Thursday, 31 May 2012

Enterprising spiders and helpful dragons

It’s only on until Tuesday and I’m going to miss it:  the largest textiles in the world to have been woven from spider silk have been on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in recent months but the display ends after the Jubilee weekend.  If anyone’s going to London and manages to fit in seeing these pieces I’d love to hear about it.  Seeing the enterprise and industry that goes into making spiders’ webs around the garden you just can’t imagine the vast effort that went into spinning and collecting the silk to make the textiles in the first place. 

This week’s been all about enterprise and industry in one way or another.  It’s good to see some capital being put behind young potential entrepreneurs through the StartUp scheme:  I’m sure it will help a lot of those young people coming up to graduation from their fashion and textiles courses, wanting (or having no option other than) to plough their individual furrows.  It’s about time there was something official to support them too, since Young Enterprise clubs have been going in schools for donkeys’ years without their being anything really to continue the interest generated at the end of it. 

In an article in The Financial Times this week, former BBC Dragon’s Den panel member James Caan said people participating in the programme wanted mentoring as much as they did capital:  it was the development expertise they apparently desired.   A few weeks ago I wrote about craft being about what you give, not what you get, which is something I firmly believe should hold true in every sound business.  So, being true to myself, I’m delighted to say I’m being joined on the Outward Images stand at Fibre-East by someone setting out in her new venture to provide mentoring and advice to crafters:  Juliet of Planet Handmade, who will be with me on the Saturday (July 14).  So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge into the craft world, come along for a chat. 

I’m also delighted to be joined for the whole weekend by my textile heroine who herself is a kind but potent advisor and businesswoman, inventor of ‘Extreme Knitting’™:  Rachel John.  We’re providing a safe haven for daring and creative knitters and crafters. Any Wool School students are also very welcome: designing your individual garments could be much more fun when you see what we’ve got on display!   

Between my two companions’ expertise and my own spin-doctoring experience, we’ll have our very own ‘Crafters’ Den’ on the stand.  Ours though will be one offering friendship, inspiration and options, rather than competition for capital.  I’m with Ken Hakuta as he reportedly once said:  “Lack of money is no obstacle. Lack of an idea is an obstacle.”  Here’s wishing you a week full of ideas that prove as enticing, extensive and flexible as spiders’ silk.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Putting a price on value

Measuring Worth is one of those all-too-fascinating websites, positively encouraging digression from what you’re doing.  I was trying to find inspiration – or perhaps justification? – for valuing what I make, creating a formula that relies less on subjective worth and more on measurable practicalities.  I wondered if there was any way of comparing the wages of spinners past and present, providing at least a starting point for context.  The craft itself has changed little, though the modern world has added all kinds of posh parameters, like ‘product positioning’ to the sales equation. 

Thumbing through Christopher Dyer’s book, ‘Making a Living in the Middle Ages’, the merchant owner of Paycocke’s (now a National trust property) obviously appreciated the skills of the combers, carders, spinners, weavers and fullers he employed from the local community, leaving each of them a small legacy that Measuring Worth told me would be around £280 today.  Yet the bringing into one ‘supply chain’ of all these different artisans began the process of detaching textile production from the reality of its parts. 

The product which carried the measureable value became the finished cloth, not the individual contributions of the skilled people who produced it.  Despite the efforts of organisations like the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in reviving the cultural value of specialist traditional crafts, that medieval shift in emphasis is at the root of today’s problem of making a decent living in the craft sector.  People by and large don’t understand the technical creation process, so they can’t even guess what the product might be worth. 

Juliet Bernard of Planet Handmade highlighted to me this week the launch of a new  CraftWorks Toolkit, supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  There’s a lot in it to help individual makers get a foothold on the business ladder, and to start putting a value on their products.  Yet to me one of the most telling pages on the CraftWorks website is about the value of craft in communities.  The intangible value of making things seems to offer far greater ‘worth’ to individuals and communities than mere fiscal returns.  

