Research Point – Consider why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society

Consider why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society

‘Craft is an extraordinary thing of wonder; encompassing skill, creativity, artistry and emotion with thought, process, practicality and function. It is one of the purist forms of expression.’

Tricia Guild

Despite the availability of mass-produced, cheap textiles and the power of the high-street retailers, hand-crafted textiles still maintain a place in our society. Craftwork links people with the maker and I believe we need such connections. There will always be those (such as myself) who appreciate handcrafted items for their heart, warmth, friendliness and beauty.

The Crafts Council along with other sponsors commissioned a research project, “Craft in an Age of Change’ the results of which were published in February 2012. The document acknowledged that ‘the current age is one marked by rapid change in economics, the environment and in culture’, and went on to examine the impact of these wider social changes on craft by carrying out a literature review and by discussions with the focus groups.

The report makes interesting reading and I looked at four themes which emerged as a starting point for my own research as applied to craft-produced textiles:

What will the rise of digital technologies do to the concept of craft?

How does the global vs local debate play out in the sector?

Can craft respond to the growing concerns over environmental and ethical issues?

What will the economic effects of the ‘age of austerity’ be?

I used the internet as well as reading the following books to examine these themes:

The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi

Textiles Today, Chloe Colchester

5000 years of Textiles, Jennifer Harris

Structure and Surface, McCarty and MacQuaid

Threads & Voices, Laila Tyabji

John Robshaw Prints, John Robshaw and Elizabeth Garnsey

What will the rise of digital technologies do to the concept of craft?

Handcrafted items are on trend right now, as I discovered in my research on the ‘diversity of textiles available to the consumer’. There has been a cross over between mass-produced and handmade/handcrafted with digital printing allowing manufacturers to ‘get the look’ without the cost. So this begs the question, ‘with the rise of digital printing, laser-cutting etc, will there still be a demand for real handcrafted textiles?

My feeling is that this trend has brought people’s attention to the beauty of handmade and at the same time, genuine hand-made goods have become more available to the consumer through the rise of digital technology. With the advent of internet marketing, small cottage-industries have grown out of people’s hobbies as websites such as Etsy and Folksy have given craftspeople increased opportunity to market their goods to a wider audience. Digital printing has meant that artists and designers are able to produce small runs of their hand-designed fabrics.

How does the global vs local debate play out in the sector?

Technology has over the years had huge impact on craft-produced textiles industry in developing countries as well as in Europe and America. Over the years the European Textile Industry has relied more and more on out-sourcing textile manufacture to low-wage countries. Cheaper and cheaper textile products, mass-produced under poor conditions led to the traditional, local textile crafts almost dying out in many areas as they simply couldn’t compete with global market forces.

With a growing awareness of the social and environmental issues of a textile industry, signs are that things are slowly changing.

A number of artists and designers have begun to use textile design to create a new view of textiles that is both localised and sensitive to ramifications of international trade. Designers are looking beyond the surface qualities of fabric to the material and energy flows in the production and recycling of a piece of cloth. At the same time a growing number of consumers want to connect directly with the producers.

A number of textile designers, NGOs and social enterprises are working with communities in developing countries such as India, Bangladesh and Africa, producing design-led hand-crafted textiles and marketing them to the West. More well-known companies include The People Tree and John Robshaw.

Leigh Morlock and Joellen Nicholson launched Push Pull Cambodia by setting up their own weaving centre in Takeo Province—Cambodia’s historical and cultural hub for ikat weaving. Historical Khmer weaving techniques and modern design attitudes are merging and Push Pull employs fifty employees, providing stable employment to skilled adult Khmer artisans who develop new fabric collections twice a year.

The social enterprise, Indigo Handloom, set up by Smita Paul, supports craftspeople in rural villages across South Asia, to ensure their livelihood and the survival of the ancient and local weaving arts. Today, it’s comprised of a US-based design studio and works with selected local artisans. The fabrics have a nearly non-existent carbon footprint, as they are made entirely without energy. Overall, the handloom industry employs nine times as many people as those employed to make machine-made scarves and fabrics.

