Abigail Newbold speaks about ‘Crafting Settlement’

Abigail Newbold’s Crafting Settlement is an installation at the Currier Museum of Art (Manchester, New Hampshire, USA) open until 14 July 2013. The exhibition provides a contemporary context for the New England legacy of self-sufficiency, including the Shaker Movement. In the text below, Newbold responds to some of the many questions raised by her fascinating and beautiful installation.

Abigail Newbold Crafting Settlement installation view, Currier Museum of Art, 2013

Abigail Newbold Crafting Settlement installation view, Currier Museum of Art, 2013

JMC: Settlement implies a collective process of finding a place in which to live continuously. In your show, this seems to become a purely personal matter, associated with camping paraphernalia. Is this intended to be ironic?

AAN: Yes, there is irony on a lot of levels here. I am referencing the history of Shaker design philosophy as well as the Shaker’s work ethic as a model for a Utopian community (comprised of many), while making it very clear that this Settlement is designed and inhabited by an individual. While it is a personal narrative about character development, it is also a commentary on the more modern issues of isolation within dense urban environments and our propensity to remain estranged and physically distant from our immediate families as we travel for work and schooling. Given this scenario I take comfort and humor in the notion of an individual having the capability to design, make and erect a settlement on this scale autonomously. It would be ridiculous, and yet there is something so inspiring to me about projecting the hope that there are still multi-talented individuals out there who could and would go to such an extent.

I am also intentionally speaking within a tentative language with these new dwelling structures, which appear half-way between tent and more permanent home—an inference to the mobility that camping affords as well as lack of long-term commitment to that specific spot—referencing the other meaning of the word “settle”—which connotes compromise.

To understand the layout of the gallery better it might help to have a description of what’s present: the installation is comprised of two main components: on the main platform are a series of unique dwelling structures that I’ve designed and made displayed in a spartan context with only an inference of old city infrastructure as back drop (water, power and fuel). Around the periphery of the gallery are six vignettes that address some of the more philosophical concepts I am dealing with around domesticity at large. The vignettes are more abstracted arrangements of both found and made objects that speak to more directed subject matter: “Porch Time”, “Scullery/Larder”, “Hope Chest”, “Workshop”, “Garage/ Stable” and “Antechamber”.

I make many references to a community just out of reach of the immediate sphere that this installation presents. Take the trophy mailbox that appears in the Porch Time vignette—it represents a conduit to the outside world without breaking the continuity of isolation. I have also placed the dwelling structures within a skeletal infrastructure that might have been previously occupied and has since been abandoned—a hand-pump that powers a fire hose, a hickory dovetail outlet box providing the power to the electrical lights in the dwelling structures, and an old water heater re-purposed as a propane tank. These all serve as references to the existence of electricity fuel and water—all massive systems that reach beyond an individual simply fending for herself in the wilderness.

It is my use of craftsmanship that is most strategic in this dialogue as it is imperative to my manifesto of survival. The individual inhabiting this settlement could not survive without the practical hand skills presented here: timber framing, basic woodworking, sewing & pattern drafting, weaving and caning. Hand skills are occupation and a means for survival and to make comfort.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of garage/ stable vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of garage/ stable vignette

JMC: You seem fond of fluorescent materials. These seem quite artificial and at odds with the natural environment. Is this also ironic?

AAN: This palette comes from an urban or industrial aesthetic. The implication is that the materials are industrial cast-offs. My use of synthetic, fluorescent materials presents a future–hopeful look forward– a re-purposing of available materials applied to older, found objects with a traditional sensibility for craft. The effect is intended to carry tradition from the past into the future tense.

This is not about rural or wilderness survivalism so much as surviving within the context of a more familiar environment—take the de-volution of industrial cities in the “Rust-Belt” of America, where factories and mills are being re-purposed as housing, artist spaces, and markets. Vacant lots become sites for community farming initiatives. The natural world is creeping back into cities—pheasant populations are growing, and sightings of deer, bear and turkey are more and more prevalent. I am presenting a view of a self-sufficient life within this reclaimed industrial context—a life that might have only been possible in more rural landscapes just a couple of decades ago.