'Making’ fulfills something deep inside ourselves as well a creating a beautiful object, and that feels more like a privilege than an act of pure commerce.  Maybe it’s that  slightly ‘woolly’ good feeling that makes crafters less willing to put a price on what they do.  That others may admire – or even want to own – what you make remains a constant source of fascination.  Here’s wishing you a fulfilling week ahead, full of attractively-woolly good feelings.     

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Inspired weaving - with icing

If I thought using mohair as warp presented a few difficulties on my Knitters’ Loom, I hadn’t reckoned on trying to weave with fondant icing.  I’ve made a few birthday cakes in my time – monsters, Superman, Thomas the Tank Engine to name but a few – but I hadn’t reckoned on the nerve-rackingly extensive possibilities of passing a few sugary coloured warps and wefts by each other. 

With my multi-coloured edible ‘weaving’ trying to escape off the top, it was with trepidation that I presented Jean, our spinning group’s longest-serving member, with her 80th birthday cake at our meeting on Tuesday evening.  It reminded me of  weaving with bamboo yarn – beautiful colours, horrendous elasticity!  Still in both circumstances, I displayed ‘Resilience’ and ‘Results orientation’ – two characteristics common amongst successful business women, according to McKinsey’s recent report ‘Unlocking the full potential of women at work’.

Other characteristics these ‘top women’ exhibit are apparently a ‘Robust Work Ethic’ and ‘Team Leadership’.  Jean is certainly a team-leader, having cajoled our group along for about 30 odd years, and both it and Jean are still, thankfully, going strong.  And none of us spinners would ever get through a whole fleece if we didn’t have a ‘robust work ethic’.  Though these types of report are well meant, they do somewhat irk me.  Forty plus years on from the so-called second wave of the feminist movement, do we still really need reports exploring “barriers to women’s success”? 

Aren’t we actually pretty successful already?  Look at the calibre of people on the Prince's Trust Women's Leadership GroupAren’t we already living by the old maxim that “people take you at your own valuation”  and confidently treading our chosen paths?  The McKinsey report says that where women lead a business organisation: “Diversity of thought thrives, …fuelling creativity and innovation.”  But isn’t that just what women do anyway?  Form an evolutionary viewpoint it comes with the territory: you need to find strategies which enable you and your progeny to survive, so we’re programmed for innovation. 

The Desperate Artwives, featured in the Guardian Women’s Blog on Monday, have been highly innovative in pulling together their forthcoming show.  Many of us will identify with curator, Althea Greenan’s comment that:  "Women's art practice is rich in disruptions, side tracks, blurred boundaries and multiple identities.” Yet sometimes these stresses can play to our advantage.  Desperation can drive serendipitous marriages of unusual materials,  colour combinations, or finishing strokes on a painting. 

Maybe we should embrace what’s around us as we work at our crafts, along with all our messy or abandoned attempts at making something beautiful.  Even going back to basics and taking our craft apart can be refreshing, as those involved in the touring exhibition ‘Raw Craft’ demonstrate.  Whether you’re a writer, a spinner, a jeweler, a painter or a weaver, we can all take inspiration from the familiar things around us and the people we love.  Here’s hoping you can find extraordinary inspiration in every-day life this week. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Collective Meaning

This week’s launch of Collective Spirit, the so-called ‘wood collage boat’ brought home the value of being part of something: the value of belonging.  The many contributors of treasured wooden objects who put their faith in this arts project were clearly delighted to see all of them crafted carefully together to make a whole.

We spinners, weavers, dyers and textile enthusiasts feel a similar kind of community spirit, generated by our shared interests.  But is our love of all things textural hard-wired in our brains?  Caroline Barry, writing in the May/June issue of Selvedge, explores recent research showing that while our brains enjoy pattern, order and regularity, they also crave “stimulation from unevenness within that order”, for example materials with  “more complex texture”.  We're apparently part of a community of like minds whose “detail discrimination” is highly focussed. 

