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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.

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