Sunday, 22 May 2011

craft, work and the Luddites at 200

Should we the craft community be celebrating the bicentenary of the 1811 Luddite rebelions?

In modern usage in the UK to call someone a Luddite can be a slightly derogatory term used to imply someone is against all change and blindly rejects any complex modern technology in favour of older simpler technology.  Some people on the other hand are proud to describe themselves as Luddites and feel that it is about valuing the things that are important in life.  

A very brief history of the Luddites; in the late 1700's a host of new inventions threatened to transform the textile industry which up to then had been a skilled hand craft undertaken by self employed artisans. 1764 the spinning jenny, then Arkwright's  water frame 1769 installed in the first real factories just down the road from me at Cromford Mill. The mill started employing 200 people mostly women and children the youngest being aged just 7 years old.

At this time weaving was undertaken by highly skilled and respected craftspeople who served a minimum 7 year apprenticeship. 1785 the first power loom appeared, by 1850 there would be 260,000 in operation in England and in 1811 the writing was on the wall.

The change in lifestyle is hard to imagine, the hand loom weavers worked from home with their families around them. The looms tended to be upstairs in front of long windows since before electric light, natural light regulated work. This is Edward Eccles the last handloom weaver in Darwen, Lancs.

The weavers cottages are instantly recognisable today by the rows of upstairs windows.

Would you rather work in the home above as a self employed skilled professional or in the factory below as an unskilled machine minder with low wages and few employment rights?

History is often taught as if this change was a positive development as it helped UK Plc on its road to world domination and produced goods that could be sold for less money. I feel differently but will try to stay dispassionate. From the Luddites point of view it was not about being against all technology it was about working conditions, the replacement of highly skilled work with low skilled and clearly lower wages.

My personal view is that the loss of social status and the difference between doing a job that is valued, which you trained for years to be good at and valued for are as important as the money. It was about power, in the craft model the artisan was empowered, in factory production all power lay with the factory owner. So the Luddites rebelled. Violence against machines was not their first move but the last resort. As early as 1778 the stockingers had attempted but failed to get an act through parliament regulating the "art and mystery of framework knitting". The Luddites were highly organised, they nicknamed their fictional leader Nedd Ludd to protect their anonymity. On 11th March 1811 they broke wide knitting frames at a workshop in the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire, they claimed the frames made poor products devaluing the craft and the owner was employing workers who had not completed the 7 year apprenticeship required by law.

The actions spread to surrounding villages and across the neighboring counties of Derbyshire, Liecestershire and then into the cotton mills of Manchester. Social historians see this is a crucial turning point in the development of a "working class" who became organised and exercised some power. It can be seen as the first step toward trade unions and workers rights. Framebreaking continued for several years, some concessions were made in terms of wages, rights, and release of prisoners accused of being ringleaders and attacks decreased after 1814.

So how does this relate to our situation today? If I choose to use a technology that demands high skill level rather than capital investment and I value self determination in my work, working for myself from home rather than for someone else as an unskilled machine minder then perhaps I do owe something to Nedd Ludd whoever he was. How remarkably similar this all sounds to the words of William Morris 100 years ago, both the honour of handwork and the social effects of labour management. How similar also to the recent books by Richard Sennett and particularly Mathew Crawford, "The case for working with your hands, or why office work is bad for you and fixing things feels good"

If we do choose to celebrate craft and Luddism though I feel it is very important that we do not blindly reject new technology and we are not perceived as backward looking. The internet has enabled many people to take that step away from working in the office to working from home, new technology can be be a change for good or bad, it is up to us to choose an appropriate technology and look hard at who benefits and who looses out of the different options available. Today is little different in many ways to 1811, we have to choose how we want to work, we spend a significant proportion of our lives and energy in our work, it is important that it should be empowering, life affirming, useful and productive.

Lots of info on Luddites on the web but this is better than most.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

craft skills forum

Last Wednesday 11th May leaders of the UK craft world came together to discuss issues or craft skills training and how to address them, it was an inspiring and positive day. We had over 100 delegates mostly chairs of the various craft organisations from the weavers spinners and dyers, basketmakers and craft potters to blacksmiths and the Royal College of Needlework.
 We discussed first sharing good practice, many of these organisations have been working for years often in difficult circumstances trying to ensure that the skills of their craft are passed on. We wanted to hear about what was working and why it worked. There were some great ideas which could be shared from one craft to another.

