Denise Zygadlo Lecture

The Dumfries & Galloway Embroiderers’ Guild invited textile artist, Denise Zygadlo to give a talk today. It was very entertaining and was illustrated with images of her work, and examples of actual artworks, exhibition catalogues and sketchbooks for us to examine.

This was the first time that I had seen her artwork and I was struck by the cohesion of the work she produces: all with an interest in cloth and the body. Her work includes drawing, print, performance, artist books, and installation. She has collaborated with various creative people to explore dance, music, movement, and poetry paired with her art works.

Denise said that she had an early interest in textiles – clothing in particular – and remembers dressing up (from a ‘dressing up box’) as a child, and can still recall the feel of some of the clothing. She completed a foundation course followed by an applied arts degree and worked with printed textiles and fashion. After raising her children, she returned to art and began with a collaborative project. She then joined the Society of Scottish Artists and has exhibited many artworks with that group, as well as holding two solo exhibitions.

When searching for ways to express her artistic ideas, she found Image Maker, a product that can be applied to a photocopy, allowing it to be transferred to a textile. (The image is coated with the liquid, applied face down on the textile, allowed to dry, before the paper is moistened and removed leaving the image intact). Before that, she had worked with images printed directly from her body using paint.

The artist chose to make autobiographical portraits of her body, wrapped in muslin, on a photocopier, then reassemble these partial images as a collage onto silk organza. She liked the intimacy achieved by pressing against the glass, giving details of skin and cloth (better than a photograph could achieve). The finished artworks have the feeling of an ancient fresco in their incomplete rendering of the figure.

Denise now uses digital printing, (carried out by the Glasgow School of Art), as a simpler way of transferring the images to silk chiffon textile. The finished art works can be large banner-sized pieces that are suspended from a gallery ceiling to hang down and move in the breeze. The finished artworks have a translucency, and are reproducible and washable, which are further advantages over the original method.

The artist has collaborated with many other artists: one example including projecting images over her hanging art works, and onto the wall behind them. On other occasions performance and music have been included. These collaborations add another layer to the two-dimensional, printed aspect of the artworks. The scale of the work varies from images just a few inches across presented in the artist’s books, to the larger, banner-sized pieces.

This video illustrates the artist’s Wrap exhibition from 2014.

Drawing is a large part of the artist’s practice. Her highly-detailed pencil drawings of lace fabric on a contorted body were very beautiful. The pattern on the textile wrinkling and twisting with the movement of the body beneath. Denise said that the drawing was built up from layers of pencil marks, worked over many hours, and observed from a photograph of the subject.

Denise Zygadlo, Tara VII, Drawing


Other artworks include the remaking of her Mother’s jacket, which had been worn and passed down through three generations. The translucent, remade version had images of the three women on it.

Another piece showed bundles of linen, or blankets, or finery mounted on plinths, relating to textiles owned by most people, but also having a resonance with the refugee crises and the belongings the displaced people choose to take with them.

More recent artworks combine classical art (such as images of one of Michaelangelo’s statues) collaged with photocopies of the artist’s body, and again, digitally printed onto textile.

Many of the images felt rather poignant, referencing cloth as a ‘second skin’, that ages and wrinkles in the same way as our own skin. I particularly liked the images transferred to old canvases that had been removed from stretchers, and still bear the marks of staples and age discolouration. These appear like abstract images, maybe landscapes, before one can discern a body part and crumpled textile. Denise cited a connection with ‘bog people‘: those whose bodies have ended up being preserved in peat, in extremely good condition, allowing a glimpse into their lives and deaths. Other people have felt a religious resonance when viewing the artworks.

