Week twenty-seven: in defence of craft

Here I am again, having survived my first trip to Tesco in two months. Survived is the right word – I haven’t seen it so busy since March, with people stocking up on goods in case the country goes tits-up (the technical term!) again. I’d just like to say I’m not hoarding anything except chocolate malted milk biscuits. Fat chance! The freezer is full, the cupboard is overflowing….and I bet I’ll still end up in the Co-op at least once this week. How does the Horde eat so much? Will their father eventually turn into a chocolate digestive? And…what did I forget?

On Friday I virtually attended an inspiring Zoom conference run by the Craft Council, entitled ‘The Future of Craft in Education‘, which was fascinating (catering was awful though…). I didn’t think staring at a screen for the best part of six hours at the end of the week would be possible, but it was over almost too soon. The organiser ensured talks were short, breakout groups were well-organised and I am in awe of the person who managed the tech as it was seamless.

What happens when you clear a space for your tablet and notebook.

Imagine my horror when the head of one of the big academy chains declared that in order to help children ‘catch up’ with their education they would be abandoning creative subjects in favour of maths, English and. Science. The head of my daughters’ academy (who is, tellingly, from a drama background) was keen to reassure us that they would be looking at how to build core subject knowledge into the rest of the curriculum so students didn’t miss out. Much as I rant about the National Curriculum, it does set out the need for a broad and balanced education. I could wish that the cross-curricular links made explicit in Design Technology were mentioned to other subject teachers, but that’s another conversation!

However, during the pandemic ‘craft’ has come into its own, both as a source of well-being and as a way to do all those little things around the house that people haven’t had time for before: upcycling and mending clothes, cooking and baking, DIY, as well as the things we would more commonly identify as ‘crafts’. In August, Hobbycraft reported a 200% boom in online sales since the start of the pandemic, and as a dedicated online craft shopper I know that demand was high across the sector. There’s been a lot of focus across the cultural sector on the benefits of arts on well-being, and a slew of articles (like this one and this one) have been written on why craft is good for you. Lockdown – particularly for those of us on furlough – has given us permission to craft, to take up new hobbies and to revisit old pleasures. Various friends have taken up embroidery, started sourdough baking, experimented with cyanotype printing, made furniture, followed Bob Ross tutorials. I have loved seeing all their beautiful work on social media and it would be sad if these activities stopped when the world goes back to ‘normal’. The Crafts Council launched their brilliant ‘Let’s Craft’ initiative during lockdown, providing packs for families in need, via food banks and community hubs. This was really important at a time when some families were struggling to put food on their tables and luxuries were – literally – not on the menu.

The last ten years or so have seen a huge drop off in the take up of creative subjects at GCSE and above, especially Design Technology: perhaps due to the government focus on EBacc achievement, perhaps due to a belief that a ‘creative career’ isn’t one you can make a living at, and that all your education should be focused on an end goal of a ‘good job’ rather than on the transferable skills like problem-solving and team working that creative subjects can foster in children. My own secondary school pushed two routes: academic and vocational. I really wish I’d taken some creative subjects at GCSE, as I have definitely found more use for those skills than I have for French and Computer Studies!

And while this recognition of the benefits of craft is long overdue, it’s also a further threat to craft in education. Craft is currently being touted as something that can help children’s recovery, with their wellbeing, but not as a proper subject. Back in the eighties when I was in school there was a subject called ‘CDT’ or ‘DCT’ – craft, design and technology (or design, craft and technology) so craft was right there in front of us. It was in woodwork, in metalwork, in textiles. You could get an O-level with the word ‘craft’ in it – it was a proper subject. You learned how to use machinery (and hopefully how not to cut your finger off like every CDT teacher ever), how to transform a flat drawing into a 3D object, and how to make an apron. Technically the word still exists in the subject ‘Art, Craft and Design’ – but more often this also becomes just ‘art’ or ‘art and design’.

Somewhere along the line that word ‘craft’ was dropped and with it the importance of making. Design became the whole of the thing, even though even Sir Terence Conran said that

…I have always been concerned with the practical aspects of design, and relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed anything that I wouldn’t know how to make myself.

The word craft became associated with craft fairs, with the sort of crochet your gran does, with the WI or the Mothers’ Union….with women, in fact. It became marginalised. It’s not a coincidence that the take-up of DT is mainly by boys, and the reverse is seen in art take up.

Yet…

Craft is democratic. It’s the great leveller – anyone can do it, and the past six months shows that they have. You can have a degree in it if you want – but you don’t have to. There’s so many tutorials on YouTube, on Craftsy, in books and magazines, that you don’t need to go to school to learn it. I crochet, quilt, cross stitch, make clothes – and I have taught myself to do these things.

