Modern economy has been the enemy of craftsmanship. It has been bullying time-consuming and labor-intensive traditional production methods by the overwhelming price advantage achieved by the efficiency of mass-production. And by doing so, it’s also sidelining skilled craftsmen, from whom invaluable knowledge, wisdom and expertise are quickly and irrecoverably escaping. According to The Heritage Crafts Association in the UK, an advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts that compiles the “Red List” for traditional craftsmanship, four traditional production method went extinct, 37 are critically endangered, about a hundred is engendered in the 2019 list. The list covers the UK only. It is reasonable to assume that the same is happening to everywhere else in the world.
For decades, people were willing to abandon traditional manual industries, in which no aspect was efficient – the magic word of the modern economy. Why would you choose a job that makes you dirty and sweaty from long, tedious work that pays you poorly, when you can choose a 9 to 5 office work in a sleek building? All you needed was academic credentials, not years and years of requiring apprenticeship to find a “rewarding” job and enjoy life.
But as modern economy became matured, people started to realize that there was something wrong with their assumption. Just like mass produced products are homogeneous and completely interchangeable, modern workers found themselves replaceable as they were told to do exactly what standardized job description said. You didn’t have to be unique, you just had to be efficient – else you will be replaced. Accepting the benefits of “efficiency” might have meant better payment, but it also meant that you had to be its anonymous servant. It was becoming increasingly difficult to feel special, rewarded and accomplished in such a working environment.
So people are re-discovering traditional craftsmanship.
Craftsmanship is making a huge comeback these days. Consumers are tired of the cheap throwaway products of the Fordist era and seek increased authenticity, uniqueness, durability, originality and personalisation. They want quality stuff made just for them. Luckily, that’s what the digital economy is all about: producing a high-quality and personalised customer experience… at scale.
Workers too are tired of the meaningless, repetitive and alienating work model of the Fordist era. They don’t want to repeat a “one best way” over and over again. They want to invent their own way, be more creative, feel they have an impact and find meaning in their work. They don’t want to be managed: they want to manage themselves. That’s one of the reasons why an increasing number of workers choose to become freelancers.
So slowly but steadily, traditional product making skills are being re-discovered, re-defined and finding new customers and creators. But it’s not enough to reverse the massive scale of craftsmanship that is going on.
Around the world, the beauty and cultural wisdom of age-old craftsmanship is on the verge of extinction. Highly-skilled craftsmen and women have become an endangered species as more young people have chosen other career options. This, and the proliferation of mechanised, globalised production has brought many traditional, craft-based businesses to their knees. Those that remain are often small, family-run enterprises, without the financial resources to attract and develop new talent and without the skills to create sustainable business models.
How can traditional craftsmanship survive in the modern world?
The Business of Fashion
Today we are at the critical junction where multiple changes are converging:
- Traditional manual industries are on the verge of extinction in the face of efficiency-first modern economy.
- As the modern economy matures, globalizes and saturates, every market participants, both products and workers, are being standardized in the name of efficiency. Unique potential by individuals or local communities are diminished (unless you are one of the handful winners).
- In reaction, increasing number of people are re-discovering the unique value of traditional craftsmanship.
- But it’s not been enough to slow down the extinction of inestimable skills and expertise, as craftsmen and women are becoming old and having trouble finding people who can learn from them.
- At the same time, advanced communication technology can now provide unprecedented opportunities to connect producers, customers and supporters directly, creating new opportunities to small-scale endeavors to become competitive even against mass production systems.
If we take proper actions, we could re-define truly beautiful products that make us happy, and truly rewarding job that will make you feel you are doing something no one else can do.
Check out a variety of craftsmanship around the world. It is fascinating to be reminded what our own hand can create.
Yasuo Kobayashi (Traditional papermaking, Japan)
His paper making starts from growing kozo, a plant that has uniquely long fibers to make Japanese paper special. His products beautiful and sturdy, and are used even for buildings designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma.
Peter Galber (wood curving, USA)
Ronald Sabiston (Gansey knitting, UK)
Carpet weaving (Morocco)
Ceramic making (Portugal)
Violin making (Italy)
Cremona, Italy has been the center of violin making ever since the era of Antonius Stradivarius in the 17th century. Violin makers have been handing on the skills and knowledge from generation to generation.
Ernest Wright and Son Limited (Scissors making, UK)
The only surviving scissors maker in Sheffield, at which only three master craftsmen remain.
Shoe making, Italy
“When we work in the workshop, it’s like we are in meditation because everyone is so concentrated on what they are doing.”
Letterpress printing, USA
About machines used for letterpress printing: “There are jaws, there are elbows, there are knees. There is a humanness to those mechanical devices.”
Unbrella making, Myanmer
Murano Glass (Traditional glass making, Italy)
Christofle (Silverware, France)
Steinway & Sons (Piano making, USA)
Swarovski (Crystal making, Austria)
Hermes (apparel, France)
Features 10 rural crafts – The hay rake maker, The swill basket maker, The country potter, The hurdle makers, The blacksmith, The weaver, The horse collar maker, The wheelwright, Dry stone walling, The edge tool maker
Great articles about traditional Japanese craftsmanship. Unfortunately it’s in Japanese only.
Online shop for handcrafted, vintage, custom, or unique products.
Japanese brand MUJI has been collaborating with traditional industries across the globe.