The artworks feel open to interpretation: are they autobiographical? or making some wider point about the importance of cloth in our lives? The wrapping gives a timeless feel to the pieces, since they make no reference to fashion; and the use of a black and white colour palette gives them an ‘antique’ look. There feels to me to be a link to birth, life and death – the swaddling of a child, through a lifetime of wearing clothes and using textiles, to the final shrouding of the dead. The artist herself discusses the feelings of comfort, security and the holding of memories encapsulated in cloth. I feel there is a connection to the work of Louise Bourgeois in the exploration of textiles imbued with autobiographical memories and stories.

What can I learn from this artist?

Thinking of how this might inspire my own studies: re-purposing my clothing in artwork could be linked to an autobiographical narrative, or one related to associations with textiles, clothing, fashion or the body. Using the body to present images that create resonances with many viewers and are open to various interpretations is a powerful idea.

I was struck by the focus and constraints that the artist had used: photocopying; black and white images; cloth and the body. As yet, I don’t feel that I know which art form or topics of interest I wish to pursue, but hopefully, that will emerge as I progress through the course.

Digital printing seems to offer an exciting way of reproducing art work on textiles that could be used in a variety of ways: from art works, to household textiles, to fashion.

Pairing the written word with art is a combination that I may explore in the future.

Denise re-entered the art world by joining an artists’ society that allowed her to network with other artists and exhibit her work. Well, maybe one day I will take on such a challenge!


Websites:- Accessed 06/04/17 Accessed 06/04/17 Accessed 06/04/17 Accessed 06/04/17

Part 5: Reflection on Chris Ofili’s Quote

The course guide quotes Chris Ofili, in an interview he gave in 2010, to Gary Younge:-

“The studio is a laboratory, not a factory. An exhibition is the result of your experiments, but the process is never-ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion.”

At this stage of study, my workspace definitely feels like a laboratory: the various experiments and exploration; hammering; cutting; hot wax; combining different media etc, make me feel like a scientist making new discoveries. I have tried many new techniques and media so far on the course and feel that this broad range of exploration has helped to generate new ideas and directions.

I feel that getting stuck making the same thing over and over again is deadly for your creativity (having had a small taste of feeling like a ‘factory’ when one item I made became popular and I was requested to make numerous variations on the theme). Having said that, if you wish to sell your work, and people want to buy that particular item, then it can be both flattering and lucrative, (Andy Warhol’s The Factory springs to mind), but, in the long-run, I feel that taking your artwork in new directions is far more rewarding and stops feelings of stagnation. At my second study visit last year, the discussion turned to the way in which some of the artists had not progressed, but had found a style and subject that they were happy to repeat. Many of the students thought that it was rather lazy and boring to do that, and I suspect that such artists are less likely to be invited to exhibit, over time. Observation, information gathering, having views on topics, or stories that you wish to tell, filtering and selecting from that information and deciding how it will become part of your artwork are what I am aiming for in my practice. My main reason for starting the course was to learn and establish a productive and logical process for turning those ideas into art.

I believe that the two things are not mutually exclusive, as you can experiment and innovate with your art and designs, and have assistants or an actual factory making up the designs.

I was interested to see another view expounded in an article on the website: Are you a textile technique addict? The article by Joe Pitcher discusses the problem of having no focus as a textile artist, trying numerous techniques and styles but not being able to find your voice. Through the work of his mother, Sue Stone, and other textile artists, he suggests that dissipating your energies in many directions doesn’t work, and that imposing constraints is the way forward, for example, mastering one particular skill and set of materials fully to give cohesion and depth to your work.

While this does ring a bell with me (having tried many arts and crafts over the years), I feel that I tend towards the ‘laboratory’ method for generating new artwork, while still being evaluative and reflective about which experiments I take forward. I have seen that constraints can be introduced at any stage in the operation to refine ideas and techniques. The cyclical nature of the process means that we move from research to experimentation to selection and reflection and perhaps repeat the process several times before producing a finished piece of work.

Regarding Chris Ofili’s comment that an exhibition shows the results of experimentation, but is not a conclusion: I would have to agree with that. Although an exhibition may show one complete collection, there are hopefully more ideas to be explored, worked up and exhibited in future. The exhibition is a time to put your ideas and technical achievements on display, and to receive feedback and possibly validation from viewers.

