A frivolous pastime?

Today, for one reason and another (I’ll spare you the details), I have been wondering whether all the time and energy that so many of us put into the creative crafts is well spent. In particular, I have been thinking about the place of countryside crafts in environmental education.

I do understand that, by many, crafts are considered the preserve of ladies of a certain age with plenty of money and time on their hands. To a certain extent this is true… just as everyone who goes fishing is a working class man and all football fans are young blokes who drink lager. Perhaps I am just being defensive about an activity that I love, but I genuinely do see craft (countryside or otherwise) as a valuable way to spend my time.

Demonstrating the qualities of the wool of different sheep breeds on a felt making course

Demonstrating the qualities of the wool of different sheep breeds on a felt making course

At Denmark Farm we run a whole range of courses at a whole range of levels: from felting for beginners to Phase 1 Survey for professional ecologists; from basketry to bat identification; from food growing to field survey techniques. We train all sorts of people to do all sorts of things, but I would be hard pressed to rank our educational activities in order of importance. A stool-making course does not train someone in woodland management, but by having consumers who demand locally produced wood for furniture-making, we are developing a ‘market’ that might lead to the preservation, or indeed planting, of more woods. Our felting courses emphasise the value of using British wools and understanding the qualities of the wool of different breeds of sheep. Since different species and breeds of livestock deliver different conservation outcomes because of, for example, grazing preference, bite site and hoofprint size, the availability of a variety of animals is key in delivering a range of biodiversity objectives.

In addition, simply engaging individuals with activities that link them to the value of the countryside and associated natural resources is important. Sadly, many of us are distanced from the natural world and never realise the connections between it and, for example, our food production. Recently, the impact of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees has been in the news. Such insecticides, their manufacturers claim, are good for agricultural production. However, we now know of their devastating impact on pollinating insects and the knock-on effect of this on crops has severe implications for the production of food plants that rely on insect pollinators. By drawing people into the countryside in which all these interactions take place, we can introduce them to the issues and engender an interest and understanding. It is hard to feel invested in a system if you are completely disconnected from it.

Creating something useful

Creating something useful

Furthermore, by offering training in crafts, we build resilient communities in which individuals have the ability to deliver some of their own needs – whether that is producing charcoal, making clothes, encouraging pollinators by building a bee house or, even, earning a living. Encouraging creativity is valuable in itself. Once you know you can make a basket, what else might you be encouraged to try? Creating is a powerful activity and one thing can certainly lead to another. If we are always spoon-fed – with our food coming in a plastic package and our clothes on a hanger – we may never explore our potential to take control of the goods and products we rely on.

My experience of craft classes is that they are remarkably co-operative. Participants help each other, find shared experiences, make friendships and take new ideas forward. Sometimes the outcome is as simple as increased confidence and support, sometimes it’s the formation of a new community or a group project. It may even be something more dynamic – the phenomenon of craftivism is growing and can make powerful political statements as well delivering all sorts of practical benefits.

And finally, I cannot help but feel that the world is a better place with beautifully made things in it: items made with care and love, to be treasured and not simply discarded on a whim.

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  1. The arguments don’t come much more sound than that. Well put.
    xxx Hugs Galore xxx

  2. I agree with all of this. Add to it the importance of keeping skills alive in an age which does not value skill with the hands and knowledge of how things could/should be done. I would rather buy a basket made by hand than by machine. I would rather buy hand knits than machine knits. I would rather buy a homemade cake than a shop cake. The skill to make all of these things is kept alive by crafters. I vote for craft with my purchasing power. More power to us!

