When I was last in London, I picked up a copy of Critical Craft, a selection of essays that take a challenging look at what craft means, and its role across the world. With thirteen essays, each focusing on a different element of the culture of craft, editors Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber and Alicia Ory DeNicola have put together a thought-provoking book that takes the time to ask valuable questions about a subject I happen to care deeply about.
However, I should probably offer a short disclaimer before I go any further: I haven’t finished the book yet. I’ve made it a good chunk of the way through and I’ve found everything so far to be thoroughly engaging, but there’s only so much work-related reading I can handle during the holiday season. Still, I’m ready to talk about this book now. I don’t want to wait until the end. Each essay provides food-for-thought, and the very first in the series just so happens to focus on a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: the notion of ownership in craft.
"Critical Craft: Technology, Globalization & Capitalism" edited by Clare M. Wilkinson-Walker & Alicia Ory DeNicola (Image source: Emma Wood)
Written by Alanna Cant, Who Authors Craft? Producing woodcarvings and authorship in Oaxaca, Mexico takes a look at the creative woodcarving industry of Oaxaca, Mexico. Although I have no relation to the small artisan communities Cant references throughout, the questions she asks and the scene she paints feel remarkably familiar, even as I sit in my small Berlin studio, halfway across the world.
In her essay, Cant tells a story about a time she was helping a local Oaxacan artisan paint some of her woodcarvings during a particular busy period. When a visiting buyer discovered that a Canadian foreigner had been taking part in the creative process, she refused to buy any of the pieces Cant had been involved with. She uses this story to reflect on the idea that only certain types of authorship seems to be acceptable, and that her own involvement had risked devaluing the woodcarvings’ status by “threaten[ing] to create an attachment between the carving and myself rather than a “true” Oaxacan artisan”.
Oaxacan wood carvings, the subject of Cant's essay (Image source: Jeff von der Schmidt)
Whilst Cant acknowledges that perhaps this buyer’s reaction was a tad intense, the story resonated with me, as I have experienced my own questions of authorship within my work over the last few years.
Ask an artisan or craftsman today what makes their work a craft, and at some point they will likely mention a form of connection they experience between themselves and their object. This sense of attachment serves as a form of authorship, and is often used as a key selling-point. I do it myself, explaining to customers the importance of the connection I feel between the materials I use and the creation of each cushion and blanket.
Having a strong connection between my hands and the material has always been a core component of building my brand as a weaver (Image source: Marcus Nyberg)
Yet this very connection has shifted in the last few years. As my production grew, I had to make the decision to stop hand-weaving all my cloth and start working with a professional mill and finishers. Although I still weave my samples and sew each final object myself, I’ve been aware of a fundamental shift in my relationship with my work, and along with that shift, I’ve also seen a new, defensive way in which I describe my pieces.
I still consider myself a weaver, and I still consider myself a craftsman. But since allowing the production of my designs to be taken out of my hands, I developed a fear that other people would no longer consider me to be a true weaver or craftsman, and I find myself trying to defensively pre-empt any criticism with an excessive explanation of how my production works. I emphasise the small size of the mill I use, along with the close physical distance between the mill and the finishers.
As my business has grown, I've experienced a shift in my relationship with the material and process, with the bulk of production now involving the use of industrial machines (Image source: Hello Evra)
I’ve wondered for a while why I feel such a strong instinctive need to put such a human face on my new method of production, and Cant’s essay has really helped to shine a light on this. I believe that at the heart of it all, I’m worried that people will devalue me as a weaver and craftsman (and by association, devalue my ownership of my products) when they learn that my own two hands no longer weave each row of cloth. I fear that in simply growing my business and being successful, I also have tainted my brand. Speaking so carefully about my new production methods let me minimise the damage, and perhaps even offer some form of small apology for entrusting my production in foreign hands, whilst reclaiming a firm sense of authorship. Cant’s mention of a study by Mira Mohsini that looked at how the artisan status of weavers has “detached from the actual artisanal practices of weaving and embroidery” struck a particular chord.
I’m also aware that most people probably don’t think about my work this way. I don’t honestly believe that people are judging and me for daring to grow my brand and expand production, or questioning just how much an author of my own work I am. This is an internal struggle that I have been dealing with, and being able to see it so well explained in Critical Craft has been remarkably therapeutic.
Engaging with materials and process to create even small samples like these has become incredibly important to me as I continue to claim identity and ownership as a craftsman and weaver (Image source: Emma Wood)
Cant’s essay doesn’t provide me with a pat answer to this my personal dilemma, but I still have felt the benefits of reading it. Her essay is also not limited to this one aspect of ownership; she explores the significance of name, detachment, style and location in relation to the truth of craft ownership. There is a wealth of insightful information that I could continue to delve into and comment on, but I’ve already written 1000 words, so I feel that can be saved for another day…