I hope that at the end of Textiles 1: A Textiles Vocabulary, I will be able to look back on all my coursework and reflect upon what I have learnt and can take forward into the next part, and integrate into my practice in the long-term. I have put an emphasis on experimenting with as many new media and techniques as I can, and will continue to do so in my own ‘laboratory’. I will also put my work forward for formal assessment, for which I aim to demonstrate my learning and the ideas that have come from my experiments. In the final part of this course, I hope to expand on the work I come up with, by suggesting further developments for the yarns and textiles created, which is a conclusion of a sort.

Chris Ofili has been back in his laboratory, as he has a new exhibition at The National Gallery, starting on 26 April 2017, featuring a handwoven tapestry art work, made in collaboration with Dovecot Tapestry Studio.


Publications/Websites:- Accessed 30/03/17

Younge, G (2010) After The Elephant Dung: Chris Ofili Accessed 30/03/17

Pitcher, J (2017) Are you a textile technique addict? Accessed 30/03/17 Sue Stone’s website Accessed 30/03/17

Lace Textiles

Scottish Lace

I attended an Embroiderers’ Guild Lecture by Brian Hill entitled “The History of Scottish Lace” on 2 March 2017.

Mr Hill outlined the history of lace making in Scotland. Weaving arrived in the area as the end of the 16th Century with Flemish refugees. Alexander Morton introduced lace making in 1876 (his company Morton Young and Borland Ltd was founded in 1900), and the technology of the new power loom was introduced in 1877. The industry declined in the late 1970s due to competition from Europe and Asia.

Darvel, Ayrshire (known as ‘the Lace Town’), at one time made lace for export around the world, particularly to India (a large market for lace, muslin and madras textiles (the latter was originally called Scottish Leno Gauze Weave)). Much of the ‘souvenir’ lace sold in Malta at one time came from his company, but that business has now been taken over by Asian manufacturers. The nearby town of Newmilns was also a centre for lace making and is home to the last remaining lace making company in the Irvine Valley: MYB Textiles.

Products include: lace curtains, lace table cloths, scrim curtains for theatres, cotton baby blankets (a best seller with the US company, Lands’end), yashmaghs, commissioned work etc.

The lace is woven on Nottingham looms, with Jacquard punched cards controlling the patterns, (some dating to 1913, when they were first introduced), then the work is sent elsewhere for finishing. The damp climate of the Irvine Valley is ideally suited to lace weaving as it suits the machinery and improves the strength of the cotton fibres (which can break if too dry, or succumb to mould if too moist). These looms can weave textiles up to 1220 cm in width. Manufacture is slow and controlled, with high levels of quality control. Many of the looms have been modified in recent years, and are connected to CAD computers, allowing for improved production rates, faster turnaround times, and more design options.

Handmade Lace

The Lace Guild has an instructional video showing the basics of making bobbin lace and needlelace.

My friend, Margaret, has shared some of her beautiful handmade lace work.

Margaret Weal, assorted handmade lace textiles

Margaret Weal, sampler showing the stages of making Ruskin linen work (also known as Greek lace), and a completed pouch.

Irish Lace

Niamh McCooey’s article ‘Life-saving Lace’ in Selvedge Issue 75, discusses the importance of lace in providing an income for families stricken by the potato famine, which began in 1845.

Irish lace is formed from crocheted motifs, such as flowers and leaves, which are then combined to make the finished product. This style originated with the published patterns of Mademoiselle Riego de la Blanchardiere dating to 1846, which themselves were influenced by Venetian lace. Venetian lace was made using needle-lace techniques, while the Blanchardiere patterns and Irish lace were made using crochet and cotton thread. French Ursuline nuns travelled to Ireland during the famine years, and shared their knowledge of crochet and helped the Irish lace cottage industry to develop. Both men and women produced the motifs, and local variations developed over time, with individual families’ designs being closely-guarded secrets. Articles such as collars, parasols and bodices were sold worldwide.

