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What is Creative?


According to a recent government think-tank craftspeople can no longer be considered ‘creative’. Given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries they ‘classified’ a craftsperson as a ‘manufacturer who follows fixed procedures to produce articles by hand’. No creativity required! Having spent most of my life working in what I consider to be ‘creative industries’ I’m appalled, especially when the same report praises desk-dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants for their creative input. At a stroke my status is downgraded to unimaginative; lacking innovation, artistry or aesthetics. But hasn’t there has always been an element of snobbery towards makers who actually get their hands dirty?

I was brought up on the premise that it’s exemplary to make things by hand. When I studied at Art College William Morris remained the oracle and he believed that losing respect for the past meant the future was in trouble. Making is in our genes – from making food to making clothes, mankind learned hand-skills in order to survive. But hand-skills are developed through creative intellect passed down from master to apprentice, and Morris challenged Victorian industrialists for failing to recognise this fact.

For some archaeologists the humble sewing needle marks the most crucial advance for prehistoric societies. This simple tool allowed our ancestors to finally crawl out of their caves. Needles meant clothing fashioned from raw animal skins could be made to fit. And clothes that fitted made winter hunting expeditions more endurable. Better diet meant survival rates improved and life-spans extended, enabling clans to pass greater wisdom and experience onto the next generation. The beautiful paintings left in caves remain the only evidence of their life stories. And of their instinct for creativity.

It took thousands of years before primitive societies discovered how to farm in such a way they could sustain life without the need to wander. And it was no doubt during this period a wider range of craft skills were perfected. Whether making vessels to store water, or weaving textiles or tanning leather to make clothes, people were discovering how to manipulate whatever materials they discovered in order to improve their lives. Perhaps that’s why the current government boffins think crafts lack creativity, because we’ve been using these processes for a very long time. But even if societies did have to produce everything required to sustain life there’s nothing to say they didn’t enjoy the process, people who work with their hands are nothing if not resourceful.

Each stage of early intellectual development can be credited to a breakthrough in manufacturing techniques brought about by craftspeople. Without skills honed from manufacturing hand-crafted products the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Blame glassmakers on the island of Murano for the invention of spectacles. And Guttenberg was apprenticed to be a jeweller, that’s how he learned the techniques necessary to ‘create’ moveable typefaces.


It might take a given set of procedures to make a product by hand, but craftspeople are perpetually innovating, pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and it’s in their nature to explore and experiment. But an experienced craftsperson does not separate the workings of the hand from the workings of the mind. There is no such distinction. Neither do they baulk at getting their hands dirty.


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Creative Hands


Apparently craftspeople can no longer be considered as creative according to the latest government think tank given the task of Classifying and Measuring Creative Industries. As someone who has spent most of her life working in crafts based industries I am confused. This change of status is based on the idea that a craftsperson is a manufacturer who does not apply any ‘creative input’ when making their wares, we merely follow a set of procedures. However the same paper gives the status of ‘creative’ to desk dwellers like Town Planners and IT consultants. Could this be down to a kind of snobbery about people who work ‘with their hands’?  


My brother-in-law was a town planner. He taught at East Anglia University and during his career researched and wrote several ‘white papers’ for the government. He was one of the team responsible for the Chelmer System of town planning which is used throughout the world but he would never consider his profession as creative as that of his brother Michael, a designer jeweller. In fact Dave considered his work scientific, always based on solid research.


Perhaps it is inevitable that as society develops a sedentary lifestyle it loses touch with the source of its wealth, the core of its culture. Without the hand skills employed in making crafts the Renaissance just couldn’t have happened. Guttenberg, acknowledged as the first printer, began working as a jeweller, and it was through his knowledge of manufacturing techniques he discovered how to make moveable typefaces and eventually print books at a fraction the price.


The first techniques to be learnt by any jeweller are the means of working metal. Precious metals require a huge variety of basic skills, such as drilling, milling, sawing, carving, chiselling, and grinding. Many hours of practise are required to become skilled in methods of cutting metal before proceeding to more advanced applications.


Lost wax casting was used by the Egyptians. An expendable mould is formed around a model that is also expendable, the main substance used being wax or a composition in which wax is a major ingredient. This can be removed from the mould with low heat without damaging the mould. In its place is left a void or mould cavity that is then filled with molten metal which replaces the wax and takes on its former form. Guttenberg realised a new use for an ancient technique and ‘tah-dah’, he kick-started the Reformation.


Archaeologists and anthropologists tell us that fibre technology preceded textile weaving which in turn preceded metal technology probably by thousands of years. It is not surprising that some of the skills gained in using fibres transferred to metalwork, fibres used in basketry are round in form, such as reeds and rushes, or flat strips, as in plant leaf strips, or wood. I believe it is the character of craftspeople to be constantly exploring new methods of making, to experiment with different concepts and designs, but they do not separate the work of the hand to the workings of the mind. A true master does not need to make such distinctions.



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