What does craftsmanship mean?
Most people with average capabilities can make a simple basket or hand-woven textile (on a pre-prepared loom) in a weekend – under the guidance of a professional and experienced maker. If you buy hobby craft magazines with project ideas they you can probably make something with pre-prepared materials and simple techniques in just a few hours. But neither of these will turn you into a craftsperson overnight. For craftsmanship is the practice of a manual craft to a high level and the acquisition of skill requires a lot more time – a minimum of about 5 years is thought to be the norm but many elderly, experienced craftspeople will tell you that it takes a lifetime!
In fact craft skills are no different from other skills which require manual or physical skill– such as dancing, playing football, playing the violin – or windsurfing! They all require hands-on knowledge and experience – and this relies on constant practice and gradual evolution of expertise and skill. But I would guess that whilst there are thousands of people capable of distinguishing a great footballer from a merely good one – relatively few can tell a really sublimely craft-made piece of furniture from a poorly made one? So it is that we rely on galleries and museums, owners of quality craft shops, craft development agencies and advocacy groups, directors of craft schools and art colleges, judges sitting on panels to judge craft competitions, craft writers and critics, leading craft bloggers and other experienced crafts people craft to select the best for us – and we invest our trust in them.
With craftsmanship, you can´t “think yourself” into being a better maker any more than you can wish yourself into being an expert surfer or violinist or opera singer. Mastering a craft skill means getting in close to your material and your tools and devoting many many hours to working with them. You can´t cheat in craft – only over time and by repeating and repeating can you improve your co-ordination and precision.
Learning to use your tools or equipment is the start of the process and contrary to what many people believe, it is not that difficult for the average person to gain some degree of competence in using these tools – under the guidance of an expert – in a fairly short time. If you can learn to drive, use computer software, or play basketball then I would argue that you can perfectly well learn to prepare a loom or use a spinning wheel or make a basket. It never ceases to surprise me when so many people come into my loom workshop and exclaim “I´d never have the patience to do that” or “that looks SO complicated”. If you have the patience to sit in a traffic jam on the way to work every day or sort out a modem or computer problem on your home-computer or grow vegetables or play a sport to a competent level then you certainly have the patience to set up a loom!!! I personally believe that any person has a degree of patience when it comes to doing something that they believe is enjoyable. So when people say to me “I couldn´t do that”, what they are really saying is “it doesn´t appeal to me”. Which is fair enough – because I wouldn´t necessarily want to do their job either.
My textile assistant, Tracey, has been telling me this week how much she has been enjoying setting up the loom – threading it up thread by thread. She finds the rhythmical nature of the work and the meditative quality it has really enjoyable (as I do, and, I guess, most other weavers). Other people, on the other hand, might see this work as a kind of torture! I certainly don´t see myself as a patient when it comes to painting windows or gardening, but working on my loom I positively enjoy the 10 hours involved in making a single felpa (traditional Spanish loop-pile) cushion. It´s fair to say that Lluis, my basketmaking partner, finds computer work and writing emails pretty hard-going, but he is at his most content after spending a few hours, say, working on a stone wall (you can read Robin Wood´s excellent blog post on the subject of physical work if you´re interested)!
Gaining a basic level of proficiency in a craft is not the same as being a competent or highly-skilled maker, though, and the longer you are a maker the more you realise that mastering a craft really is a the work of a lifetime.
An intimate knowledge of the properties of materials is also fundamental in order to develop a high level of craftsmanship. In time a craftsperson acquires a deep knowledge of these. A good example is that of Lotte Dalgaard, master weaver in Denmark, who has spent well over 10 years focusing on using high-twist yarns, linens and metallic yarns (amongst others) to create uniquely textured hand-woven fabrics for one-off garments. The results are extraordinary.
I would also argue that there is a difference between being good – or even very good – and being a master. I would argue that to excel at a craft requires additional skills and talent. Observation, curiosity, the capacity to think laterally, a passion for the craft and to go beyond what is already known – is what distinguishes a true craft master from the rest. Being a workaholic also probably helps. And of course, in every generation, there are only very few craft masters. The danger today is that, if a craft sector is weak and unsupported, with little exchange or collaboration between makers, and a low overall level of skill, then the lower the overall standards of the craft will be and the less likely it is for a master to emerge. Contrary to what many might believe, a healthy degree of competition is no a bad thing within a craft sector. Call me an elitist – and quite possibly I am – but I believe that the prestige of any craft sector can only be as high as the reputation of its most skilled makers.
The role of Design and Innovation in Craftsmanship
In fact Design skills have actually always been part of the crafts, but today this seems to have been forgotten. In the past, when the pace of life was slower and crafts were part of everyday life, certain particularly successful designs became the norm – being both aesthetically pleasing and practical – and were copied for decades and centuries, sometimes being refined and perfected. It is not difficult to recognise a kind of classic beauty and harmony in many traditional crafts worldwide and it would be as well to remind ourselves that such designs were the culmination of many years – decades or even centuries – and many hands working and refining them – a collective effort rather than an individual one.
It is worth noting that since the industrial revolution, life has changed so dramatically that some of these designs have out-lived their practical usefulness but their capacity to please and – in the case of true master works – truly astonish us – remains undiminished.
