Tag Archives: philosophy of craft

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.

Ethel Mairet Centenary Challenge

daily drawing of madder dyeing

I keep a daily drawing journal. This is from the day I was ready to post off my skeins to the Ethel Mairet Dyeing Now exhibition.

Over the space of about 15 years we have built up a modest collection of books on plant dyeing. I love my dyebooks. Some are stained with use. Others are academic reference tomes to be referred to for inspiration on rainy days.

But thanks to the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft I’ve been working from ‘A Book on Vegetable Dyes‘ by Ethel Mairet originally published in 1916. It has influenced just about every book on natural dyeing in the English language since. I first heard of the book at an AWSD Summer School course on Turkey Red with Debbie Bamford, The Mulberry Dyer but I had not thought since to look it up.

Mairet was a pioneering craftswoman and a successful handweaver. She began working in London and moved to E Sussex. The book is nearly 150 pages, with over 60 recipes from the 17th Century onwards. The introduction is a manifesto for a revival in plant dyeing. She railed against the ugliness of commercial chemical dyes. My favourite quotes are:

“The way to beauty is not by the broad and easy road; it is along difficult and adventurous paths.”  Mairet (1916, p6)      


“The aim of commerce is material gain; the aim of the crafts is to make life, and no trouble must be spared to reach that end.” Mairet (1916, p8)

As a centenary celebration, the Ditchling Museum has invited plant dyers to recreate all of the recipes from the book and the exhibition ‘Dyeing Now’ (on until 16 April 2017) has been filling up as skeins of wool, silk, cotton and linen have been coming in from all around the world.

I volunteered early on to do a madder recipe, as I wanted to contribute something dyed with our home grown madder root. I was duly sent two skeins of wild silk to dye with madder. The appropriate recipe was Recipe 7 on p 103.

Mairet recipe for madder on silk

Recipe 7 for madder on silk

Last year was tough for various reasons and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago I engaged with the task. Mairet says little about the preparation of madder, so I decided to prepare the root as per Jim Liles and favoured by Debbie Bamford i.e. several days of soaking, grinding in a blender, heating and straining. Each day yields a fresh extract of dye. Combining them all produces a good mixture of the full range of dye chemicals in the root.

My experience of dyeing silk is that it is hard to get beyond a pink or orange. The texture and nature of the wild silk seems to drink dye well. But I wasn’t taking any chances!

This post describes in pictures my recreation of Recipe 7 for madder on silk from page 103.
First I wetted the silk in a little synthrapol detergent in cold tap water. Next I scoured it by simmering for 45 minutes in tap water and rinsed it straight away. Then I mordanted the skeins by cold immersion in alum solution for several days. The skeins were then aired (un-rinsed) and re-soaked again in the same mordant solution. One skein was briefly over-mordanted by heating in 5% ferrous sulphate solution, stirring well to achieve even results. This was removed and rinsed as soon as a suitable pale yellow shade emerged. Iron is harmful to silk and I prefer to restrict its use to vegetable fibres like cotton and linen.


ransoms allotment madder root dried

I started with madder dug from our dye garden on Ransoms Rec Allotments in 2011. This ensured it was fully ripened.

Ransoms allotment madder after 1st soak

I broke the root by hand, added boiling water and let it soak overnight. This is next day after straining off the liquid.

Ransoms allotment madder root cut

To reduce strain on the blender I cut the softened roots lengthways with a sharp knife. We are after the good stuff in the dark rind and the dark core (parenchyma). The pale orange woody layer has less pigment.

blender for madder

First outing for a cheap blender from Wilkos. I doubt it will survive heavy use but being new I could be sure the blades weren’t rusty. The top was annoyingly difficult to twist on and off.

Ransoms madder 1st liquor

The blender came with a handy graduated plastic jug. This is the strained liquid after one treatment of grinding, heating and soaking. Lovely colour!

ransons madder after 3rd grinding

Pulp after the grinding on the third day. I ran a parallel batch of commercially sourced chopped madder root from P&M Woolcraft (a favourite supplier) as an experiment. The results were similar.

madder foam in dyebath low temperature

On day four I combined all the liquors and the mashed root in a stainless steel pan. In went a skein. After gentle heating a pale foam appears.

Pigment on heating

As the temperature rises the foam becomes darker red. The alizarin is the least soluble but most valuable of the red pigments in madder. Solubility increases with temperature so a madder dyebath typically starts out pale orange but gets redder and redder as the temperature rises.

Exceeding 60degC

Bring the temperature up slowly over at least an hour to 82 deg C. Then boil for the final 5 minutes. I ignore all warnings in dyebooks to keep madder dyebaths below 60 degrees C. Heat is necessary to release the best reds into solution. We have hard water which also helps.

Madder dyed silk wet

Silk yarn after an hour in the madder dye pot. The pieces of madder root shake off when dry. Afterwards, I brightened the skein by heating in a soapy solution with a teeny weeny amount (just a few grains) of tin mordant in the form of stannous chloride. This is toxic so all suitable precautions were taken.

dyeing the iron mordanted silk

I keep an enamel pan just for dyeing with iron. This is the exhaust dye liquor from the previous process used to dye the iron mordanted skein.

madder dyed silk in eve sun

Ethel Mairet’s Madder Recipe 7 on alum mordanted wild silk. Evening sun makes it glow rather well.

alum mordanted madder on silk

Close up of madder on alum mordanted wild silk. The lighting makes a huge difference to the perceived colour. This was taken outside on a different day to the previous picture.

iron mordanted exhaust madder on silk

Close up of madder exhaust on alum and iron mordanted wild silk. Photographed at the same time as the red skein shown above.

Two madder dyed silk skeins

Madder on wild silk. Exhaust bath with iron mordant above and madder on alum below.

Ethel Mairet project silk skeins Madder Recipe 7

The finished products alongside the raw material. Plenty more dye to look forward to using.