Preserving crafts

I’ve been working on this post a while now and it’s still not finished. I’ve been thinking about the future of craftsmanship and particularly handcrafts, the relationships between design and craft and designers and craftspeople, what authenticity means… .

Recently I posted here about a lecture given by Amanda Talbot at the Powerhouse Museum. Titled “Preserving the Past to Make Our Future Happen”, the blurb on the website  points to the need to learn from the past, rediscover lost skills and secure the knowledge of “the final generation with specialist craft skills”. To me a lot of what she said was about opportunities for designers – to find and use crafts and craftspeople, to engage with consumers. This was as advertised, but not what I was looking for – which was more about craftspeople preserving skills and knowledge, and the challenges of making a living through their craft if that’s what they choose to do.

drop spindle in the foreground, technology in the background

A couple of weeks ago at the Hand Weavers and Spinners Guild of NSW we had our first simulcast meeting, reaching out to members many kilometres from Sydney.

I love this photo – our President, Ann Beatty, in the foreground busy spindling while listening to committee member Ann Jackson (techo and spindle queen) introducing the new facilities.

This for me is the essence of preserving handcrafts – individuals building and passing on skills, learning and sharing, bringing in new ideas and materials but also valuing the traditional. People working with their own hands, creating, is the core. The object created is important. Good design is important. Building understanding and appreciation among consumers of handcrafted goods enriches the lives of those buying and those selling. Projects to provide opportunities and a market, to empower people or communities through trade  – very worthy. Globalisation of production – I concede some points but there are issues.

Back to the Guild simulcast. It was very impressive. The smooth running is a testament to the effort and preparation of the organisers, who had tested connections, found alternatives, rehearsed presentations, addressed issues of privacy and copyright… The focus is on members who can’t get to meetings and potential members around the state – but for me an immediate benefit for the “locals” was having the detail of a demonstration displayed up on the screen. The main presentation was about Ravelry. While I’m a member I’ve explored very little of it, and it was really interesting to see some of the possibilities. I hope the distance participants found it a satisfying experience and that this venture continues.

A demo of Facebook was also planned, but didn’t go ahead partly on time but also with the comment – “there’s no point after looking at Ravelry. That is the future of social networking – linking people with shared interests.” Which brings me back on topic – if craftmanship is about people and my concerns about preserving and sharing skills – how fabulous is the internet? As well as Ravelry there’s weavolution and blogs and ventures like P2P2 and of course YouTube… Incredible rich resources.

I’m beginning to collect quite a few bits of discussion on developments in handcrafts and consumer perceptions and values. I haven’t done any conscious research yet, but suspect this will be an ongoing area of interest for me (and maybe others), so below am listing some of what I’ve found so far. There’s rather a lot and undigested – no conclusions – so you are warned!

Some notes and links from Amanda Talbot’s talk:

  • Well designed and crafted goods provide an alternative to homogenised mass-produced product. Items can be evocative, iconic. In some areas there are difficulties in finding apprentices. Consumers (or a section of them) have a personal appreciation of originality and can be attracted by a belief of luxury about the item.
  • Words such as provenance, integrity, sustainable, ethical were used frequently.
  • Senior Design Factory (link is to a translated version of the site). To quote the (translated) site “The Senior Design Factory brings old and young people together as equal partners through joint creative projects and promotes an active exchange between the generations.” There’s knitting, crochet, weaving, felting, cooking… In a lot of what follows I wonder about the money – in this case it seems to be philanthropic, with sponsors from nursing home association, banks and various foundations and not-for-profits.
  • Charlene Mullen  – a textile designer. It appears she designs with the craftwork done in India. I don’t object to such arrangements, but didn’t like it being presented as the future of craft.
  • Stephen Burks  – Amanda particularly talked about a project described on this site as

” Stephen traveled to Western Australia’s Gondwana Link to design the “Totem” for the Nature Conservancy’s traveling exhibition “Design for a Living World” presented first by The Nature Conservancy and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Made from reclaimed native rasberry jamwood, Stephen’s “Totem” is a conceptual model illustrating the aboriginal Noongar people’s cycle of gathering, processing dispensing and applying the land’s natural materials for restorative and medicinal use. The project also hints at the Noonger people’s active engagement in producing and packaging an organic skin care line based on that cycle. “.

