What is Real Craft? The place of machines and the alienation of labour?

I want to share some ideas about what craft means to me. My starting point will be an essay by Chris Eckersley as part of his exhibition “Real Craft”

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He starts the essay “The idea of things being ‘crafted’ has rarely been as popular as it is today. Whereas in the 1990s the marketing buzz-word applied to almost everything was ‘designer’, in the 2010s it’s ‘craft’ that sells.

The idea for ‘real craft’ came into focus following a conversation I had with two designer-maker friends while visiting the exhibition COLLECT. ‘This is all very well,’ I said, looking at the glittering array, ‘but it’s not real craft!’ There followed a lively discussion on what is, or is not, or what might be real craft. This exhibition is an illustration of the point I was trying to make.”

He blames Bernard Leach for attempting to elevate the craftsman to the level of fine artist and William Morris for being anti machinery the latter point is the one I want to focus on, the old art craft debate is less interesting.

“Under the surface there are still high levels of craft skill practised in everyday making and manufacturing. If some of it goes unrecognised, the reason is usually due to the bad press given in some circles to machines as an aid to manufacture. The machine can easily be portrayed as inhuman (think Chaplin’s film Modern Times), the enemy of hand production, whereas in reality the machine, as everyone knows, is just a useful tool. Anything made in a ‘factory’ as opposed to a ‘workshop’ cannot – in this mindset – be ‘crafted’. Even a workshop can be suspect; the craft preference (since Bernard Leach) is for ‘studio’ production. Eventually many of these prejudices can be traced back to the adverse influence of William Morris and his followers. ”

If you have not seen Chaplin’s Modern Times it is an excellent humorous commentary on bad factory work here is a clip but the whole thing is worth seeing.

As for Morris he was clearly not anti factory production in fact he used factories to make his carpets and books and wrote an essay “A factory as it might be” which preempts many of our ideas about good health and safety and environmental practice today. Morris was anti the worst effects of Victorian factories which involved child labour, unhealthy working conditions, poisoning of rivers etc and quite rightly so.

Adam Smith the father of modern economics showed how division of labour in a pin mill would increase production and profit but he also pointed out that this amounted to “mental mutilation” of the worker. Charles Babbage in his On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures developed the idea further showing that the real benefit in division of labour was that factory owners need only employ and pay good wages for the few highly skilled parts of a job whilst much of the work could be done by children, women and folk who had undertaken very short apprenticeships and hence paid a fraction of the wages.

Most folk that comment on craft vs factory have not spent much time in both environments so have an incomplete understanding of one or the other. I have worked in both. To me the crucial question is not about scale of production or if there is a machine involved, I am interested in what makes good fulfilling work and there seem to be two key questions to ask. First to what degree are workers in control of their own workflow? (see Charlie Chaplin above) and equally important how much skill is involved at the point of manufacture. This latter point is my defining difference between craft and industry. There can be great skill involved in the setting up of machinery but if once set up the machine minder does not need skill whilst producing the work then it becomes mind numbing. Jobs even though repetitive can be fulfilling if involving skill and challenge and we are recognised for the skill we posses. Last week I was making spooncarving knives in a factory in Sheffield, this involved a great deal of repetitive work grinding 1000 identical blades each in turn on 4 different grits of abrasive then bending each freehand to a precise shape.

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There was skill and challenge involved in the work these are the two features that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi considers key to human happiness, he has spent a lifetime studying the subject and invented the term flow for that ecstatic state that people enter when working with a high degree of skill. See his great Ted Talk here 

So to me it is important not to look down on factories and industrial production, nor to assume that all small scale workshops are better. I do draw strong lines though and to me all machines are not equal. In forging hot metal for instance a smith working with hammer and anvil is fulfilling challenging work, stepping up to a power hammer increases production and the skill needed, the next step up to drop forging however puts most of the skill into the machine makers hands and the work of operating the forge is now pretty dull repetitive and mindless. I think of all the reading I have come across there is only one author that really gets the difference between industrial manufacture and craft, here is a quote that sums it up.

`In handicrafts and manufacture, the workman makes use of a tool, in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labour proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workmen are parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism independent of the workman, who becomes its mere living appendage. (Marx, Capital, p. 422).

 

7 Responses to What is Real Craft? The place of machines and the alienation of labour?

  1. Clive Edwards November 17, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    Great little article. Well written and the summery says it all

  2. Ben Boswell November 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Well said Robin.

  3. Bodrighy Wood November 17, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

    I would agree in general. My concern is more with the use of the word ‘craft’ when applied to some of things that one sees for sale as ‘hand crafted.’
    .

  4. Caspar November 20, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Lot´s of David Pye in there too

  5. Pete Hill November 21, 2014 at 10:09 pm #

    Hi Robin,

    Really interesting topic. I work in the outdoor industry making packs and bags. Almost all of them manufactured in Asia. In the past 25 years there has been an interesting shift in the level of skill and creativity back and forth between the client companies and the factories.

    It started out in a pattern similar to the one stated above, “owners need only employ and pay good wages for the few highly skilled parts of a job whilst much of the work could be done by children, women and folk who had undertaken very short apprenticeships and hence paid a fraction of the wages”. The high wage creative jobs stayed with the client companies, the designers and engineers and the high labor, mixed skill level jobs went to the factories.

    The interesting shift was when the factories started adding design and development capabilities. So rather than just copying the complete samples provided by the client they started to create the entire product from client sketches. While the client desires were and are still crucial in this model, the factory took on the role of interpreter of designs as well as executor. The result was products become tailored to the capabilities and strengths of the factory. A homogenization of product took place as products were tuned to the manufacturing. At the same time the factories worked hard to “de-skill” as many operations as possible. Reducing training time and adding flexibility. The “de-skilling” comes in a bunch of forms. Lots of pre gluing pieces together to simplify sewing, and breaking steps down into little bites.

    There is a pendulum swing back in the other direction, bringing the innovation and craftsmanship back. Working hard on design and build, to own the product intent more, while asking the factories to copy and build and comment, collaborate rather than interpret.

    While I think this is better than the sketch model, it is still not the same as the process where the designer is truly the expert on the design and the build of the product. When you are responsible for making the perfect reproducible product, you view the process differently.

    For me spoon carving is a metaphor. A delightful blend of intimacy with materials and design and skill of process and tools. I think it should be taught in design schools.

    Thanks for the article.

    Cheers,

    Pete

  6. Leonard December 10, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

    Robin,

    What exactly is that cutting device you are using in the cover photo? Never seen anything like it.

    Thanks.

    • Robin Wood December 11, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      not me in the Photo that is Jeremy Atkinson cutting clog soles with a stock knife.