I’ve been a fan of the various farm documentaries that the BBC has produced over the past few years. The documentaries cover farming practices in a specific part of England during a specific time period such as the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The participants in these series are domestic historians and archeologists who explore farming practices of the era, maintenance of the farm, and various additional sources of income that farmers would have utilized during the era.
One of the archeologists that has been a constant on the program is Alex Langlands who wrote a book named Craeft. This is written from his personal perspective and experience with craft and is meant to be a popular history rather than an academic work.
In its own way, that work was the inspiration for creating a blog that focuses on the difficult relationship between arts & crafts production in a society where every pastime is viewed through the lens of capitalism. The spark was Langlands’ feeling of loss throughout the book without engaging deeply with the economic and demographic changes that underlie the diminishment of those crafts. These issues were most likely well beyond the scope of his book. So this is not a critique of the book but rather a recognition that there is more to discuss.
What frustrated me was not recognizing that the context in which arts and crafts are practiced has been significantly altered from the pre-industrial rural areas where Langlands worked on the living history programs. In America there have been additional economic trends over my own lifetime [ed: I’m at the bottom rung of GenX] which have had their own series of cascade effects on the practice of arts and crafts. My own practice of photography and fiber arts (knitting, crochet) have been impacted by these trends.
I feel its very easy to engage in nostalgia but more difficult to see what opportunities and realities in the arts and crafts community. Craft has gone from a method for creating necessary durable object to being a past time for cultural and artistic expression. The trend towards urban and sub-urbanization has cut us off from a supply of natural materials used for crafting. At the same time we have opportunities to access crafting materials from both corporate and handmade sources.
One of the primary factors that I think needs to be address is time. It said (but fortunately debunked) that 10,000 hours is needed to gain expertise in a skill. Even if this length of time is not needed to build a high level of performance in a craft there is still the need for dedicated practice and instruction. How can we find the time for this practice in an economy which demands at least one full time job for each person in a household just to make ends meet. Even as we find new opportunities for learning through online and in-person learning, we need that space to go through the painful process of failure that leads to proficiency.
I think there’s a great deal more to explore about modern crafting strictly from looking at where we are now and where we can go from here. Perhaps its a side effect of historians and archeologists writing about craft that they tend to be backwards looking. Their interest is in exploring the practice as they existed in the past with materials available in a specific place and time. From that lens, there is a sense of loss.
While I have a lifelong interest in history, I don’t view my own practice of arts and crafts from that perspective. I suppose my profession as a software engineer means I have a strong interest in keeping up to date with techniques and an aversion to nostalgia when approaching practical methods. So as this blog moves forward my view will be set in the present and looking towards the future.