Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Why we need guerrilla craft

Craft has political roots that run deep. Now, in an age of climate change, craft – or the act of making rather than unquestioningly buying into the consumer treadmill – is taking on a particular political significance.

it was the human-scale of craft that inspired the Art and Crafts movement towards the end of the 19th Century. The social reforms set out by people like John Ruskin and William Morris saw a return to handcraft as the means for restoring individuality and quality into the work process, destroyed by the industrial revolution.

Craft hasn’t only inspired reformers, it has also inspired revolutionaries. India’s independence movement did not have a weapon as its symbol, but craft – the charkha (spinning wheel).

And in the UK, we don’t need to look too far into the past to begin to unearth the importance of craft. The ‘make-do and mend’ ethos in response to the shortages of the second world war played a major role in reducing consumption.

Recycling old clothes, unpicking the wool from pullovers to darn socks became second nature in many homes. Ask almost anyone, and a memory of craft of some description will play a significant role in family folklore.

From my mother sitting by the fire with my grandmother on cold winter evenings learning to make rag rugs, to my friend Judith’s memory of the excitement she felt choosing fabric with her sister for their annual party dresses. Memories of craft are generally warm and happy ones.

But craft has recently regained its ‘cool’. There are craft-inspired club night around London. Radical reformers in the world of knitting and lace-making have already overthrown the status quo, providing a model that other crafts can follow. Knitting clubs meet in cities from San Francisco to Stockholm.

There is even a group of activists that stage knit-ins in the London underground.

Artist and ‘radical knitter’ Shane Waltener clearly expresses the political edge implicit in contemporary craft: “On the one hand, I am celebrating this tradition that I really believe in. On the other, its about self-sufficiency. By knitting you are resisting capitalism and consumerism. You are not responding to the fashion industry; you are making your own decisions.”

The practice of craft has many of the characteristics that the science of well-being tells us has the greatest influence on our happiness. Craft tends to be communal, it involves learning and sharing new skills – or flourishing.

And, according to Karl Marx, craft – alongside music and art (arguably both crafts in themselves) – are the only forms of labour that allow people to truly be themselves. In an ideal world, says Karl Marx, “Our product would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.”

Today, as companies look to technical fixes as ways to sell us more stuff in the name of combating climate change, perhaps part of the real answer lies in returning to our crafty roots and rediscovering our ability not just ‘make do and mend’, but make for the pleasure of making.

Craft is also displaying an activist edge. In Manchester, the graphic collective UHC celebrated their fifth birthday by indulging in a little light guerrilla craft.

Incensed by the invasion of Manchester’s public space by adverts, UHC took crafty action. Constructing carefully woven white shrouds, UHC shielded Manchester’s public space from un-needed, unwanted advertising hoardings.

On each shroud, the roots of a tall oak tree bear the legend ‘trees breathe, adverts suck’. As we try to find our way in a warming world, if the future is crafty we may well find that we can live good live without costing the earth, and even have a little fun along the way.

Ruth Potts