Reworking Ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1 March

  Increasingly drawn towards the British Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, my research has identified certain contradictions and silences, which I would like to address. Although I remain inspired by the holistic practice philosophies of the Arts and Crafts Movement, I feel compelled to tease out certain inconsistencies with the intention of applying a reworked Arts and Crafts paradigm to my own practice with a collection which pays homage to domestic textile techniques, also revitalised by Arts and Crafts designers. Concurrently, I seek to investigate art/craft hierarchies and challenge the trivialisation/marginalisation of domestic craft arts.

Through questioning the relative value of fine and applied arts and the ways in which design can operate as a force of cultural and political change, Arts and Crafts Movement writers and artisans “drafted the agenda that would be debated throughout the whole course of twentieth century design”; (Katz 2000, 87). It was during the Victorian period of Industrial Revolution and related bourgeois domestic ideal, that the schism between ‘craft’ and ‘art’ was cemented (Callen 1989, 154). Challenging this categorical zeitgeist, bookbinder Thomas Cobden coined the term “arts and crafts” in 1888, when the Arts and Crafts Exhibition society held its first show (Cumming 2000, 36). Textile artisan Jessie Newberry (cited in White 1989) expressed the spirit of the Arts and Craft Movement, arguing that “nothing is common or unclean; that the design or decoration of a pepper pot is as important…as the conception of a cathedral”. Architect Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo formed the Century Guild, in 1882 with the aim of restoring the decorative arts to their rightful places beside “painting and sculpture” (Cumming 2000, 36). Although many Arts and Crafts mediums (including architecture, industrial design and graphic design) have arguably emerged as well respected contemporary arts, the position of textile crafts is perhaps still less established. “As an apparently gendered pastime crafting is regularly devalued” (Robertson 2010, 87) and numerous modern and post-modern theorists have noted the marginalisation of textile arts (Anscombe 1984; Araujo 2010; Buckley 1986; Chavé 1992; Parker and Pollock 1981). Although embroidery was highly valued during the Middle Ages, “it was gradually trivialised as the status of women changed in a rising capitalist society” (Callen 1979, 96). Parker and Pollock argue that the label ‘craft’ carries connotations of domesticity and creates a divide between high and low art:- 

“ What distinguishes art from craft in the hierarchy is not so much methods, practices and objects but also where these things are made, often in the home, and for whom they are made, often for the family. The fine arts are a public professional activity. What women make, which is usually defined as ‘craft’, could in fact be defined as ‘domestic art’.” (in Callen 1989, 154)

Hence, my interrogation of the art/craft hierarchical binary (which Arts and Crafts Movement writers/makers challenged at the turn of the century) privileges the often marginalised domestic/textile arts.

The Arts and Crafts Movement’s dismissal of Victorian art/craft hierarchies, reflected the socialist ideology espoused by many of the movement’s writers and practitioners. William Morris announced in 1877: “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few”. Challenging machine “enslavement” of the working-class masses (Callen 1979, 214), the “homespun community ideal” of John Ruskin and his contemporaries was implemented at collectives such as the Isle of Man wool mill (est. 1883), Langdale Linen Industry (est. 1885) and hand-loom weaving workshops in Haslemere (est. 1890s). While socially ground-breaking on a superficial level, it is important to recognise Katz’s (2000, 88) accusation of ideological immaturity; the Arts and Crafts movement failed to consider how the “lovingly crafted and outrageously expensive products of the artisanal workshop” could be accessible “beyond a small circle of patrons and collectors”. In reality, handicraft industries could be equally exploitative of and disempowering for the working classes as industrialised mass-production, exemplified by the Victorian cottage lace-making industry. Although originally a pastime for aristocratic women, by the 19th century, the working classes were predominantly responsible for lace-making, “a gruelling craft particularly prone to sentimentalisation by unknowing urbanities” (Callen 1979, 5). Children as young as six worked up to sixteen hours per day and lace agents controlled the domestically produced market through a monopoly on thread supply, while minimising wholesale prices (Callen 1979, 139). As a further contradiction to socialism’s egalitarian ideals, male leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement largely dismissed feminism, perhaps because many key suffragettes identified with right-wing politics. Hence, while the Arts and Crafts movement did provide “autonomy and personal creativity for large numbers of middle-class women, their role within it was circumscribed by contemporary” gender constructs (Callen 1979, 221).