We may be focussed, but happily we’re not shy of sharing our skills and materials, as were the alchemists of old.  The recent discovery of a secret-coded Ripley Scroll, by archivists at the Science Museum preparing for an exhibition of alchemical art, shows how jealously they guarded their knowledge.  Thank goodness we don’t keep our skills to ourselves: we get out there and encourage others to share the joy of fibres and textiles.  The many spinning demonstrators at Fibre-East are just the kind of generous folk I’m referring to.  They give their time to awakening other 'detail-discriminating' brains out there, re-connecting people with their creative selves, and with the fundamental satisfaction gained by making things. 

Collective endeavour and community spirit is what Fibre-East is all about, especially when it comes to the fleece-to-jumper event – taking wool from the sheep’s back to a knitted garment in as short a time as possible.  Last year’s attempt brought together Ravelry friends, spinning group members and willing volunteers like Shiela Dixon of Handspinner.  There will be another attempt at this year’s Fibre-East on Sunday July 15th – come and watch!  Or even better, show your collective spirit and join in!  It will be more intense than getting your wooden treasure included on a floating art project, but the creative buzz that’s generated will certainly compensate.  Here’s wishing you collectively a satisfying week ahead with your making.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Unfinished Business

Sometimes I feel a bit like a deer at the edge of a forest: should I venture out into the open and show my creative secret self to everybody, or should I just slip back into the mist amongst the trees?  The onset of Craft & Design Month has brought these slightly disturbing ripples back to the surface again, reminding me that there’s only about 9 weeks now until I have to emerge from the woods and stand in full view at Fibre-East. 

Brave people like artist Sue Bulmer have not only ventured well out into the open but have documented the experience for everyone in the craft sector to learn from, which is generous indeed.  Her blog is an excellent introduction to exhibiting at the British Craft Trade Fair and is well worth reading if you’re considering going down that route.  I have been thinking about it, but I’m not sure it’s the right venue for me just yet.  The results of my craft making are a far more ‘unfinished business’. 

As a maker of what could kindly be termed ‘artisan’ mega-yarns I’m not exhibiting a finished product in the same way other crafters do.  You’d never ask a jewellery customer to finish off the ring they buy, or an art buyer to finish painting a picture.  But as a spinner, what I make is inherently unfinished, waiting for another creative spark to come along and add their own story ending to my beginning.  My contribution is only half the tale. 

People’s reactions to what I make (when they get over the scale of my yarns) range from wanting instantly to wear it, as a giant necklace or ‘dreds’, to wanting to have it just to hold,  look at and to stroke - changing it into a ‘yarn pet’.  Perhaps the latter ties in with the report ‘Consuming Craft’ (not the most elegant turn of phrase!) prepared for the Crafts Council.  It relates that buyers of craft items are looking for pieces which fulfil “..emotional – as well as functional – needs”.  

To me, it’s good that the kind people who give my yarns a try often don’t know what they’re going to do with them.  I’m not, like a painter or sculptor, being proscriptive by dictating: “ you must display it this way”.  I’m not projecting my vision into the other person’s mind: I’m allowing their inner spirit to take the exploratory journey one stage further.  Maybe one day my yarns will be viewed as pieces of art in their own right, but they will forever be ‘unfinished business’, with potential to blossom in many different ways.

I’m really not fond of the idea that small business owners should be “like Wombles” grabbing things for free, as exhorted by a contributor to the now-open-for-entry National Business Awards. It’s my belief that we should be directing business focus not to what we can get, but what we can give in relation to fulfilling “deep-seated human instincts” and creating “the value of distinctiveness”, as mentioned in the report ‘Crafts in an age of change’. Here’s wishing you a distinctively creative week ahead, packed with rewarding and fulfilling experiences, for yourself - and more importantly, for those you care for.