The word ‘craft’ has dubious connotations – macramé plant hangers, table lamps festooned with sea shells, dolls made out of socks and buttons, home-knit jumpers for Christmas … A 1970s that taste forgot looms in my mind, cluttered with knick-knacks and home hobbies. My father took up weaving lurid tropical-scene tapestries as a therapeutic hobby, as well as brewing his own beer. My mother collected teapots, hundreds of them, from auctions and craft fairs, and displayed them on every spare tabletop, mantelpiece and window sill. They added a frisson of risk to playing indoors with balls and paper darts and disc-shaped things that looked like they might fly like a Frisbee. This wasn’t ironic or kitsch – it was all about bringing a personal touch, cosiness, ‘turning a house into a home’.
For my generation, crafts came to epitomise what high culture looks down on. They represented uneducated, unrefined popular culture – as much as do seaside souvenirs, tabloid news and bingo. They could be employed subversively – as kitsch, as anti-cool, as DIY – in the same spirit as punk. But not appreciated, in a simple way
The cultural tide has turned, and now the handmade craft aesthetic is ‘back’. The trend seemed to start in the art world as a late 90s turn from bold designer art to neurotic neo-realism. Today’s baggy cardigan, acoustic live music, home-grown veg, charity-shop and camping-holiday culture are once again valued as handmade and folk-traditional. Artefacts that are not manufactured or mass-produced, but rather handmade by an individual. There is a growing interest in authentic, artisanal craft goods. Etsy, for example, is the specialist online marketplace for individual craft producers to sell handmade goods and buy craft supplies. Launched in 2005, it has attracted nearly four million members, 250,000 of which are sellers. Craft hobbies are booming too, from knitting to – I would argue – making your own website or blog.
These fashions come and go. The current mass popularity of crafts could be the regression that goes with recession – a new mood of thrift. It could also be some new inkling of sustainability – although you have to wonder if most handmade items are intrinsically less resource-intensive. Most organic wool in the UK is sourced from New Zealand. Does it then make a huge difference where or how the jumper is made? And there are all sorts of dangers of self-deception in eco chic – styling yourself like a hippy but missing the implied values such as sharing, peace and anti-materialism. There are pro-sustainability trends within design, for instance, in using reclaimed or neglected materials. But the main factor is often the model or business system – whether or not you make throwaway fashion, for one.
There’s another way of thinking about all this: craft as in craft guild – what happens economically and socially when the main source of value is workers’ skills, not employers’ patents and contracts. In industrial production every worker is just an interchangeable ‘moving part’. Hence the employer can seek the cheapest workers and claim the maximum profit – today paying below the living wage in the poorest countries in the world. In the form of ‘offshoring’, restrictive patents and labour productivity this is still, according to some analysts, the main source of growth in corporate profits, rather than innovation.
The introduction of unskilled, low-paid industrial factory work met with protest. The famous Luddites of 1811 were in fact the Guild of Stockingers, hit by food shortages and a virtual police state during the Napoleonic war, priced out of the workplace and denied the right to collective bargaining by the 1799 Combinations Act. According to Lord Byron, the Stockingers were ‘meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life’. The history we were taught at school said ‘that’s progress’. But actually it’s more political than that. The question is, who owns the skill? Is it the worker or the employer?
Craft guilds – by holding fast to trade secrets and their transmission, as well as the licence to operate – regulated prices, quality standards, employment, training and competition, and also provided welfare and community support, for over 500 years
A typical medieval town could have over 200 guilds representing diverse trades such as tanning, brewing, baking, filigree and weaving. They had strict moral and commercial codes, kept the merchant speculators out of the local economy and provided some stability during paroxysms of civil war, plague, famine and debasement of currencies. After the guilds were smashed by laissez-faire free marketeers, and working hours nearly doubled and standards of living plummeted, cooperative societies (often started by ex-guild members) took on some of their role.
The question for tomorrow’s economy could be, what is the best set of institutions for a resilient local economy, and hence the common good? Our corporate-speculator-growth model will collapse at the first sign of crisis – dodgy sub-prime mortages are likely to be the least of our worries when crises in climate, energy, water, food, city flooding and so on hit in the next decade or two. The current model is geared for growth, and not for taking the bad years with the good. The alternative model is mutual, where individuals own skills and networks transmit them. It’s the model that has sustained those services and professions, such as academia, law and plumbing, that proved more immune to mechanisation or business-process re-engineering. And it’s the craft guild model that was followed by the open-source revolution in software (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP), providing a viable alternative to the dominance of the Microsofts of this world.
Not only does this model have the potential to create a safer world, with more stability and less suffering. It also holds the prospect of a more fulfilling career – a move back to ‘your life’s work’ and the self-respect and development that comes from mastering a trade, whether it be bread-making or database development.
It may also mean more macramé, teapots and folk music, but on balance, we could probably live with that.
John Grant’s new book Co-opportunity, which includes a section on craft guilds and mutual economic models, is published by Wiley