Monday, 5 September 2011

Research Point on Craft (cont'd) - Consider Why Craft-Produced Textiles Maintain a Place in our Society

I've been mulling a lot over the last few days about the task 'Consider why craft-produced textiles maintain a place in our society' and making notes as the thoughts come to me.  I wanted to have my own ideas clear before doing the suggested reading and internet research so I wouldn't be influenced by looking for the 'right answer'.  I reckoned that the reasons are similar for textiles as for any other craft.

I thought about why I paid an expert to restore my stained glass windows rather than replace them with plain glass double glazing.  The previous owner had done this round the back and after all it's far cheaper, more efficient at keeping out the draughts, easier to clean and lets in more light. However I love the way the morning light shines through the coloured glass and reflects on the walls and floor.  I could have had the original pattern reproduced in double glazing and the colours matched, but I found the colours were limited and without the subtlety of the original Edwardian glass.  There were none of the different textures that make my lovely rippled watery reflections.  The original charcoal coloured lead with it's lumps at the joins would be replaced by uniform, stark, black lines.  I know and like the irregularities and little defects like the bubbles in the glass, just as I have a fondness for my own little scars as they tell a story.  I felt like I would have compromised the integrity of my home by not taking care of what was originally there.  Also, having studied a City and Guilds in Stained Glass, I had an appreciation of the skill (and pain!) involved.  The thought of replacing something someone had spent hours making after years gaining skills seems almost cruel.

A few weeks ago I laughed at a lady on T.V. who said she had a condition where she fell in love with objects.  I still think she's crazy but now I'm thinking there must be a bit of that in me too!  I am sentimental about those windows that have been there for over 100 years and have outlived and seen the antics of the families that have come and gone.  I'm not a big collector, but what is it that makes me scour charity shops or Ebay for hours looking for well-made things I like of no particular theme or era?  Why do I covet those Dale Chihuly art glass pieces and agree they are worth the tens of thousands of pounds they cost?  Generally the objects I like are not useful things, they were not made especially for me and I'm not interested whether they'll increase in value.  Yes, it is partly because I want to look at and touch beautiful things but I think it's more that I like to own something unique and that the pieces catch my eye because they evoke some sort of good memory in me, or represent the type of person I am.   Why then if I was rich, would I not pay that sort of money for a piece made by a machine?  It's the romance of knowing all these objects have a story behind them or the person who made them.  In the case of Chihuly, having a little part of someone who is living an incredible life.  Although I'll almost certainly never meet him, there is a relationship there. 

I wondered how much the artist wants that too.  Surely you wonder who wants your work and why.  I understand when Richard Wheater says he is disappointed when he receives a commission by e-mail and the client never visits or talks to him.  He doesn't get know what makes that person tick, or demonstrate how creative the medium can be - the vast range of colours and effects that can be achieved to really personalise the piece.  The contact and human element of the collaboration must be important for the artist too.   

I thought more about integrity and why it matters to preserve skills when machines can produce objects of increasingly high quality.  My Dad and I have been tracing our family tree for the last few years and we do sometimes question the point of finding out about the lives of long dead people!  It's not just because we uncover interesting stories, it's about finding about who we are, just as these crafts can be part of our heritage.  However, I know my feelings are not universal.  One of my friends doesn't give a monkeys about how her furnishings were made so long as her room looks nice.  Mark Sykes who I spoke to at Lotherton Hall the other week said he'd been asked to teach traditional beadwork to Native American students and a good proportion simply weren't interested in their heritage.  Reading about Chihuly's collection of Navajo blankets, he explains that the Indians would trade their exquisite handwoven blankets as they thought the bright colours and designs of the machine made Pendleton blankets more attractive.  On a practical level, they were warmer and one of their blankets bought several Pendletons.

Navajo Indian preferring the warmth of a machine-made blanket
© Dale Chihuly, used with permission of the artist

Researching Richard Wheater's work after the workshop visit, I found the philosophies behind his 'Them and Us' installation in 2009 particularly interesting.  He exhibited the story of his travels around the UK with a mobile furnace.  He made glass birds appropriate to the location (pigeons in London, sparrows in Sheffield etc) and 'blew life' into them, launching them into the air and photographing the moment he set them free.  Of course they crashed to earth and the remains were also exhibited.  I imagined horrified people diving with safety blankets trying to rescue the beautiful things.  These acts were a comment on the decline in glass and other manufacturing industries in the UK.  I suppose, like the birds, most were damaged but some survived better than others and many people would have spent their time desperately trying to salvage what they could from the industries.  Richard was also making points about having too many possessions in our throwaway culture, not appreciating craft skills and the importance of living and creating, not just the end product.                      

Surely it is also right to support people who have a talent and have made sacrifices to get to their level of expertise.  The course manual says, 'People working in the crafts rarely earn large amounts of money....'  Richard as an example is clearly very skilled and knowledgeable, well educated and successful with a string of awards for his talents yet still he has to take on work he doesn't particularly want, he says 'to keep the wolves from the door'.

If money or need is not what drives us to make things, what is?  For the last few years I've made my own preserves.  I like to think mine tastes better but in truth I could buy jam just as good and cheaper.  But no.  I have to grow or pick the fruit, then spend hours preparing and bottling it.  But why and how come I can give these offerings to my friends as presents and not a jar of Hartleys which is essentially the same thing?  I would not be impressed with a pair of socks from a chain store as a gift, even if they were pretty snuggly, but would be delighted if you sent me a hand knitted pair (anyone?).  I like to think this isn't snobbery, rather the importance of the human element and being able to personalise each part of the process.  I know my friend Vanessa likes her jam only just set and the particular proportions of berries.  Jill prefers just a few chillies in her chutney.  My father-in-law likes his marmalade quite bitter and my Dad likes a particular jar with a rim and little bubbles in the glass.  Hartleys may have their tasting panels but they don't know us personally.  Every stage of the process I can tweak and control from the variety of fruit I grow to the way it's packaged. 

Every year my girls give their teachers bramble jam at Christmas made from berries they pick from the hedgerows on the walk home from school.  They're always ripe at the start of the Autumn term so it's become an important ritual for our family.  The girls like to choose the jars and draw and write messages on the labels.  They choose fabric to cut and cover the top (they prefer blue gingham like their uniform), then they choose ribbon or string to tie and attach beads to the end.  Although the teachers are always delighted, I agree with Richard when he says the making is just as important as the end product.  

Making has it's frustrations but overall is therapeutic for me.  I remember a day in July when I was about to take the kids to school and I couldn't find my keys (house and car).  After half an hour of searching I rang my husband and it turned out he'd gone out with them as well as his own by mistake.  It was the first week of his new job, an hour's drive away, so he couldn't come home.  I found a key for the front door which we seldom used so I could at least get out but when I shut the door, the handle fell off in my hand!  So I was outside, unable to secure the house, the kids were already late for school which is a 2 mile up-hill walk away.  I was due at a friend's for lunch and a funeral of another friend's young husband in the afternoon, to which I had to carry 2 large cakes. 

You can imagine the kind of day.  Anyway, it was my fortnightly knitting group that night and I couldn't wait to get there.  I knew that everything would be so much better when I got there, and it was. I didn't need to tell anyone about the day (although I could have and everyone would have been sympathetic).  It was a combination of the company and the making itself that restored me - the rhythmic clicking of the needles, handling something soft and comforting....  I don't always know what the end product will be, the process itself and learning from it is as important.  At the moment I've been knitting 'a thing' with some variegated yarn just to see what the effect of the different stitches has on the colours.  People always seem disappointed when you can't say what you are making!             

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