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Crafts Council

Supporting Diversity and Expertise Development in the Contemporary Craft Economy

Project update and working paper

Blog by Dr Karen Patel, Birmingham City University

It is now almost a year into the project ‘Supporting Diversity and Expertise Development in the Contemporary Craft Economy’, short name ‘Craft Expertise’. In November 2019 I presented initial findings from my interviews and observations to the Crafts Council team. I have written up my presentation into an informal working paper, which highlights the experiences of a group of women of colour in the UK craft industry.

In summary, there are barriers for people in minority groups to become professional makers which are social (including instances of racism and othering), cultural and economic. For those who are not from a relatively privileged background or with the necessary networks and educational level, it is particularly difficult to make a career and be adequately recognised in the sector.

One of my interviewees experienced outright racism at a craft market, many others speak about microaggressions from fellow makers, suppliers and customers, making them feel unwelcome in certain craft spaces. Microaggressions include looks, comments and preconceptions about the makers and their work which mean that sometimes they feel they are being judged because of their gender, class and/or ethnic origin, and not their work.

Microaggressions can make the craft industry unwelcoming for people who are not white and middle class, and there needs to be much more awareness of these problems. Diversity schemes which set out to increase the numbers of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people in craft can work to an extent in terms of greater representation of diverse creatives. However, they can’t solve the underlying problems about how makers from BAME backgrounds, and their work, are perceived. For the remainder of the project I will continue carrying out interviews and analysis, and work with the Crafts Council towards addressing the issues highlighted so far. Read the full working paper here

Also on the project I have produced two episodes of the Maker Stories podcast series, in which I interview inspirational craftswomen from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in the UK. There are three more episodes to follow this year. In December 2019 the project conference was held at STEAMHouse in Birmingham. The event included a great mix of academics and practitioners sharing their research and thoughts on diversity in the craft economy. Read a recap of the event here. Videos of talks from the event will be available soon.

About the project

Craft Expertise is a two-year UKRI/RCUK Innovation Fellowship funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project aims to address issues around diversity and inequalities in the craft sector, and explore how it could be more inclusive. For more information visit the Craft Expertise website.

March 2019

Over the past year I have been working with Crafts Council UK to explore how social media could support diversity in craft. That project, funded by the AHRC’s Creative Economy Engagement Fund (CEEF), has now ended. The good news is that we have now moved into a new phase after being awarded a two-year AHRC Leadership Fellowship which ends in 2021. The new project, titled ‘Supporting Diversity and Expertise Development in the Contemporary Craft Economy’ seeks to build on the initial insights from the CEEF to develop both academic and practical outputs to support diversity in craft.

From the previous project, which involved interviews with 17 women makers of colour and two social media workshops, the key findings are as follows:  

  • Many of the women who were interviewed and took part in the workshops experienced a lack of confidence with using social media and building a presence online. Some of them, particularly the black women, felt that their ethnicity might devalue their work. Similar sentiments have been expressed in recent online conversations around racism in the knitting community.
  • For many of the participants, family and upbringing played an important role in developing a passion for craft and a desire to pursue craft further. Some felt a sense of duty to preserve the craft expertise of the past. However, growing up, many participants were discouraged from seriously pursuing a craft career by parents wanting them to aspire to seemingly more ‘secure’ occupations in accounting, law or medicine. There remains a perception with some families that craft is not a ‘proper job’ but a domesticated part of everyday life.
  • Though it presents challenges, all participants felt that social media was something they needed to use in order to make a living from their craft. One opportunity is the potential for BAME women makers to share the work of each other, potentially amplifying online visibility through ‘mutual aid’ on social media. Another opportunity is for makers to join or create online ‘safe’ spaces, enabling them to share work with each other, gain support and develop the confidence to grow their online presence for the benefit of their practice.

In the new project we want to address the challenges and opportunities which emerged during the CEEF, in particular the issue of racism and discrimination in certain craft communities. We will also explore how to facilitate safe spaces for makers, both online and offline. From a research perspective I aim to address how craft by women and in certain settings is perceived, by highlighting the expertise involved in making. Expertise is often associated with masculinised notions of power and authority – under-explored is the practical expertise of makers, particularly women makers of colour. Practical outputs from the project will include a podcast series with makers, a journal issue, a conference, a workshop and policy recommendations.

November 2018

On Friday October 5th I held the second social media workshop of this project at STEAMHouse in Birmingham. We continued to use the hashtag #BAMECraftUK to capture thoughts throughout the day. There were five attendees, all makers at different stages of their careers wanting to learn how to use social media for the benefit of their practice.

