass blowers and it often takes considerable time to produce a piece by hand so patience is also a useful virtue.  The best materials for the job are also necessary so that the product is going to endure.

Craftspeople often learn their craft from family members who are able to spend time with youngsters who exhibit an enjoyment of using their hands.  My Grandmother let me use her hand crank Singer sewing machine to make soft toys and dresses for my dolls and her good friend got me started on knitting and crochet, all when I was still of primary school age and was spending relaxing weekends with my grandparents away from the normal routine.  Many of the people I have asked about their craft experiences are convinced of the importance of sharing knowledge and skills with others.  It is a vital part of living in a community.  Craftspeople inevitably appreciate other craftspeople’s work and that in turn leads to the transfer of ideas and inspires new work.

In some cultures making the product by hand is vital part of sharing traditions and ideas and communicating a common history.  The Navaho Americans of the South West United States use patterns woven into baskets made of Sumac, Bear Grass and Willow Wood to represent feelings, note the weather and recount legends that have changed little over thousands of years.  Traditionally the craft was passed down through the female line and although there was more emphasis on the more lucrative production of Navaho rugs during the 1960s the craft persists through the efforts of people like Mary Holiday Black and her family.

Mass production of items we use every day has lead to a separation of the consumer from an appreciation of how it is made.  We will wrap ourselves in a fleecy blanket made from recycled plastic milk bottles and imagine we are helping to preserve the environment but how much more cosy, cared for and virtuous would we feel surrounded by a quilt made from old dresses and shirts worn by our family members and stitched by Mum, Granny and Sister to celebrate the birth of the new baby. There is huge added-value in the knowledge of how things are made and that when an item is made by hand it is truly unique.  When a piece tells a story that the consumer can identify with there is a connection made with the artist and a common experience.  How much more enjoyable than unwrapping a highly-packaged, machine made product that can never evoke the same feelings of appreciation.

Collectors of craft pieces don’t just take them home and leave them behind glass to be coldly admired.  Yvonna Demczynska runs Flow, a contemporary craft gallery in Notting Hill in London.  She says “For me, crafts are part of the domestic environment as well as being art pieces on show in galleries.”  (Family Ties – Crafts September/October 2008)  She uses a table commissioned from Toby Roskilly, a Cornish furniture maker, in her sitting room, on the mantelpiece are oil lamps by Helen Carnac and cast glass by Koihiro Yamamoto of Japan and the feeling is of a home that is lived in, not another gallery for the entertainment of prospective clients.

Until mass production using modern textiles and technologies everyone’s clothes and household textiles were made by hand.  Women who were my ancestors living in the rugged mountains of Epirus in the north-west and the Agean islands in the south-east of Greece, in the not too distant past, would have sewn and embroidered a dowry’s worth of household linens as maidens and continued to produce their own blankets and rugs using wool and hair from the sheep and goats they kept on the mountainsides.  The wealthy would not usually make their own clothing and linens but they would employ others to make these for them and perhaps embellish them with their own embroidery.

Industrial production of textiles made by machine means the consumer is not involved with the item in the same way as may happen when either you make something yourself or commission an item to be made for you.  Jo Lucksted, a ceramic artist based in Shepton Mallet, Somerset says that part of the enjoyment for her customers and herself is the personal interaction between them.  Again it is about sharing ideas, experiences and for the consumer to be part of the process by sharing with the maker is unique and beyond value.

Involvement in producing hand made items also brings people together within their communities.  There are innumerable groups, of mainly women – but that is another topic for discussion altogether – who meet up to enjoy spending time making with their friends and families.  Stitch and chat sessions, sewing bees, yarn-bombing, Women’s Institute meetings, knitting blankets for charities and now it is common for brides to invite their hens to a craft party instead of a night out clubbing.  It is possible to learn a new craft now at the many workshop establishments that have been set up recently.  My local quilting shop in Chilcompton, Somerset – Midsomer Quilting has a year round programme of courses to learn new textile skills where experience and ideas are shared.  The Makery and Wool in Bath both offer drop in sessions where you can meet up with friends and sort out technical problems with your projects and the social aspects is sometimes even more important than the craft.  There is definitely a resurgence of interest in making in the UK.

The Crafts Council Craft Matters initiative was set up in 2009 to encourage and promote craft as a vital part of cultural, social and economic life in the UK.  Artist Grayson Perry is one of their craft champions and his recent series of television programmes on Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste – Grayson Perry was an exploration of British taste inspired by Hogarth’s A Rakes Progress and culminating in a series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Perry uses the concept of taste within a particular social class or “tribe” and the personal emotional investment in the type of items people choose to surround themselves with to expolore the politics of consumerism and popular design.

Also, just recently, a new series of programmes have begun on BBC.  Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution is a competition-style concept whereby groups of craftspeople, are chosen to be interviewed and at the end of the programme one is chosen to get their work into the Victoria & Albert Museum shop.  It is really great that crafts are being featured in the media, but I am not sure as to the motivation behind the concept which is more akin to a craft version of the X-Factor than to promoting the best of UK craft.  I enjoyed much more Monty Don’s series Mastercrafts which gave participants a real opportunity to experience and ultimately pursue an apprenticeship in a valuable craft.