I guess you could call this tension between past and present, natural and artificial ironic, but what I am presenting is intended to be more of a realistic future hybrid of re-purposed objects mixed with traditional making techniques and more common industrial cast-off materials.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of hope chest vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of hope chest vignette

JMC: It appears that your work is about re-purposing consumer camping materials, rather than making new objects. What relationship do you see with craft?

AAN: Crafting Settlement is a conglomeration of newly made objects, re-made and repurposed objects and found objects. Again, I am presenting a model of what it is to live a hand-made life; not in a purist extreme, but in a more realistic manner where objects and materials are harvested, gathered and incorporated as they are useful and or valuable, and new items are made where there is necessity for something custom or unique. Through my incorporation of traditional techniques- quilting, the weaving of chair seats, woodworking and knotting I am advocating for the continuance of such skills of craftsmanship. The character’s survival in Crafting Settlement is contingent upon their ability to make the objects that serve as tools to make means of transportation, shelter and any manner of domestic goods.

I am interested in advocating for the accessibility of making and craftsmanship to a broad spectrum of people and for hand-made objects to be used in our daily lives, not merely relegated to a collector’s shelf. By presenting these objects in a context representational of where they would likely appear (as opposed to the more formal museological method of display in which an object is often isolated from similar functional items and taken out of all visual context of its use) I hope to make them more familiar. The sleeping bag I custom made is an example of how I’ve expressed this philosophy in Crafting Settlement. I made the exterior shell to be like a more modern bivouac sac made of waterproof cordura nylons with an industrial zipper. The interior is lined with a quilt that I made by hand, and refitted along with a black rabbit skin to insulate the interior. I would prefer to use my quilts in this manner then have them hung decoratively and stripped of all relationship to their functionality. That said—I do not want to discredit the very important role decoration and aesthetics play, as I cannot deny that they play a large role in my work as well.

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of scullery/ larder vignette

Abigail Anne Newbold, Crafting Settlement: detail of scullery/ larder vignette


Abigail Newbold was interviewed by Kevin Murray, online editor of JMC.

Editorial Introduction for 5.3

The Journal of Modern Craft has made great strides in deploying craft as a fluid concept, as pertinent to the consideration of contemporary art as it is to reading material cultures throughout the globe, statements of artistic practice, and the politics of skilled labor. But let us consider, for a moment, the age-old stereotype embedded in a widespread popular understanding of the word “craft” that refuses to budge: the granny with her knitting needles, spending her free time making (often with considerable dexterity and skill) toys for her family, mittens, or even an itchy Christmas sweater.

Amateur crafts, hobbies, pastimes, and do-it-yourself activities constitute the most widespread type of craft activity in Western economies. Kirstie Allsopp in Britain, like Martha Stewart in the US, urges everyone to have fun on sewing machines. Regularly released “how-to” manuals within a single craft medium probably have a larger circulation than all the academic tomes on the subject combined. Encouraging leisure-time making is one of the big businesses that has shaped our cultural and economic landscape in recent times.

Has our desire to carve out an intelligent disciplinary terrain for craft left the specter of amateur making behind, lurking in a shadowy corner, like so many botched spice racks, half-completed cross-stitch kits, and handmade pots gathering dust? Amateur craft practice has been part of everyday life for the last 150 years, but scholarly treatment of the subject has consistently framed the phenomenon as supplemental and marginal. Karl Marx had no place for the occasional amateur maker within his broad theories of labor, while Thorstein Veblen saw the leisure-time accomplishments of late nineteenth-century America as affections of a former aristocratic ideal of autonomy. As for William Morris, it is not at all clear where amateur craft can be situated in his scale of “useful work and useless toil.”

Twentieth-century scholars—from the era of what Siegfried Kracauer called the “mass ornament” onward—have been slightly more concerned about amateur craft practice. Yes, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and a whole range of thinkers from across a wide political spectrum do marginalize amateur practice (a good recent example is Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, a polemic bemoaning citizen journalism and crowd-sourcing). But studies from social history and anthropology prove more sympathetic. Among these, Steven Gelber’s Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America sets the tone for a deeper understanding of how the work ethic drawn from professional practice structures freely chosen leisure activities. This interaction between spaces of work and leisure constitutes a major concern for thinkers studying everyday life, such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Ben Highmore, and Elizabeth Shove, and their work helps inform much-needed critical reception of the recent amateur-led revival of many craft practices.

