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June 24 2010

Craft is about more than crochet

Our knowledge economy may place little value on physically making things, yet the benefits and satisfaction are immense

In a budget week that has seen the country united, or otherwise unhappily welded, in austerity, one would feel safe to assume that uniquely rendered, artisanal objets d'art may not head its shopping lists. Not so. On Tuesday, while George Osborne was perfecting his "this hurts me more than it hurts you" face, another economically anxious audience was receiving more cheering news. At Assemble 2010, the Craft Council's annual conference, research was launched showing that – despite a recession – the craft market has been attracting more buyers and enjoying a stronger commercial image than ever before.

The reasons for this blooming are fairly self-evident. The ubiquity of similarly conceived, only differently branded, goods has powered a craving for authenticity. Add to this an increasing disillusionment with companies who would rather we concerned ourselves with the lifestyle a product signals, rather than its inherent quality or purpose. A growing environmental awareness means that purchasing decisions are now more weighted according to sustainability and local sourcing. Likewise, the resurgence of interest in acquiring skills that are more hand than head – be that knitting a jumper or planting an allotment – inevitably steers trade: 21% of people who had bought craft had themselves taken part in a craft activity six or more times in the past 12 months. The same surely can't be said of shoppers at Ikea, unless craft activity includes assembling a flat-pack Billy bookcase – and doing so six times a year would send a body round the bend.

Those of a sunnier disposition can read this as evidence of a population's nascent attempts to redefine their consumer activity for an – allegedly imminent – post-consumerist era. Though one speaker noted that the luxury goods market, flagging in the downturn, has been frantically appropriating the operative language of craft, with Louis Vuitton, for example, introducing in-store ateliers that offer customers some handmade with their handbag.

For the cynics who consider this to be the same old binge-spending at a different checkout, and those who point out that contemplating a non-essential purchase will be an impossibility for many after a VAT hike, it's worth then considering some fresh qualitative research from the Craft Council, which assesses the social contribution made by makers. Some 70% of makers now practice portfolio working, which means that they are sometime employed in community and educational settings as well as creating.

One project encapsulates this social subsidy. The Xtravert programme in Cornwall is run by a group of furniture designers who teach carpentry to young people not in education, employment or training. (How ironic that, as the country anticipates mass youth unemployment, the term Neets – previously used to shame the feckless teens of Vicky Pollard parody – will soon come to define a whole generation.) Now developing into a financially self-sustaining business, making furniture and sheds to order, the initial draw for this notoriously attendance-phobic group was that – all keen skaters – they could learn how to fashion their own skate ramps. Concepts such as discipline, work ethic and personal utility took on an immediate meaning: if the wooden boards weren't flush then it was your own wheels that would stall.

It's one example of the benefits of manual competence that the American philosopher and mechanic Matthew B Crawford eloquently argues for in his book The Case for Working With Your Hands, a bestseller in the US and published in Britain last month. A former Washington wonk who became so disenchanted with cog-in-the-wheel, white-collar life that he relocated to Virginia to open a motorbike repair shop, Crawford rails against the learned helplessness that leaves us deeming it more efficient to buy the upgraded model of a household appliance rather than develop the capability of fixing the old one. And, while he's rigorous in avoiding the mysticism that often gets attached to "craftsmanship", he is unusual in doing justice to the genuine satisfactions it offers.

We are not only rendered passive and dependent, but our relationship to the material world is detrimentally altered by the knowledge economy, which values above-the-neck abilities above all others. The term itself, as the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang contends, is complacent: it's an insult to suggest manufacturing work isn't based on deep and long-garnered knowledge.

Jobs in skilled manual trades are proving hardest to fill in difficult times when millions are facing unemployment. Yet vocational training remains the Cinderella stream of education, burdened with the assumption that it is for the otherwise disadvantaged, despite the reality that the reverently pursued university degree for all now offers little more than a do-not-pass-go to the brew.

The craft renaissance is far more complex than the cliche of the middle-class mummy hooked on crochet. It speaks to a more visceral, and socially urgent, need to reconfigure the nature of work. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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