Women’s involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement was inherently problematic, with Ruskin’s concurrent value for artefacts reflecting a “labour of love” (in Cumming 2000, 34) and The Angel in the House (Patmore 1866) feminine ideal indicative of period gender constructs which deemed lady and work to be irreconcilable terms. It is important to acknowledge here that my research largely explores middle and upper-class experience, although working-class and rural peasant women also contributed to the turn of the century craft revival. Most well-renowned women of the Arts and Crafts Movement trained in sympathetic female environments, for example The Glasgow School of Art, Birmingham School of Art and Central School of Arts and Crafts, London (Callen 1979, 9). Given social barriers to female employment several acceptable formulae evolved to avoid lowering the social status of gentlewomen paid for their craft work: organised employment with the Royal School of Art Needlework, domestic work and anonymity (Callen 1979, 8). Inaccurate representations of the Arts and Crafts Movement as predominantly masculine (both in terms of artists and mediums) have been reinforced by this necessary anonymity.

These anonymous female artisans often worked in domestic spaces, rather than commercial studios. A significant body of domestic work was produced during the Victorian period, during which ‘the cult of the home’ flourished (Ponsonby 2003, 206). Women were guardians of the home, which Ruskin (cited in Callen 1979, 20) considered a “place of Peace; [a] shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division”. Female domesticity was deeply entrenched within the popular conscience. For example, The Art Journal announced in 1872: “no woman is, or ought to be, able to free herself from domestic duties…which…render almost impossible the concentration of purpose and leisure of mind essential to high success” (Callen 1979, 22). Domestic practice has been associated with the word “amateur”, which carries connotations of bad taste, unoriginality and poor workmanship (Callen 1979, 97). Thus, domestic female textile artisans generally did not receive recognition parallel to their male counterparts in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and this has perhaps contributed to a contemporary textile ‘craft cringe’ culture.

Textile arts revitalised during the Arts and Crafts Movement, including weaving, embroidery, spinning and lace-making, recur throughout history as symbols of feminine virtue, piety and household stability (McEwen 1993; Robertson 2010, 87), the quintessential example being Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. In fact, in Victorian England needlework was an expression of feminine worth. Aristocratic author Lady Wortley Montague (cited in Parker 1975, 44) wrote in the mid 18th century: “It is as scandalous for a woman not to know how to use a needle as for a man not to know how to use a sword.” Later, an article published in an 1860 edition of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (in Bryson 1990, 178) instructed: “Let men busy themselves with all that has to do with great art. Let women occupy themselves with those kinds of art they have always preferred.” Anscombe (1984, 130) suggests that “conventional art history has belittled [‘craft art’ works]…by insisting that they were logical, almost inevitable, developments within traditionally female fields.” Perpetuating gendered representations of textile arts in the 20th century, an article published in a 1910 edition of Studio entitled ‘The Glasgow School of Embroidery’ read:

“plying the needle is particularly a woman’s occupation, suited to her temperament, attuned to her delicate touch, adapted to the sexual arrangement by which she is assigned a more secluded leisure…The recent revival of the art of embroidery…will be heartily welcomed by all interested in the progress of art and the position of women” (Taylor 1910, 125).

Interestingly, Taylor neither trivialises embroidery nor suggests that it is an inherently disempowering art form for women, thereby endorsing my own stance, which diverges from most feminist critiques of embroidery (Anscombe 1984; Araujo 2010; Buckley 1986; Parker and Pollock 1981).

