"In this so-called age of austerity, the luxury sector continues to flourish. What can businesses founded on principles of fine craftsmanship learn from luxury, and how can the handmade be best positioned in an era of more considered consumer spending?"
This was how the debate was introduced on the publicity leaflet issued by the organisers, CRAFTED, a mentoring organisation aimed at encouraging fine craftsmanship. This was the panel:
Guy Salter (Chair) - Deputy Chair, Walpole
Bill Amberg - Creative Director, Bill Amberg (Crafted mentor)
Priscilla Carluccio - Shopkeeper, Few and Far
Michelle Alger - Buying Manager (Home), Liberty
Ndidi Ekubia - Silversmith (Crafted mentee)
(I was a bit disconcerted when I arrived to discover that nearly everyone else in the audience was young - recent graduates from art college. Disconcerted because I am trying to start a craft business now I am retired!)
The debate was opened by Guy Salter, who posed the question of who pays for fine workmanship, and how can we reach them? The buyer from Liberty said that people tend now to concentrate on buying soft furnishings, especially cushions, with Liberty fabrics, some of which are very beautiful.
There is also the question of longevity, and sustainability; one member of the audience mentioned this in relation to textiles and fashion, and I joined the discussion at this point, to refer to the inevitable contradiction between sustainability and fashion. Fashion, by its very nature, is ephemeral - but there is also the nature of Classic Style, clothes which never go totally out of date, and perhaps this resolves the dilemma, and takes us away from throwaway consumerism. Someone else did suggest the idea that of course textiles can be recycled, clothes can be refurbished, the idea of Make do and Mend was discussed. I talked a bit about the items I make, mainly lace scarves and shawls, for which I use either Shetland Wool or Manos del Uruguay, which is a mixture of wool and silk, handspun by a women's co-operative in Uruguay.
I have made a hat and scarf set in the blue mixture illustrated in the above photo. There is also a contradiction embodied in the use of ethically produced, fairly traded yarn, in the amount of air-miles involved in exporting it to the UK. One of the things we need to communicate better is where we source our materials.
The discussion moved to the topic of people's need to make things, and Ndidi Ekubia, the silversmith, said that people have to realise that crafting is not just a hobby. That is to say, it CAN BE a hobby, but everyone at this debate is at least semi-professional. Another speaker from the floor then raised the perennial problem of the idea that "handmade" is perceived to be the same as "home-made", i.e something done in people's leisure time. (One of the panel said that this is not the case in France or Italy, which is interesting).
I again contributed to the discussion at this point, as I am only too aware of this problem, since I sell knitwear!! When people come to my stalls, they seem to realise that a lot of work has gone into the items I am selling, but it still doesn't stop them saying things like, "Can you do me one of those, I'll give you a fiver for it"!!
No-one would make such a request of a furniture maker, jeweller, sculptor, for instance: but somehow people associate textile art and craft with hobbies for their grannies! Which brings us back to the point that we need to raise the PROFESSIONAL profile of craft.
Following on from this, the panel discussed the need for promoting and marketing our products - most of us are good at making things, not so good at promoting them! We all need to develop a greater understanding of how retail works.
I think it ended on a fairly upbeat note, giving all the participants a great deal of food for thought.