I’m very glad I found this since I totally misunderstood in the talk – a twisted impression of appropriation. On the other hand, I still don’t see this as preserving craft.

  • ArchitectMade – I’ve checked the website, but didn’t find anything specifically about this so hope this is accurate. They sell small, beautifully made wooden objects, but suitable wood turners for one of their products were not available in Europe so they took production (including training etc) to China. In the talk this was presented as not a cost issue, but people willing to learn the required skills. They believe people care more about design and quality – not where it’s made. I’m struggling with this.
  • Gucci’s Artisan Corner – celebrates fine craftsmanship, time honored tradition, skills passed down through generations, events for specially invited clients – yes, the money trail is clear, ideas of luxury, exclusivity, privilege, turning heritage values into a retail experience (I think that last phrase is close to a quote from Talbot).  In terms of preserving craft (and not commenting directly on worth of the ventures themselves), I dislike the idea of a final remnant in a gilded cage for the appreciation of the priviledged few as much as I dislike the idea of preservation as an historical re-enactment in a ye olde village. I’m looking for living craft as an integral part of people’s lives today. On the other hand, I think there are some lessons and angles in this for people who want to earn something from their craft skills.
  • Prada Made In .. – I couldn’t find it on a prada site, but there’s some info here. It includes the quote ” Using Mario Prada’s time-honed strategy, Prada collaborates with these exquisite artisans [around the world] to produce modern, innovative designs utilizing the traditional craftsmanship, materials, and manufacturing techniques of a specific region.”

I attended the Collaboration in Experimental Design Research Symposium at COFA just before the Powerhouse talk. Lots of talk about various types and examples of collaboration, which perhaps is why I was very interested in matters of power, control and money during Talbot’s presentation. In the interests of time and actually finishing this post (!), I won’t go into detail except indirectly – to identify my corner of the debate. Dr Kevin Murray of RMIT gave an overview of models including transnational, developmentalist, romantic, democratised, dialogical… I was caught by a quote during Romantic – “craftmanship is the heartbeat of human time”. Some internet browsing led to this site, and this quote from Octavio Paz in an essay in In Praise of Hands (published 1974, I don’t know any more except a copy is in the mail):

“The things that is handmade has no desire to last for thousands upon thousands of years, nor is it possessed by a frantic drive to die an early death. It follows the appointed round of days, it drifts with us as the current carries us along together, it wears away little by little, it neither seeks death nor denies it: it accepts it. Between the timeless time of museum and the speeded up time of technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time. A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful; an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to so doing; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical. The craftsman’s handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live.”

I think this is a beautiful reflection on the nature of the handmade, but my focus is on the maker as well, the expression of self.

Along those lines:

  • Brenda Schmahmann “The Keiskamma Tapestry and the Making of South African History. ” in Textile Journal Vol 9 issue 2

p 175 “…black strips of cloth on which members responsible for the Keiskamma Tapestry embroidered their own names… indeed, this emphasis on authorship is asserted still further in the Keiskanoma Tapestry through the inclusion of embroidered signatures within many of the panels themselves.”

The issues I’m exploring aren’t new.

  • Lucy Gundry, in “Exhibition Review: Beyond Bloomsbury: Designs of the Omega Workshop 1913-19” in  Textile Journal Vol 9 issue 1, writes “…the Omega artists … were brought together by Fry because of their personal vision, however individual authorship of their designs was sacrificed under the unity of the workshop and the “Ω” symbol” (p 111). Wyndham Lewis left after 3 months, objecting to this anonymity, and the philosophy was later undermined by “attributing” designs to individuals. However Gundry notes “… the craftsmen still remains largely “unattributed” compared to the artists who have largely been “attributed” since” (p 115).