Feminine communal modes of production may have also contributed to the marginalisation of textile craft arts, which promote knowledge sharing (often inter-generationally), rather than individualist ownership of designs (Robertson 2010, 87). The Arts and Crafts movement is generally represented with reference to its ‘leaders’, a history which silences the fact that the movement’s success “was largely dependent upon its widespread and enthusiastic adoption” by numerous artists and amateurs (Callen 1979, i). In addition to creative satisfaction, women often worked collaboratively “because of the comfort and support that such communication offered to otherwise fairly isolated” daily routines (Callen 1979, 104). Although the iconic Art Workers’ Guild founded in 1884 was exclusively male (Callen 1979, 5), many other collectives were open to women including the Home Arts and Industries Association and the Decorative Art Needlework Society. In associating collaborative production with femininity, I do not wish to endorse gendered binaries, and also recognise that community played a significant role for numerous male practitioners in the Arts and Craft Movement also. As Anscombe notes (1984, 145), “[t]he value of the ‘Simple Life’ lay in a return to humanity’s intimate association with the artefacts which surround daily life and the benefits which a community derives from such an association”.

Value for communities related to the Arts and Crafts Movement’s “ideological stance toward the industrial society in its maturity” (Katz 2000, 87). Indicative of the creative community’s concerns, British author Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1829 “Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand the living artisan is driven from his workshop to make room for a speedier inanimate one.” Carlyle’s apocalyptic statement was made within the context of revolutionary developments in textile technologies. For example, in 1809 John Heathcoat had invented a machine which could produce net similar to bobbin lace and in 1837 the mechanised Jacquard system allowed the incorporation of patterns in machine lace (Callen 1979, 139). In post industrialised Britain, The Arts and Crafts Movement countered mass production which “condemned” workers to repetitive labour in order to the designs of others (Cumming 2000, 34) and ultimately resulted in an “apotheosis of the cheap and shoddy” (Callen 1979, 2). This stance parallels my desire to counter contemporary fast fashion culture through a slow holistic philosophy of practice, whereby “the finished cloth…is almost incidental in relation to the processes of its production” (Plant 1998, 67).  

As significant figures in the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Ruskin and Morris theoretically romanticised this designer/maker ideal, at a time of industrialisation and mass production (Callen 1979, 2). While the factory system fragmented production, the design reform movement aimed to “restore the integrity of the producer, the process and thereby the final product” (Katz 2000, 88) because, as Ruskin (in Cumming 2000, 34) espoused, only objects created through “a labour of love” held any real value. The ‘Simple Life’ design philosophy of the 1920s, an evolution of the Arts and Crafts Movement, embraced a spirituality of handmade laborious processes: “The discipline of the craft workshop was to foster an intuitive approach to design…so that the objects they made would communicate this deeper meaning” (Anscombe 1984, 146). Discontent expressed by Ruskin and his contemporaries concerning labour fragmentation, mass production and associated social ethics, resonates with my own qualms about the social and environmental impacts of conventional contemporary fashion systems. Furthermore, the holistic designer/maker practice philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement appeals to my own design process. This relationship between conceptual development and the physicality of making is valued by many other contemporary fashion practitioners, including Sandra Buckland (in McNiel 2008): “For me I have two jobs, designer and producer. I invent the clothes while making them, and it is difficult to hand it over to someone else.”

Yet, while leaders of the of Arts and Crafts Movement superficially idealised designer/makers, in reality, production processes often remained fragmented. Needlework expert Lady Marian Alford (1886) distinguished between “head” of the artisan and “hands of the craftsman (in Callen 1979, 97). Head and hands division of labour was largely gendered, with the man as “individual genius” and women as executors (Callen 1979, 97).  For example, most textiles by male designers at Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (est. 1861) were developed and executed by their female relatives, including Jane Burden (William Morris’ wife), Jane Alice and Mary Morris (daughters), Elizabeth Morris (sister), Mary Nicholson (Morris’ housekeeper), and Kate and Lucy Faulkner (Faulkner’s sisters) (Callen 1979, 10). Mainstream contemprorary fashion systems perpetuate labour fragmentation with the industry “dominated by the genius or artist [who] is almost always male” (Buckley 1986, 401). Although I acknowledge my failure to address commercial competitiveness, my fashion practice seeks to realise the designer/maker ideal which Morris and his contemporaries advocated, but did not necessarily achieve.