Lulan Artisans, based in Charleston, South Carolina, is a unique for-profit social venture. ‘Their high-end collections of exquisitely hand woven textiles for apparel and home are made primarily from silk, organic cotton and linen as a way to promote and support the skilled artists in places like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and India, so that families could continue their traditional crafts and thrive independently.’

On my visit to the recent Interiors Fair in Tokyo, I was pleased to see a number of social enterprises showing their high-end goods, all hand-crafted, hand-dyed and beautiful!

Can craft respond to the growing concerns over environmental and ethical issues?

Disposable consumption is deeply embedded in our culture. This demand drives the economy. But there is a growing awareness that attitudes need to change as the textile systems developed through global sourcing are becoming unsustainable. There is a need to address what textiles are made from and the way in which they are manufactured and produced. Sustainable design involves changing our relationship to the global market, requires cultural transformation.

With a growing number of internet sites and eco-design portals promoting sustainable consumption and increasing awareness of the cultural and environmental impact of globalisation, evidence shows that the consumer is beginning to change their buying habits. More people are using internet marketing sites such as eBay and the fore-mentioned Etsy and Folksy to buy second-hand or hand-crafted goods. TV programmes, books and magazines demonstrate how to recycle, upcycle of make your own items. There is also a growing interest in traditional skills such as knitting, macrame, sewing, embroidery and weaving, with new magazines and TV programmes creating interest. The popularity of the recent TV programme ‘The Great British Sewing Bee’ is an example of interest in handmade items.

Yoshiko Wada, textile artist and scholar, believes there is a general trend to embrace sustainability, even in big companies such as Levi-Strauss and Patagonia.

“The world is evolving, moving on from making cheap products for many people, making things faster or bigger just to make more money. I think we are realising this whole idea has put the entire Earth at stake, and slow things, slow traditions matter more now”

(source The Japan Times)

What will the economic effects of the ‘age of austerity be?

People have less money, less job-security and need to consider whether spendthrift replacement is economical. If you can’t afford to keep replacing things as trends change, why not buy only what you really love and need? Considered buying, thinking about the longevity and not being swayed by advertising, as well as taking more time, learning to make and mend, taking up new raft-related hobbies – these are my hopes for the consumer of the future!

Living in Japan, I can’t help but admire the attitude towards craft-produced textiles of the Japanese.

‘Japanese textiles have a distinct cultural style and strong sense of national identity. Japanese artists and designers seem to be comfortable with their traditions, maintaining the spirit of a japanese sensibility, while redefining and updating it without imitating the past.’ Structure and Surface

Contemporary Japanese textiles result from a reconciliation of craft and the look of handmade within a rapidly changing technological society that depends on mass production. Ancestral techniques have not been replaced but adapted and expanded. Designers give new interpretations to ancient techniques such as felting, embroidery, or quilting. In Japan Contemporary practitioners of the traditional crafts are now State supported under the designation of ‘National Living Treasure’.

Since January I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to study with Bryan Woodhead, a Canadian living in Japan.

The opening statement on his blog sums up his life better than I could:

‘I live in a small mountain village just outside of Tokyo where I grow a crop of Indigo every year and process it into a vat dye using traditional methods. With the resulting indigo I dye cotton and silk. I also breed silk moths, reeling the silk from the mature cocoons to later colour the silk with natural dyes, finally weaving it on traditional Japanese looms. I run several ten-day workshops a year at the farmhouse as well as regular weekly classes.’

When I first met Bryan, he said that learning each time-consuming technique and practising each stage of textile production took the ‘ego’ out of being an artist. I have watched him patiently feeding silk worms every 4 hours. I have experienced natural dyeing, weaving on the Japanese loom, making Kumihimo braids, reeling silk from the cocoons – all time consuming techniques. How much simpler and cheaper to go to the shop and buy something mass-produced in China? But the joy of making something yourself or seeing a handcrafted textile made by someone whether today or made long ago gives such heart-felt warmth – what can beat that? That, I think. is why there will always be a place for craft-produced textiles in our society.

In the words of Soetsu Yanagi in ‘The Unknown Craftsman’,

‘Might not beauty, and the love of the beautiful, perhaps bring peace and harmony?’

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