Monthly Archives: October 2018

Why do we do craft?

 

 

A philosophical post by Susan

Ashley mentioned in an earlier post that we were recently interviewed for British Fibre Art Magazine (see issue 10 July/August 2018). Rainy, the editor, posed some excellent questions about why we do what we do, which prompted some serious thought and discussion here at home.

Several themes emerged.

Ashley and I both had mothers who made things. My mother was passionate about colour and had a very good eye. Her greatest joy was working at the sewing machine, making clothes and soft furnishings. She was definitely a thwarted designer. Ash’s Mam came from a family of very skilled knitters. I wonder if this gave her the confidence, once the children were grown, to try a huge range of crafts? She mastered many styles of lace-making, was an accomplished cross stitcher and quilter (see Baltimore quilt above) and made all manner of 3D objects. Both women were motivated by mastering technique and producing a beautifully finished product.

Ash and I both studied science at A level and university. I think that’s why we like careful experimentation and are constantly trying to understand more about how plant dyeing works. Ashley studied biology specialising in botany, so it makes sense that he’s so driven to grow and explore different plants. I’m more interested in the history of science and the recipes which have been lost.

I also realise that not having children (I had cancer in my mid twenties) has affected our life choices a great deal. We were freer to downshift when the mortgage was paid off and there were fewer external pressures on us to conform.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t thought a lot about what we might ‘leave behind’ after we’re gone.  And what constitutes ‘right living’. While we were in well-paid work we supported various charities. After we shifted to part-time lower paid work, we became were involved in local community projects and environmental campaigning. Ashley retrained in horticultural therapy and got enormous fulfilment from enabling people be happier and more active through gardening and the outdoors.

Gradually, over the last two decades, we have moved further away from the mainstream as we have managed on a steadily lower income. This has an interesting effect. It’s like being on a permanent retreat at a 10% level. You see things slightly from one side, more critically. The mainstream media is less relevant. You spend more of your time producing rather than consuming. For example, in the 2000s we made huge amounts of very passable wine, excellent jam and lots of vegetables. Our focus gradually shifted onto beekeeping and plant dyeing, which at least offered the opportunity of some income rather than risking liver failure and tooth decay!

In the process, we also had the time and emotional capacity for hands-on care for friends and relatives. This isn’t something we anticipated. It emerged out of making deeper connections in our neighbourhood when I got involved with transport campaigning locally. When you find careers away from where you grew up and you don’t have children and you are quite extreme introverts, you don’t make friends on your doorstep easily. Suddenly we entered a fascinating network of extraordinary people. Maybe it’s special to Hitchin, or special to the particular neighbourhood where we live, but I suspect every street has these networks waiting to welcome you in.

One such very special friendship was with Diane who tragically developed motor neurone disease. By 2005 our work/life situation was flexible enough that I was able to join the team of friends and family who supported Diane so she could have her wish to remain at home throughout her illness. This gave us the experience and confidence to home-hospice, first Ashley’s Mam and then my own mother as they in turn developed cancer and died. We didn’t do this unsupported. There were  palliative care services in the community in both cases. Siblings also helped. But we were able to be fully present and ‘live in’ when our mothers needed us. Both times it was heart-rending and emotionally exhausting but it also felt completely the right thing to do and we have no regrets.

So how does this relate to modern craft?

I read a book by Professor Susan Luckman last week at the British Library: Craft and the Creative Economy[1]. And it all fell into place.

She explores from all angles why the hand craft movement is currently thriving in developed economies. What desires and needs are being fulfilled for the maker and consumer?  Is small scale hand-made artisan production an act of resistance to unsustainable capitalism, a distraction or a self-soothing coping strategy? She explores whether the popular archetype of the entrepreneurial craftsperson with a balanced home/work life is a fantasy, a romantic ideal or a valuable alternative microeconomic niche. Perhaps the popularity of the ‘home made’ reveals the depth of hunger for meaning and making ethical retail choices? People want in some way to reject mass consumption of disposable items where the environmental and social impacts are externalised, hidden from view.

Luckman resists any simple answers. She accepts that the craft movement is tiny in the grand scheme of things and mostly serves a privileged elite. She is also deeply sceptical of the gender stereotype of the glamorous ideal female – attractive wife, mother, home-maker and entrepreneur running it all from home and letting you, the customer, see every detail of the home environment where this blissful production takes place. She warns against the fetishisation of hand tools and a false dichotomy of design and making.  And she accepts that crafting is a soft option compared to politics for changing the world for the better.

But, she does come down on the side of hand-made crafted items having a special quality for the maker and the consumer, which might signal a future with more sustainable and kinder economic models. She likes Jane Bennett’s[2] concept of ‘vibrant matter’ and ‘enchantment’ to explain the emotional responses many people have to the hand made.  This suggests that hand made items that are aesthetically pleasing, made of natural materials, carrying visible signs of the making process (or accompanied by a story online) do broaden attitudes to consumption, valuing and repair. They do pose questions that can be more broadly asked about sourcing, embedded energy, lifecycle and sense of purpose.

