Maker's mark: A new generation of artisans are reviving arts and crafts

Robin Barton reports on the spectacular renaissance of arts and crafts in Britain – and explains how it could benefit us all

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:09

It's the last day of term and I'm standing at the back of a workshop watching a class of privileged eight- and nine-year-old children finishing the term's projects. One, Josh, is fixing the neck of his handmade guitar to its body. Another boy, behind a visor, is soldering the wiring of a set of speakers for an iPod. A girl is sanding the curves of a heart-shaped Mother's Day gift, while a boy turns a wooden bowl on a lathe. They're all utterly absorbed in what they're doing. Elsewhere at the school, sewing machines thrum and soft toys are stuffed in the textiles class, and the pottery class is assembling the walls and turrets of a clay castle.

The school is Dunhurst, junior school to Bedales, a private school in Hampshire renowned for embracing the arts and crafts. There is probably no better place in the country to acquire a love of making something by hand. "Children hunger for the chance to be creative, and craft skills empower them," says Elaine Hewitt, the school's head of creative studies. "Those who may struggle in other areas get a chance to shine; it gives a great sense of ownership and achievement. And there's much more that they gain: it connects with science, geography and culture. Our starting point is the question: 'What would happen if?' To which my response is: 'Let's find out.' That's the kind of learning craft provides."

If, as Hewitt and Rosy Greenlees, executive director of the Crafts Council both remark, Britain needs designers and manufacturers, then craft is a uniquely valuable form of three-dimensional learning. So it seems odd that Britain's education system seems intent on whittling it out of the curriculum. Neither craft nor design are part of the five core subjects of the new English Baccalaureate, for which 15 per cent of the country's top GCSE pupils will be eligible. Since the 1980s, state schools – enjoying only a third of the spending power per pupil of Bedales – have sidelined hands-on classes in handmaking for a variety of reasons (health and safety, teachers lacking the skills, and costs are cited).

It's a situation made all the odder by the remarkable renaissance of handmade and locally made products in recent years. "There's been a re-engagement with processes and a desire to reconnect with our physical surroundings," says Greenlees. "It is linked with the issue of consumption and an awakening interest in provenance and authenticity." In its 2010 Consuming Craft survey, the Crafts Council reports that 63 per cent of adults have bought or would consider buying craft – up from 29 per cent in 2004. It's no coincidence that global brands such as Camper, Levi's and Louis Vuitton have employed the word "craft" in recent advertising.

But one company's financial results say more than word of mouth., the online marketplace for all things handmade, was founded five years ago by Rob Kalin, a furniture-making serial college drop-out, and his friends in a Brooklyn apartment. In Etsy's first year of business, about $100,000 worth of transactions took place through the site. Last year, transactions totalled $314m. "I remember our first million-dollar day," says Matt Stinchcomb, an old friend of Kalin, one-time screen-printer, and now Etsy's European director. Etsy provides producers – from blacksmiths and bookbinders to potters and dressmakers – with an online shop and takes a 3.5 per cent commission, a figure unchanged since its launch. Currently there about 400,000 shops registered, of which 300,000 are active. "Of that 300,000," k says Stinchcomb, "about 20 per cent are doing really well. A few people make a comfortable six figures."

Etsy's startling success is a result of tapping into two unfulfilled needs: it provides an easy route to market for makers; and it enables everyone to buy products that are interesting, individual and handmade; items that have a bit of soul (although some might balk at member FeatherAhead's taxidermied coyote-pelt scarf). More than that, however, Etsy has laid the foundations of a community.

Etsy shopkeepers such as Aster Sadler from Worcestershire, who sells her beadwork as SeedyBeady, can join local networking groups ("teams"), buy materials collectively with local artists and follow tips on how to use social media in Etsy's blog. "I heard about Etsy over Christmas," says Sadler, "and have since sent pieces to America and tutorials as far as Australia. I'm due to take maternity leave soon and want to be able to stay at home, look after my child and make some money."

Interest in the site's commercial potential has sprouted like cute bird motifs in interior design – so much so that Etsy is hosting its first conference, Hello Etsy, on the durability of micro-economies in Berlin in September. Investor cash is readily available and there is persistent talk of an IPO. And the initial users – "art school-educated hipsters", according to Stinchcomb – are being joined by classically trained artisans. "Previously, we may have been looked down upon by those communities, but that tune has changed now some have had success on the site."

Yet in Britain, our polarised attitude to handmade remains shaped by Savile Row suits at one end and crocheted tea cosies at village bring-and-buy sales at the other. While luxury handmade items are an old way of "signalling connoisseurship", as the Consuming Craft report puts it, an interest in a product's provenance remains damned as a middle-class preoccupation. Young people are steered towards university, an office cubicle or the job centre rather than, as philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford suggests in his book The Case for Working with Your Hands, experiencing the "psychic satisfactions of manual work".