Irish lace

Crochet lace border, linen, Ireland 19th, century

Source:- Selvedge Issue 75, Page 49

Contemporary Practice

Lace is no longer just for the wealthiest in society, thanks to machine-made lace, it has become a staple of the fashion industry. A recent example of lace in fashion is Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. A contemporary artist using lace in her practice is Carol Quarini, who uses her background as a biologist and her interest in lace to explore issues such as ‘memory’ or ‘the uncanny’. Her latest commission is to make a modern response to the Battle of Britain lace panel. Her blog, lacethread, has numerous articles about different types of lace, and mentions her exhibition at the Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate, that I attended last year. [Edited 15/03/17: I have lately seen the work of Marie-Rose Lortet, whose work includes irregularly-worked, 3-D lace structures in the form of houses, windows or abstract shapes].

Final Thoughts

Although I am not likely to make any lace myself, I can quite easily imagine incorporating it into my work with re-purposed textiles.



McCooey, N “Life-Saving Lace”. Selvedge 75 (2017): 48-49. Print.

Websites:- Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 16/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 (for lace and madras fabric care) Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17 Accessed 08/03/17

Talk: Alison King – “Where is the Consolation?”

Hosted by Dumfries & District Branch Embroiderers’ Guild, 6 October 2016. With many thanks to Margaret, who invited me to attend as her guest.

Alison King trained as a painter, but now works mainly with textiles. Her practice has developed into working with a combination of paint with stitch. Her work is inspired, in general, by the Scottish landscape, but the idea for her most recent work came from another source. “Where is the Consolation?” has been exhibited in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, and will eventually be displayed in the The Heart of Midlothian Football Team’s Museum. It is this piece of work that the artist’s illustrated lecture described, including the inspiration, preparatory work and exhibition of the piece.


Alison King Where is the Consolation? (detail)



Alison King Where is the Consolation?


During WWI, sixteen members of the Heart of Midlothian Football team were persuaded to sign up to a new volunteer battalion in 1914. The battalion became the 16th Royal Scots. Hundreds of football supporters also volunteered, along with Alison King’s husband’s relative, the Rev James Black. He was one of 200 of these volunteers that survived the war (600 died at the Somme).

The title of the artwork is taken from a sermon preached by the Rev Black at the end of the war: “Where, Minister, is the Consolation?”.

King visited the area around Albert in France where the battalion fought, making drawings of the vast crater in the area (site of an explosion), the wild flowers, left over artifacts from the trenches such as rusty guns, barbed wire fence, the landscape etc. A trench map once owned by Rev Black became the inspiration for the structure of the artwork (seen in the lines and numbers in the detail shown here). The artist made a large drawn cartoon of the four sections to be joined, then worked on a small patch at a time, using paint, stitch, photographic transfer and an embellishing machine.

After the talk, we were allowed to handle an artwork made in a similar way, but which had been left as a flexible textile (transported folded in its own painted box), rather than being mounted on canvas, as the subject of the talk had been. The mixture of paint, fused fabrics and stitch gives a very varied and textured surface.

I was impressed with the way the artist had chosen and researched her subject, finding a link between her interest in the peat digging found in the Scottish landscape, this leading to her interest in trenches, and to her husband’s relative’s involvement in WWI, and the story of the ‘footballers’ battalion’.

The artist’s sketchbooks were wonderful to leaf through: A3 size, portrait books, with painted pages decorated with sketches, paintings, notes, poetry and quotations, photographs, torn and collaged paper, small images of inspiring paintings by other artists, found ephemera (such as an old stamped envelope), little samples of fabric and stitch.

There is an interview with Alison King on, which includes images of her landscape work.