After introductions, Alexa Torlo of STEAMHouse provided an overview of the facility. STEAMHouse is a makerspace in central Birmingham ran by Birmingham City University and funded by Arts Council England. It provides opportunities for local makers to develop their skills and engage in interdisciplinary collaboration. After the introduction from Alexa I provided an overview of different social media platforms. I found that most of the participants were relatively inexperienced with social media. Two of the members had met before at a Google Garage workshop, but that facility has now closed in central Birmingham. They told me that free learning opportunities were valuable for them, not only to learn about social media but to socialise with other makers. While social media may provide a means through which some people can socialise, for those without the skills and/or confidence to use it they can find it particularly difficult to connect with other makers. As I have suggested in previous research, the opportunity for women creatives to connect and collaborate with others can be valuable, and social media platforms can potentially facilitate this activity.

In relation to the research questions I am exploring in this project, it was interesting to hear more about some of the barriers or challenges participants face with using social media. For the participants in this workshop such challenges mostly related to not knowing how to use the platform –Twitter was often mentioned in this respect. They struggled to see the usefulness of some platforms and this was often linked to not quite knowing their audience, and a lack of confidence with putting themselves ‘out there’ and not knowing who they are reaching. As with the previous workshop, some participants did not know what a hashtag was or how to use them, so I took some time to go through hashtags and how using them in posts can help people to find you, particularly on Instagram. Through running these workshops the value of taking people through aspects of social media which most might take for granted, such as hashtags. For many makers, social media use is a learning curve and is increasingly an important part of their daily routine which they must make time for. 

After the social media overview, Alexa ran an appreciative inquiry exercise. This was a positive and empowering activity which I would like to introduce in any future workshops I may run. Appreciative inquiry helps participants to focus on what they want to achieve, based on the successes of their past and the things they do well.

Alexa leading the appreciative inquiry exercise

After lunch the rest of the workshop was dedicated to helping makers plan their social media posting. This was followed by further discussion on the challenges around using social media, directed by suggestions from the previous workshop. These challenges include finding the time to post, which platforms to use, how to keep your presence consistent and how to avoid distraction or procrastination. Using case studies, I presented the benefits of social media planning to mitigate some of these challenges. Drawing on this discussion the makers devised a social media plan. Feedback from the workshop was very positive and the makers were happy with what they had learned. I would like to thank Alexa, the STEAMHouse team and the participants for helping to create such a productive environment in the workshop.

Me, Alexa and the participants. Photo by Naomi Fearon @LengthCheck on Twitter.

July 2018

On Friday June 8 I held the first workshop of the project. I was pleased to have 14 attendees, with many finding the event through the listing on the Crafts Council website, and five were interviewees I had already spoken to. The workshop was designed to be relatively informal, mostly consisting of group discussion. I drew on my own experience as a social media practitioner and the research from my PhD to devise the workshop. The first task for attendees was to come up with a hashtag for them to keep in touch with each other, and also to begin an online community. The hashtag was #BAMECraftUK and is accessible on Twitter and Instagram. The attendees welcomed the creation of this hashtag, which they hope to use as a relatively safe and supportive online space to share work and help each other.

Image courtesy of Karen Patel

The purpose of the workshop was for me to get a sense of the social media skill levels in the room, which varied. We had some discussion of platforms, which ones were most popular, what people used them for, and so on. Instagram and Facebook were the most popular. A few also said that LinkedIn was particularly useful for them, because they are able to ‘advertise’ their services and join relevant craft groups and communities to share knowledge. I was surprised by the popularity of LinkedIn among the makers, as it is primarily associated with business and corporates, a more ‘formal’ platform than the more ‘creative’ platforms such as Instagram. However, when starting a business, it is essential for makers to try and raise their online visibility as much as possible. The issue of visibility, and the online ‘voice’ of makers from ethnic minority backgrounds was a topic of importance in the group. In particular, how the makers feel their voices are obscured in the online space. Some felt that a collective approach, for example through the establishment of an online community for women makers of colour, could address these problems. Hopefully the hashtag is a start. In other research I have done I found that for women creatives in particular, community support and collaboration can be a helpful aspect of social media use.

Also a hot topic was the issue of Intellectual Property and copyright. Some makers felt that if they reveal too much about the work, particularly their creative process, they risk having their work copied by others. One of the good practice case studies I presented was an artist who liked to share step-by-step images of her work in progress on social media. Attendees felt that it was fine for artists to do that, but for makers they do not want to risk their techniques and expertise being copied by others. After all, their craft expertise is what makes their work unique and valuable. Large fashion companies were mentioned as problematic in this respect too, with some attendees feeling that such companies can culturally appropriate designs, a particular concern for women whose cultural background and heritage informs their practice. 

