Usually, when we think of our contemporary culture, we believe ourselves to be the pinnacle of humanity—in particular when it comes to our material goods. We assume to have the most advanced technologies when it comes to production of our things. But what if that wasn’t actually true?
Since I’m into textiles, I like to look into textile technologies from other cultures, older cultures, even ancient cultures. What I see, not just in that area, but in many areas, is the demise of craftsmanship and the rise of quantity production at the expense of craftsmanship.
Products used to be made by craftspeople. Decisions about those products were made based on what was desired and needed most by the people and the community and by creatively solving a problem in a way that benefitted the people. Nowadays most products are made by large corporations, where it is the law that decisions are made based first on creating profit for the shareholders. Even if a company wanted to consider people’s health or well-being first, they couldn’t.
While researching dyes and art in Eastern Europe, I came across many techniques, processes, and color recipes particular to individual cultures. The choices that led to these colors and methods of working, not to mention the final products, are largely lost to time. And sometimes, they are rediscovered.
For example: I enjoy a glass of red wine, but when I recently drank the same wine out of a glass specifically shaped for bringing out the tasting notes of red wines, it really did have a more layered flavor, and for all I know, it’s even healthier that way. I’m not sure why I was surprised. I can only imagine that the shapes of old drinking vessels may have been based on maximum health or flavor absorption of the contents, and likewise, colors or plants used in a garment often (maybe always) had purpose beyond decoration.
Scottish clans identified each other by their tartan colors and patterns. Traditional Japanese cultures dyed clothes with indigo as a natural insect repellant. In the same culture, fermented persimmon juice was applied to sake bags for its antibacterial properties and eventually gave the bags a leather-like appearance. And baby blankets in Japan were made with corners for the baby to chew on that were dyed with antibacterial plants to keep the baby healthy. In our culture, baby blankets are covered with flame-retardant chemicals and grown in fields doused in pesticides and chemical fertilizers that disrupt developing systems and have been proven to cause disease. These cultural decisions are made in distinctly different ways.
Humans have made choices based on reasons other than profit, for a very long time. Over many generations, life experience refined the needs and desires of the community’s people into their material goods. The beautiful Slovak indigo dyed ensemble pictured above is so specific to the area, using particular patterns and materials, but I haven’t discovered why these particular patterns and colors were used there. It’s not just craftsmanship that is lost to mass production, but the reasons behind the craftsmanship.
Art and craft today is considered an extra for those with the time or money for it. It’s often added on after the fact. But people are hungry for it, and not just because it’s pretty. It’s wired into us to use art and craft as solution—antibacterial baby blankets, insect repelling plant dyes, familial identification, and on and on, if we let it.