The current appetite for innovation and constantly changing design – fashion – places a new stress – (or challenge) – on the craftsperson, however, chiefly because it demands results quickly. If I am right in thinking that classic craft objects from the past required refining over years or decades – and by many makers, not just one, then it would seem a tall order to demand new time-less classic designs from just one maker, in a few months. Yet this is precisely what is sometimes expected of the craft maker today. The results are mixed. Some work is excellent, but much is mediocre, derivative, and rather ephemeral.
What is worse is that in the rush for “new” designs technical skill has become almost invisible – and de-valued to such an extent that in craft education in Europe today, making skills are increasingly left off the curriculum (to the surprise and disappointment of many students and tutors alike). The short-term gain in design will become a longer-term loss, as the value of skill becomes recognised once more. The current dominance of design over technique is partly due to the current demand for constant change and also partly due, I suspect, to the fact that some of the judges who sit on selection panels are not always very knowledgeable themselves about technique so are actually unable to tell the difference well enough (but of course can´t be seen to be ignorant on the subject). Only “insiders” (actual makers) are really able to judge skill and ability which is why expert makers should always be included in judging panels and written selection criteria should available – both to judges and to makers .
The other problem with design and innovation is that they have too often become catchwords without much real content. Too often innovation is interpreted as a) simply the adoption of new technologies – such as computer-assisted design programmes or 3d prototyping b) the ability of a maker to introduce mainstream contemporary styles c) or in some cases the ability to copy designs or techniques imported wholesale from other countries, with little original adaption or development. The use of computer-assisted design programmes by inexperienced craftspeople or designers is no more likely to result in truly innovative results any more than an inexperienced maker sitting down with traditional design aids.
I believe that for true innovation in craft, the same qualities are required as 300 years ago (which actually include some of the same qualities required to gain technical perfection): curiosity, acute sense of observation, ability to think laterally, willingness to take risks, ability to make links between apparently different elements, adapt what is known to incorporate the unknown. These qualities are basically those involved in any creative process, so when we are talking about innovation we are talking about creativity; the creative craftsperson cannot help but innovate. The other crucial ingredient for true innovation, I think, is time. If a maker needs to spend 95% of his or her time making existing designs for sale all the time, or combining this with teaching, then it is very very difficult indeed for them to devote time to developing their work. In the UK grants are available for professional makers to take time out to focus on a particular aspect of an existing or new technique or on existing or new materials or simply to develop a new idea. This kind of grant really supports innovation and is a real stimulus for the craftsperson, and should be more widely available in countries which want to support innovation and skill.
There is another, potentially more serious confusion about the nature of innovation. And this is that innovation necessarily means brushing aside the old or traditional and creating something wholly different. In both England and Spain, for example, the traditional crafts have, somewhat ironically, been almost completely excluded from the debate on innovation, and treated, in fact, as the polar opposite. This, in my view, is a big mistake.
Japan: Craftsmanship and Design in Harmony
Contemporary Japanese textiles are amongst the most innovative and most exciting in the world today and are based on a respect for ancient Japanese techniques of weaving, dyeing as well as the adoption of new technologies and use of new materiales. I´ll just mention here “Structure and Surface” the superb exhibition catalogue of an exhibition of contemporary Japanese Textiles in MOMA and a couple of quotes from this catalogue (Museum of Modern Art in New York) of 1998.
Junichi Arai, one of the foremost cutting-edge Japanese textile designers “works in both ancient and exporative technologies”, for example, and craft commentator Matilda McQuail coments on page 17 that “Ancestral techniques have not been replaced but adapted and expanded”. Later on she comments that “… remarkable [contemporary] fabrics … may look strangely different but some of their processes may be traced back for centuries and evidence a thorough knowledge by their makers of traditional Japanese textiles”.
The Future of Craft Skills
I have a hunch that traditional craft skills are just beginning to make a comeback. We have spent decades focusing almost exlusively on design and are now just about realise the folly of leaving making skills out of the process – and welcome them back into the fold. There are signs of green shoots within the traditional craft sector in Britain, which is finally organizing itself and getting its voice heard –thanks to the newly established Craft Heritage Association which is proving an excellent advocate and ally for the skills-based craft sector in Britain.
This will almost certainly result in a re-evaluation of the value of making skills in craft at national level and help to raise the status of skilled making in time. Whether it is too late for some craft skills to be recovered I´m not sure – many craft skills are just hanging on in many countries, there are few craft masters left and the structure for learning a skills-based craft in most European countries is in complete disarray. What is certain is that any new focus on traditional craft skills needs to fundamentally different to the idea of simply “conserving” quaint or rare relics of the past, out of a sense of nostalgia or duty, but instead as a rich seam to be explored, relished and developed – fundamentally as something with a future, not only a past, more akin to the Japanese model of craft.
If we believe in such a future, then as craftspeople, we need to start to be proud of making skills again, and re-claim the space where making knowledge is valued, instead of feeling like geaks or nerds. Above all, makers need to develop and improve their making skills, and be willing to defend them in a coherent way, both within and outside the professional craft sector, realizing that skill has always, in fact, been as sexy as design, that tradition and design have always gone hand-in-hand, and that practical skills and intimate knowledge of materials are equal partners in the search for true innovation.
Anna Champeney is a textile-designer, hand-weaver and craft writer based in the Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, in North Spain. With the generous support of the FCGAD she is hosting a specialist textile weaving course taught by Danish master weaver Lotte Dalgaard at her textile studio in Ourense, Galicia, offered to professional Spanish weavers, in September. The studio also offers holiday tuition in traditional Galician (loop-pile) felpa weaving at her weaving studio and holiday cottage.