JTE v2n1 - 'Doing' Craft

Volume 2, Number 1
Fall 1990

"Doing" Craft
                        Richard D. Lakes
               Technology educators have distanced
          themselves from industrial arts practitioners
          with fashionable messages that deny the use-
          fulness of a handicrafts-based curriculum in
          today's push for technological literacy.  At
          this time in the evolution of the field, it
          may be useful to briefly discuss the assump-
          tions that once fashioned an alliance between
          industrial education and handicraft labor.
          Students might derive a greater understanding
          of the importance of this connection in
          project assignments which use the handtools
          of our artisan heritage, a pedagogical proc-
          ess called "doing" craft.
               The idea of "doing" craft may simply
          suggest that execution is more important than
          expression.  For example, Clyde Jones, a
          North Carolinian folk artist, litters his
          front lawn with assorted animals he creates
          from logs.  This yard artist, unschooled in
          the practices of fine woodworking, uses a
          chainsaw to shape the figures he crafts.
          Jones, like others who engage in whittling,
          for instance, view the outcome of their work
          as subordinate to the immediate pleasures
          they gain from creation (Condon, 1990).  It
          is not just therapy to forget your pending
          economic or social difficulties, and seek
          emotional release in the manipulation of
          tools and materials.  Rather, craftsmanship
          offers a unification of art and labor.  Lewis
          Mumford (1952) eloquently describes the aes-
          thetic process in handicrafts when he writes:
             He [craftsman] took his own time about
             his work, he obeyed the rhythms of his
             own body, resting when he was tired,
             reflecting and planning as he went
             along, lingering over the parts that
             interested him most, so that, though
             his work proceeded slowly, the time
             that he spent on it was truly life
             time.  The craftsman, like the artist,
             lived in his work, for his work, by his
             work; and the effect of art was merely
             to heighten and intensify these natural
             organic processes--not to serve as mere
             compensation or escape (p. 62).
               Craft labor, therefore, is an art form
          relying upon the intuitive and tactile
          senses, or personal knowledge, as Michael
          Polanyi (1958) has noted, of its practition-
          ers.  The craft labor of the family of in-
          strument makers in Cremona, Italy, for
          example, contributed to shop fabrication
          practices that are unknown today because
          machine-designed replication of
          Stradivarius's violins and the chemical anal-
          ysis of his varnishes fail to uncover the
          mysteries of this master instrument maker.
          The highest level of artistic development
          among skilled crafts workers is
          connoisseurship, Polyani has suggested, and
          connoisseurship does not require scientific
          prescription (or technological innovation) in
          order for practitioners to successfully en-
          gage in their work.  "Rules of art can be
          useful," Polanyi (1958) has written, "but
          they do not determine the practice of an art;
          they are maxims, which can serve as a guide
          to an art only if they can be integrated into
          the practical knowledge of the art" (p. 50).
               The work processes of medieval master
          masons are a case in point.  With limited ge-
          ometric knowledge to guide them, skilled
          masons with just hammer and chisel were able
          to hew stones to exacting proportions (as
          well as design intricate stone tracery).  How
          did they do it?  Unschooled in Euclidean
          principles and stereotomic computations, the
          cathedral builders had a series of primitive
          construction aids to help them: steel square,
          wooden template, and string lines.  Still,
          gothic construction was quite detailed, and
          these remarkably talented men, unable to un-
          derstand the underlying mathematical princi-
          ples of vault construction, nevertheless
          managed to erect their memorials to God
          (Shelby, 1972).
               Artisans in general may follow some sci-
          entific rules but more often rely upon their
          personal knowledge to ensure accuracy in "do-
          ing" craft.  The ability to "hear" one's
          trade, for instance, helps a carpenter gauge
          when nails are driven tightly into wood.  A
          plasterer's trowel "chatters" when the mate-
          rial is workable to a smooth surface.  The
          wheelwright listens for a sound when applying
          hot iron to the cold wheel: a "pop" says that
          the cooled tire has contracted firmly onto
          the wooden rim and the spokes have drawn up
          tightly in their felloes.  There are no rules
          of science here; craft knowledge is developed
          from long-standing practices -- the folk tra-
          dition.  "Reasoned science for us did not ex-
          ist" (p. 19), wrote George Sturt in The
          Wheelwright's Shop (1923), an autobiography
          of his craft business in rural England.  He
             A good wheelwright knew by art but not
             by reasoning the proportion to keep be-
             tween spokes and felloes; and so too a
             good smith knew how tight a two-and-a-
             half inch tyre should be made for a
             five-foot wheel and how tight for a
             four-foot, and so on.  He felt it, in
             his bones.  It was a perception with
             him.  But there was no science in it;
             no reasoning.  Every detail stood by
             itself, and had to be learnt either by
             trial and error or by tradition (p.
