Editorial: Craft, Teaching, and Knowledge

by guest editor Kate Devine

How is it that we come to know something or more particularly, how to do something? We may imbibe the words of others, learn by watching a skilled example, learn through our own trial and error, or discover something within ourselves. How then, do we pass on that knowledge? Through stories, through instruction, through play? It can be hard to teach something ‘you just know’. 

This issue explores the relationship between craft and knowledge and the many forms that pairing can take. Some powerful themes thread through and connect these articles in unexpected ways. The theme of identity is persistent, be that in the form of self knowledge, community identity or connections to place and history. So too, a focus on making by hand is at the fore; the importance of process, and how the act of making (or indeed unmaking) manifests in a finished piece of work.

Charlotte Duckworth’s reflections on her teaching practice explore the hurdles and complexities of teaching a craft that is embodied and instinctive, of finding the words to describe tacit skills to the novice maker, and of supporting students to achieve something they feel proud of. She emphasises the importance of touch, of learning when to be gentle, and when to be firm, and the experience and confidence needed to know the difference.

Lily Stone takes the experience of touch into the realms of the philosophical. Her practical workshops subvert our oculocentric tendencies and ask the question: what is the quality of a knowledge gained through touch alone? She highlights how difficult it can be for sighted people to intuit the world through touch, to surrender to a use of touch that doesn’t seek to mimic sight, but is its own rich and complete way of knowing.

The importance of making, and of making by hand is also at the forefront for a number of other writers. Meghna Menon’s practice interrogates throw-away fashion. She gets to know her items of clothing from end to beginning, using unraveling as a method of learning about the garment, and making as a way of seeing them anew, of questioning and understanding their value in the context of fast fashion. While academics Jade Lord and Elinor Sykes are concerned with making from scratch in their piece on home-made knitting machines. They reflect on the struggles of teaching a practical skill on a digital platform, and on the joys of getting to the complex through the simple: in order to understand the industrial knitting machine, you can start with just some popsicle sticks, sellotape, and off-cuts.

For Jodie Adams and Emily Stone, hand-making was not only a decision of efficiency but one of aesthetics, and deep meaning. For their historical walking tour and zine project, they drew on the rich history of hand-making in radical politics to produce a digital zine that was, at its heart, part of a long lineage of cut and paste activism. For them, a sense of place was paramount as the walking tour sought to tell the story of a community coming together and fighting back.

This significance of place and the interactions between personal identity and location are crucial also to Niluppa Yasmin’s work. Charlotte Russell describes how Yasmin’s artistic practice expresses both her own roots and also connects her to the places in which she creates, and the communities in those places, from Birmingham or Brixton. For Yasmin, the act of weaving is a means to an end and an end in itself. The mats she creates are woven with images of the places in which they were made, and the act of weaving them speaks to the historic communities that have grown up around the textile industry. 

This emphasis on community and on the sharing of skills between women particularly, is taken up in both Jodie Edwards’ and Tabitha Ross’ articles. Edwards explores the importance and power of inherited craft skills in the quilts of the Gee’s Bend. She highlights how craft knowledge is gained through a process of inheritance and informal exchange of skills among women, an activity that extends beyond the craft itself into the atmosphere of sharing and communing that has grown-up around the ‘quiltings’. 

Finally, Ross’s piece speaks to the contemporary context, drawing from her involvement with Sabbara, an organization that works with displaced women from Syria and Palestine making traditional embroidery. The rich history of embroidery in those areas is both a source of pride and income, as well as a link to home. The women support themselves through their craft knowledge and teach others, an activity that also helps them to retain a sense of identity and a connection to their roots in a context of extreme instability.

Bio: Kate Devine is a PhD researcher, writer and curator. Her research explores the role and significance of craft in the context of ‘high’ art. https://www.katedevine.com/

Image credit: Tabitha Ross and Itab Azzam, Sabbara