Different cultures regard craft in different ways.  My mother made an interesting comment recently, on completing a quilt she had made for her friend’s first grandchild, she said that her friend Urania was the only person in Greece she could think of that would appreciate something hand made.  To me, this is a pretty damning observation of Greece’s current attitude to an aspect of their heritage and potential for the future.  But it underlines my own research into the production of traditional Greek textiles that, so far, has shown me that there is very little still produced by hand.  Women are still producing the crocheted lace and embroideries which are on offer in tourist shopping districts like Monastiraki in Athens but the designs are dated and not appealing to the modern craft consumer.  Isn’t what a country makes part of it’s identity?

One Greek craftsman based in Monastiraki itself is famous for his traditional sandals but he is almost more notorious for being a lone craftsperson in a sea of industrially produced tourist geegaws.

Stavros Melissinos – the Poet Sandal Maker of Athens – learned his craft from his father and has passed his skills on to his son Pandelis, also a writer and a painter.  During my research I have found many instances of craftspeople having more than one talent – is this a characteristic of creativity?

There is also the feel good factor in making.  As Virginia Crawford of Virginia Creeper puts it,

For the creator, there is perhaps a sense of providing for loved ones, along with a deep artistic satisfaction, a nesting instinct, a nurturing instinct, a sense of community. There’s nothing like the feeling that comes with making something yourself. Deep satisfaction, self-nurturing, fulfilling. There is a level of artistic expression that comes with producing textiles by hand (manually) that fully automated, industrialized machine processes cannot attain, nor are they designed to, for the very good reason that their sole purpose is to manufacture for the mass market rather than for the individual.”

Many consumers feel it is vital to seek out the hand made because it corresponds with their ideals of ethical, green, local or even actively anti-consumerist shopping.

And pianist Jacquelyn Bevan homes in on another aspect when she says:

“being creative is good for the soul/mental health”

which is a huge factor for many people involved in crafts.  Virginia told me about the Saori weaving program founded 40 years ago in Japan by Misao Jo and now practised in nearly 1000 sheltered workshops, rehabilitation centres and schools across the world.  Misao Jo explains the philosophy behind the program,

All flowers are beautiful, even though each individual flower is different in form and color.  Because of this difference, “all are good”.  Because everything has the same life, life cannot be measured by a yardstick.  It is this individuality that makes everything meaningful and the uniqueness of each thread that creates the tapestry of life.”

With Saori, the craft of weaving is used to enable anyone, regardless of ability, to explore his or her creativity and by this activity, to enrich their lives and contribute to their community.  Saori encourages spontaneous creativity through showing people how to weave in a way that means irregularities are all adding to the “human-ness” of the piece.  Specially developed looms and prepared warps can be used to aid the process and the emphasis is on self-expression, helping people towards independence.

At a talk at the 2008 London Literature Festival Grayson Perry was one of three artists were invited to join Richard Sennett to talk about his book The Craftsman and discuss craft’s role in contemporary society.  Perry comments on the joys of imperfection:

“In my studio, literally cast into a beam, it says: ‘Creativity is mistakes.’  It’s a recognition of humanity; you spot problems, you know if something goes wrong, but in a good way. ‘Next time I’ll capitalise on that,’ you think, except then it’s not a mistake but deliberate.  Potters talk about the ‘gifts of the fire’.”  (Amateurism, Art and Absorption – Crafts September/October 2008)

The production crafts will only continue if the skills and knowledge are passed down.  70 years ago many children left school at 14 to be apprenticed to master craftsmen and women as carpenters, milliners, shoemakers, stonemasons and so on.  Until recently apprenticeships had all but disappeared and are now being offered again, with the Government’s publicity highlighting the “earn while you learn” aspect.  Unfortunately there seem to be few opportunities being offered in traditional craft-based industries, such as construction or manufacture as most are in business administration, the leisure industry and communications.

The Heritage Crafts Association, presided over by HRH the Prince of Wales, endeavours to promote traditional heritage crafts such as embroidery, spinning, weaving and dyeing so that the skills will be passed on.  Funds are raised for grant awards and training in marketing to help craftspeople look to the future as well as preserving knowledge from the past.

According to this article on The British Museum blog, we are apprently greatly appreciating the value of the hand made in the UK, such that the contemporary craft market is worth £1 billion.  But in my experience and that of the people I have spoken to, craftspeople are rarely making for great monetary gain.  They work in their chosen craft because they are drawn to it, are fulfilled by it and chose to do it because it is something they enjoy and would not want to live any other way.  Many craftspeople also teach to supplement their income and disseminate their knowledge.  Craft is often a lifestyle choice.  Virginia again:

I choose to work from home doing something I enjoy and am good at. While personally fulfilling, my craft work fits around my delicate health and will continue to bring in an income even when I have a family to raise. This supports my parenting ideals and will inevitably lead to my children learning craft skills from me in the same way that I learnt from my mother. Incidentally, my mother stayed at home until I was about 15 and supplemented the family income with cottage industry, either by selling her own amazing embroidery, crochet, macrame and basketweaving pieces or by taking in crochet piecework from other businesses. As kids we often helped her in her endeavours, and we learnt a lot about craft, self-employment and good parenting.”

Finally, on a note that I heartily empathise with, Virginia expresses her personal observation how the world goes around:

Society is made up of several different strata. Craftspeople dwell in the one that keeps society honest, grounded and self-sufficient.”


Bibliography

Contributions gratefully received from:

Jo Lucksted -ceramicist

Jacquelyn Fry – pianist

Virginia Crawford – costumier and doll maker

Katharine Tassis – retired textiles teacher

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