 The second question we again discussed in our round table groups was "What are the issues facing transfer of craft skills?" We wanted to know difficulties folk had faced, what were the problems that needed addressing.

 The last and most important session was to discuss what needed to be done to address those issues. After 30 minutes free ranging discussion each table had 10 minutes to pick out 5 key points and write them on flip chart paper. Then each delegate had 6 dots which they could go round the room and put on things they felt most passionately about. We have a lot of number crunching to do but this will eventually give a report which shows clearly a range of issues people felt were important but also a hierarchy so we can get on with addressing the most important first. This was a sheet from one table.

HCA over the last few years have been involved in a lot of consultations and often we leave wondering if anything will ever come out of the time we have given. We were very keen for this not to be a talking shop. The tremendous turn out of leaders of all the associations and the strength of feeling mean that the report will genuinely be the voice of the sector. Who will listen? Well there may be some things HCA can take action on ourselves but we also have a key ally in John Hayes the skills minister who is very keen to hear what the priorities of the sector are and to address them. He was meant to be with us on the day but was called away last minute. He was able to record the speech he had prepared and we showed that on the day, the transcript is here   and the film of the speech is now on the HCA homepage here. Equally important the lead official in BIS tasked with carrying out the ministers requests, Jonathan Yewdall, is also passionate about traditional crafts and was with us all day. He not only joined int he conversations to get a real hands on view of the issues under discussion but also took questions after the ministers speech.

We have had a deluge of correspondence following the day and have a lot of work now to get that report out, in the meantime I have a presentation to write for the ITES conference at Lincoln on Thursday and it would be nice to get one day in the workshop this week.

"It was just astounding that so many people came and gave their time, felt so passionately, and contributed so much to the day. I went away feeling that your organisation is full of life and positivity."
"It was a great day and really informative"

"A fascinating series of discussions and a really interesting day!"

At the end of the day we were treated to a tasting of the Balvenie single malt scotch whisky with a very entertaing presentation about the skills and crafts which go into it's production. We started on 12 yr olds and worked our way up the table to my personal favourite a 21 year old sherry cask. It was a lovely informal way to end the day and we were deeply grateful to the Balvenie for sponsoring the whole event.

Another report on the Craft and Design blog here

Thanks to Joel Virgo our volunteer photographer on the day for images, Jan Lasnon of craft and design magazine for two of her images, Beth Tilston for filming (youtube to follow) Patricia and Sally for superb event organisation and the Balvenie for making it all possible.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Grayson Perry The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

‘This is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsmen that over the centuries have fashioned the manmade wonders of the world…
The craftsman’s anonymity I find especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist.’

It's not often I look forward to a big London show by a turner prize winning artist but there is a show in October I am excited about already. Generally the works of big name contemporary artists Emin,  Lucas, Hirst et al don't do much for me. Though I admired the craftsmanship of Hirst's diamond scull it was the work done by unknown craftsmen in Birmingham's Jewelry quarter that impressed.

 So who is this artist and what's the show?

Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman by Grayson Perry is at the British Museum in October and will feature items from the collections there made by unknown craftspeople from centuries past.

"Grayson Perry curates an installation of his new works alongside objects by unknown craftsmen throughout history from the British Museum’s collection. He will explore a range of themes connected with notions of craftsmanship and sacred journeys – from shamanism, magic and holy relics to motorbikes, identity and contemporary culture."

It could be crass if done by another artist but Perry really does have a good understanding of and respect for traditional craftsmanship. This is one of my favourite articles of his on the subject written in 2005. Perry's blog (or should I say the blog of Alan Measles, Grayson's teddy bear/god figure) is always an entertaining read, sometimes controversial, often thought provoking. He has started dropping hints about what will be in the exhibition and my guess is that it is going to be good.

The title brings to mind a book which was a great introduction for me to ideas about beauty and meaning in traditional crafts. The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi
"If we were to select a hundred examples of the most beautiful craft out of the past and present, 99%, no possibly 100%, would be unsigned." 
Many of the craftspeople that I admire the most are the unknown tradespeople, the folk that made Hirst's scull, the folk that made the lace for the royal wedding dress, the skilled artisans at Wedgewood and Crown Derby. These folk just get on with the job of making things well, quickly efficiently with  skill.
As Perry says this is "especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist" or actually we are as Warholl suggested we would be, in the age of the celebrity full stop. We live in a time when fame comes from appearance on reality TV shows and anyone can have their 15 minutes of fame if they want it. Few people make anything or can explain to you in simple words what they actuallydo for a job these quiet anonymous craftspeople seem to offer so much more reality.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

John Hayes on the support for heritage crafts.