Timothy Everest, tailor to Davids Beckham and Cameron among others, has done more than most to snip away the elitism associated with handmade clothing. "When we started the business in 1989," he says, "it was hard work making people see tailoring as cool. I was targeting people who bought designer brands. One tactic was to introduce customers to the workers who'd produce their clothing, the cutters and coat-makers, which personalised the process." Post-2008, Everest worried anew about who was going to buy bespoke. To find future customers, Everest launched his Bespoke Casual range two years ago: the spring 2011 collection features pieces such as a donkey jacket in tweed flecked with jewel-like colours.

The new wave of handmade is breaking across Britain. Angus Ross, a bespoke furniture-maker based in Aberfeldy, Perthshire, began his business 18 years ago at the start of the last recession. "We work at the top end," he tells me, "and we've kept busy. There are definitely many more people interested now than 10 years ago, from both a design and craft perspective. People are much more aware that they don't have to buy off the shelf and there's a lot more interest in high-quality craft; more people are prepared to pay and wait. Each piece has a story and a personal side that makes it more precious."

Ross trained in industrial design and found himself designing, among other things, potties for Mothercare. "I wanted to put more of myself into design and make more of the craft process so I took a course in cabinet-making at a college near Thame." These days his commissions, from a boat-shaped bed to curvaceous tables, cost thousands of pounds and take hundreds of hours of work. "I'm aware that not everyone has squillions in the bank, so I'm developing a furniture range [to be exhibited in Glasgow's Collins Gallery] that minimises some of the complexity and intensive labour but is just as aesthetically pleasing."

In Southampton, Tom Warmerdam can thank his grandfather for the acclaim his handmade bicycle frames are receiving. "My grandfather, a cabinet-maker, was the only person in my family to make things. When he died, I wanted to use the money he left me to learn to make something beautiful and tangible." Unable to find anybody to teach him frame-building, Warmerdam, a mechanical engineering graduate, took a course in metalwork offered by an engineering training association in Southampton. "It took me two years to get to the point where my frames were good enough, which was a couple of years ago."

Now, Demon Frameworks has a full order book and a waiting list of six months, with each frame Warmerdam welds taking at least a week, usually two, to make. "I spend a lot of time on my frames to get the satisfaction of looking at something and not seeing a flaw. Working with your hands and making something is real. It's not something I'll get rich doing, but richness comes in many forms."

Like Ross, Warmerdam is working on a more affordable range: "I'd like to make handcrafted bikes more accessible to people without a large wad of cash and I'd like to train three or four people to build them." Despite his success in a financial climate that hardly encourages spending on hand-built bicycles, Warmerdam believes Britain is lagging behind the US in its appreciation of local, handmade products: "Americans seem to be more proud to ride something made in America than we are to ride something British."

Timothy Everest has similar sentiments about Japan, where he has just opened his 21st shop: "The Japanese k have a much stronger appreciation of handmade and I've tried to work out why. Schooling is very rigorous in Japan, so studying something deeply comes easily. Also, there's an appreciation of heritage." Yet, in both Japan and America, there is enduring respect for Britain's handmade culture.

Crafts depend on skills being passed from person to person. As Greenlees of the Crafts Council points out, if primary and secondary schoolchildren are not introduced to craft, they won't be aware they can do those jobs, leading higher-education courses to close. In tailoring, though, there appears to be less shortage of interest than opportunity. "The tailoring course at Newham College is oversubscribed three or four times but there are only five or six job vacancies in London each year," says Everest. "It takes time to train good people. But lots of young people are interested and they're looking for a craft, an apprenticeship and a lifestyle, not just a job." Greenlees observes that because so many young people haven't had the opportunity of making something, because it is so different from the virtual worlds of computer games and Facebook, craft and DIY are now seen as cool.

The passing on of traditional skills also preoccupies Douglas Cordeaux, managing director of Fox Brothers, a Somerset-based supplier of flannel to Timothy Everest. Cordeaux invested in the business, with neighbour Deborah Meaden (of Dragons' Den fame), two years ago. "When I walked through the door, I was taken aback by the sound of looms running in this country. It's not something you expect and I fell in love with the noise of making things." Since then, Fox Brothers has thrived and is receiving two new looms in June, the first since the 1970s. "Our business supports everyone from the sheep farmer who looks after the countryside to the spinner and finisher," says Cordeaux. He recruits locally and offers more rounded positions but the skills – such as "drawing" the end of every roll of cloth – are handed from generation to generation.