This fascinating talk clearly illustrated the way Alison King’s artwork had evolved from initial idea, through research, sketches made on site, and sampling, to a finished piece of work. It confirmed the usefulness of the coursework that I am currently learning from. The artist’s sketchbooks were very inspiring to look at and have encouraged me to return with renewed vigour to my own sketchbooks (or rather the loose sheets that I work on). I will have to give some thought to mounting them on similarly-sized sheets and making them into a book.

Research Point 1: Wabi-Sabi


Often described as indefinable, wabi-sabi is how Japanese people see and experience their surroundings, art, literature etc.

Wabi – simplifying, incomplete, impermanence, transience, ‘the misery of living alone in nature’, a way of life#

Sabi – An awareness of mortality, ‘withered’. For example: a person is the same person throughout their life despite ageing and changes over time. From the word sabishii which means sad, lonely, melancholy, desolate. A Japanese man gives an example of ‘Sabi’ as the contrast between the shiny and dull areas on a pottery plate. It refers to material objects, art and literature#.

Wabi-sabi is an attitude and way of being in the world. It acknowledges the futility of human existence and an acceptance of death. Some words and phrases recur when people try to define the term: imperfect, sad, incomplete, dark, asymmetry, rustic simplicity, imperfection, serenity, simple forms, natural materials, earthiness – a simple, organic elegance.

Wabi-sabi is a way of seeing beyond the value of things, with a preference for ordinary, rustic, simple, untouched, imperfect, old and withered objects. This is in direct opposition to the focus on luxury, perfection, and empty reputation often found in Western society.

Marcel Theroux, in his 2011 documentary “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” visited Japan to find out what wabi-sabi is. He asked Japanese people what they understand by the term. They found it hard to define, but variously described it as:-

  • the ideal of beauty
  • a fundamental part of the Japanese identity
  • Japanese heart
  • enjoy a quiet and simple life
  • in our soul
  • attentiveness to others
  • if it could be defined it wouldn’t be wabi-sabi – feelings are more important

Japanese taste turned away from the elaborate towards the rustic and simple, finding its greatest expression in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This stems from Sen no Rikyu, in 16th century Japan. He was the first to experiment with the simply crafted, rustic pottery, serving tea in small, basic huts. However, he met with an unfortunate end, of forced ritual suicide, as his emperor did not share his views. The preparation and serving of tea was gradually refined by removing the unnecessary, (based on Rikyu’s teachings) creating a space in which beauty can be appreciated. Feelings between the host and tea drinker are shared without speech in simple, austere surroundings. The performance is now so ritualised, following a set of rules, that it may no longer be wabi-sabi#.


Haiku, Japanese poems, are another example of wabi-sabi with their reverence of nature and the seasons, pared down observations, whose incompleteness evokes a strong response, both intellectual and emotional, from the reader.

Don’t weep, insects –
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.

Kobayashi Issa

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Matsuo Bashō

My life, –
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.

Masaoka Shiki

Zen Buddhism

Theroux speaks to monks and experiences the Zen Buddhist way of life as part of his journey. One monk describes gardening, for example, as a spiritual practise with a complete concentration on the task that is in hand, which reminds me of the focus on ‘mindfulness’ and ‘living in the moment’ that has now become popular in the West. The monk also describes the need for an appreciation of what is important in life and the elimination of everything that is inessential. He says that the goal of the Tea Ceremony and Zen are the same.

Theroux speculates that there is an appreciation of the passing of time and of the seasons worldwide.

The meaning of wabi-sabi speaks of evanescence, transience, purification and approaching death and has a link to Zen Buddhism, as early practitioners were tea masters, monks and priests.

The Zen monks eat rice porridge (a typically ‘wabi’ food) which is lowly and simple, for breakfast. There is a great deal of discipline and ritual in their lifestyle. They own a few bowls and their clothing, nothing more. They must learn to act on intuition and experience, free from ego, living in the moment. During four periods of daily meditation, they learn to open their subconscious to the vast emptiness known as ku.

