When did craft get middle class?

posted in: Our Thoughts 0

Class. Does it still exist? Does it matter? Does it affect anything? Grayson Perry did a whole, fascinating series on it, ‘All in the best possible Taste’, upshot of which, I think, was that class definitions are not static and they shift depending on who you are and where you are in the scale.

All these definitions do still exist though, they haven’t disappeared. And they mean different things to each of us: working class, middle class, chav, posh, upper middle class, underclass, socio-economic group, poverty, educated, skilled, unskilled, toff, scroat, pink class (that was a new one to me, thanks Laura Brown, who I’ll tell you about in a minute) normal people, landed gentry, royal.

I’d suggest they all have an effect on how we see ourselves, place ourselves in the strata of society and also on how other people judge us. And that in turn has an effect on what we feel comfortable doing, what we think we’re allowed to do and think, as well as what other people will allow us to do.

And that means some people feel like craft is not for them.

Handmade things are enjoying a massive boom at the moment, perhaps as a rejection of damaging fast fashion. People get it now, that workshops and learning craft skills are beneficial for relaxation and mental health, and discerning shoppers are bothered about quality and what things are made from, and individual makers and artisans have an advantage of being able to make things properly to last and tell them the source of their materials.

I do wonder though, if in elevating craft processes and handmade objects, we’ve earnt due respect for maker’s skills, but we’ve taken these processes away from the normal, working people in the past who made things without a second thought, in their everyday lives. And that is why the question keeps going round my head, if and when craft got middle class. And does it matter?

I’m in the slightly unsettling, but not unusual position, of having feet in several different class camps, having come from a working class background but the first generation in our family to go to Uni. I can’t help thinking about it in relation to what I do every day: making things. Especially making jewellery which is very imbued with class associations as it has always traditionally been a status symbol, signifying social standing.

My Grandma skillfully knitted jumpers in their council house in York, watching Coronation Street because if she didn’t, as my Mum said “we’d have nothing to wear”. It wasn’t a leisure choice to fill empty time and be more mindful, it was an essential job to make sure her kids were warm. Luckily she enjoyed it. And I’m sure the sense of satisfaction and relaxation it fostered was very welcome. But it felt like a very normal, practical thing to do. And it was affordable; cheaper to make the jumpers than buy them new.

Similarly, my Mum made us nice clothes. She enjoyed it, but it was a way for us to have decent things to wear without having to spend money we didn’t have. I remember her making me and my best friend Liz split skirts (SPLITS! So cool) when we were about 11 for the school disco. She just ran them up in an hour or so, and Liz was really impressed, but I was a bit bemused, it was completely normal for me.

Does it matter though that things have changed? Am I just taking part in the very predictable, middle-aged pastime of looking back with rosy spectacles? Maybe a bit. But I do think it matters, as I think there’s a whole large section of society that is being shut out of, or are shutting themselves out of, the benefits we people who do make know can be got from craft. Never mind the potentially satisfying and well-paid creative jobs. And what about the kids in less affluent area who don’t get to go to after school clubs, can’t access materials at home and aren’t getting chance to have a go and see if they like making things or not.

The Crafts Council are on to this, having commissioned several reports about who is accessing craft skills and working in the creative industries sector. Their Make Your Future project was devised to counteract the lack of craft skills being taught in schools, especially in deprived areas of the UK. I was supposed to be part of the project, involved in teaching workshops to secondary school pupils in Cornwall last year, but as with a lot of things it was scuppered by the pandemic. It’s such a shame as it was a well-planned, well-intentioned and funded project, offering skills to kids who won’t often get chance to have a go at them: it was something I really believed was worth doing.

They’re trying to make up for it with online workshops, to encourage teachers to get craft into the classroom, which I hope will work well. And this weekend coming, their Hey Craft workshops are trying to get craft workshops accessible to everyone, with their Everday Making project.

Makers Cornwall are offering some cool workshops here: https://makerscornwall.co.uk/2021/05/09/free-online-workshops-with-the-crafts-coucils-hey-craft-weekend/ Just click on the zoom links at the times on the list and just join in! They’re free and the materials are things you’d have at home, or very cheap and accessible.

After a discussion about all this on Instagram, I asked the very lovely, talented jeweller Laura Brown (https://elbybrown.co.uk/) for a chat on this subject as I think she’s coming at it from a similar place to me. But she also had some really interesting, surprising perspectives I hadn’t thought of. Especially as she studied sociology at University ( I did Communication Studies). Unsurprisingly we’re both self-taught in jewellery-making, more of that next week…

As you can imagine, we soon realised this was a massive question and a very large, slightly thorny issue that takes a lot of talking about. I’m going to share the gist of the conversation we had on here next week but having talked to my Mum about it too, this may well lead on to a series…. watch this space!

In the meantime, it’d be great to hear anybody else’s experiences or memories about craft in a working class context, or problems accessing craft education and employment…I think it’s really interesting to talk about it and good to see what other people think.

Thanks for reading this far!