The art of craft – the craft of art (by Olga Norris)

sashiko work pants

contemporary sashiko by Nuno

Interested to encounter Nancy’s post just as I was about to publish this one, I was struck by the fickle finger of coincidence, because what has inspired me recently is an aspect of craft. I have very little time and energy for serious aesthetic input these days, and so appreciate the opportunity to savour intense flavours.

A friend has recently been to York and has seen an exhibition on sashiko.  She sent me the leaflet, and intrigued I read the excellent article by Michele Walker on the website.  There is also a gallery there which made me keen to try to see the exhibition when in goes to Plymouth next year.

Michele Walker first came to my attention when I started thinking about quilts as more than another bed cover.  Her book  The Passionate Quilter was one of the first I acquired, and I was lucky enough to see her work with that of Jo Budd, Dinah Prentice, and Pauline Burbidge  in the glorious 1998 touring exhibition Take 4: New Perspectives on the British Art Quilt.  (Telos published the catalogue – I don’t know if it is still in print.)

I have not been as impressed by an exhibition of art quilts since – though that might partly be because I have become so much more informed and experienced.  However, I do find it most interesting that where Michele Walker has gone from there is to research history, purpose, social context, and technique – and I found this input really inspiring.  (That also might well be because I am emotionally on edge and exhausted most of the time, coupled with the fact that my own work derives its subject matter from the source of this emotional weariness: my relationship with my mother.)

Nonetheless, I feel heartened by the sashiko input – rather like the technique itself Walker has provided me with the base material, and I can work my own stitches with my own cultural pattern thereon.  And I believe that the art of craft is perhaps the fundamental preliminary to the craft of art.

(Another interesting view of Michele Walker’s more recent work is in Keepsakes of Identity 1.)

8 Responses to “The art of craft – the craft of art (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 shiborigirl January 1, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    june said-

    “I think the finest craft has got to be inculcated from a young age by a cultural milieu. But that’s a different subject.”

    yes, and sadly the number of youth that are missing this in their lives has risen at an alarming rate over the past couple of decades. a different subject indeed. it seems that conversations such as the ones that occur here at RCC may not be possible in the future as a result.

    for me, i seem to get the most out of learning a technique and process from studying the work of someone extremely masterful and refining/perfecting my output through practice and repetition. once i feel comfortable with that then i am more at ease with creating my own new work utilizing the process by inventing, building upon, and deconstructing what i have learned.

    in other words, a practice of sloppy craft does not lead me to do good work.

  2. 2 jude November 27, 2009 at 6:55 am

    a great post olga, and i sense something very familiar about your comment ob good work. i have been overwhelmingly saddened by some lack of something in the art quilting arena, thank you for the confirmation.

  3. 3 june November 23, 2009 at 8:25 am


    Thank you for your gracious response.

    I think Margaret’s comment, “Craft is best learned when there is an art context” applies to my own processes. It’s a terribly inefficient way to proceed — first do the work to discover what you don’t know or need to know, find a way to learn that stuff you must know, and then go back to the work, or on to new work, at last knowing what it is you needed to know to begin with.

    But I think, sometimes, if I knew how much I needed to know before I began (had taken Sewing Overview 101) I never would have started. I don’t think, had I known the perfections of fine sewing, that I could have overcome them and become so reckless in my quilted art. And if that art has any virtue, it’s that it’s kind of reckless.

    And certainly I nibbled at the edges of drawing and painting all the while I was doing quilted art, trying to achieve just enough knowledge to not be embarrassed. But I didn’t start at the beginning painting class (never took that one) and did drawing from a fellow who had us dance while we drew. Not Perspective 101. Even now, I find that I’m painting on materials that will require me to find someone who knows about painting on canvas when I get back home, so I can learn the proper way of painting on canvas.

    Once I’ve gotten a “feel” for the materials, I don’t mind learning the “proper” procedures and the way it really should be done. But until I’ve established my own bad habits, I try not to be taught the proper manners. They are too intimidating.

    One of the main points of “sloppy craft” was that DYI artists are now learning “as needed” instead of starting with sewing 101 and moving up to Quilting 101 and then to Studio Art 101.

    I suspect it’s a matter of temperament — lurking somewhere inside me is a timidity that would override any ability to push through what I’m calling the 101 instruction. I always have to leap off the cliff and then ask where I’m going. That way lies adventure.

    Thank you again for your post. I read the Walker article and was stunned by its content and intelligence. I think the finest craft has got to be inculcated from a young age by a cultural milieu. But that’s a different subject.

