Blue jeans craft

Theme for 4.3

What is the place of craft in the 21st century textile industry?

The story goes… In the 19th century, industrialisation was at odds with traditional crafts, particularly hand-weaving. In the 20th century, this conflict was diffused with the emergence of the studio craft movement, which found a secure place for the handmade in the context of art. The reduction of craft skills in factory production continued with relative little resistance.

In the 21st century, much textile manufacturing has moved West to East, particularly southern China. While this was initially associated with lower consumer prices, it is now linked to loss of jobs in the West. As many question the future of the consuming West, craft skills are being re-valued as testimony that not all productive capacity has been lost: there is still a place for local manufacture. Some craft artists are using denim as a natural medium of democracy. What does denim, and other ‘industrial crafts’, say to us now?

Introduction to 4.3

Our sibling publication at Berg, Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture, has done a wonderful job over the years in exploring the many cultural, aesthetic, and technical aspects of its specialist subject. Here at the Journal of Modern Craft, we are equally aware of the rich history of textiles, and the unique part they have played in contentious debates about production, skill, and gender in the modern era. The cotton mills of England, the garment factories of New York, and the lace workshops of Ireland were all primary targets for reformers in the nineteenth century. Craft revival was in large part an attack on such exploitative industries. Though that impulse crossed over many media, it was the arts of the loom and the needle that were perhaps most highly charged in regards to process. The gendered organization of textile production has also been a continuous theme in the analysis of modern craft. Spinning, sewing, and needlework have particular associations with female skilled work, whereas the loom has a mixed gender heritage. As a result, woven textiles have received more serious attention than has needlework.

In this issue, we feature six essays that chart the fascinating course that textiles have taken since 1900. The geographical focus is on the USA throughout, with the semi-exception of Mallika Shakya’s carefully observed anthropological study of artisanal garment-making in Nepal. Though her article is saturated with national, local, and even intimate person detail, Shakya shows that even this seemingly remote locale has been reshaped according to American markets, as well as the sourcing of materials and skilled workers from across Asia.

This contemporary view into the daily experience of the global textile trade makes an interesting bookend to Sarah Archer’s essay on the Greenwich House Pottery, a settlement movement organization in New York City that is still active today. Though the GHP obviously made ceramics, lace-making was another important undertaking, and one that resonated particularly for some of the recently immigrated artisans who worked there. Archer shows how this Arts and Crafts-era organization was marked by a divergence of political views among its leadership, suggesting the complexity of craft reform at this date.

Alexa Griffith Winton’s study of mid-century weaver Dorothy Liebes, and T’ai Smith’s essay on the “architectonic” textiles of the late 1970s, are two major contributions to the history of fiber art, and the American studio craft movement in general. Much changed between the emergence of Liebes as the archetypal “designer-craftsman” and the development of tectonic, structurally oriented work by such figures as Gerhardt Knodel and Warren Seelig. In fact, this intervening period of transformation is at the heart of the recent book String Felt Thread, by our own exhibition review editor Elissa Auther. Our two essayists provide valuable extensions and modifications of the insights in Auther’s book, and also bring to life the way that Liebes, Knodel, and Seelig thought through (as well as about) their processes and materials.

Also in this issue, we feature a pair of Statements of Practice that are profitably read side by side. Alejandra Echeverria is a professional denim designer, and has worked for large brands such as Gap. She discusses her own skills, as well as the large and complex world of prototyping and mass production that she must negotiate to do her work. At the other end of the spectrum is Raleigh Denim, which is tiny by comparison (and serves a high-end rather than a mass market). Designer and co­founder Victor Lytvinenko gives us a view into this small business, which is completely based on “traditional” skills and tools that were developed for garment factories nearby in North Carolina many decades ago. Oddly, the evident differences between Echeverria’s and Lytvinenko’s work seem less striking than the similarities: both care deeply about the detail of the jeans they help to make, are technically knowledgeable about fabrics and sewing and machines, and are keenly aware of the importance of craft skill in their work, and the work of those who execute their designs.

Finally, this issue features a Primary Text that steers us away from textiles and into the much-neglected topic of skilled repair. Great science fiction has a way of ventilating contemporary anxieties, and Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Variable Man” (1953) is no exception. Set in the year 2136, the story takes place on the planet Terra, in a technologically advanced society that has lost all basic hand skills. When Thomas Cole, a handyman from the year 1913, appears on Terra in a time-travel mix-up, he becomes the most hunted man on the planet. That Dick should offer 1950s sci-fi addicts an unexpectedly profound discussion about tacit knowledge might seem surprising. But handymen and jacks-of-all-trades appear in many of his major novels—for instance in The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Martian Time-Slip (1964). Philip K. Dick left school early and never went to college. He was, nonetheless, an intellectual, a brilliant autodidact. But, paradoxically, his youthful heroes were the repairmen at University Radio, a record store in Berkeley, California. He saw genius and artistry in these tinkerers who could mend radios, record players, and the first TV sets. And he was prescient in predicting a world dependent on goods and systems that we mostly cannot fix nor even fully understand. We have almost got there.

The Editors

The Journal of Modern Craft

Journal of Modern Craft 4.3

The final issue of 2011 continues to look at craft and industrialisation, with a particular emphasis on denim.


Editorial introduction

Craft, Class, and Acculturation at the Greenwich House Settlement by Sarah Archer

None of Us Is Sentimental About the Hand: Dorothy Liebes, Handweaving, and Design for Industry by Alexa Griffith Winton

Architectonic: Thought on the Loom by T’ai Smith

Bridging the Design Gap: The Case of the Nepali Clothing Industry by Mallika Shakya

Telling a Story: The Art and Craft of Denim by Alejandra Echeverria

Made in North Carolina: Skill Versus Scale in a Modern Jeans Workshop by Victor Lytvinenko

Primary text

The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick

Exhibition reviews

  • Raw Goods: The Transformation of Materials by Local Industries by Sarah Johnson
  • Making Is Thinking by Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz
  • The New Materiality: Digital Dialogues at the Boundaries of Contemporary Craft by Kate Smith