Sourcing Craft Materials in the 21st Century

Plymouth College of Art in association with the School of Arts and Humanities, Royal College of Art. Convener: Dr Peter Oakley, Reader in Material Culture at the Royal College of Art.


Acknowledging we live in a world in which makers can now be globally separated from the communities that develop the extraction and supply of materials, and the consumers that buy their products, this workshop will discuss what craft practitioners in the 21stcentury can and should know about the material supply chains they rely on to make objects.

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For most craft practitioners, working with physical materials is a fundamental part of their practice. Many specialist craft-based disciplines, such as ceramics, glass, leatherworking and silversmithing, are actually defined by their respective materials. Others, including jewellery, instrument making and textiles, operate around a hierarchy of established materials that professional practitioners have to choose to adopt or reject.

These specialisms have long histories, sometimes stretching back thousands of years. In some cases they came to define the identities of entire communities e.g. Jingdezhen, the ‘porcelain capital’ of China; the ironworking centre of Tsubame-Sanjo in Japan; the Venetian glassblowing island of Murano in Italy; or the lapidary town of Idar Oberstein in Germany. However, the material needs and practices of these communities developed under very different circumstances to today. Not only were the raw materials originally obtained using less ecologically damaging technologies that relied on animal, water, wind, or manpower, the amounts of materials they required were more limited due to the relatively small consumption levels, which reduced the overall level of impact and allowed finite resources such as woodland to regenerate. In many cases, the maker communities worked near to their sources of materials and relatively close (by contemporary standards) to the people that used their products. This proximity facilitated dialogue between those involved in the stages of materials extraction or harvesting, object fabrication, and consumption. That said, even prior to the industrial revolution many mineral deposits were completely worked out and landscapes reconfigured by unsustainable ‘small-scale’ production. For example, over the course of the 17thand 18thcenturies the once extensive Wealden Forest of south-east England was decimated by the insatiable need for wood to fuel local artisan iron foundries.

More recent times have seen human interventions affecting landscapes and ecosystems increase in both number and scale, leading to the start of a new geological age, the Anthropocene. The arrival of this era has been driven in part by an ever-growing population aspiring to own a multitude of material goods, together with the development of the technological wherewithal to extract or harvest, process and transport almost incomprehensible amounts of raw materials to service and stimulate this need.

As a consequence, the sources of many once apparently abundant materials are either reaching exhaustion, or the current levels of exploitation are now known to be having widespread and dramatic consequences. There has arisen a need to legally restrict, or even completely prohibit, the harvesting of once valued or commonplace materials extensively used by craft disciplines, such as coral, ivory and reptile skins, and demands that makers switch to apparently more sustainable alternatives. The effect of these changes on long-established local maker communities that traditionally relied on these materials for their livelihoods have been far reaching, though little acknowledged. Today, campaigners are also forcing manufacturers and retailers operating in different branches of the creative industries across the world to take an active stance in relation to the activities of mining and logging corporations, or directly assist subsistence farmers, shepherds and miners in the developing world situated at the start of material supply chains. In addition, there has been a proliferation of campaigns using strategies based on the successful anti-fur demonstrations of the 1980s and 90s. These are now having an impact on a wide range of producers, including craftspeople, through to the attitudes of the consumers they rely on for a living. The appearance of a multitude of ethical certification programmes, claiming secure and justifiable provenance for materials as varied as diamonds, leather, gold, and tropical hardwoods, bears witness to the growing importance of these concerns, as well as the expectations of activists operating in this arena.

As well as discussing what craft practitioners in the 21stcentury can and should know about the material supply chains they rely on to make objects. This workshop will also consider how responses to recent developments can inform or alter making practices. The workshop convener has followed the issues of ethical sourcing as they apply to the jewellery industry over the past decade, so is aware of the strength of feeling these issues can engender. The workshop is intended to be a ‘safe space’ where problems can be openly and respectfully discussed, and where multiple viewpoints can be aired. It has been convened in order to help people reach or test their own approach, as well as introduce or reflect on recent research findings speaking to this topic, rather than attempting to come to any specific communal position or pass judgement on the relative value of different approaches or responses.

We invite papers and practice-led case studies to, and participation in, a workshop that will explore contributions from anyone with experience or insights on ethical issues affecting material sourcing relating to craft practice in the 21stcentury, either from a research, practitioner or educational perspective.

The expectation is that contributors will each provide a substantial and individual contribution to the overall debate through their submitted papers. Audience members, from the ideologically committed to the curious, are also welcomed to the workshop.

Note that this workshop is being convened as the first stage in the creation of a professional network on ethical sourcing across the creative industries, with a strong emphasis on craft activities. The intention is that the network, consisting of practitioners using, and academics researching, overtly ethical supply chains, will continue to work in partnership with the Making Futures research platform, whilst also developing a distinctive individual remit of its own.