By Momtaz Begum-Hossain
It was the title of the HCA’s Spring Conference ‘Evolving Craft Communities: From the Stone Age to the Digital Age’ that got me intrigued. ‘Technology meeting craft’ sounds pretty normal, but the Stone Age? Were people really crafting in the Stone Age?
‘Making things’ has always been a distinctive feature of being a human, at least I like to think so. Many people will tell you they are not creative and don’t know how to make things when in fact, ‘making’ is one of the things that helps us survive…whether it’s to stop us going crazy (a release from the stresses of our day job) or it is our livelihood (professional crafters).
The practical action of making, doing, creating and producing is part of every day life, and to prove it, I joined over 200 other crafts enthusiasts, designers, makers and industry professional for the 2nd annual Heritage Crafts Association Conference, where these issues were shared and discussed.
At the event, five keynote speakers talked about their own experiences of crafts, their contributions to the craft industry, and the things they’ve learnt along the way.
Emma Bridgewater: Free Range Craft
Just looking at a spotty Emma Bridgewater mug makes me feel inspired. One of the best known craft brands in Britain, the company designs and makes ceramics that are made in Stoke and primarily sold to a UK market. Although it sounds niche, Emma has proved it is possible to create a thriving business from a traditional craft. But what makes her business model so unique is that she actively focuses on creating a high quality product by investing in the working conditions and workforce.
One of the issues she raised that caught my attention was the notion of ‘free range’. The British public are very aware of the conditions that food is produced in and many of us choose to buy ‘free range’ when it comes to meats, eggs etc.
Similarly we are more conscious of where our clothes come from so can make choices about buying cheap garments, or ones that are more ethically produced. When it comes to crockery, the issues are similar, though not as commonly recognised. It’s easy to go to a supermarket and buy mugs that have been imported but we need to recognise that this has a knock on effect on the UK’s ceramic industry. I try to be ethical in all aspects of my life but this was the first time I’ve been made ‘socially aware’ of crafts.
Lida Kindersley: Learning By Doing
I’m part of the new generation of crafters that are ‘self-taught’, enjoy crafting as a hobby, do a bit of selling and take on a few commissions. I make because I love it, and like many others, dream that one day I’ll make a living out of it. Pricing work is tough because I want to be paid fairly for my time and skills and surely being a Londoner, I should be adding on ‘London Weighting’?
Nothing could have made me feel more guilty for having these thoughts than listening to the inspiring, passionate talk given by Lida on the need for apprenticeships; in her case the craft of being an Alphabetician – or lettering. Despite calling myself a Crafts Expert I’m the first to put my hand in the air and say I had no idea that creating letters was an actual craft.
Lida described with passion the craft trade she is in and explained openly what an apprenticeship actually entails. We’re talking three years commitment and being paid a minimum wage to work full time, in something that is very specific. Her first task for wannabe apprentices is learning how to sharpen a pencil – precision work that can take a day to master. Her world, seemed like an alien existence and yet it is 100% real. I completely agree with her that we do only learn by physically trying something. We get better by practising – even if that takes three years. There’s little instant gratification in mastering heritage crafts.
Her most poignant message was that we must share skills. After all, we all learnt at some point, so we need to give that knowledge back. Whether you are a professional crafter who offers apprenticeships, or a crafty blogger who posts on-line tutorials, it’s always beneficial to others.
(You can watch a tour of Lida’s workshop here).
Robin Wood & Stuart Mitchell: Passing on crafts through social media
Both Robin (a spoon carver) and Stuart (a knife maker) talked about how the internet has completely revolutionalised their crafts. From being able to buy new supplies online from around the world that they didn’t have access to before, to networking with other crafters, and coming up with craft events that you just couldn’t make up! This August sees the inaugural SpoonFest; the first international celebration of the carved wooden spoon – a project that Robin has dreamt about for years. Both spoke with much passion about how the internet has breathed new life into their craft – something all Folksy shopkeepers can relate to.
Ele Carpenter : Craft & the internet
Ele’s talk brought craft into the digital age as she explained why she feels ‘craft invented the internet.’ As a curator, writer and researcher, Ele touched on the links between science and craft – something that has been picked up by various craft practitioners and is celebrated each year in a Maker Faire in the US, (which has also been held in the UK twice). She is currently working on a project looking at the relationship between craft and code. To find out more about her HTML Patchwork project, visit her website.
Of course you can’t talk about crafts without seeing any, which is why the HCA organised a mini exhibition of work made by maker designers as part of the event. A whole spectrum of crafts were showcased at the conference from woodwork to kiltmaking. Here are some of the highlights:
Needle Felting by Laura Cronin
Silk painting by Jane Cameron
Knife making by Grace Horne
Rag Rugs by Debbie Siniska
The Heritage Crafts Association Spring Conference 2012 took place at the V&A Museum in London on March 24th. The Association, supports and promotes crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage in Britain. They work in partnership with the government and key agencies and are working towards creating a sustainable future for crafts. Makers/designers are invited to become members of the association. It costs just £12 and you’ll become part of their interactive map of makers in the UK and get a free promotional page on their website.
Momtaz Begum-Hossain is a freelance writer and crafts expert. She teaches crafts around the UK and contributes projects to a range of books and publications. Follow her blog at CosILikeMakingStuff.