Image courtesy of Karen Patel

The second part of the workshop was a group activity and discussion, where small groups discussed particular challenges with social media. I wrote the ‘top’ challenges on a flipchart, and as a group we discussed potential solutions for each problem, drawing on the wealth of expertise in the room. We ran out of time so we couldn’t get through all of them, but attendees felt they had learned a lot about social media. Feedback overall was very positive, with all of the makers saying that the workshop either met or exceeded expectations.

I have learned a lot from this first workshop, and the makers have made me rethink my assumptions about how craft expertise can be effectively communicated, or signalled, on social media. My learning from this first workshop will be used to inform the second workshop, which will be held on Friday 5th October at STEAMHouse in Birmingham. More details to follow.

March 2018

I am now almost three months into this AHRC-supported Creative Economy Engagement Fund project in collaboration with the Crafts Council. For this project we are looking at how digital technology, mainly social media, could support diversity in craft practice. As stated in my previous blog post, I am looking for women makers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to participate in an interview and a free social media workshop ran by myself. I am still recruiting participants, so if you are interested, or know anyone who is, do get in touch at the email address below.
So far I have carried out eight interviews with makers from London and Birmingham, and already some interesting themes have emerged about the role of social media in craft practice and the specific experiences of BAME women.

Below the main themes emerging from the research so far:

  • For the women makers of Asian origin in particular, family and cultural expectations have sometimes made it difficult for them to make a career out of craft initially, because it is expected they would go into a more ‘secure’ or prestigious job. This raises questions about how craft practice, particularly by women, is valued in some cultures.
  • Many of the participants are wary of appearing too ‘sales-like’ or ‘pushy’ on social media. Also, some do not feel confident with revealing aspects of their practice or personal lives online, and prefer to keep their social media presence ‘strictly professional’. Such sentiments are also evident in my PhD, my paper with Annette Naudin (Naudin and Patel, 2017) and in accounts of women’s self-promotion by Genz (2014) and Scharff (2015). The lack of confidence with self-promotion may be even more apparent among BAME women, which I am looking to explore further.
  • Some participants discussed the tensions between using social media and the nature of their craft practice. Some makers become immersed in the slow pace and detail of making, and for them this is at odds with the fast pace and brevity of social media. This is an interesting theme emerging which raises questions about the role of social media use in craft practice.
  • The next steps are to continue recruiting participants for interviews and the workshop, and then arrange and devise the London workshop which will take place in June. I will also be holding a workshop in Birmingham in the autumn. The workshops will involve me sharing some social media skills and tips from my own professional experience working in social media. I also want to work with makers to tailor social media guidance for them, with a view to creating some useful resources.

For more details about this project and if you are interested in participating please contact me at karen.patel@mail.bcu.ac.uk.

January 2018

I am very pleased to be working on a research project with the Crafts Council looking at how digital technology, particularly social media, could support diversity in craft practice. It is funded by the AHRC’s Creative Economy Engagement Fellowship which supports projects which are broadly aligned with the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy.

The project arises from some themes which emerged from my PhD research, which looked at how creative workers signal expertise on social media. I focused on 19 UK creative workers from a variety of fields such as craft, fine art, literature and composition, interviewing them about their careers and social media use. I also analysed samples of their social media posts using a signalling expertise framework I developed. Some of my method and initial findings are featured in a chapter I published last year in a collection on collaboration in the creative industries.

During the research gender emerged as a significant theme; I noticed that the women participants behaved differently online compared to the men. Whereas the men shared a lot of their own work, the women tended to share the work of others, and engage in conversation with each other, rather than only pushing their own work. The women seemed to be wanting to help each other, even if they were in potential competition for customers. Using social media seemed to reap clear benefits for some of my participants – one woman used social media marketing to become a relatively successful portrait artist, whereas others who live in rural areas valued the online communities and support. Such online communities seem important for a collective raising of visibility of women’s art and craft. However in my general scoping of online hashtags such as #handmadeuk, it seemed that the most visible online communities were quite homogenous.

In this project I want to investigate this further, in the specific case of women from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and in the area of craft. A significant part of the Craft Council’s mission is to encourage diversity in craft, and while there has been a 5% increase in BAME participation in craft since 2014, the participation rate is still estimated to be at 15.3%. Furthermore, my previous research suggests that online spaces for creatives and craft workers are even less diverse. I am looking to explore this in greater depth, and work with makers to come up with solutions for BAME women to develop social media skills, think through critical issues about social media and diversity, and hopefully develop some useful resources and outputs.

The project began on 1st January 2018 and will run for 10 months. I will post updates as the project progresses! For more information please contact me at karen.patel@mail.bcu.ac.uk.