Traditional Artisan Skills: Will they disappear for good?

In today’s virtual world, traditional British crafting methods are in steep decline (Henley, 2014). Skills such as cricket ball making, gold beating (Cohen, 2017), wheelwrights and sieve manufacturing have all but
disappeared (Sawyer, 2017). The reasons for the slow death of the British
artisanal industry are numerous. The question is: what can be done to
reverse this trend?


An artisan is a skilled craft worker who designs or creates things by hand. Through creativity and hours of learning to perfect their trade, artisans can produce objects that are almost inherently one of a kind. However, the use of simple, low-tech but highly skilled production methods have been overtaken by new technological processes. According to the Heritage Craft Association (HCA, 2017), much of the blame for the decline of traditional artisanal skills lies with the growth of mass manufacturing. New manufacturing methods can produce more products, quicker, and at a lower cost.

The British craft industry has also been further crippled by the importation of goods from countries where materials and labour costs are considerably lower than in the UK. In 2015, UK imports from non-EU countries totaled approximately £230m, including £36m from China alone (Digital, 2017). The impact of this has been dramatic. Chineseimports of cheap gold leaf, for example, have seen the downfall of the British gold beating industry, and has wiped out the last manufacturer as there was no one willing to learn the craft (Carpenter, 2017).

 

Cultural changes have also contributed to the decline of traditional skills. It is arguable that hand-made artisanal products are not as valued in the modern world of disposable production and mass-consumerism. Moreover, whilst trades were traditionally inherited, increased access to education and the breakdown of traditional class barriers have opened up new possibilities for would-be tradesmen and women. Modern generations are no longer reliant on inheriting a parent’s trade to make a living.

Which begs the question, would it matter if we lost such archaic skills? Mass production has liberated us from the need to create expensive, labour-intensive goods. Spending many hours producing an artisan saw or sieve is no longer a necessity but a luxury. The risk of human error in hand-crafted goods is also much higher than in mass manufacturing as automated machines remove the need for human fabrication (Blue, 2013).

However, as designers, do we not have a responsibility to preserve these skills? It can be argued that traditional crafts are as much a part of our shared heritage as our landscapes, historic buildings and collections of art and are worth saving. An artisan can spend hundreds of hours designing and creating something by hand which makes that item unique. The handing down of skills over centuries also connects us to the design processes and fashions of our past. Generations of skills cannot easily be replicated by a machine, but they can be lost to it.

Whilst the notion of lost skills may sound like romantic nostalgia, an economic argument can be made in favour of preserving artisanal skills. Excluding people in full-time education, approximately 340,000 people aged 16-24 are unemployed in the UK (Powell, 2017). Artisanal apprenticeships could help this lost generation find meaningful work. It is in our nation’s cultural and economic interest to preserve traditional skills, and time is running out to do so. With no-one to teach their skills to, artisans are struggling to find passionate apprentices to continue their trade. The ability to make things is an asset owned by a shrinking population of older artisans, and has now shifted to the status of hobby or luxury pastime (Creech, 2017).

One solution to salvage these dying arts, could be to construct a government backed scheme to help new graduates fill the void of knowledge that time has created. This could be achieved by developing a comprehensive training program with trade masters. Trainees could spend 12 to 18 months within a bursary program to hone their skills and become specialists in their fields. This would not only help recover traditional British crafts but, given how few others would share the same skills, provide the graduates with valuable job security.

A further potential solution to salvage traditional crafts could be to “store” them in an “online bank”. The documentation of a variety of processes have already been stored online within systems such as YouTube. An example of a working storage system is the Millennium Seed Bank. By storing the world’s seeds, the Millennium Seed Bank aims to provide an insurance policy against the extinction of plants in the wild (Kew, 2017). To prevent extinction, we could apply the same process to British artisan skills and re-introduce them when needed. Finding a balance where tradition and modern methods meet is achievable; we can see it all over the world in countries such as Japan. The Japanese deliver an extraordinary variety of experiences – from historic shrines to new technology. To conclude, we have discovered that new technological and manufacturing process are more efficient as they reduce the risk of human error, however, they don’t provide a higher quality product. Artisan crafts have also been affected by the importation of foreign goods and, in this era, artisanal products are not as valued due to disposable production and consumerism. Increased education has enabled possible trades-people to explore other careers, but artisanal apprenticeships could help a vast amount of unemployed youth find meaningful work. Some believe these crafts are part of our heritage and connects us to traditional design process and styles.

While this article does not offer a conclusive answer to the question of, ‘will artisanal crafts disappear forever?’ it does, however, provide solutions to consider. The government-backed scheme can be achieved through sponsorships with the aim to be self-sufficient over time. The banking system can be accessed by a variety of people at any time, allowing access to an assortment of skills for third world countries. It’s time for us to re-ignite these lost trades and recognise that these inspirational, cultural traditions are important and need safeguarding.

Article by Laura Symonds

For more information and references, please contact 1404066@brunel.ac.uk