In the late nineteenth century, a Romantic textile designer from Walthamstow invented the modern concept of “craft”. Yeah, it’s all his fault.
William Morris was born on 24th March, 1834. If you could have asked him him about that a few years later, and he would have told you this was 600 years too late. As a kid, he had his own suit of armour and would run around his family’s big garden pretending to be a knight. As a young adult, he vehemently rejected contemporary aesthetics in favour of medieval nostalgia.
Morris wasn’t alone. The Industrial Revolution may have started long before the Victorian era, but by the time Morris was at university the pace of progress was so rapid, and the human and environmental cost so great (it could also be argued that Morris was the godfather of the Green movement) that some people began to question whether it was “progress” at all.
He believed industrialisation had robbed people of dignity and purpose. Before factories and mills, if you made bread, or shoes, or chairs, or beer, you were a baker, a shoemaker, a furniture maker or a brewer, and your work was your own. Your craft involved the mastery of a number of different skills, and if you were any good, the way you combined them meant the end result of your skill and labour was unmistakably yours.
By contrast, when you went to work on a production line, you were reduced to doing one task over and over again, while the person next to you did another task, and so on, until at the end of the line, all the shoes or chairs looked exactly the same, and your contribution, your mark, was as invisible as everyone else’s.
Morris created workshops where skills were recombined, and individual craftspeople were allowed to make their own products as they saw fit. The craftsperson was given autonomy, control, job satisfaction, and ultimately, a sense of dignity that were not available to their counterparts in factories. The workers, the ideas they presented and the products they created became known as the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The word “craft” goes back to at least the 10th century, but its specific meaning today was invented by Morris. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship was just the way things were done, the way they’d always been done. Arts and Crafts arrived at a time when industrialised productions had become the normal way things were done. “Craft”, in its modern sense, is an alternative, a choice, a reaction against mainstream industrial production, against the way things are normally done.
As we sit here, reading and writing on our personal electronic devices while sitting on comfortable chairs in heated rooms, it’s a point of view many of us might feel sympathy with. But Morris and his work exposed the problems and contradictions at the heart of the idea of craft.
The reason industrialised production took off is because it allowed products to be made quicker and cheaper, and therefore more affordable. Factory workers may have been miserable at work, but at the end of the week they could actually afford to buy a pair of shoes, or a loaf of bread. (A new chair used to be something out of the reach of most people. Now you can buy an IKEA IVAR chair with the proceeds of two hours working on minimum wage.)
If you’re going to allow individual craftspeople the time and space to make things themselves, how they want to, and pay them fairly for doing so, their products can only be more expensive than those made in factories. The great irony of the Arts & Crafts movement was that pretty much the only people who could afford to buy what they made were the wealthy industrialists who they stood against. The movement eventually fell apart under the weight of its own contradictions.
But Morris’s ideas stuck around. The idea that something produced by a craftsperson was somehow inherently better that something made in a factory takes many forms. We assume it will be better quality than something mass-produced – even though this is by no means always true.
(Mainstream lagers may be bland and insipid, but craft products are far more variable.)
But many people also believe there’s a moral dimension to it – it’s better for the maker, who has a more fulfilling, meaningful job, but it’s also better for the consumer, because they’re supporting a small producer rather than big corporation, a more sustainable and less moral dubious form of business, one that isn’t big enough to bully its competitors, strip-mine the planet of resources, or exploit poorly paid workers.
(“Craft beer people are good people” and all that.)
Interestingly, Morris had a revival of interest in the 1970s – precisely when CAMRA began campaigning in the UK and what would later be called craft brewers started mashing in in the United States. Today, as interest in what we loosely refer to craft beer shows no sign of abating, interest in arts and crafts more broadly is booming again – FFS, even macramé is currently hip.
The picture of Morris above was taken when he was 53 – a year older than I am now. I suspect I could get away with using it as a picture of a middle-aged writer about craft beer today and no-one who doesn’t recognise him would suspect me of foul play. Not only does William Morris look like an ageing craft beer hipster, he would recognise all the contradictions and frustrations at the heart of craft beer, the discussions around it, the incessant need to define it, to own it or protect it, and, increasingly, the desire among producers to abandon the term.
His legacy shows why that might be a bad idea. Arts & Crafts, like craft beer, was easy to criticise, easy for those who wanted to to exploit it and manipulate it to do so, easy to dismiss as being expensive and over-hyped. But a century after its supposed demise, both it and its founder remain culturally vital. As long as we have cheap, mass-market, industrialised production making goods for everyone, we’re going to have niche craft versions produced as a counter-cultural alternative – available for anyone who can afford to buy them.
Enjoyed reading this? There’s a much fuller discussion of the relationship between craft beer and the broader origins of craft in my book Craft: An Argument – named Best Beer Book at the 2020 North American Beer Writers Awards.
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