Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Draft Article for Sublime: THE CRAFT SOCIETY

(image from nibsblog, 2008)


The word ‘Craft’ has dubious connotations – macramé plant hangers, table lamps festooned with sea shells, dolls made out of socks and buttons, home knit jumpers for Christmas… A 1970s that taste forgot looms in my mind, cluttered with knick-knacks and home hobbies. My father had taken up weaving lurid (tropical scene) tapestries as a therapeutic hobby - as well as brewing his own beer. My mother collected teapots. Hundreds of them. From auctions and craft fairs. Displayed on every spare tabletop, mantle piece and window sill. (Adding a frisson of added risk to playing indoors with balls and paper darts and disc shaped things that looked like they might fly like a Frisbee!) This wasn’t ironic or kitsch – it was all about adding a personal touch, cosiness, “turning a house into a home”.

For my generation crafts came to epitomise what (high) culture looks down on. Because they represented uneducated, unrefined, popular culture – as much so as seaside souvenirs, tabloid news and bingo. They could be employed subversively – as kitsch, as anti-cool, as DIY – in the same spirit as Punk. But not appreciated in a simple way.

The cultural tide has turned and now the handmade craft aesthetic is “back”. The trend seemed to start in the art world, a late 90s turn from bold designer art to neurotic neo-realism. Today’s baggy cardigan, acoustic live music, home grown veg, charity shop and camping holiday culture… are once again valuing the handmade and the folk-traditional. Artefacts that are not manufactured or mass produced, but rather are handmade by an individual. There is a growing interest in authentic, artisanal craft goods. Etsy for example is the specialist online marketplace for individual craft producers to sell handmade goods and buy craft supplies. Launched in 2005 it has attracted nearly 4 million members, 250,000 of which are sellers. Craft hobbies are booming too, from knitting to (I would argue) making your own website or blog.

These fashions come and go. The current mass popularity of crafts could be the regression that goes with recession – “a new mood of thrift”. It could also be some new inkling of sustainability – although you have to wonder if most handmade items are intrinsically less resource intensive? Most organic wool in the UK is sourced from New Zealand. Does it then make a huge difference where or how the jumper is made? And there are all sorts of dangers of self-deception in “eco chic” – styling yourself like a hippy but missing the implied values like sharing, peace and anti-materialism? There are pro-sustainability trends within design, for instance in using reclaimed or neglected materials. But the main factor is often the model or business system – whether or not you make throwaway ‘fashion’, for instance.

There’s another way of thinking about all this: Craft as in Craft Guild - ie what happens economically and socially when the main source of value is workers’ skills, not employers patents and contracts? In industrial production every worker is just an interchangeable ‘moving part’. Hence the employer can seek the cheapest workers and claim the maximum profit – today paying below the living wage in the poorest countries in the world. This is still (‘offshoring’, restrictive patents and labour productivity) according to some analysts the main source of growth in corporate profits (rather than innovation).

The introduction of unskilled, low-paid industrial factory work met with protests. The famous Luddites of 1811 were in fact the Guild of Stockingers, hit by food shortages and a virtual police state during the Napoleonic war, priced out of the workplace and denied the right to collective bargaining by the 1799 Combinations Act. According to Lord Byron the Stockingers were “meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life”. The history we were taught at school said “that’s progress”. But actually it’s more political than that. The question is who owns the skill? Is it the worker or the employer? Craft guilds – by holding fast to trade secrets and their transmission, as well as the license to operate - regulated prices, quality standards, employment, training and competition, and also provided welfare and community support for over 500 years. A typical medieval town could have over 200 guilds representing diverse trades like tanning, brewing, baking, filigree and weaving. They had strict moral and commercial codes, kept the merchant speculators out of the local economy, and provided some stability during paroxysms of civil war, plague, famine, debasement of currencies... After the guilds were smashed by Laissez Faire free marketeers (and working hours nearly doubled and standards of living plummeted), co-operative societies (often started by ex guild members) took on some of their role.

The question for tomorrow’s economy could be what is the best set of institutions for a resilient local economy and hence the common good? Our corporate-speculator-growth model will collapse at the first sign of crisis (dodgy sub prime mortages are likely to be the least of our worries when crises in climate, energy, water, food, city flooding and so on hit in the next decade or two). The current model is geared for growth, and not for taking the bad years with the good. The alternative model is mutual, where individuals own skills and networks transmit them. It’s the model that has sustained those services and professions (like academia, law and plumbing) that proved more immune to mechanisation or business process re-engineering. And it’s the craft guild model that was followed by the Open Source revolution in software (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP…) providing a viable alternative to the dominance of the Microsoft’s of this world.

Not only does this model have the potential to create a safer world, with more stability and less suffering. It also holds the prospect of more fulfilling careers – a move back to “your life’s work” and the self respect and development that comes from mastering a trade, whether it is bread making or database development.

It may also mean more macramé, teapots and folk music, but on balance we could probably live with that?

John Grant’s new book Co-opportunity (which includes a section on craft guilds and mutual economic models) is out 29th Jan 2010, from Wiley.


JohnG said...

I was fascinated by this post because it chimed with something I've been reflecting on and thought it was just me.. the fastest growing church based activity for children in the UK at present is called Messy Church the core of which is the opportunity for parents to co-create with their children because there are so few opportunities to do this outside of school and children tend to be glued to screens at home. I had been pondering whether to test an adult version of this with participants being shown basic craft skills so as to be able to make something as a kind of contemplative action. I'd even got as far as finding it a name drawn from the guilds: the worshipful company.. which is why your post is soo spooky.

We've already got 3 sessions lined up this quarter teaching ebay/carboot skills, editing photos on laptops and using allotments and street markets to reduce food bills but that's really another story - more community based activity.

paul macfarlane said...

A brilliant idea. Do so. It will grow.

KukriMart said...

Hi JohnG,
Nice concept for community based organization. I've noted some point from this article.

Thank you John

v said...

Oddly enough i've been thinking about similar things of late.

If people want to become more able at crafts there are a few really good resources to tap into for example the learning & teaching community site called

But becoming more self sufficient can turn into a full time job just like it did in the 70's British sitcom called 'The Good Life'.

So I've been thinking that there are some really good new business opportunities to package up sustainable/recession proof crafts for people. The idea would be to try to remove the barriers to actually going ahead and committing to it.

For example many people would love to grow their own but have lived all their adult lives in an urban environment and can hardly keep a potted houseplant alive. They might have no car and not be big home improvement people so have no idea how to even start.

I can imagine given the commercial property crisis there might be a few more craft based independent shops springing up on our urban high streets. They will sell starter pre packaged kits for people so they can get over the barrier of not knowing how/where to start. They would also be drop in advice centres where master classes could be held.

Just like NY Nails took over British high streets 10 years ago i can see a chain of Urban Gardener shops cropping up everywhere - just need to learn gardening and get a venture capitalist on board...

Anonymous said...

Check out BBC2 series 'Mastercrafts', starting 9pm, 12th Feb. Also book to accompany the series:

Presented by Monty Don, the series celebrates traditional British craftsmanship - definitley of interest to anyone interested in heritage crafts in the past, present, and their place in the future.