  3. Well said! And these arguments must be made, despite that most agree … which is the hope of some sanity in the insanity of consumptive culture. Also … do you feel made so crazy you’ve gone sane? (Grin)

  4. Knitting, crocheting, spinning, sewing, gardening and whatnot are not crafts… they’re post-apocalyptic survival skills. ^_^

    But seriously, I don’t care if I spend my time poking holes in paper in random patterns… even if it doesn’t produce a damned thing, doesn’t make “art”, and I burn the paper afterwards because I like the smell of burning paper. So long as I’m enjoying myself and not hurting anybody, it’s good for my mind and soul, and therefore good for me. Honestly, I’m not going do defend anything I do to anyone because it’s none of their business what I spend my time doing so long as it’s not hurting them.

    FWIW, I don’t actually do that… it was an example, someone told me I may as well be doing that when they found out I made collages. I said the same thing. “What do you care what I do with my time? It’s not hurting anyone, and I’m happy doing it. So [expletive deleted] off.”

    • When society collapses, I know I’d rather be hanging out with the folks who have learnt how to make things! And, as you say, in the mean time, being creative to nurture body and soul seems like something only to be encouraged.

  5. Mara

     /  July 12, 2014

    beautifully put – totally agree with every word Jan. Just wish we were all able to express this to a certain person yesterday – hey ho xxx

    • Oh, I can always think of eloquent responses hours after I needed them! In life, though, I try to regard challenges to my way of thinking as an opportunity to examine things that I, perhaps, take for granted. Sometimes, examining our beliefs is good for us!

  6. Absolutely agree with you and all the comments. I make things and learn new skills because I enjoy them, and if ordinary people couldn’t make things ultimately we all become reliant on big business, their profits and never mind the working conditions of their labour force, or robots. When I give the things I make to my family I am giving something completely unique and lots of love.

  7. Resilience, resilience, resilience. I can’t say it enough! Even if you never make whatever it is that you’ve made ever again, at least you know that you can.

    I love how wscottling phrased it above – ”Knitting, crocheting, spinning, sewing, gardening and whatnot are not crafts… they’re post-apocalyptic survival skills. ^_^ ”

  8. Totally agree! Don’t know what the local bee keepers think of the fact that I will be keeping bees in a willow skep next year? Everyone who has seen it though thinks it was a shame to cover it in clay! In the circles I move in there are very few who would contest the value of crafts to ourselves and the community in which we live.

    Are you regularly questioned on the value of this or is it only a perceived challenge? And did your spell checker choke on, “craftivism?”

    • In fact, I am rarely questioned about such things, because my usual circle of friends all tend to be creative and value the creativity of others. However, when I do interact with people from other spheres, it rather surprises me the contempt with which crafts are sometimes regarded. It’s not going to stop me, nor is it going to stop me supporting other creative people, I just have to remind myself that the attitude exists.

  9. I think that making connections with what we use and eat is a desirable and necessary antidote to consumer culture. The so called developed world would be in a much better state if people used more of what they had made and ate more of what they had grown.

  10. Knowledge is power. Being able to take that knowledge and apply it to our lives is power magnified to the nth degree. Crafts might be seen as “pastimes” at the moment but knowing how to make a basket, weave and spin and knit something into a jumper from the sheep’s (or whatever you have available… dog anyone?) back, or which weeds to forage or how to make a simple table out of logs might just be a whole lot more important in our future than we realise. Learning and passing on ways that we can do things ourselves is precious. Taking our lives back from the consumer loop and being able to do some things for ourselves, even growing a few veggies in a container, gives us hope for survival and for simple satisfaction that FAR outweighs the act. I get the feeling that someone questioned the value of those craft classes…we also need to remember the community that is forged when 2 or more people get together and create something. SO much more than the sum of what you are doing…

  11. I finally managed to take up crochet (I said I’d get round to it!) and I’ve become a little addicted, but I had the same feeling not so long ago about this notion of it being a female craft. And then I found myself thinking that, actually, a skill is a skill. I can’t help but feel that less and less people have a skill or craft that is continuously put to use, from crochet to engineering and everything in between, when not so long ago several skills per household was incredibly commonplace. So to learn something new and excel at it can only be another string to the bow. After all, you never stop learning.


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