  4. 4 olganorris November 23, 2009 at 1:50 am

    June – I was too glib in my closing sentence, true, and should really expand. But partly I do think that this whole question of the relative values of art v. craft is also one of vocabulary and meaning. It takes craft to make art, and it takes art to make craft. The illustrations on the post are taken from the sashiko exhibition site and are there to provide allure and colour, and I admit do not attempt to illuminate my burblings.

    What I meant about MW’s article on sashiko providing me with material was that it reminded me that one’s own personal and creative history, culture, and context are the fundamental materials one should learn to craft in order to make good work. And really, I suppose above all I believe that one should aim to make good work, rather than aiming to make craft or art.

    Your piece on sloppy craft is still on my mind, and I should go back to that, but I’m afraid that like a greater expansion of this post will have to wait a wee while. But please do not apologise for reacting as you did. This community of creative thinking folks and blogs like yours on your wondrous adventure are keeping me sparky.

    Sheila – I so agree with what you say. Familiarity can breed a kind of contempt as well as an increase of admiration depending on what one is looking at. Also bandwagons and dilution are frequent bedfellows. And I very much agree – because I have recently looked at the catalogue – that all the individual pieces in the Take 4 exhibition stand up depressingly well against current art quilt output. But then, there’s art in quilt form, and quilts in art form, and the latter are what abound in a wide range of excellence. The former were in the Take 4 exhibition.

    Margaret – I think that constructive self criticism is of paramount importance, and a determination to learn to make the best work possible at whatever stage of one’s development.

  5. 5 margaret November 22, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Perhaps craft and art are a kind of rightbrain-leftbrain pair — they complement each other, need to be used in parallel, but one or other can dominate. Craft is best learned when there is an art context? Art can best (or only?) be made when there are adequate craft skills?
    Improvement, development in either needs critical skills: standing back from the work, seeing what can be done differently or better, finding out how. With craft there is usually a physical way to improve; with art, the path may lie elsewhere…

  6. 6 Sheila November 22, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    “I have not been as impressed by an exhibition of art quilts since – though that might partly be because I have become so much more informed and experienced.”

    I do think gaining more knowledge about a subject, and especially hands-on experience changes the way we look at others’ art. In some cases what once was a mystery, and thus very impressive, is no longer one, now that we know how it is achieved, and perhaps can achieve it ourselves. (My favorite example of this is Baltimore Album quilts. The first antique ones on the market commanded huge prices. But now that we’ve figured out how they were done, and many of us have mastered those techniques, the value of the antiques has diminished – mystery gone.)

    On the other hand, more information and experience can make us even more impressed, as we learn how much work & talent it takes to achieve excellence.

    And then again, there’s the bandwagon effect, so many jumping on the art quilt bandwagon, for instance, and diluting the field.

    My guess is that were you to see that Take 4 exhibit today, you would find it every bit as impressive as the first time, or at least most of it. Many of those early works have stood the test of time.

    In the meantime, I think you have it right – craft,then art. Craft definitely feeds a part of the soul, can be tapped into when there is nothing left for “serious aesthetic input.”

  7. 7 june November 22, 2009 at 7:20 pm


    I feel terrible about my comment above. I am greedy — and lost all sense of what it must have taken you to find the time and energy to write what you did. It’s only that I wanted more of you — as must too many people right now.

    I just wanted to apologize and say thank you for the post. I am happy that I will get to read Michelle Walker and would never have known of her article without your posting. And I will be thinking and thinking about your comments as I go about my work.

    So please, if you can, forgive my crass stupidity and accept my thanks for your work. I am embarrassed and red-faced at my insensitivity.

  8. 8 June November 22, 2009 at 6:15 pm


    Much as I dislike myself as being a gadfly to someone so good as yourself, I was shaken when your thoughts came to an end.

    You said, “I believe that the art of craft is perhaps the fundamental preliminary to the craft of art.” And stopped.

    I haven’t checked your links yet, so perhaps all my questions are answered there. But having recently been to a panel discussion called “sloppy craft” and looking at the photos you present, I’m flummoxed. Are you refusing a trend (DYI is one thing to call it)? Or talking about your own exquisite needle “craft?”

    I wanted more, but maybe I’m just greedy. I’m going off to look at Michele Walker’s essay (I think The Passionate Quilter sits alongside Beth Gutcheon’s book, from 1972 on my bookshelf). But I felt a bit bereft of your thoughts, as if you had to put them down and attend to family matters. If you ever get a minute when you are able to do more than attend to needs, and have a thought more about the subject — please, check in, quickly!

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