          Still, the time came when Sturt began to re-
          alize that modern production methods were
          cheaper and, for economical reasons, would
          displace traditional methods of workmanship
          in his shop.  Machine-manufactured spokes,
          for instance, were readily available; hence,
          Sturt purchased them for his shop instead of
          having his men hand-hew spokes from aged
          hardwood stock.  And the installation of gas-
          driven woodworking machinery in 1889 was, for
          him, a much needed measure of cost effi-
          ciency.  Yet Sturt knew that he too was re-
          sponsible for ushering out the age of craft:
             And from the first day the machines be-
             gan running, the use of axes and adzes
             disappeared from the well-known place,
             the saws and saw-pit became obsolete.
             We forgot what chips were like.  There,
             in that one little spot, the ancient
             provincial life of England was put into
             a back seat (p. 201).
               What can technology educators gain from
          presenting their students with "doing" craft?
          Because craft labor is rooted in the work
          culture of artisanship, the mutuality of shop
          labor, and the social organization of work
          (apprentice-journeyman-master relationships),
          the technology education laboratory gives
          students an opportunity to develop reciprocal
          exchanges of knowledge, allied decision mak-
          ing, and voluntary organization of tasks and
          duties.  Practical application should be ac-
          companied by readings in labor history, labor
          laws, collective bargaining, labor-management
          relations, labor union activities and member-
          ship, the union label, occupational safety,
          industrial democracy--all are based upon col-
          lective histories of tradesworkers negoti-
          ations on the shop floor.  Students may need
          to be reminded that the practice of job sen-
          iority, for instance, was established through
          craft tradition: the most valued jobs went to
          the journeymen who were employed in the mas-
          ter's workshop; apprentices were expected to
          run errands, deliver goods, and perform cus-
          todial duties for as long as one year into
          their indentures before they would ever be
          allowed to use a handtool.
               Technology education students may bene-
          fit from "doing" craft because the activity
          itself may stimulate a political philosophy
          of labor alliance and industrial protest.  By
          virtue of its handicraft basis, students en-
          gaged in craft labor may begin to acknowledge
          the debilitating effects of machine technol-
          ogy, and seek solutions to the degradation of
          industrial work on the shop floor.  Craft la-
          bor may be an "aesthetic - in - opposition,"
          a term that Peter Dormer (1988) used to dis-
          tinguish handicraft production from indus-
          trial technology.  For example, the lining of
          a nuclear reactor and a reed basket are both
          beautiful, he suggests, but the reactor's
          beauty "is chilling" because it "tampers with
          nature," whereas the basket is organic, "in
          harmony with nature" (p. 135).  Yet
          handicraft production also reinforces per-
          sonal relationships between crafts workers
          and customers, and distinguishes itself from
          the impersonality of mass consumption of
          factory-manufactured goods:  "With a single
          piece of furniture made by a man or a woman
          in a craft studio in Pennsylvania, there was
          the suggestion of a personal relationship be-
          tween maker and user, but with a car mass-
          produced in Detroit there was not" (Dormer,
          1988, p. 139).
               Technology education students may de-
          velop a craft ethic that places greater em-
          phasis upon the importance of customer
          relations in today's service economy.  This
          ethic, derivative of the master's social re-
          lations with his purchasing public, once set
          a high priority upon skillful execution of
          the work, dignity of labor, honesty of tech-
          niques, and integrity in choice of materials
          to be used.  Perhaps "doing" craft will help
          students reclaim the artisan legacy: personal
          service and quality workmanship go hand-in-
          Richard D. Lakes is a member of the Depart-
          ment of Educational Leadership, University of
          Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut.
          Condon, K. (1990).  "Learnin', through":  En-
             vironmental art as a creative process.  In
             Daniel W. Patterson & Charles G. Zug III
             FOLKLIFE.  Durham, NC: Duke University
             Press, 179-191.
          Dormer, P. (1988).  The ideal world of
             Vermeer's little lacemaker.  In John
             Thackara, (Ed.), DESIGN AFTER MODERNISM:
             BEYOND THE OBJECT.  New York, NY: Thames
             and Hudson, 135-144.
          Mumford, L. (1952).  ART AND TECHNICS.  New
             York, NY: Columbia University Press.
          Polanyi, M. (1958).  PERSONAL KNOWLEDGE:  TO-
             Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
          Shelby, L. (1972).  The geometric knowledge
             of the medieval master masons.  SPECULUM,
             47(2), 395-421.
          Sturt, G. (1923).  THE WHEELWRIGHT'S SHOP.
             (Reprint, 1988.)  Cambridge, England:
             Cambridge University Press.
          Permission is given to copy any
          article or graphic provided credit is given and
          the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education   Volume 2, Number 1       Fall 1990