On Craft and being ‘crafty’

What does the word ‘craft’ make you think of?

Some twigs, yesterday

Those pasta necklaces you make for your mum at primary school? Church hall fairs and macrame plant pots?  The smell of PVA glue? Retro ‘Make do and mend’ posters?

Art and Design have it much easier – who wouldn’t want to be described as an ‘artist’ or a ‘designer’? But ‘crafter’ and ‘crafty’ sound so homespun and lumpy. Why does craft have an image problem? Is it something to do with gender?

What got me thinking about this was the Kirstie Allsopp programme, Handmade Britain. Something about the way ‘craft’ is presented makes me uneasy.

There’s only one aesthetic being pushed: the flowery, vintage-y, home-baking, village fair type. Even a book like ‘Queen of Crafts’ by Jazz Domino Holly (which promises to put the ‘rock and roll’ back into craft) is stuffed with the kind of cute, easy things you used to get in 1950s activity books for children: making your own lipbalm, growing plants, doing a bit of knitting. Try a bit of everything, it’s just a laugh.

At the other end of the scale there’s the ‘Craftsman’. Doesn’t that word have a lovely reassuring ring to it? Makes you think of tiny Parisian workshops, decades-old tradition, hand-worked leather luggage, etc etc. The kind of ‘craft’ championed by Wallpaper magazine – limited edition, exquisitely made, and very, very expensive. Oh, and usually heavily branded.

Although the big companies making these ‘craft’ objects might have  the majority of their products made by underpaid workers in China, sending out some press releases on their traditional craftmanship gives their brand a lovely, old-fashioned, top-quality glow.

Handmade perfume flagons in Wallpaper magazine - probably going to cost a bit more than your Superdrug bottle of Charlie Red

There has to be a middle path between the idea of craft as a fun, non-threatening pastime you can pick up and do on the weekends, and the professional, old-school, highly priced craftsman.

I think you can find it on the internet, on blogs and forums and groups. The old-fashioned (and non-derogatory) use of the word ‘amateur’ springs to mind. Amateur comes from the words ‘to love’, did you know that? You probably did if you paid more attention in GCSE French than me. People doing something just for the love of it. Trying their best and learning all the time.

I don’t really think of myself as ‘crafty’, in the sense that I could turn my hand to anything and make a good job of it. There are a few things that I’ve tried that really capture my interest and have kept me hooked, and sewing is one of them.

Interestingly, for the tutorial segments of the Kirstie Allsopp show, the experts she brings in to do demonstrations (90% women – no craftsmen here) all specialise in one particular area, whether it’s floristry, machine embroidery, applique, screen-printing – whatever. It’s a worn-out axiom that practice makes perfect, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Kirstie Allsopp does have many lovely coats.

Making is one of the most satisfying things you can do on this earth. Can you remember the first time you knitted a tiny garter stitch square, or sewed a wonky pair of pyjama bottoms, or drew a just-about-recognisable vase of flowers? It’s an insane rush! But if you leave it there you’re missing the best bit, which is learning. Dipping your toe in the water isn’t as good.

That’s what sometimes makes me leery of the idea of ‘Craftivism‘. I don’t like the idea of ‘craft’ as a magical sprinkle dust which you can use to add trendiness, or authenticity, or old-fashioned values to your particular project. Nobody’s set up ‘Designism’ because design is just too broad a concept that encompasses so many things. To my mind craft  – making things, to put it simply – is also too broad to be narrowed down like that.

What do you think?

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11 thoughts on “On Craft and being ‘crafty’

  1. PendleStitches December 20, 2011 / 8:33 AM

    I’m with you on this. Conversations with my friends over coffee, all of whom knit and sew, have raged about Kirstey. Whilst on the surface she’s helping to raise the profile of the crafts we love, I feel she actually dumbs it down and portrays it as the domain of middle class women of a certain age with a penchant for twee and chintz.

    I sew and knit so I can have original garments constructed to a higher standard than those on the high street, and which fit me perfectly. It’s an ongoing quest for perfection. Not something portrayed by Kirstey or, indeed, many of the magazines available on the UK market at the moment.

    A great debate.