I feel an affinity with the practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement and their appreciation of tradition, craftsmanship and natural materials (Cumming 2001, 34). When my Great Great Aunt died recently I inherited a collection of textile work produced by my ancestors, which provided the catalyst for my interest in domestic craft arts. As designer Natalie Chanin (in Brown 2010, 17) believes, “Living arts are an essential part of the social fabric of our communities…Such traditions are the backbone of what makes a community home.” Nonetheless, I wish to create referential rather than reproduction garments, something which I believe textile artisans of the Arts and Crafts Movement achieved. In a 19th century Studio article Gleeson White (1898, 51) complimented embroiderer Jessie Newbery’s ability to “present the best traditions of the art, and yet never directly imitate early work.” I particularly admire The ‘Glasgow style’, developed by Margaret MacDonald and her husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which referenced Scottish and oriental aesthetics and employed traditional and experimental techniques to produce appliqué, embroidery, metal-work and gesso panels which were intended to “create a comforting and inspiring home for body and spirit” (Cumming 2000, 37). The development of my own holistic practice philosophy and related aesthetic outcomes encompasses a desire to achieve high quality fashion construction, using environmentally sustainable materials. Thus, like the textile practitioners of the Arts and Crafts Movement, I value tradition, craftsmanship and natural materials.

Jessie Newbery applique and embroidery on linen detail

Margaret MacDonald, ‘White Rose Red Rose’


 Anscombe, I. 1984. A Woman’s Touch: Women in Design from 1860 to the Present Day. London: Virago Press.

 Araujo, A. 2010. Repetition, Pattern and the Domestic: Notes on the Relationship Between Pattern and Home-Making. Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture. 8 (1): 180-199.

 Brown, S. 2010. Eco Fashion. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Bryson, N. 1990. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 Buckley, C. 1986. Designed by Women: ‘A Woman’s Touch’ by L. Anscombe. Art History. 9 (3):  400-403.

 Callen, A. 1979. Angel in the Studio: Women in the Arts and Crafts Movement 1870-1914. London: Astragal Books.

 Callen, A. 1989. Sexual Division of Labour in the Arts and Crafts Movement. 151-164. Attfield, J. and Kirkham, P. (eds). 1989. A View from the Interior: Feminism, Women and Design. London: The Women’s Press.

 Cumming, E. 2001. The Arts & Crafts Movement. British Heritage. 22 (4): 34-41.

 Katz, B. 2000. ‘Leading the Simple Life’: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, 1880-1910. Design Issues. 16 (2): 87-89.

 Parker, R. and Pollock, G. 1981. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. New York: Pantheon Books.

 Patmore, C. 1866. The Angel in the House. London: Macmillan and Co.

 Plant, S. 1998. Zeroes and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. London: Fourth Estate.

 Ponsonby, M. 2003. Ideals, Reality and Meaning: Homemaking in England in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Journal of Design History. 16 (3): 201-214.

 McEwen, I. K. 1993. Socrates’ Ancestor: an Essay on Architectural Beginnings. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 Roberston, K. 2010. Embroidery Pirates and Fashion Victims: Textiles, Craft and Copyright. Textile: the Journal of Cloth and Culture. 8 (1): 86-111.

 Taylor, J. 1910. The Glasgow School of Embroidery. Studio. 50: 124-127.

 White, G. 1898. Some Glasgow Designers and Their Work. Studio. 12: 48-51.

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