The Abbot says that we should not aspire to fame, profit or glory, but instead do what is good for others, for yourself and for everyone, for that path leads to wabi-sabi. His parting gift to Theroux is a view of a mountain – the epitome of wabi-sabi.


In her TED Talk “Wabi-Sabi: The Magnificence of Imperfection” Cheryl Hunter describes a terrible event in her life, which changed her forever. Years later, she learns about the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi which includes an appreciation of flaws, damage and ruin – a designed in mixture of perfection and imperfection, and decides that she is a wabi-sabi person. She comes to accept herself and move on with her life.

Marie Kondo’s two books about tidying seem to me to come from the wabi-sabi mindset. The author attributes feelings to objects, and her method of de-cluttering is to hold the item in your hand and feel whether it ‘sparks joy’ in your heart, before deciding whether or not to keep the item. This simplification of possessions by the feelings they evoke is very ‘wabi-sabi’ – learning to appreciate our belongings by reconsidering what an object means to us.

The Japanese ‘Boro’ practice of repairing clothing and household textiles over generations, of patching and stitching was common in the 20th century and has now been adopted by designers and artists. The tradition shows a wabi-sabi appreciation of simple and imperfect objects.


Rie Shibata’s thesis “Geishagraphy” proposes a relationship of passing time, between wabi-sabi impermanence and Ichaigo-ichie (a moment in time snapshot, never to be repeated). Such things exist in the flow of life, but are easily ignored. A new perspective on a mundane life can become appreciation. Shibata’s artwork takes the form of photographs of ‘everyday’ objects from unusual angles that will “…reveal the object’s history and experiences, thus uncovering the unnoticed beauty that we often ignore.” When viewing a broken or damaged object, we may start to construct a narrative based on our own experience to account for its condition, thus a new interaction forms a new memory for the viewer.

This brought to mind Rothko’s black paintings in the Rothko Chapel. Their almost complete blackness leads the viewer to use their own imagination to think about the artist’s meaning: life is what you make of it? there is nothing after death? the viewer creates their own religion? etc

Michael Brennand-Wood’s selection of Japanese Artists for a 1991 exhibition includes the work of several artists who are inspired by nature. One such is Machiko Agano

Wabi-Sabi Artwork

Source: *

The artist says that she can “feel the power of something unseen and all-encompassing of which I am a part.” And “… my pieces should be unfinished, so as to allow all the elements of my work to breathe their own reality into my concept.” Both statements could be taken as coming from a wabi-sabi way of thinking.

Leonard Koren in his book on wabi-sabi speaks of a link with modern anti-aesthetic movements, such as punk and grunge. He advises people wishing to do things in a wabi-sabi way, to “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.”  He recommends that artists and designers use a limited palette of materials, and few conspicuous features, without removing all that makes a piece interesting.


I don’t think that the Japanese are alone in admiring imperfection, transience, the cycles of nature and life, mindfulness and appreciation of small details. French people admire the imperfect, described by the phrase ‘jolie laide’ (meaning something like a “good-looking ugly woman”, but often applied to objects, and meaning “pretty-ugly”); or the “Shabby Chic”, “Minimalist” or “Rustic” look of modern interiors in the UK. The simple lives of the Amish people in the United States – their functional, but beautiful homes and furnishings, and their uncomplicated lifestyles are another example that come to mind. Perhaps it is a more widespread and deep-seated appreciation in Japanese people than elsewhere. I think that this may derive from the links with Zen Buddhism (the paring down of the unnecessary; simplicity; ritual); reverence for ancestors and the wish to do what is best for society as well as the individual.

