Fashion for designer living creates £400m boost for UK craft industry

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The Independent Online

The dream of living a designer lifestyle has generated an unexpected boom in Britain's craft industry.

The dream of living a designer lifestyle has generated an unexpected boom in Britain's craft industry.

A surge of interest in design, triggered in part by television makeover programmes, is bringing in record financial returns for the 32,000 people in England and Wales who make their living through craft forms such as ceramics, textiles and furniture-building.

A new report, Making It in the 21st Century, found thatturnover for the profession has doubled from £400m a decade ago to £826m today. Louise Taylor, the director of the Crafts Council, which will publish the report later this month, said the increasing sophistication of craft makers and buyers meant it was time to lay to rest old-fashioned images of the bearded potter making inelegant vases.

"We're all more visually aware," Ms Taylor said. "We've seen, rightly or wrongly through television programmes, that home improvements and design are things we can all participate in and there has been a proliferation of media interest that has enabled craft makers to have much greater exposure.

"There is also an interest at the moment in the handmade, the distinctive, the one-off, not necessarily because it is exclusive in the sense of expensive, but it fits in with our desire for the designer lifestyle."

Nearly 90 per cent of craft makers said that occasional domestic buyers were their main customers, with smaller numbers selling to galleries or businesses. The Crafts Council has tried to encourage the public to commission crafts. "When you're wanting an unusual wedding ring or new garden gates, it is not necessarily any more expensive and what you get is custom-made," Ms Taylor said.

The expanding market is going hand in hand with a greater professionalism among crafts makers, many of whom are younger and live in cities, the Crafts Council survey found.

Nearly two-thirds had taken a full-time art/design course, compared with 42 per cent a decade ago, and those with degrees had increased by more than 20 per cent. Just 35 per cent were self-taught, compared with 57 per cent in 1994.

There has been a rise in survival rates, with 58 per cent of craft makers in business for at least a decade, compared with 50 per cent in 1994. Nearly 30 per cent of enterprises had been trading for more than 20 years.

More than half of the 2,000 people questioned had had another career before becoming a craft maker. Of those who switched career, 94 per cent said they were satisfied with their lot, despite relatively low financial returns. The average turnover was less than £28,000 a year, with two-fifths making less than £10,000.

"A large part of the satisfaction comes from realising your creativity. That is a huge buzz," Ms Taylor said. "It's not the retreat to nature that people associate with crafts. It's more a choice about standard of living."

Ceramics and jewellery were the most popular craft among start-ups, although the biggest sector was textiles. More help was needed to continue the trend, said Ms Taylor, including giving craft-makers more tax breaks at the outset and more support mid-career.

Management consultants could learn something from craf-makers, she added. "Our businesses are smaller, they have slow growth over long periods, flexibility and high job satisfaction," she said. "They are family-friendly. All these things are what business consultants are being asked to deliver."

MAKING POTS OF MONEY

A PENNILESS Christmas and the approach of her 40th birthday persuaded Kate McBride the time had come to make a radical career change.

Ms McBride, now 41, was weary of her cut-throat, male-dominated profession as a commercial and press photographer, but she feared she lacked the skills and confidence to start afresh.

She said: "One Christmas, when I did not have any money, I made pots and fired them in the fireplace. The idea sat in my head." Ms McBride, of Sleaford, near Lincoln, began adult education classes in ceramics, took a diploma and an HND, and 18 months later she has a thriving business.

Her speciality is bespoke tea services decorated with liberal doses of her quirky humour. Designs that look as though they could be Meissen roses have flies and worms woven in.

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