With the intellectual groundwork laid for a reassessment of this marginalized element of mass material culture, many historians have recently turned their attention toward the late nineteenth-century moment when domestic handicrafts became hugely popular among middle-class women (for example the work of Clive Edwards, Judy Attfield, Emma Ferry, and Talia Schaffer, whose book Novel Craft is reviewed below). Essays by Akiko Yamasaki and Janice Helland in this issue can be aligned with this scholarly trajectory, which considers handicraft as a site of female self-expression within hegemonic patriarchal structures.

Most existing work in this area focuses on Anglo-American geographies, but a translated chapter of Yamasaki’s 2005 work, “Handicrafts” and Gender in Modern Japan [Kindai Nihon no “shugei” to jendaa] attests to the global reach of this phenomenon. Like many accounts of nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, Yamasaki’s research makes use of advice manuals and journals as historical evidence. She uses these sources to demonstrate the gendering of shugei, a term that simply denoted hand-skill at the start of the Meiji period, but came to describe distinctly feminine activities, such as sewing and cooking. Yamasaki explains how the semantic separation of shugei from associated terms mirrored the wider cultural expectation, advanced by advice literature and educational establishments, that women spend their free time engaged in domestic accomplishments that protected their gender identity.

Helland expands our understanding of domestic handicrafts at the margins of the British Arts and Crafts movement by recalling the early history of the Home Arts and Industry Association (HAIA), an organization that promoted domestic arts through regional education and annual exhibitions from the mid 1880s onward. There has been a tendency to view the HAIA as another example of Victorian philanthropy, with its moralizing instruction dispensed by approved arbiters toward subjects in need of improvement. Yet, Helland probes beyond the organization’s rhetoric of aristocratic cultivation to reveal how domestic handicrafts provided an opportunity for women to market their own skills, both as teachers and as exhibiting artists in many of the annual exhibitions.

Late nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, often positioned as the answer to the perils of female leisure-time idleness, end up sharing the “undisciplined” qualities Judy Attfield attributes to the “wild things” of material culture. As Yamasaki describes, Japanese handicraft production not only beautified the home, but was sold as a desirable tourist commodity, and like the work of women in the HAIA, raised the prospect that female labor could be profitable, destabilizing traditional gender roles. Activities deemed appropriate to women facilitated self-expression that altered everyday productive realities, an example of what Henri Lefebvre termed “differential space.”

The tension between encouraging artistic expression among women while attempting to prop up existing gender norms is amply demonstrated in the advice books and journals of this era. In this issue’s primary text we publish a particularly flamboyant example, the Frenchman Oscar Edmond Ris-Paquot’s 1884 guide for the amateur enamel painter, which tries to emancipate female creativity with an art well suited to their “lightness of touch.”

Ruti Talmor’s ethnography of the Accra Arts Center in Ghana seems at first glance unrelated to amateur productions of the late nineteenth century. The article explains how the making of djembe drums has proliferated within the Center due to its popularity among tourists as a generic symbol of Africa, and how the proliferation of this craft has adversely affected the diversity of production that existed beforehand. Talmor skillfully explains the division of labor intrinsic to djembe production, and how it encourages de-skilling among young Ghanaian men who focus on learning one skill in the productive chain, rather than becoming multi-skilled through the traditional avenues of apprenticeship learning.

We might bemoan the neoliberal economy that has flattened craft diversity within the Arts Center, but as Talmor describes, many young men find a quick way of acquiring the skills needed to ensure their subsistence by sidestepping apprenticeship learning. Just as was the case for the late nineteenth-century handicraft practitioners, an accessible skill (even if it has to be learnt and honed) has become a means of quickly attaining a foothold within the marketplace, and this accession is both speedy and disruptive.

Stephen Knott, Managing Editor

The Journal of Modern Craft

See contents of 5.3 here.

