• Nick Morley

The contemporary craft of digital print

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

The contemporary craft of digital textile printing

Craft is primarily about how we organise work, not about technology.

“…the best workmanship and the best taste is invariably to be found in those manufactures and fabrics wherein handicraft is entirely or partially the means of producing the ornament.” (Manual of Design, Richard Redgrave, 1876, quoted in (1)).

Craft invites as many definitions as there are activities. However definitions that appeal personally involve the mastery of a technique; tacit knowledge that is learned from doing; and the co-ordination of the hand, the eye and the mind. But that misses a key aspect that go back to the formation of the craft guilds themselves. In “The Progress of Captain Ludd”[1] Paul Greenhalgh identifies the politics of work as the most important of his three aspects of craft. Craftspeople were generally organised as individuals or collectives because of their tacit knowledge, and were therefore less likely to be exploited. Today crafts also tend to be kept alive in smaller companies – it’s difficult to think of a large scale multi-national enterprise that relies upon craft skills.

Craft is technology neutral and co-evolves with technology. A curated exhibition of contemporary craft organised by the UK Crafts Council[2] included examples of digital textile printing, computer-aided design and manufacture, additive and subtractive manufacturing, all of which contain aspects of hand and eye. The boundary between the hand-made and the machine-made has always been very porous. For example, there are very few artefacts that can be constructed entirely without machine assistance (hand coiled pots are one type where this is possible), since most crafts rely directly or indirectly upon tools that are produced by machine. Many digital techniques and their preparation and finishing techniques rely upon interpretation, adaption, experimentation and tacit knowledge.

Today there is thinking that by using older techniques in textiles such as screen printing rather than digital printing, that this is somehow intrinsically better as it evokes a greater sense of craft and skill. This thinking is wrong: digital techniques demonstrably can be craft; it is the organisation of the work, be it screen printing or digital printing, that gives real meaning to the word “craft”. Hand printing factories can be exploitative, unsafe and polluting, as can digital print, albeit probably to a much lesser extent.

Although William Morris was keen to promote hand work, his factory at Merton Abbey addressed the organisation of work as well as the promotion of traditional technologies. It is the allowing of machines to be our masters and not our servants that so injures the beauty of life nowadays.’ Technology is neutral.

There is an undeniable attraction of the hand-made in luxury products. But perhaps it is the story behind hand making, and the way it connects us with the maker, rather than the hand making per se. So the challenge to makers using more recent technologies is to communicate their making story, not to change technology.

So the equating of hand-made with craft is not true, and never has been. The dignity of craft is misguided: it is the dignity of people within work organisations that the tacit knowledge of craft made possible. We need to encourage work organisations that respect workers and the environment, irrespective of technological basis. That is truly respecting the heritage of craft.

© Nicholas Morley 2016

[1] In “The Culture of Craft”, Peter Dormer (ed) Manchester University Press 1997 [2] “Lab Craft – Digital Adventures in Contemporary Craft” Crafts Council Touring Exhibition 2010

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