Craft is community. Manu Maunganidwe, one of the speakers on Friday, spoke of his first experience of craft in the Somali village where he grew up. People came together to build a new house – they brought time and skills and they made a house from the ground up, because you can’t build a house by yourself. He spoke passionately about the need for children to experience tools and making.

Craft is haptic. It connects you through the sense of touch, through the experience of materials: choosing the fabric for a dressmaking project by stroking and folding it to see how it creases, squeezing the yarn at a yarn show, the squish of mud when a child makes mud pies. It is sensual. The process of making is sensory – sanding wood to make it smooth, smooth clay, the pull of embroidery floss through fabric.

Craft is resilience. You make a mistake, you try again. Later, when you begin to design your own projects, you try something out, you tweak it, you try again. This is the same iterative process that designers go through.

Craft is cross-disciplinary: You apply knowledge to solving problems: maths is invaluable across all manner of crafts (to crochet a sphere you need your times tables!), yarn dyers use science, a crochet pattern is a simple code. Last year I made a crochet model to demonstrate hyperbolic planes (negative space) for a maths session, mimicking shapes in nature.

Craft is cultural. Children from all communities grow up surrounded by traditional crafts in their homes: fabrics, art, cooking, embroidery, hairstyling. This is not reflected in the current curriculum. A key part of the day was about how craft could help with anti-racism, and my resolution is to seek out diverse makers for the new schools programme to reflect our local area.

Craft is expression: emotional and artistic. I can’t draw but I can make. No, I can’t draw yet. I will draw.

Craft is co-ordination. Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, wrote that she had a thinking hand and a doing hand. You need hand-eye co-ordination to hit a nail with a hammer, to direct a needle to the right hole. I am a kinaesthetic learner and I learn by doing, through muscle memory. Crochet helps me focus. I can make a granny square while watching a Zoom conference without looking at my hands. If my hands are empty I find things to fidget with.

One sleeve completed during the craft conference

Craft is revolution. Not just in the William Morris Arts and Crafts Movement sense of revolution, but a quiet, beautiful revolution. Yarn bombing is a public, visual way to express an idea or an issue. After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and on London Bridge thousands of us knitted, crocheted or sewed hearts with a message of support and love for the residents of our cities as well as the victims of the atrocities. I sent some to Manchester and yarnbombed Canary Wharf and the Central line with messages of hope and love. Craftivism is a thing. This week on Radio 4’s Four Thought there was a fascinating programme on ‘gentle protest’ that you can find here.

In how many of these statements can you replace the word craft with the word art?

I know there are things I have missed here: please do share what craft is to you, and why you do it!

The last act for the conference was to make a pledge to craft education – something the Craft Council have been asking people to do for a while. Mine is to carry on pushing craft to anyone who’ll listen, and to be proud to be a ‘crafter’.

And while I’m on the subject…

Here’s the finished crochet puppy for the small girl who isn’t allowed a dog – at least she won’t have to pick up after this one! The cardigan is lacking one sleeve, but I have done the cuff so it won’t take long. We are watching the new series of Ghosts so I am staying awake long enough to finish things!

I also have a giant pile of fluffy quilted blocks – I had to make three more in the end, which still need to be quilted, but then I can start putting the bento box quilt together.

Wild wanders

I went out for an early walk this morning for the first time in a while. The weather has been a bit blustery for the last couple of days, and it really feels as if Autumn has arrived.

The clearance of scrub on the fields behind us is now finished and the brambles have been piled up in stacks all over the place, exposing the pylon anchors left when they put the power cables underground in the 90s. They reminded me this morning of standing stones – twentieth century monoliths. I am heartbroken at the damage to wildlife habitat – there were no deer to be seen this morning, though there was a prowling fox, several green woodpeckers, and lots of rabbits.

There have of course been a few swims – one late afternoon on Thursday. The light is so different at that time of day, with the sun low over the trees. The water is getting colder – around the 17 degrees mark, and I did feel it when I got out of the lake on Thursday. I am in charge of hot chocolate, which always reminds me of post-swim treats when I was young. Machine hot choc back then – I hope mine is better!

The temperature in the lake this morning was 13 degrees, the coldest we have swum and we very sensibly got out after half a lap (about 400m). I tested the DIY dry robe and I was positively toasty! However, this will be me for the rest of the day:

Teddy has autumn nailed

So that’s my week! It flew by. Next week I am going in to the office – how exciting! Is there still life west of Epping? It’s been a long time…

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading

Breakdown/Heartbreak Hotel (Alex Delaware) – Jonathan Kellerman

A Body in the Bath House (Falco) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)

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