For those that were not at the HCA skills forum at Chelsea College last Wednesday, or for those that were and would like a transcript, this is John Hayes speech. We felt it was enormously positive, at last we have someone in a position to make a difference who really understands and values heritage crafts.

John Hayes Speech at HCA skills forum

Good afternoon everyone. I am  delighted to be able to send this personal message to your forum. Previous generations understood the value of craft, and I want you to know, that I know, that it’s value is undiminished.  Those that are preoccupied with the soulless ubiquity which is the antithesis of heritage crafts won’t or can’t grasp the hunger for that which is made with care,  precision and style.
It is through the union between art and craft that what we use becomes what we value.  It’s time to relearn, there is much more to heritage crafts than a sentimental attachment to  what was, they are for then and now and they provide markets for more than 10,000 businesses and work for nearly 90,000 people.  The time when people are at last coming to realise that practical skills can provide a secure route to success in life, heritage crafts are living models  of how such skills can be most effectively acquired.  

Of course the heritage crafts do something more important even than that. They remind us of the British people’s latent  capacity to acquire and apply skills in ways that made this country a great manufacturing power in the past and can, and will, do so again in the future.
Heritage crafts deserve to be encouraged and there are three basic ways which I want us to start to do that immediately:

First at present we have no clear picture of the sector skills needs including those of crafts which are in danger of dying out. and of where the strongest opportunities for growth and job creation lie. That is no basis on which to either make policies to promote craft or to encourage more young people to enter the sector. So there is an urgent mapping exercise to be undertaken and it will be undertaken.

Second we must make sure that everyone is made aware of the importance of heritage crafts in modern Britain, and the opportunities they offer to young people of talent and ambition. We don’t start from scratch here do we, for example the Balvenie masters of  craft awards in which the HCA is collaborating closely will be bestowed at the start of June and will be a great step forward in raising the profile and status of heritage crafts. They have my full support. We should do much more to support and build on initiatives like this, and that’s why I am leading work to develop a new framework for the recognition and celebration of craft. The aim will be to raise the status of craft and make people know that achieving craft skills is as important, perhaps more important,  than academic prowess alone. I want also to ensure that guilds and livery companies can help to sustain heritage crafts in the same way that bodies like the law society and the royal college of surgeons  help to bind other professions together and protect their interests. 

Third, we must ensure that heritage craft skills benefit from the full measures that are already in place, for example the government has protected the budget for informal adult community learning, and there is a great opportunity for heritage crafts here. Informal learning can be the first step towards discovering, or developing a new talent, an aptitude for craft and the start of the journey that leads to a new fulfilling career for some. The next step is often an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships of one sort or another have been the main route into craft since early times, and they remain a proven way to master a skill. The government has committed itself to building more apprenticeships in Britain than ever before. In the CSR and the budget we allocated extra resources to ensuring that apprenticeship opportunities are spread  across sectors and across Britain. I want a new generation of apprentices , learning skills, getting and keeping jobs, building Britain’s prosperity. It is clearly in the heritage crafts interest to take advantage of that extra capacity.

You know heritage craft say much about our country. They illustrate just what can be done when people master a competence that has both utility and more than that has beauty. I make no apologies for making the link between craft and style.

I hope that brief summary provides a clear indication of just how seriously I take the issue of heritage crafts. Not just their preservation but the active promotion of craft skills.  Craft is like a golden thread that links our past present and future and this is a timely reminder that the diversity and individuality of craft mirror the qualities of the British people themselves.  I’m determined that the British people through the acquisition of practical skills should be given every chance to succeed.  

John Hayes Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning 11/05/2011

The video of the speech is now available at the HCA homepage here 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Craft Skills Forum fully booked

The crafts skills forum next week is now fully booked. We have over 100 delegates representing a huge range of different crafts and associations. We will be discussing how best to ensure skills are passed on and celebrated in the next generation. We hope that there will be a consensus in the room and that the various different crafts can agree a range of key objectives for craft skills training. This will feed into developing government policy as we have the officials working on that policy with us all day. Promises to be an exciting day.
If you missed out we will in due course publish a full report though as with everything HCA does by voluntary input it will take time.