Steampunk Singer and Contemporary Textile Industry ‘Ustopias’

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

‘Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.’

(Margaret Atwood: “The Road to Ustopia”, The Guardian, 15.10. 2011)

In 2011, to celebrate the 160 years of the company’s commercial success, Singer launched the 160™ Limited Edition Machine. The design reflects back on the years of the brand’s worldwide growth and if unaware of the image source, some of us might suspect this machine belongs among the last creations by “Jake” von Slatt of steampunkworkshop.com. Thus, a temptation arises to ask: What is Singer® trying to communicate by this Victorian retro design? And why right now – with its 160th anniversary? Wouldn’t such a nostalgic look back on the company’s famous history have been more appropriate for say the 150th anniversary?

Without a doubt, over the years of its existence, Singer® has become synonymous with home sewing,
self-sufficiency and individual creative expression. Singer machines have from the time of the patent issue for the first Singer brand machine in 1851 enabled many a woman around the world to make her fashion dreams come true for an affordable price. “Singers” have also been helping families to get by on limited resources, and, very often too, a home sewing machine would have been a source of some extra income for those able to offer their sewing skills to repair, alter or even make clothes locally.

Coming from a post-communist country, I remember how these skills were still essential for households there thirty years ago. I learned how to make my own clothes for the simple reason that to make one’s own was much cheaper than to buy them from a shop. Also, not less importantly, what was actually available from shops, would hardly ever please anyone’s eyes… With all this in mind I then recollect a story of a friend, who shortly after the fall of the communist regime, went to visit her family in the United States. At one point of her stay, she asked her hosts to advice where to buy a nice fabric that she wanted to bring back home to make a skirt. They seemed rather puzzled by her enquiry and asked with a great surprise: Why would you bother with making a skirt if you can get one for $15?

This story certainly isn’t meant to glamorize the make-do attitude rather unfortunately imposed on people by the communist regimes. Yet, I believe, it points to one of the crucial roles craft has to play in re-thinking the contemporary textile industry. No one who has ever tried to find and buy the material, made or copied the pattern for and sew a skirt, would ever expect it to cost $15.

In this sense, our lost skills make us unaware of the real cost of things and enable the ever expanding textile industry to produce garments sold at $15 whilst polluting lands and waters worldwide and employing very problematic work policies in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China or India (and many others).

Here, Singer® comes in again. The economic report of Singer India Ltd from early 2004 announced:

New Delhi: Singer India Ltd is restructuring its business operations which would see it generating more revenues from its non-care area of consumer durables in future. As the domestic sewing machine market is stagnating due to changed consumer aspirations, Singer is now focusing on home appliances and consumer electronics while entering the industrial sewing machines business, which is expected to boom in the coming years due to the Indian garment sector…
(Economic Times, January 16, 2004)

At the same time, during the last couple of years, Singer domestic machines market in the US or the UK has been gradually growing. Craft writer Cat Rossi in her thought provoking post ‘All Sewn Up: Antique Singers and (De) Industrial Aesthetics at All Saints’ (29.1.2012) draws attention to the UK clothing brand All Saints that uses displays of vintage Singer sewing machines (mostly imported from India) across its shops as a branding signature. Rossi proposes that the philosophy of this branding strategy might aim to ‘to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and old fashioned quality manufacture.’ This then serves to ‘suggest a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system.’

Is it possible that there was a very similar rationale behind the Singer®’s launch of the retro Singer 160™ Limited Edition Machine on the occasion of the company’s 160 years anniversary in 2011? And if so, what does this [so far] wishful trend for a shift from quantity to quality mean for the future of the textile industry?

In fact, can we really look forward to better quality clothing and more sustainable textile industry when most of us desperately lack the practical experience that would help us distinguish between the well and the poorly made and between good and poor quality material? Most importantly still: Are we ready to pay for clothes the price they are really worth? Or would we still rather own pairs and pairs of ill-fitting $15 mixed fiber jeans instead of a pair of real denim pants famous for their comfort and durability?

The decision is ours to take. Denim jeans might then once again become a symbol of freedom and revolt against the status quo.