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Crafts and gardening: the new frontiers of radicalism?

September 2011

Kate Day, Professor George McKay, Barbara Hastings-Asatourian and Rob Lyons discussed the impact crafts and gardening are having in society.

Kate DayThe current wave of interest in craft, and in particular in the process of making things for yourself, surely has its roots in recent social, political, and economic developments. It is often argued that the fashion for creative activity can be regarded as a backlash against an increasingly virtual and corporate world that promotes the passive consumer - albeit a Web 2.0 one. Alongside the grow-your-own allotment movement, the make-your-own approach enables craft participants to experience shaping their material world, creating objects that have an individual stamp and a narrative in their production. Is this just a repeat of the rural craft revival of the 1970s for a new generation, or perhaps a new twist to the fashion for eco doom-mongering?


George McKayOver the past 10 years, and emanating initially in the U.S., the DIY craft movement has played a critical role in promoting craft activity as a democratic and political tool. Online movements such as Craft Mafias, guerrilla knitters and ‘craftivism’ have encouraged a younger generation to regard craft as a platform for sharing ideas and protest. The activist approach shares common strands with the ‘guerrilla gardening’ movement, with activities such as seed-bombing and yarn-bombing linking to a new generation of political protest that prioritises community and direct action in the reclamation of social values, vs corporate or state ideologies. Alongside this, selling sites such as Etsy have developed a burgeoning market for user-led trading, often at a low price point due to the predominantly amateur nature of the traders. Perhaps the ultimate outcome of the of self-styled ‘craftster’ movement, the website Regretsy celebrates some of the worst excesses of where ‘craft goes bad’.


Barbara Hastings-AsatourianAn aspect of the craft and gardening revival is how connected and virtualised it is, rather than isolated or disconnected. Making groups, once regarded as the prevail of the Women’s Institute and over 60s, are now attracting hip young things keen to share techniques and learn new skills. Crafting events, from knitting groups, through local meet-ups to the V&As popular Craft Rocks evenings, are attracting cool urban (and predominantly female) audiences. A far cry from the cloth kits and macramé owls of the 1970s, these activities do nonetheless contain an element of nostalgia. The rediscovery of ‘grandma’s skills’ (possibly not passed on by grandma herself due to changes in inter-generational connections), hints to a lost generation in terms of craft skills development. Notions of a make do and mend approach prompted by recession, don't ring true as buying new if often cheaper, and with the erosion of craft teaching in schools and further education, there has to be a deliberate desire to learn crafting skills to then use them to 'make do'. From a fashion and style aspect, bunting, village fetes, and Cath Kidston’s ubiquitous patterned homewares hint at a longing for a more innocent age of pretty things and pride in the home-made.


Rob LyonsIs the backlash against the generic high street chains, alongside environmental and ethical concerns a positive one? A growing interest in authenticity and provenance presents the capitalist project as faceless consumerism promoted by big chains producing throwaway items (in conditions that are often questioned), has prompted 'discerning' consumers to seek out locally sourced products. The popularity of farmers markets and craft fairs of course articulate this trend from global to local, with interesting outcomes regarding price and quality when we're mindful of the additional pressures posed by economic recession. This trend has naturally not been overlooked by global luxury brands and major retailers hit hard by the loss of confidence in ostentatious consumption. Brands such as Mulberry and Camper have been quick to inject craft values in to their product ranges and marketing, facilitated by big budgets and up to the minute consumer intelligence way beyond the reach of individual craft makers and retailers.


Craft as technical ability and a medium for expression has also received renewed interest, perhaps notably from the previously aloof fine art world. Grayson Perry’s winning of the Turner Prize in 2003 was something of a coup for the craft world; less shocking than Perry’s transvestite alter ego Claire and his acceptance of the award in a baby-doll frock, was that Perry defines himself as a potter and is actually skilled in his craft. Perry’s journey in bringing craft out of the wilderness was carefully orchestrated, and having received support from the Crafts Council he strategically aligned himself with the fine art world to achieve his ambition. Is this blurring of the boundaries between art and craft such a good thing, and why does it seem to be the case that the constituency is largely female and middle class?


Listen again (not miked so variable quality)...

Speakers on crafts and gardening - click on the Play button:


Speakers on crafts and gardening - click on the Play button:


..sorry but the recording stopped at this pont so missing the last 25 minutes just when it was getting going.


Some background readings

Guerilla gardening, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thinking Aloud: Craftwork and Skill, BBC Radio 4 with Richard Sennett and Grayson Perry 06 February 2008

BBC crisis over 'fake' sweatshop scene in Primark documentary, by Ian Burrell and Martin Hickman, Independent 17 June 2011

Guerilla gardeners target housing estate in Somerset, BBC News 15 August 2011


Sponsored by


Urbanization Architects Many thanks to Mark Iddon of Urbanization Architects for sponsoring this discussion. Urbanization Architects is a recently founded architectural practice, based in Manchester, currently undertaking a range of commissions in the residential, domestic and commercial sectors.

Urbanization upholds the imperative for the advancement and development of the built environment in order to create the spaces, structures and infrastructure required to support the needs of a progressive society.


Contemporary craft fair

The Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair (GNCCF), held in Manchester, champions and promotes high quality, cutting edge contemporary craft. Designer-makers from across the country and beyond are invited to showcase a selection of ceramics, jewellery, glass, interior and fashion textiles, wood, silver and furniture. Visitors, including retailers, galleries, interior designers, collectors and the general public, have the opportunity to buy the unique pieces and talk to the designers about their work and influences. The GNCCF is organised by the Great Northern Events, a not-for-profit company established to champion and promote high quality craft at Spinningfields, and will run from 20 to 23 of October 2011. 
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