The money that Everest's customers spend, then, trickles from the City to less privileged regions. Everest buys cloth from Fox Brothers, Fox Brothers buys spun wool from Gledhills – "inspirational, optimistic and passionate", says Cordeaux – in Lancashire and Fox's woven cloth is sent to Huddersfield for processing.

Of course, it is fanciful to think that individual artisans and boutique products are the answer to unemployment and the off-shoring of jobs. A tailor, a bike-builder, a weaver and a furniture maker are no substitute for mills and factories: as well as it is doing, Fox Brothers this month took on just its 22nd employee. But crafts do perform an underrated function: they can build and bind communities, whether they're the virtual connections between Etsy's makers and shoppers, or the supply chains providing British wool for Everest, British wood for Ross or British steel for Warmerdam. The result: a healthy local economy that retains money, has a stronger immune system and is less vulnerable to global fluctuations in labour and currencies.

The return of the artisan may also challenge consumers to think about that most indulgent of topics: provenance. Optimists see the culture of disposability and conspicuous consumption on the back foot: "With time, I think, people will buy less and buy better," says Everest. "People bring their suits back to be refurbished and apologise for wearing the same suit for 20 years. But there's nothing wrong with that." Cherished handmade possessions can be repaired and reused, gathering memories and meaning during their lifespan. Cordeaux agrees: "People are becoming more discerning. Things have been falsely priced and we've become accustomed to paying next to nothing. Now, with prices going up, people are thinking about investing in clothes."

The relationship between job losses, super-cheap prices and globalisation is self-evident; it's probably best not to wonder how a pair of jeans can sell for £7. As American academic, farmer and writer Wendell Berry asks: "We are going to have to come up with competent, practical, at-home answers to the humblest human questions: How should we live? How should we keep house? How should we provide ourselves with food, clothing, shelter, heat, light, learning, amusement, rest? How, in short, ought we to use the world?"

Some cities across the world are finding the answer in supporting local production, which encourages more diverse high streets. The organisations Made in NYC and SFMade promote small-scale producers on either side of the US. In Melbourne you can buy jeans made by Nobody in a former laundry off Brunswick Street, carry your MacBook in a bag assembled in Mattt's Gertrude Street studio and wear a beanie woven by Uimi in Clifton Hill.

Back at Dunhurst, the children are discussing ideas with classmates and developing skills, judgement and reasoning. "Making a couple of bookends doesn't cut the mustard today," says workshop teacher Richard Niece. "Craft has to compete with not just a mobile phone now, but music, video and games." It's a competition in which, in the wider economy, craft is fighting back.

The Collect 2011 exhibition of contemporary craft is at the Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, until tomorrow (

The growing pains of Etsy

“We had no idea what we were doing at the start and no preconceived notions of how to do it,” says Matt Stinchcomb, European director of the online crafts site Etsy, on the company’s early years. “And that was no bad thing.”

By the summer of 2005, Etsy’s founder RobKalin, now 30, had dropped out of several college courses before graduating from New York University with a degree in Classics. He found himself living in a Brooklyn apartment and making furniture but unable to sell his work. And so Etsy was born: an online marketplace from which sellers could offer art, craft and vintage items - everything from cutesy sock monkeys to Kiva Ford’s miniature glassware - from their own “shops”.

With two computer programming friends, Kalin developed the site, attracting investment from past clients. Kalin has said that business angels invest in people and products not business plans, but Etsy’s elevator pitch clearly pressed the right buttons. Unlike advertising-based start-ups such as Twitter, Etsy has always had a clear source of revenue in its sellers, who pay a small fee per item listed and 3.5 per cent of the sale. It was apparent early on that the idea was going to fly. Just how high may have surprised some: each month Etsy publishes its site statistics. In March 2011, it reported $39.7m in sales, up 77 per cent on March 2010. A billion pages were viewed and almost seven million products listed. The site’s most recent valuation was $300m - and that was almost a year ago.

Not only was Etsy swiftly profitable, it also grew internationally. Today, it supports 22 currencies. And a lot of the issues Etsy’s sellers – overwhelmingly women – have to deal with now mirror those of the wider economy: how best to deal with cheaper foreign competition, for example. Etsy sellers who do well also face another quandary: items in the handmade category have to be made by the seller, so there’s a point where some successful sellers may need to move on. The issue of how to spot those who play the system – plus those selling knockoffs, and reselling the work of others – exercises the community considerably.

Kalin himself, described as infuriating and inscrutable in a recent Inc.magazine profile, has drawn flak from some Etsy members. He relinquished the position of chief executive to Maria Thomas in 2008, only to persuade Etsy’s board to return him to the top spot in late 2009.

So what next for Etsy? “We’re jumping with both feet into social commerce [selling through recommendations], which is distinct from traditional topdown e-commerce,” says Stinchcomb. “We have to keep evolving.”

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