Polly Leonard on the topic of craft


You have to be careful about craft. My husband steps on the brakes and searches for a parking space; he has seen a handwritten sign ‘Craft Fair Today’ on the entrance to a church hall we pass on the road.  I protest that although it is a nice thought not all craft is created equal. I love craft and of course would travel miles to find a gem. alison 3 The problem is the word Craft. It is just too general – encompassing everything from Alison Morton’s exquisite hand woven linen tea towels to something produced as a response to Kirstie Allsopp’s have-a-go manifesto, and everything in between. alison4 Craft is skilled work and has nothing to do with design.  In Japan an apprentice would spend years acquiring skills from a master. There is no expectation to create original work before the technique had been mastered to a level that might be achieved after ten thousand hours. Master craftsmen are in turn honoured by becoming a Living National Treasure. alison 1! In the West, particularly the UK, this idea is turned on its head – we teach students as young as fourteen to think creatively and develop an idea through to a conclusion, with the intention that they will pick up the necessary skills during their personal creative journey.  To an extent this works. We have great creative minds.  I am thinking of the likes of Ptolemy Mann, who as well as a virtuoso weaver is also a talented designer and has the ability to apply her creativity to a range of problems. However, on a rudimentary level creativity is the easy bit. Almost anyone can make something, as the popularity of online craft marketplaces testifies.  It is with sadness, though, that I note textiles suffer from the ‘design without skill’ scenario more than other disciplines; probably because the financial investment necessary to knit a scarf is less than that needed to say throw a pot. The problem with the lexicology is further complicated by the anonymous craftsmen who use their sophisticated skills to produce products whose design is either dictated by others or inherited from cultural history. Alison Morton Of course, when craft is combined with design it becomes cool; in urban centres such as Shoreditch the keyboard has been replaced by the workbench to startling effect. New galleries re-present old crafts for a new affluent audience, and craft fairs fill every weekend.  At its best craft is often quiet – it does not shout like design, and this partly accounts for its struggle. Take another look at Alison Morton’s tea towels. The Scandinavian aesthetic is not afraid of this silence and that is why they sit more comfortably with this genre. image1 So how do we categorise craft?  I am struck by the low status of craft in schools as opposed to say music – this may provide the key. A student studying an instrument will have a one to one lesson each week, is expected to practice half an hour every day and is tested once a year.  The Associate Board of the Royal School of Music has produced a system of grading that tests knowledge and skill in a specific discipline. Something similar for craft may provide a solution. So to satisfy our curiosity we pay the entrance fee and cruise the stalls at the Craft Fair in search of that elusive gem. Ptolemy Mann will be exhibiting at Selvedge's Artisan Fair 3 – 4 December Chelsea  Old Town Hall Images featured: Alison Morton FAIRblogbanner

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  • Lizzi Walton on

    Thank you Polly and Selvedge for this article. I absolutely agree and daily I come across the misuse of the word craft that makes my toes curl!
    Would you like to come to the Stroud May Festival and talk about this and the importance of good craft and good design? and why not being taught in schools.
    Great article thank you. Best wishes

  • Laura on

    Well said! I think part of the problem is not enough craft schools. It’s easy to learn something at the ‘play’ level, where it’s a fun activity and the outcome is a piece of handmade. It’s much harder to find places or people that will teach to a high level of technical skill, esp. outside of the standard academic route. But even on university weaving courses it seems that few students graduate knowing how to actually set up a loom for a particular structure. Schools/colleges don’t seem to teach the basics anymore. Students find basics boring but they underpin everything else, incl. great design. I don’t teach anymore but I always told students who came to learn from me – learn the basics first, make sure you thoroughly understand what’s going on before you throw the rule book out the window and start to experiment. In weaving, as in many crafts I suspect, learning the basics can actually take a lifetime of study.

  • Julia McAusland on

    Dear Polly

    I read with acute interest your piece on the matter of craft, particularly textiles-based, and its status in our society.

    I, too, consider with dread the vast spectrum of skill proffered at fairs under the banner of craft, except the Selvedge fairs, of course. So many times have I been disappointed at the mass-produced tat brought in from some anonymous warehouse where the vendor has no idea of the making process, the materials selected nor the ideas involved, but is just motivated by selling quantity rather than quality.

    I thought the analogy you drew between the acquisition of musical skills and the dire state of our crafts education in schools was apt. As an educator in a college of further and higher education, I feel privileged to be in a position to be able to pass on textiles craft skills to the younger generation, most of whom have come to me as a blank canvas. As skills do not seem to be being passed down through the generations, and there are few opportunities in schools to practise craft skills, particularly with textiles media, techniques and processes, it is indeed vital that all is done to preserve these quiet and slow traditions in a world that seems focussed on the quick fix.

    Apart from huge investment in this area within the education sector I am not sure what can be done. Manual process related to the acquisition of fine motor skills and creativity is a key part of every person’s development, and setting aside resources in terms of time to encourage this seems to be key.

    So, Polly, continue to uphold these values through Selvedge and may the quiet revolution of swapping keyboards for work benches spread beyond Shoreditch.

  • Sarah Randolph on

    As usual, Polly raises interesting and vexing questions. The challenge of textile art is to use (overcome?) the highly variable constraints of the production method (knitting, weaving, embroidery, etc) to capture the desired design. A linear yarn transformed into art. The barriers are pushed back with increasing technical skills, so design, craft and understanding our purpose develop together.
    PS: the latest issue of Selvedge, focusing on textiles from S America, blew me away! Totally inspiring.

  • Beverley Kendall on

    Great article.
    I agree with Lizzie about design & craft working together. Good craft skills need good design to show them at their best. A good knowledge of basic design principles like line, shape, space, colour, is vital. Alison Morton’s tea-towels are a perfect example.

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