  2. Chuck December 12, 2011 / 2:41 PM

    I do really need to dig out all those pasta necklaces. It seems a shame that no one can appreciate their glory from the back of my Muv’s drawer…

    I so enjoyed reading this. The blanket term ‘craft’ does get bandied around a lot (I’m probably not exempt from doing that) and used v loosely. Also interesting is all the gender stuff. CraftsMEN are legitimate and admirable but ‘crafters’ are just cute and quirky and twee and almost always women. One kind of craft is taken seriously and the other isn’t and that is encouraged. I think we all need to be aware of the implications (historical, social, political etc.) of this return to feminine domesticity. Yes, we’re breaking away from the high street and we are independent makers and that is great but there still aren’t many men knitting. But I enjoy knitting. It is all very confusing.

    Anyway, thank you for making me think. x

  3. lizzylikescake December 11, 2011 / 5:26 PM

    I totally agree. I’ve really not been keen on that programme.

    a) It’s really twee. I don’t mind a little bit of twee but the prog has gone for the full floral, arga, bunting, church fete, country fair effect which plays to every craft cliche….

    b) There’s no creativity involved. She always uses other people’s design or approach even down to the colour schemes A bit of creativity is my favourite part of making things. Nicking someone else’s idea without putting any thought into it takes all the fun out. It’s no longer unique…..

    c) The competitive thing is very odd. It totally doesn’t fit with the kind of people who like to make stuff. Everyone I know who likes craft (or whatever you want to call it) is super nice and friendly and makes things for fun, or to sell it or for a present or because they have an idea in their head that they want to bring to life and not because they want to ‘win’. Also it brings a massive focus onto the finished product not enjoying the process even if what comes out at the end is a bit random and slightly wonky.

    It’s put me off Kirsty…..

    • yesilikethat December 11, 2011 / 5:38 PM

      You’re so right about the creativity thing, she copies everything! I still secretly love her for her bossiness and amazing collection of coats, but I think she should get back to increasing the great british obsession with house prices, and leave craft alone.

  4. Nicole December 11, 2011 / 4:23 PM

    I really dislike the current trend for ‘craft’, mostly because its often really expensive. I come from a family where we made things because we couldn’t afford, or couldn’t find what we wanted in the shops. And it had to look good – none of this lumpy, unfinished stuff you currently see touted around craft fairs. And it’s just not sexy! I once saw a picture of Marlene Dietrich knitting; this is what I keep in mind with each new project, not Aga’s and dried flowers.

    • yesilikethat December 11, 2011 / 4:44 PM

      Yes it’s strange how it’s become another lifestyle activity, with the emphasis taken away from the outcome, ie. what you actually make.

      I’d love to look like Marlene Dietrich when knitting, sadly I think I have a way to go…

    • lizzylikescake December 12, 2011 / 4:17 PM

      I’m so glad you said that! There are lots of good knitters and sewers in my family because they often couldn’t afford new stuff. Even when I was little my mum made most of my clothes. She still makes her own now. My Granddad also made his own furniture and we still have it in Mum’s house as it is awesome.

      Having said that I am quite bad for buying expensive wool which bemuses my Mum as she thinks that misses the point……

  5. didyoumakethat December 9, 2011 / 8:43 PM

    I can tell you exactly what I think: that you have a particular skill for saying eloquently what many people struggle to or are frightened to put into words. I’ll say now, I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable around the Handmade Britain series. I can’t engage at all with the competitive angle, there’s something about dipping a toe into several different crafts that rattles me and – I admit it – even though the raised profile should be good for us all, I just don’t quite buy it. In my own blogging, I often hesitate over the word ‘craft’. I’m aware that many of my friends and colleagues are fascinated by what I do, but also indulgent of it. In short, I have no answers! But I would say a huge thank you for raising an extremely valid debate.

    • yesilikethat December 10, 2011 / 1:33 PM

      Thanks Karen – means a lot coming from you! Been thinking about this post for a while but it’s still not 100% coherent, thought I’d post it anyway as I’m interested in what others think.

  6. Elisalex December 9, 2011 / 8:14 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this, and I think a lot of us struggle with the word “crafter”. Although that essentially is what I am, I don’t like the sound of it, for all the reasons and stereotypes you so neatly explained. I love what you touched on regarding the word “amateur”, which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say again without a French accent!

    • yesilikethat December 10, 2011 / 1:34 PM

      Thank you – I think craft should be something to be proud of. Craft needs respect! 🙂

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