Where has the craft gone?

Paul Woodward
2016-01-08 15:01

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Where has the craft gone?

I am lucky enough to remember a time before design and technology, even before craft, design and technology to a time when we simply studied woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing….and by lucky I mean privileged as opposed to thankful my memory still works. Computers were still in their infancy and workshops were populated with saws, lathes and brazing hearths: even plastic was still considered a relatively new material!

Now before you all reach for those ‘I remember when it was all fields’ comments hear me out, especially those of you too young to know of anything before the current design and technology curriculum.

In those days we made stuff. Yes, there was an element of design as there always has been but my happiest memories are of hazy summer afternoons watching Mr Ackroyd puffing away on a pipe while the smoke drifted through the workshop and the wood dust filled the air. Apparently extractors were not necessary back then…and smoking was fine. An hour long lesson was never enough to complete any substantial task yet for someone like me who loved practical work more than anything, that hour was magical. Not because I wasn’t writing lengthy essays or running cross country in the snow.  It was because, even as a youngster, I appreciated the importance of crafting something; I took a piece of wood or metal and, with my own two hands some tools and no technician, crafted that material into an object. Admittedly many of these projects were spice racks, pot stands and, dare I say it, planished copper ashtrays for father’s day!! Yes the projects were often as dull as dishwater and wouldn’t even make a jumble sale nowadays but somewhere in there, presuming you weren’t simply using the time to construct rubber band guns to shoot your friends, was craft.

What is this ‘craft’ I speak of?

Simply put (thanks Wikipedia) a craft is a pastime or a profession that requires particular skills and knowledge of skilled work.

I refer to the idea of taking a material and by use of your hands, a few simple tools and a little design work, crafting it into an object of beauty. Now it may not have the precision of a laser cut piece of wood or the design elegance of an acrylic MP3 dock but it has something else: a little part of the maker in it…often blood!

In my formative years I derided the Arts and Crafts movement for their ornate wallpapers and opulent furnishings but I have since come to applaud their ethos; that the maker puts a little piece of their soul into everything they make and that is what makes it special.

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Where has the craft gone?

If you don’t believe me check your parent’s basement or attic. If they are the nostalgic sort they will have likely kept everything you made, or crafted, through school yet they have probably thrown away every mass produced plastic toy you ever owned. That is the difference between a crafted object and a mass produced object; one is unique and individual and for that reason it increases in value to its owner.

My craft ‘renaissance’ was further fuelled recently by the rediscovery of educational sloyd which was, and still is, the Scandinavian approach to crafting: that it should be an important and integral aspect of the school day just as PE is nowadays. It was no surprise to discover that this was the basis of post war secondary education in the UK; the very same education system I grew up in and remember so fondly.

I have come full circle in many ways. After years of chasing the latest technology I have rediscovered the simple enjoyment of crafting an object without the need for a lengthy design process.   

So, let’s give craft another chance. Not instead of modern design and technology but in addition to it and in a way that enhances the whole design experience for students. If you haven’t done so already, craft something then pass that enthusiasm and skill on to the children. Just power down the laptops, 3D printers, CNC routers and laser cutters for a moment. Admire the timeless beauty of real wood; how each piece is different and how its imperfections actually give it character. Perhaps it will be the liquid beauty of molten metal or the tactile quality of felt and material or simply use paper and pen. Don’t worry about what the end product looks like or if it could have been made better on a machine. Simply enjoy the crafting process and see the outcome as nothing more than a memento of the experience. You might feel a whole lot better for doing it and who knows where it might lead.

For the record, I am an avid follower of technology rather than the technophobe I may appear from the text above. In my next blog, presuming they let me write any more, I will take a look at DT from technologies point of view.


Paul Woodward has been a teacher of DT for 22 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of Faculty, qualified to MA level and an examiner and moderator of Resistant Materials for the AQA.