One of Gundry’s comments could be useful to selling your craft: that in buying your handmade object a purchaser could be hoping to connect to the lifestyle of the artist – “selling the imaginative lifestyle translates to higher prices”.

  • The NSW Art Gallery’s current exhibition The Mad Square: modernity in German art 1910-37 includes a section on Bauhaus. The presentation material notes: “Gropius sought to do away with traditional distinction between the fine arts and craft, and to forge an entirely new kind of creative designer, skilled in both the conceptual aesthetics of art and the technical skills of handcrafts.”
  • A recent exhibition at the Gallery was The poetry of drawing: Pre-Raphaelite designs, studies and watercolours. I can’t find any pithy quotes in my notebook, but Ruskin, Morris and The Arts and Crafts movement are definitely relevant to all of this. The Textile Blog post of 18 August this year The Arts & Crafts Movement and Sustainable Consumption puts Ernest Grimson and that Movement in a very contemporary light – the meaningless choices offered by capitalism, the homogenised goods with no personal connection. I can’t agree with all of the writer’s points, for example I think the argument on economics and longevity of handmade items makes a number of assumptions and generalisations, but I agree with the value placed on informed choices by creative individuals.
  • Another post from the Textile Blog – Machine Produced Lace Work posted 22 August comments on changing attitudes to a human element in production which can be seen as a positive or negative. [An illustration: I went to a talk by Eva Czernis-Ryl, curator of decorative arts, Powerhouse Museum, given at the Mad Square exhibition. She pointed out some cocoa cups made c. 1923 by Otto Lindig, cast not thrown as a prototype for mass production, but with ridges as if thrown inside the cups. Czernis-Ryl contrasted this with the pressed metal desk set by Marianne Brandt from 1920-31, hand made but carefully smoothed to suggest machine work.] The writer believes that “… factors including the work of various eco movements which have helped publicise ideas concerning sustainability, regional variation and a more inclusive attitude to production, have helped to reenergise hand craft.”

Textile Journal Vol 9 issue 1 focuses on denim and in my state of mind another the essays touched on relevant matters.

  • Keet, Philomena “Making new vintage jeans in Japan: Relocating Authenticity” (pp 44 – 61) writes of consumers buying to achieve personal authenticity rather than fashion. Products are rebranded in terms of craft, finding what is most real. In one example the “authenticity” is provided by using old, even out-dated, tools and techniques – if it’s original it must be authentic. (In a counter example authenticity is found in the wearer of the jeans, which mold to the individual).

For another set of interesting links I refer you to a post in one of my very-most-favourite blogs, by Cally Booker – connections. I won’t repeat anything here – go directly there and enjoy!

I haven’t exhausted my list of references, but I have exhausted my time and patience – not to mention those of anyone still reading! I’ll finish with a link to a current V&A exhibition which I would love to visit – Power of Making. I won’t be able to get there (last visit over 20 years ago!), but I’m hoping the book will give me a taste. Apparently it “poses incisive questions about the increasing distance people have from making, and the impact that deskilling and the deterioration of making knowledge may have on cultural production and society” (quoting the exhibition shop page).

6 Responses to “Preserving crafts”

  1. 1 Cally September 17, 2011 at 1:39 am

    Wow, thanks for the endorsement, Judy! I wanted to mention David Gauntlett’s book “Making is Connecting” in case you haven’t come across it already – he goes deeply into the topic of like-minded people sharing skills and making community online. He discussed it with Laurie Taylor on Radio 4 and the podcast is still available here.

  1. 1 Reading – Elissa Auther: String Felt Thread « Fibres of Being Trackback on May 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm
  2. 2 Research point – Craft « Fibres of Being Trackback on August 18, 2012 at 5:48 pm
  3. 3 Research Point – Craft part 2 « Fibres of Being Trackback on August 20, 2012 at 12:46 pm
  4. 4 Research point: Designers and Designer/Makers « Fibres of Being Trackback on November 1, 2012 at 11:23 am
  5. 5 Research Point: Textile Artist Liz Williamson « Fibres of Being Trackback on November 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

September 2011

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



%d bloggers like this: