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Visit to Finland and Estonia

At the end of November Martyn, Stella and I (Tom) went to Helsinki in Finland to visit Sirpa Kokko  and then to Viljandi in Estonia to visit Ave Matsin. You may remember that these two ladies had visited the Leeds end of the Design Routes project in the summer. We had a number of objectives on this visit and an unfortunately short timescale in which to achieve them. They were:

  • Test the latest form of the strategy taxonomy
  • Talk about possible future collaborations and funding to make this possible
  • Do a bit of spinning in Viljandi.….….….….….….….……well Tom’s objective really

In terms of the first objective we carried out a test exercise with Masters students of the department of Craft Science and Textiles Education at the university of Helsinki. Then we carried out the same exercise with staff of the department of Native Crafts at Viljandi Culture Academy (part of the University of Tartu). Both exercises went well and we got lots of good feedback (both positive and negative) to help us refine the taxonomy. Stella and I had already carried out a pilot test with 32 MA Design students at Leeds. Armed with all this feedback Stella is making good progress with work on the taxonomy and Martyn is making arrangements to turn this into an interactive online tool for designers, design researchers and teachers.

We had a Skype meeting on the morning of our day at Helsinki with the three of us, Sirpa, Ave and a professional carpenter from Sweden named Ulrik. We are now poring over possibilities to aim at European funding calls.

Tom got to play (sorry…work) in the wool mill at Viljandi Culture Academy and had a great time. Only regret was the shortage of time. This is a great project. Watch out in the future.

Tom works will wool as Ave looks onTom and Ave at the woollen mill in ViljandiMartyn and Ave outside in the snowMartyn and Ave on a walk in Viljandi



Bruce Carnie in Ernebella

Some months ago I interviewed Dr Bruce Carnie, a Lecturer in Textile Design at the University of Leeds, for the Design Routes research. I was interested in hearing about Bruce’s thoughts on working with traditional patterns, and the difference between ‘taking inspiration’ and ‘revitalising’.

Bruce spoke about his experiences as a teacher and also as a professional textile designer, working primarily in Australia. One of these experiences was a hands-on example of revitalisation he had been directly involved in. Here’s a brief summary of the story:

In the mid 1980s, Bruce spent three months working in an aboriginal community in the centre of Australia, Ernebella (now known as Pukatja) to engage the young people with silk-screen printing. Before travelling to the community, Bruce needed to learn the language, and gain an understanding of its culture.

Check out the incredible landscape!

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The project aimed to support the young people to translate culturally significant patterns - originating in sand paintings - through silk screen printing. This craft was new to the community, although batik was well-established, having been introduced by a missionary some decades earlier.

Here are just a few of the designs created by the young people - with the girls, in particular, working with the traditional patterns:

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Bruce explained that the experience of this project shaped his thinking about the moral issues surrounding the use of traditional patterns - and directly affected the way he approached briefs then given to him as a professional textile designer.

Many thanks to Bruce for sharing the story, and the slides. You can read more about arts in Pukatja on the fantastic Ernebella Arts website.

Hack the Smock

Last week I had the pleasure of running an intensive two-day design and making workshop (or ‘hack’), exploring methods for revitalising the traditions of the English smock and English smocking.

This was a valuable opportunity for me to investigate revitalisation through creative activity, and to test and share the ‘taxonomy of revitalisation strategies’ that I have been developing throughout the Design Routes research project.

About smocks and smocking

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The smock has been described as ‘the most important garment in the history of English folk costume’. During the 18th century it developed - probably evolving from earlier undergarments - into a protective overgarment worn by agricultural workers. Smocks are characterised by areas of ‘smocking’ - intensely pleated fabric, secured by decorative stitching - and by areas of surface embroidery. By the late 19th century the smock was declining in popularity, although smocking was reinvented as a hobby needlework technique, frequently used for babywear.

Today, despite the resurgence of interest in dressmaking and sewing, there doesn’t seem to be much smocking going on - perhaps because it can only be worked by hand, and is a pretty slow process. (People often confuse smocking with shirring, a much quicker method of gathering using elastic thread and a sewing machine). And, in my experience, the tradition of the English smock is not well-known.

I selected smocks and smocking as the source material for the workshop because of their flexibility. There are various elements of smocking that could be used as a basis for experimentation: the intensely pleated fabric, the patterns stitched into the pleats, the traditional smock garment shape, the embroidered motifs, and so on.

About the workshop

Nine people were involved in the workshop. All had skills and experience in textiles but they came from a range of backgrounds: staff and students, professional and amateur makers, textile designers and garment makers.

The loose challenge posed to the participants was ‘to revitalise the English smock and/or English smocking’. To explain further, I offered my definition of revitalisation: ‘Revitalisation initiatives bring new life to a cultural form while aiming to retain, or even enhance, the social, historical and aesthetic values associated with it.’

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We started the first day by trying out the basic technique of smocking, guided by textile artist and all-round stitching expert Ruth Singer. As the day unfolded, we started to experiment with different materials and stitches, and through discussion we generated a broad range of revitalisation ideas.

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I shared the draft taxonomy with the group to provide inspiration, and on day 2 I was able to map the diverse ideas we had generated onto the various strategies contained within it.

These ideas included a beginners’ smocking kit for children; a fabric woven with regular ‘running stitch’ threads to eliminate the initial step of the smocking process; a ‘mash up’ of smocking with Indonesian textiles; a ‘Leeds smock’ … and many more!


Thank YOU for such a great workshop! I really enjoyed it and it was lovely to meet so many fantastic people.”

I shall certainly be continuing to experiment and go on to use my particular take on smocking in its various forms.”

It was really good fun and very inspiring”

Can’t stop smocking!”

Outcomes and analysis

In immediate terms the workshop has contributed to the development of the taxonomy of revitalisation strategies, helping me to identify areas for consolidation and improvement. A final version of the taxonomy is now well under way.

Hack the smock

I’m hoping to find a way of communicating the diverse ideas generated during the workshop as a means of illustrating how flexible the taxonomy is, and how many different approaches can be developed from a single starting point.

I’m also looking forward to analysing the rich conversations which took place during the process of making, concerning tradition, revitalisation and ‘scaffolds’ to support individual activity. I have many hours of audio recording, and a fab time-lapse video, to draw on.

Thanks again to all the participants in the workshop!

Visitors from Finland and Estonia

IMG_1341At the beginning of June we were delighted to welcome two European visitors to the University of Leeds in connection with the Design Routes research project: Dr Sirpa Kokko, Adjunct Professor and University Lecturer in Craft Science and Textiles Teacher Education at the University of Helsinki in Finland; and Ave Matsin, Head of Department of Native Crafts at Viljandi Culture Academy, part of the University of Tartu in Estonia.

Tom met Sirpa at the Making Futures conference last year, and discovered a shared interest in craft skills and cultural heritage. Sirpa then told us about the fascinating work taking place in Estonia, led by Ave - and we hatched a plan for a visit.

On Day 1 Martyn and I gave a presentation about the Design Routes research, and particularly the taxonomy of revitalisation strategies which forms a major output of the project. Sirpa and Ave then gave fantastic presentations about their work, which gave us a great overview of their interests and experience in culturally significant designs, products and practices. We then took them on a tour of the School of Design, and the three textile-related archives at the University of Leeds.


On Day 2 we organised a series of presentations on completed and ongoing student PhD, MSc and BA projects which connect with the Design Routes research, including work by Dr Meong Jin Shin, Dr Manju Sugathan, Zi Young Kang, Bintan Titisari and Viktorija Sakalyte. Dr Bruce Carnie spoke about the live brief given to Collaborative Marketing students by the National Coppice Federation. We then took a trip to York involving a whirlwind tour of the Minster, lunch and afternoon tea!

IMG_1338On Day 3, to make the most of our remaining time together, Ave, Sirpa and I looked in more detail at the taxonomy of revitalisation strategies, discussing the different approaches and examples of work by staff and students at Viljandi Culture Academy that exemplified different strategies. Both Ave and Sirpa made many very useful suggestions that will feed into the next draft of the taxonomy. By this point we had established that we had much in common and were all very interested in the idea of working together in the future, so to finish off we discussed ideas for future research.

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to Sirpa and Ave for taking the time to come and visit, and we look forward to working with you in the future (whatever the post-Brexit funding landscape may be!).

Heritage Crafts Association conference: Crafts Across Continents

HCA-logoLast week I had the pleasure of attending the Heritage Crafts Association conference once again. Last year’s event was very relevant to the Design Routes research, and this year’s was no different.

All of the talks were very interesting, and it was great to hear an update on the National Trust’s Artisan and Craft range. Several of the collections in this range correspond directly with our ‘location-based craft’ strategy cluster - for example using materials from, or being made within, a specific National Trust site.

But I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to hear two people speak whose work I have been looking at for our research.

Ritu Sethi is Chairperson of the Craft Revival Trust in India. Ploughing through the archive of the Trust’s website as part of my research into culturally significant designs, products and practices has given me an appreciation of the huge amount of work that has been carried out in this area in India.

At the conference Ritu spoke compellingly of the many challenges faced by traditional crafts across India, including the problem of mass-produced imitations of heritage products and the decline of traditional markets and models of apprenticeship. As she explained, however, much has been achieved in the past few decades in terms of equipping and empowering craftspeople.

Ritu described various initiatives that have provided support in terms of design, marketing and technical assistance. She spoke of the impact of these initiatives which support women to step out from the home, and the ‘ripples’ in the communities where they take place. When asked about the impact of outsiders seeking to intervene in declining traditions, she explained that it often helped people to value their crafts. As she said, ‘When you’re given respect, you realise you hold in your hands a great tradition.’

Ritu also talked about the success of the Encyclopaedia of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia - which gets millions of hits every year, despite being run on a shoestring. She also discussed the importance of Geographical Indications - a scheme which tags products as being associated with a particular location. Despite the value of these many initiatives, as Ritu concluded: ‘There are many gaps.’

Eivind Falk is Director of the Norwegian Crafts Institute, which was established in 1987. I had previously heard about the Institute’s work in relation to the documentation of traditional craft skills, so I was pleased to hear Eivind talk about these projects in more detail.

The Institute is very active in this area, organising between 25 and 30 projects to transmit craft knowledge from one generation to the next every year, in Norway and other countries. Each project involves a ‘bearer’ of the craft knowledge, a young maker to learn the craft, and someone to document this process using video. These videos are useful for the learner to check details of the bearer’s practice at a later date.

Eivind described one project which focused on the traditional craft of cutting ice. In the past this ice would have been used as a means of cooling food (and, amazingly, was exported to distant countries). While refrigeration has made this application redundant, ice is now in great demand in Norway as a temporary building material. In this project, the bearer was a 97 year old ice cutter. The learner is now ‘big in the ice business’!

Eivind explained his view of the difference between tangible heritage (such as buildings) and intangible heritage (such as craft knowledge). As he said, if we don’t look after a building for 100 or 200 years, it may be in disrepair, but will still exist. Knowledge is different: when the last bearer of a craft tradition dies, it’s gone. Finally, he talked about a scholarship scheme which enables traditional craftspeople to ‘deep dive’ in their craft. This has supported makers including boat builders, national costume makers, watch makers, and makers of traditional Sami dress.


Workshop accepted for the Design Research Society Conference 2016

Our workshop - Design Ecologies: Products, Places & Communities - has been accepted for the 50th Anniversary Design Research Society Conference in Brighton, UK in June 2016.DRS_conference2016

Our workshop will consider potential strategies for revitalising traditional designs, products and practices. The Lancaster and Manchester team have carried out a detailed examination of what might be understood as a highly successful example of sustainment and/or revitalization. We conducted a 10 day field trip to Sante Fe and its environs in New Mexico (USA) to understand why, in this particular place, traditional craft practices are flourishing and are part of a thriving arts-based economy. The initial results of this research will be presented together with the researchers’ proposals for understanding traditional designs, products and practices within a broader appreciation of what we term a design ecologies.

Design ecologies comprise the interactions of a wide range of practices, organisations, resources, activities and connections that enable culturally significant designs, products and practices to flourish. In addition to these outer or externally verifiable factors, the workshop will also consider the priorities, perceptions, values and outlooks of those who are involved in the sustainment of these culturally significant traditions. Our research in design ecologies are strongly related to tradition, culture, localisation, sustainability, identity and spirituality.

Framed by an introductory presentation that will contextualise the concept of design ecologies, our 1.5 hour workshop will include a series of participatory activities that probe the ideas presented and invite participants to engage in group-based activities that lead to a series of distinct outcomes that will contribute to the development of a more broadly applicable strategy for the sustainment and/or revitalization of culturally significant designs, products and practices.

Registration details are due on 15 April 2016 on the DRS website

So much activity!

Post-itsI returned to the project last week after a very enjoyable nine months of maternity leave. Despite not doing any actual work on the project during that time, I seem to have accumulated lots of interesting stuff - mainly through Twitter - that I needed to digest.

I’ve just added various new papers and articles to my literature review database, and also added about 40 new entries to an enormous spreadsheet in which I’m gathering, and analysing, examples of culturally significant designs, products and practices being revitalised in different ways.

That’s reminded me just how many amazing projects, businesses and organisations I’ve come across since starting the research.

To help us share some of these examples, I’ve decided to tweet one every day, at noon - keep an eye on our Twitter feed to see them!


Pueblo pottery

Our recent trip to Santa Fe provided opportunity to explore the pottery produced by Native Americans in the Pueblos of New Mexico. We are grateful to Andrew Fisher, owner of Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery in downtown Santa Fe, for her expert insight into the history and practices associated with Pueblo pottery.

pueblo_04Pueblo pottery is handmade by local Native Americans, almost exclusively women, who continue to follow traditional making practices that have been used for centuries. Made by the people whose culture they represent, Pueblo pottery is decorated with traditional designs and for the most part, is still ground-fired using local wood. The pottery is all hand made and not thrown on a wheel which, given the quality and precision of the finished pieces, is a testament to the high-level of skill of the makers. It does not use glaze rather the shine is the result of polishing a clay slip with a river stone or hide. It is only fired once so all decoration is undertaken before firing.

As the pottery is made only by women, the skills are passed down through the family by the older women to their daughters, yet men can be involved in the digging and cleaning of the clay thus it is often a husband and wife ‘combo’ who work together to produce the pottery. Given the different soil composition in the Pueblos, the pottery can be attributed to a specific Pueblo, and in some instances a particular family, and display particular characteristics that distinguish between Pueblos and makers.

pueblo_02The making process is relatively low-tech but has been refined over centuries. The clay dug from the ground and, as there is other material in the clay, it is dried then pounded by hand until its practically dust. It is sifted then soaked so anything that has been missed will sink to the bottom (if its heavy such as stones) or float to the top (if its light such as grasses, weeds or seeds). The top is skimmed off while the bottom is continually removed, and what remains is hopefully a pure product.

pueblo_03The Pueblo pots are created with coiled ‘worms’ of clay which are rolled out and stacked on top of each other. Some makers smooth them at this point, while other people pinch the clay to make the walls a little thinner. The thickness of the pieces are not solely dependent on the skill of the person but how the decoration is going to be applied or what the intended use will be.

After drying, a slip made from watery clay is usually painted on the outside, and with a very smooth river stone or a piece of hide, it is burnished. They will repeat this process - slip, burnish, slip, burnish, etc. to achieve the desired level of smoothness. Given the diversity of materials available, some Pueblos use a white slip made from kaolin (picked out of the cliff with a penknife) which is ground up and added to water. Pueblos have developed distinctive styles differentiating their work from others. Once decorated the pottery is ground-fired using local wood to complete the process.

pueblo_01The creation of Pueblo pottery is multifaceted. You have to be an engineer, you have to be a chemist, you have to be a botanist, you have to me a mathematician, and importantly and you have to have artistic talent to create this highly desirable traditional and authentic pottery.

Making Futures Conference

Making Futures 2While our colleagues at Lancaster and Manchester Metropolitan Universities were studying design ecology(ies) in Santa Fe, Tom attended the Making Futures conference organised by Plymouth College of Art. Set in the beautiful Mount Edgcumbe Hall, the theme of the conference was craft and the return of the maker in a post-global sustainably aware society. Tom gave a paper about Design Routes and attended more papers in the Translations Across Local Global Divides sub-theme. The conference was very well attended by an international audience. In particular a paper on craft as a cultural ecologically located practice was delivered by Patrick Dillon and there was another very interesting paper on craft in Estonia delivered by Sirpa Kokko.

Making Futures explores contemporary craft and maker movements as ‘change agents’ within 21st century society, particularly in relation to global sustainability agendas, social entrepreneurialism and community regeneration. Moving between the individual and the social, the personal and the collective, the conference investigates what it means to make and its future significations.

Working with the National Coppice Federation

NCD_imageIn collaboration with Dr Bruce Carnie at University of Leeds, we have been involved in a project with the National Coppice Federation to explore new packaging and brand concepts. As an organisation that has traditional values embedded in its DNA, the students will help to develop brand and marketing concepts.

The Collaborative Marketing & Promotion module offers students the opportunity to put marketing into practice through a team-driven business venture. Working as a simulated consultancy, fifteen final year students negotiate with representatives from the National Coppice Federation the scope of the project and key client requirements.

As part of the scoping and early stages of the project, Prof Martyn Evans presented an overview of the Design Routes project giving insight into the potential for reflecting traditional values in a contemporary context. We will keep you up to date on the project over the coming months.