Thinking of the textiles I have studied (rag rug, quilt, pullover), I feel that they are certainly items that could be classed as wabi-sabi: they are all humble items, two of them hand-made from old textiles (cottons, wool, linen, jute), the pullover (although machine made) knitted from natural wool. The rug and quilt use recycled textiles, similar to the boro tradition in Japan. I think that they could all be described as rustic, earthy and simple – made for domestic use. Although patterned, they could not be described as ostentatious. The wear and imperfections on the pieces evokes stories of their makers, their owners, and their histories. The ‘incompleteness’ is supplied by the fact that they are no longer fulfilling their original purposes, and are now ownerless. They are still beautiful and evocative despite their flaws.

I had not heard the phrase wabi-sabi before carrying out this research, but it definitely resonates with my understanding of the world and of my place in it. I am drawn to simple, functional, handmade objects, the natural world and natural materials. My artwork is often influenced by the seasons and nature, and I embrace imperfection and randomness when making art. I admire the textile artist Janet Bolton, whose own work could be described as wabi-sabi, having an ‘incomplete’, pared down look and feel, and using humble, yet emotionally-charged materials (although she uses figurative representations which are not part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic). It seems to be an evolving term in Japan, and perhaps each individual can take what they find useful from the concept and apply it to their own lives.



Shibata, Rie Geishagraphy (2010) Thesis/dissertation submitted to Auckland University of Technology. Accessed via and on 24/06/16

Warde-Aldam, G Boro: A Practice Born Out of Necessity (2016) in Selvedge, Issue 70, p13


* Brennand-Wood, M (selector) Restless Shadows: Japanese Fibreworks (1991) Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London

Kondo, M The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever (2014) Vermilion, London

Kondo, M Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying (2016) Vermilion, London

# Koren, L Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (2008) Imperfect Publishing, California

Websites:- consulted 21/07/16 consulted 22/07/16

Cheryl Hunter’s TED Talk May 2012, Santamonica, USA consulted 19/07/6

A Japanese [man] explains the meaning of Wabi-Sabi

Marcel Theroux’s documentary is available on You Tube

Disintermediating Craft: Lecture By James Boardwell, at The Shipley Art Gallery: Notes and Reflections


As well as being a co-founder of, James Boardwell’s other company, Rattle (Design Research), states “James has a PhD and MSc in social research combined with over ten years experience researching and designing digital products and services for clients such as the BBC, Channel 4, Comic Relief, INQ, OIX and the Cabinet Office.”

[The lecture notes appear in plain text, my thoughts appear in blue italic font. Link to the lecture on YouTube]

James started his lecture by saying that there is a current movement for people to be interested in the provenance of what they buy and that there is a ‘craft ubiquity’ with corporations cashing in on the scene. He went on to discuss platforms and sharing, and how crafts people can succeed in the new landscape.

Agree that this seems to be the case for craft, food, and purchases in general, for people with higher incomes, purchasing at the higher end of the market, but I guess that many still shop by price. A case for aiming your work at those who value individuality, process and quality, and have the money to pay for it.

He mentioned that the talk was aimed at those selling to retail, rather than artists.

He talked about the Folksy ethos of ‘meritocracy’* and fairness. He said that there were often disputes about what constituted ‘handmade’ (this required proof), or ‘craft’ (decided upon by Folksy).

[* Google defines meritocracy as “government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit.”; “a society governed by people selected according to merit.”;  and “a ruling or influential class of educated or able people.”]

An interesting debate to be had about when ‘handmade’ becomes ‘manufactured’. Folksy allows designers to have their products manufactured for them. In my opinion, handmade should mean made by the designer/maker, if it is made by another company, even if designed by the original maker, it is surely manufactured.

I have also seen disputes in the forum on Folksy about what is crafted versus assembled. (Eg silversmithing v. threading commercial beads onto a commercial chain). I believe that there is room for all forms of creativity, but makers should be clear in their ‘meet the maker’ sections about how much personal input there has been into a product. This leads to a discussion about pricing: most people would expect to pay more for the piece that has been entirely made by hand, but some hobby makers are happy just to cover their material costs, which annoys the professionals who need to make a living, but are undercut by those who ‘under price’.