Luckman also suggest as crafters we should be bolder. The emotional desire for the hand made should not be underestimated. It is not naïve. As crafters we should be proud to “dig where we stand” and not be afraid to shout about our values and ideals. Without giving in to a pressure to conform to airbrushed social media archetypes, we can powerfully affect people who connect with what we make. We can ‘tweak and bend capitalism’ and create ‘useful and healthy identities as workers’.

I realise that I am already living in what Luckman calls the ‘downshifted cultural economy’. Ashley and I are practicing craft for the enchantment of making vibrant objects, enhancing our wellbeing and usefully supplementing what Luckman describes as a ‘larger strategy of downshifted and slower living’.

Having read her book, I feel empowered to be bolder, tell more about my choices, my politics, my wider values and my struggles to navigate this territory.  She recommends not feeling ashamed to keep telling your story as you go through life’s ups and downs, share how you are actively designing your life. It might have a bigger effect than you imagine.

[1] Luckman, Susan (2015) Craft and the Creative Economy[1] Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Bennett, Jane (2001) The enchantment of modern life: attachments, crossings and ethics. Princeton University Press; Bennett, Jane (2010) Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things, Duke University Press.

Follow up to Talk to Region 7 Quilters Guild 6 Oct 2018

Madder, Weld and Woad dyed quilt

‘The River Ran Red’ A plant dyed quilt by Susan Dye. Mixed fabrics 2015

On Saturday 6th October I gave a talk about my quilt, ‘The River Ran Red’ at Eaton Bray  for Region 7 of the UK Quilters Guild.

This region covers Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Northamptonshire. And what a friendly and well organised group they are!

These regional days pack a lot in: traders’ stalls, a big bring and buy table and a raffle for guild funds, superb cake, show and tell of members’ quilts and, of course, talks.

The phenomenon that is Philippa Naylor

In the morning we were in for a treat. The speaker was international prize winning quilter Philippa Naylor. I have long admired Philippa’s exquisite, flowing whole cloth quilting, but I never realised what an absolute hoot she is. Her main message to the audience was that we should enjoy life to the full and that success does not depend on unique special talents or gifts. She told us that her success is down to dedication and lots of hard work. Anyone can achieve an outstanding standard of work, if you have the discipline and commitment. She says life is short, so do what you love and work at it until you become really good. She did also emphasise that having been born in Yorkshire helps, it gives you grit!

It was clear that Philippa knows how to remain connected to joy and fun which fuels her creativity and staying power. She entertained us in words and pictures with details of what she really loves in life. Family, her chickens and ducks, her flower and vegetable garden, her home, her county, beauty and nature. Hard not to smile just remembering how she conveyed her passion for life. And all of this shines through in her stunning quilts, several of which were on show.

River Ran Red Quilt

More modestly, the group heard a talk in the afternoon from me about my City and Guilds quilt inspired by the 19th Century Norwich Shawls. With added info on our dye garden and how to use grand teint plant dyes to achieve bright and fast colours on fabrics.

Here are some links I promised for anyone interested in learning more.

Costume and Textile Association (C&TA) – http://www.ctacostume.org.uk

Norfolk Museums Service https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk

The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell has a Jacquard loom and displays of Norwich textiles.

The Castle Museum holds one of the country’s leading costume and textile collections.

Textile tours often feature as part of Norfolk and Norwich Festival https://nnfestival.org.uk/ and are also promoted by the C&TA. A good general trail is https://www.ifootpath.com/display-ifootpath-walk?walkID=839. The official tourist information centre tours take different themes every year and the programme can be found here https://www.visitnorwich.co.uk/shopping/shops/listing/tourist-information-centre/

Aviva Leigh – now based in the Norfolk market town of Aylsham – is a tinctorialist and designer who has studied and promoted the history of Norwich textiles and recently presented her work for the Geoffrey Squire Bursary Award of the CT&A recreating dyed woven textiles from 18C Norwich pattern books.

https://www.avivaleigh.com/colour-stories/2018/10/11/strips-stripes-amp-stories-exploring-18th-century-norwich-textiles

Books

Clabburn, Pamela (1995) The Norwich Shawl. Norfolk Museums Service London HMSO.

Hoyte, Helen (2010) The Story of the Norwich Shawl. Norwich: N. Williams.

Morris, Thelma (2008) Made in Norwich; 700 Years of Textile Heritage, Norwich: N.Williams.

Chenciner, R. (2000) Madder Red, A history of luxury and trade. Curzon, Caucasus World

Dean, J. Wild Colour – How to Grow, Prepare and Use Natural Plant Dyes. Mitchell Beazley, 2010

Liles, J. N. The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing: Traditional Recipes for Modern Use University of Tennessee Press, 1990

Cardon, D. Natural Dyes: Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. Archetype Publications Ltd 2003

Suppliers

Mordants and plant dyes :

Willo Fibres http://www.willofibres.co.uk
Tim and Denise have taken over the dye supply business of P&M Woolcraft.

Helen Melvin at Fiery Felts http://www.fieryfelts.co.uk/shop/

For plants – a lovely family run nursery in Wales – https://www.7wells.co.uk