Transforming materials and the maker

By Martyn Rawson, March 2020

From an evolutionary perspective tools and the social practices they were embedded in and how these responded to the environments people dwelled in, were crucial to the emergence of human societies.

The intentional modifying and shaping of material to extend our physical capacities, whether for shelter and warmth, nourishment, ornament, communication or symbolism, it has driven human culture for the past two and half million years – at least that is the age of the earliest stone artefacts we know. As the bio-geographer and anthropologist Jonathan Kingdom suggests in his book Self-Made Man (and his undoing), the carrier bag, made from an animal hide with the legs tied together was probably the first revolutionary tool. Like the great majority of human artefacts made from plant or animal materials, these are invisible in the archaeological record but its significance for human culture is unmistakable – it frees the hands for work, nurture and gesture. Kingdon suggests that cordage must be as old; plant fibres and vines, animal skins, guts and tendons must have been used for porterage, dragging, binding and bundling, later for mats, baskets, strings, traps, nets and cats’ cradles very early on, along with stone flakes for cutting and slicing.

The point about tools is not just their usefulness and their enhancement of early human ‘fitness’, artefacts are also symbols and metaphors and must have co-evolved with language as expression of primary concepts. The experience, the artefact, the meaning and the words co-evolve and drive changes in consciousness (not the other way round as many think). If we think of material metaphors, this shows us the symbolic power of artefacts and how this relates to our embodied nature, our corporeality. If we use the metaphor of landscape to refer to the conceptual construct of dwelled-in space, the body is our first ‘scape’. It is our first constructed ‘home’. It contains us and also enables us to move, interact and relate to the world and is also a surface for art. Habits are the embodied patterns of such behaviours that we have learned through doing.

The body is a container for the spirit and soul. A pot is a container to keep things in, as is a storage pit, a hut or a palace, a boma, a kraal, a manse, a farmstead, and ultimately a village, town or city. Houses are bodies for the family and the community. A grave is house for the dead, the funeral urn or coffin a container for the body. The container is an archetypical artefact with symbolic meaning. The binary other of the container is the instrument, the active partner to the more passive container. Another archetype is the pathway, tracks, songlines, straight lines and curves drawn on surfaces, journeys, the trajectory of a spear throw, the flight of an arrow – are all linear forms that mark movements from here to there in space and time and provide direction. The net is another metaphor for what links things and people in networks. The net is also a container but a permeable one that is, like a sieve or a filter, selective. Such artefacts are social technologies, material proxies for the body and for identities and relationships. Crafting is their making, their poiesis, and this is embedded in meaning-making social practices as praxis.

This little excursion into philosophical anthropology should whet our interest for Crafting – the book (books and pictures are containers too as well as being instruments to prompt, goad and direct our thinking). The fifteen co-authors who crafted this book under the editorial guidance of Jonathan Code and the inspiration of Bernard Graves- a veritable Chronos of the crafting community- have put together a fascinating and beautiful book. The book is, as one would expect, well-crafted – that is, intelligently structured, appropriately sourced and presented and offers an overview of this important field. The title is aptly chosen and plainly states on the cover what it is inside it (as good labels on containers should) – namely the process of transformation of human energies through engagement with natural materials to generate culture. It does redefine learning- though it would benefit from a more comprehensive discussion of learning theory (but that is just a quibble of learning theorist).

The thing about crafting is that it is not just another retrospective, traditionalist, nostalgic, English Heritage museum activity for idle and green urbanites- crafting is vital in a post-industrial, post-everything world. Of course it connects with intelligent traditions of crafts-personship (a neologism that needs better crafting) but it connects to what Richard Sennett identified in his book The Craftsman as a template for contemporary living- doing things that are worthwhile and doing them well. The craft of making things- and here in Crafting we are introduced to primary materials and techniques using wood, clay, fire, metal, glass – is about how we deal with others, how we deal with relationships, how we manage challenges and ambiguities, how we practice and revise and correct- in short how we learn in ways that transform us. Crafting starts with curiosity and interest, with participation and engagement. It values experience, it give it form and shape and transforms it. The ethic of crafting is taking pride in one’s work, sharing and being useful.

The pedagogical implications are massive. I write this in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown (in Hamburg). All schools, public institutions, public transport and parks are closed. Teachers have been told to provide their pupils with instant online learning activities and parents are impatient. One colleague I know was recording a short video to show students how to make a felt cap. Desperate measures (though more meaningful than most efforts) for desperate times. The outdoor curriculum is vital and crafting is very much central to this. My impression internationally is that the UK has a strong tradition in crafting- other nations perhaps get out more into the outback, bush, mountains and onto the water – but in the UK the crafting experience, as illustrated in this book, is hugely valuable as a pedagogical resource. The origins of Crafting has its roots not only in Romanticism and its reaction to the demystification of the world through rationality and its return to pre-industrial values, but also in understandings (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit) of how the life processes are transformed into embodied intelligence – an idea suggested by Rudolf Steiner – whose contribution is valorized in the book. This is the really creative idea that came to expression in Ruskin Mill, the Hiram Trust, Pyrites and other iterations.

I can warmly recommend this book. It doesn’t explain everything- nor could it, but it provides a rich context and examples to stimulate the imagination and will. This cultural practice is much needed, not just as a compensation for sedentary, skill-less existences in the digital world but essentially to re-connect us to what makes us human in the first place.

Crafting: Transforming materials and the maker. Radically redefining learning. Eds. Bernard Graves & Jonathan Code. Hands on Press Association by


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