Thoughts on craft: the problem with hierarchies

I’ve been following with some interest the relatively new blog craft research. According to its own description,

Craft Research is the blog for the Craft Research team at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee, UK. The team is conducting a major research project funded by the Art and Humanties Research Council entitled “Past, Present & Future Craft Practice: exploration of the inter-relation between skill, intent and culture”. This blog serves both as a networking device for team members, and as a means of exploring ideas as they evolve with a wider audience.

Throughout its three-month history, its contributors have been discussing definitions of craft. For example, Liz Donald writes,

I was interested to read that in Australia craft of exceptional quality of workmanship, uniquene and refined, and show a degree of problem solving, creative intellegence and innovation, is classed as ‘Art Craft’. In the USA the same criteria is used to but called ‘Fine Craft’. In the UK I have found no distinction in the crafts. Everything is lumped together. What do you think?

I’ve been thinking about definitions of craft quite a bit lately, which might seem a bit odd for an academic whose current project is on the history of science. My next project, however, will be focused on hobbies and crafts. And I do see some connections between women’s place in the sciences and women’s craft work.

A recent post written by the project’s principal investigator, Georgina, both piqued my interest and raised my hackles. An excerpt:

Time to move on. The practice of crafts, and the arena in which crafts operate has changed, not is changing. We have to see a future, so, what aspect of craft practice? Can we move into a new paradigm? I suggest that we start to look at the intellectual basis, seeing the thinking process, not the happy clappy hands that everyone keeps referring to, (i.e. make it but don’t think about it, or the home therapy session), is not what is meant by a system of thought that moves through the processes and materials, using each and every aspect of making as additive to practice. Until this is accepted as the boundary for fine crafts you are lost in icing sugar! Sweet, synthetic and too much makes you sick!

She concludes with an invitation for engagement with this “intellectual basis,” and says “I will respond with works that I can identify as fine crafts.”

I understand that within any study, the researchers need to define their area of study. Otherwise, the project’s scope can become too large to address in a single article or book. That said, an attempt to define “fine craft” seems especially risky and high-stakes.

photo by Michael and Felicity

Part of the problem with defining an object as “fine craft” or “art” is that the object may be defined as merely everyday handiwork in one decade may be praised as art or fine craft in the next. Take, for example, the the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The quilts and the African-American women who created them were “discovered” by the U.S. art establishment earlier this decade and exhibited at the Whitney Museum and elsewhere. Since then, the quilts have been celebrated in a book and their designs licensed for use in rugs.

Another problem with Georgina’s desire to focus on the intellectual effort of craft comes from the fact that poor African-American women in the South have not usually been associated with intellectual practice. Segments on NPR and PBS reveal that these women do think about their aesthetic choices and see their quilts as individual creative achievements. But outsiders have not always recognized their quilts as such.

It’s easy, I think, to look at much of the production on Craftster, Etsy, and whip up as amateurish and, to borrow Georgina’s phrase, “happy clappy.” But it’s not always clear what separates the most original and technically accomplished (again, both value judgments) work on these sites from “professional” work featured on, for example, design*sponge.

The craft-art boundary is increasingly blurred, and I think that’s a good thing, especially for women. I worry that setting up a further hierarchy within craft–by distinguishing some craft as “fine” or “high”–could hurt the thousands upon thousands of women who hope to sell their work and become self-supporting, as then standard-issue craft becomes less valuable (culturally and monetarily) than fine craft.

A similar phenomenon has occurred again and again in the natural sciences in the U.S., where work undertaken by women becomes undervalued or made invisible. In the course of my dissertation work, I’ve learned that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women specimen collectors who sold or donated their collections to museums were not considered to be undertaking scientific work, even though they followed scientific guidelines for preserving their specimens and recording information about them. If they weren’t undertaking original research, they weren’t scientists. Similarly, women who sold seeds or ran nurseries were not recognized as scientists even if they hybridized new species. Women scientists who worked in museums were expected to undertake both outreach to amateurs and laypeople and to conduct original research on the collections, but only their research for a professional audience was considered real scientific work.

In short, narrow definitions of science have kept women from being recognized for work that is indeed scientific and that, if presented in another light, might have brought them some prestige. Instead of being dismissed as a “seedswoman” or “nurserywoman,” for example, a woman who hybridized plants would earn more acclaim if we called her a “biotech pioneer.”

And that’s why I’m hesitant to embrace a hierarchy of craft. Such a schema makes craft less democratic; it closes off possibilities, economic and social and cultural, for women.

(cross-posted at BlogHer)


  1. Mike Press says:

    This is a very welcome contribution to an important question. I have taken the liberty of reproducing your post on our craftresearch blog with the hope that we can move the discussion forward and address some of the questions that you have raised.

    Greetings from Dundee!

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