A crafty link with industry

Roger Trapp examines initiatives to bring traditional skills out of the cold
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The Independent Online
It is traditional to separate crafts from industry. After all, one has a wholesome, earthy image while the other is widely perceived to represent a shift from the simpler life and all the values and attitudes associated with that. But efforts are currently under way to forge closer links between the two.

Much of this work is naturally focused on the small business arena. For example, later this month Milan will host the third European conference on crafts and small businesses. The organisers of the event are stressing that they hope it will "further improve the understanding of the specific nature of the sector, as well as its potential for employment and economic growth". In particular, the conference will be aiming to create a favourable environment for these types of business to develop.

In London last week Sir Nicholas Goodison, a leading City figure and well-known expert on antique clocks who has recently taken over as chairman of the Crafts Council, also headed a debate on "the Crafts and their Industrial Future".

Among the initiatives he urged for promoting crafts was finding ways of persuading manufacturers that there is money to be made out of links with experienced craftsmen-designers. As examples of the sort of links that had been forged he said that Bailey & Tomlin, a firm of hatmakers, supplied many leading London department stores as well as continuing with their "one-off creations" and that in fashion textiles Georgina von Etzdorf had moved from printing fabric in a small way to developing an international clientele.

He added that he would like to see more research along the lines of that done two years ago by the Department of Trade and Industry into the furniture manufacturing industry. There were few statistics on the value to the national economy of craft and design courses, he said. As a result, it was difficult to back up with solid evidence what was felt to be the case.

One person, though, who needs little convincing of the role played by crafts, as well as the potential for an even greater role, is Luke Hughes, a member of the Crafts Council, whose firm of furniture designers, Luke Hughes & Co, sponsored the debate.

"Changes in technology, economics, distribution, communication and environmental awareness mean that both the crafts and industry are now radically different than they were 10 - let alone 40 - years ago," he says. Having worked with many leading institutions and firms of architects, he is committed to the marriage of what are termed handskills to "batch" industrial production techniques. "The long-term prosperity of both probably lies within the SME [small and medium-sized enterprise] culture - small runs and less waste," he adds.

Among those firms that can demonstrate what can be done in this area is Jeff Wilkes, whose Willey Winkle range has for more than 40 years led the field in the development of 100 per cent natural lambswool mattresses for cots, cribs, Moses baskets and children's beds. And with more and more parents prepared to pay a premium price to ensure their babies' comfort, Mr Wilkes sees constant growth.

Mr Hughes, whose firm is sponsoring three lectures designed to stimulate debate about the role of crafts, believes that it is becoming an increasingly significant employer. The indications are, he says, that it employs more than 130,00 people, which puts it on a par with a substantial industrial company such as British Aerospace. And he believes thatthere is potential for the figure to be far higher.

One particular source of growth is the increasing numbers of women in the labour force. There is substantial evidence of women choosing to work in crafts industries because they are often located close to their homes and the frequently informal work can be fitted in with family life.

But the real benefits will come, he believes, once people on each side of the craft-industry divide realise they can learn from one another. "I am encouraged by the way things are going," says Mr Hughes, pointing, for example, to the design students who are being employed by large companies to explore ways of reproducing patterns on fabrics.