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Craft, Expertise and Value

Now that my UKRI/RCUK Innovation Fellowship, Craft Expertise (short name) is off the ground and the first round of interviews and ethnography have been completed, I’m able to share some initial thoughts.

First a quick recap – this project is in collaboration with Crafts Council UK and aims to support greater diversity in the UK craft economy. It follows on from my initial postdoctoral project with the Crafts Council which explored the potential role of social media for supporting diversity in craft. The current project seeks to build on the practical and intellectual contributions of the initial project.

A clear theme emerging from my first 15 interviews with women makers of colour is how their craft is valued. I’ve interviewed women who are relatively well established, as well as women taking part in jewellery beginner courses with a view to potentially starting a small craft business in their community. These are seemingly two opposing ends of the craft practice spectrum, thus the way in which crafts are valued in this context manifests in two different ways. First, in the case of the women who are relatively well established, there is a sense that they have had to work very hard to get their expertise recognised, if it has been recognised at all. In my PhD (to be released as a book next year) I argue that while it is important for cultural workers to be able to signal their expertise, it is imperative that their expertise be recognised an legitimated as such. Only then can they work towards establishing themselves. The problem is, what if entrenched structures mean that your expertise can’t be recognised? Furthermore, what is the point of signalling expertise if cultural leaders and decision makers cannot, or do not want, to see you?

This idea of expertise being dismissed is in evidence among the interviews I have done with the established makers. In many cases their presence at certain makerspaces, or at craft events, has been questioned because of their ethnicity. Some have even been asked if they were there to “tick a box”. Such experiences are discussed in the first episode of the Maker Stories podcast series produced as part of this project, in which I interview London-based designer-maker Jasmine Carey. Many of the women working in craft professionally have been through higher education and developed a level of expertise in their craft. Yet their experiences in a predominantly white, middle class sector are shaped because of the colour of their skin. Their craft expertise is not recognised as expertise, instead they are made to fight for recognition, made to feel as if they don’t belong, or dismissed as a ‘token’, a result of diversity policies which as Sara Ahmed has shown, merely pay lip service and do little to address inequalities.

On the other hand, the women I have been interviewing who took part in a jewellery making course were predominantly migrants from Bangladesh or Pakistan, who live in Birmingham. They fundamentally think of craft as an important practice for wellbeing, mental health and socialising, as well as a useful skill. The free courses enable them to see craft practice as a potential way to make money from small scale enterprise. Primarily for them, craft is a practical skill akin to cooking and cleaning, but with much more potential for self-fulfilment. In this sense the cultural perceptions of craft come into play, whereby the domestic connotations of certain crafts mean that they are not commonly seen as a suitable career choice, as discussed in my report from the previous project.

While perspectives slightly differ across the two participant groups, the commonality is that the valuing of craft is gendered, racialised and arguably, classed. The work on cultural value by Kate Oakley and Dave O’Brien suggests a link between cultural value and inequality, whereby “specific types of cultural consumption are intertwined with who is able to succeed in cultural production” (2015:3). As professional craft in global north contexts has traditionally been associated with white men (because they made up the majority of the membership of craft guilds), women, and especially women of colour, do not inhabit the long-standing norms of this space. Thus, their ability to develop their craft expertise and get it recognised, is made all the more difficult because of these entrenched assumptions about what a craftsman entails. This is evidenced by the fact that according to Crafts Council UK figures, the majority of those working in secure, full-time craft work are white men. These structural issues are compounded by long-standing perceptions of certain types of craft as amateur, domestic and not a viable career choice.

I have more analysis to do on this and my interviews and ethnography will continue into the new year, where I hope to learn more about individual experiences in craft. With participants, collaborators and through further research I hope we can work towards addressing how the craft expertise of minority groups is framed and valued.

New project – Supporting diversity and expertise development in the contemporary craft economy

As of March 1st I began my new AHRC Leadership Fellows project, continuing my collaboration with Crafts Council UK. The project seeks to develop an empirical and theoretical account of the nature of craft expertise among primarily black and minority ethnic (BAME) women in the UK.

As I have detailed in this blog over the past few years, I have been interested in the nature of expertise in creation, or aesthetic expertise – which I understand as a knowledge of aesthetic codes and classifications, and skill in appropriating that knowledge to produce a work of aesthetic value. I argue that the notion of aesthetic expertise can help us to re-conceptualise and re-imagine what expertise is in cultural work. In turn, I hope this could potentially help to address issues of inequalities and lack of diversity in the sector, because it can help us to understand forms of aesthetic expertise taking place in spaces not traditionally considered ‘creative’ – for example, the domestic space. Indeed craft is often associated with domestic, feminised, ‘amateur’ pursuits. Furthermore, in this ‘post-Etsy’, maker movement-inspired surge in craft practice and enterprise, online spaces tend to be dominated by white, middle-class, western makers and aesthetics. The recent race row in the knitting community as documented on Instagram illustrates the underlying assumptions about who gets to freely position themselves as a potentially ‘expert’ maker, able to make a living from their work. The result is a contemporary craft sector which is not diverse, yet craft practice has been taking place within communities around the world for generations. For some, it is as routine as cooking or cleaning.

Because of craft’s traditionally domestic location among BAME families, it is almost inconceivable that one could forge a career out of making, because it does not represent a secure or prestigious job. Many of the women I have spoken to in my previous research with Crafts Council UK indicate that their parents encouraged them to study law, accounting or medicine instead. The perception of craft within certain communities as a feminised, precarious and primarily domestic pursuit is at odds with the idea of the ‘expert’ – a traditionally masculinised, privileged and powerful figure. How can the idea of the ‘expert’ be claimed (or reclaimed?) in craft? Could the (re)claiming of expertise among women makers of colour – the idea that their work involves practical skills which produce work of aesthetic value – help to address issues around the visibility of diverse crafts and makers? These are the questions directing my thinking throughout this project.

In a practical sense I will be working with Crafts Council UK to produce social media resources for makers, podcasts and policy recommendations. I will be interviewing makers from all over the UK and carrying out ethnography at various maker spaces. I’m looking forward to engaging with more makers over the next two years and hearing about their stories and expertise.