James went on to say that many people on the Folksy website were makers in their spare time. The turnover of the site was £1 million last year, with an average spend of £19 and that there were 162,000 items for sale.

He describes the customer as looking for something unique, different and personalised (not available on the high street). There was a competitive marketplace with Etsy, Dawanda, Amazon and many others operating in this area.

The terms ‘handmade’ and ‘crafted’ were becoming ubiquitous, often used by big brands (eg, Levis’ ‘Made & Crafted’ range), making it harder for people to understand what it means.

A way to make this more understandable for a buyer might be to have a clear statement of process and lots of ‘work in progress’ images or videos on the artist’s website, to ‘tell their story’, ie to add context to the work. Shared across social platforms to reach potential buyers.

Underlines the necessity of keeping sketchbooks, experiments and research for each project and documenting the process well.

James then discussed the way in which consumers buy today, through social sites and sharing, word-of-mouth recommendations, and browsing. The mobile phone being the main way of searching.

He said that there were fewer destinations/goals apart from Christmas and birthdays.

I think he means that people tend to browse at random, as a pastime, to see what they come across, rather than always looking for a gift for a particular person or celebration.

James recommended that sellers need to market themselves in these same arenas.

He said that some Folksy sellers complain that they don’t sell a lot. He put this down to a lack of framing and contextualising. The key to success was that product descriptions should offer potential buyers a story about the maker and the piece.

Speaking from experience, I think that there are other factors to consider, such as:- the quality of the products offered; their desirability; the pricing; and the quantity and range of products offered for sale; and the quality of the images and descriptions. Also whether the shop has a professional and coherent look and feel to it (uniform branding, etc).

Skill level and the element of craft used – the process – was important. He cited Ernest Wright & Son Ltd, scissor makers, as an example of a business that turned its fortunes around following a widely viewed video of their process.

I bought into this manufacturer’s story, quite literally, and am a proud owner of a pair of their napping scissors.

He said that people must believe in what they are doing so that buyers will believe in them too, and become fans.

Ask yourself ‘What is your journey about?’. Articulate your goal. (He mentioned that Kickstarter have some good advice on this topic).

Skill and effort lead to good earnings. Makers should build a pricing model aimed at the luxury sector. A materials + pricing model doesn’t take account of the 50% of a maker’s time which should be devoted to marketing. Implying that prices should be doubled to take account of this activity.

Taking relevant courses (!), honing techniques and acquiring lacking skills, to improve confidence in self, and the public’s perception, and the quality of work produced.

Also, pricing can affect perception of a product. Low pricing = ‘cheap’; High pricing = ‘luxury’.

He gave advice that you should find a niche in the marketplace, and focus on that niche for success. The rise of the micro brand.

I hate the thought that I should have to stick to one small area: I like variety! However, if you outsource the manufacturing, or sell on the business, that might not be a problem for a designer. Getting ‘pigeon-holed’, (like an actor in a long-running soap), might apply to artists who only ever stick to a narrow range of output. In sticking to one small niche, you may have problems if fashions change and your niche is no longer relevant or popular. Staying flexible and following new technology and trends seems to me, to be important, too.

In summary, James Boardwell outlined what he felt people were looking for in terms of modern craft. He pointed out that it is no longer just the individual maker’s domain, but that big corporations were cashing in on the popularity of consumer’s awareness of, and demand for, provenance when making purchases. He commented on the change in the way that people shop online, using recommendations through social media, and browsing. He indicated a way forward for designer/makers, suggesting sharing their stories through social media and focusing on a niche area that is a passion for them.

 Thinking of what this might mean for my own work: it indicates that documenting and sharing your process through social media is an important activity for engaging interest from the wider public. This reiterates the OCA’s Introductory Course’s advice on keeping a sketchbook and log.