Crafts Council Conference: Assemble 2012

When I mentioned to a friend the other day that I was going to the Crafts Council conference, the reaction wasn’t exactly thrilled. “Hmm-what’s that then?” was the dubious response. I said there would be people speaking about the links between science and engineering and the crafts, such as the connections between surgery and tailoring – and he seemed a bit more interested. “Oh – that sounds quite good – I thought it would be some people sitting around talking about knitting.”

In fact it was much more exciting and extraordinary than even I had expected, and I am also thrilled that in my work for SIT Select I will be meeting some of these speakers and others in the October textiles and furniture show and Symposium at Gloucester Cathedral.

As it was in fact packed with exciting stuff, I thought I would share some notes about it by way of record – which are entirely reflective of my own personal views, and quite possibly missing several key points as my mind wandered off on its own inner journey to meditate on the ideas being thrown out left right and centre.

Key themes:

  • Collaboration –  between scientists or engineers and makers or craftspeople
  • Technology including digital as well as bioscience
  • Nature and sustainability
  • Redefining work and education – internet, public space, hothouses and crossover labs or hubs
  • Learning through doing

For me there was also an underlying theme in all this: the merging of things, the crossing of boundaries: of industries, professions, objects, living organisms, processes, machines… I came away wondering about things like ‘where does the human end and the machine begin?’ ‘What is brain and what is computer?’ ‘Will we start designing ourselves?’  and ‘Could I get a bacteria to make my skin glow in the dark in fluorescent fuschia so it looks as though I’ve been stitched up?’

Although the conference has an excitedly positive attitude towards all these developments, there are bound to be anxieties about many of these issues from both a craftsperson and a human perspective – and indeed these concerns could be detected both in the audience and the presentations although they did tend to stay out of the limelight.

Redefining Libraries, Embroidered Shoulder Implants, And Three People Sitting Around Talking About Knitting

In her dynamic introduction, Moira Sinclair highlighted that Library contexts are coming into focus. We can expect ambitious collaborative projects to redefine libraries and how they interact with and are used by communities. We will also be seeing innovative projects to inspire young people, and Digital R&D is a priority in the Arts: seeking innovation through collaboration

Ed Vaisey MP seemed positive about the importance of craft, saying that is was ‘front and centre’ – but I was left wondering what it means in practice. He also emphasised that there had been a rolling crafts exhibition in No 10.

The charming Prof Marie O’Mahoney gave us an overview of a wide range of recent exhibitions, works, collaborations and techniques being employed in crafts. This, the first presentation of the day, set us up to see cross-disciplinary collaboration as the key theme which indeed it was. Specific projects ranged from human-robot collaborations to the RCA taking students to remote forests to study with indigenous weavers; various recent shows have featured ‘reverse-engineering’ – craftspeople investigating how to respond creatively to the challenge of competing with the mass production of stylish objects such the IKEA chair; and the need for craftspeople and others to both create and attend matchmaking events to generate new collaborations was pointed out.

This was followed by a really enjoyable filmed conversation between Prof. Kneebone, surgeon and educator, and Joshua Byrne, tailor. This is apparently going to be made available online and I would encourage you to watch it. Its really fascinating and shows really clearly what this idea of ‘collaboration’ could mean in practice and was an excellent setting for the discussion that followed.

Rhian Solomon and Dr Sarah Pape came to the stage for a discussion led by Grant Gibson, Editor of Crafts Magazine. Both spoke of the benefits of the collaborations they have already begun involving plastic surgeons and pattern cutters. This was also the great moment when we actually saw some people sitting around talking about knitting. Apparently Sarah Pape loves knitting as well as reconstructing the faces of burns victims, and not only that but it turns out that knitted fabric has very similar physical properties to that of skin and could turn out quite useful in informing surgical procedures.  Rhian emphasised the importance of ‘learning by doing’ – especially useful when you bring together two professions that use different language and may have very different cultures. The act of making is more universal, particularly when the activities are closely related, so the participants can often understand each other more readily by watching than by speaking. Her  Skinship project is seeking new funding to develop and deepen the collaborative investigations so that’s one to watch.

Prof. Julian Ellis OBE was very entertaining with his wide-ranging discussion of ways in which his firm have been developing industrial applications for an embroidery machine. A warm and funny presenter, his stories about embroidery with carbon fibre, glass and polyester brought in lots of ‘boys toys’ from a WWII bomber extracted from Loch Ness, to the fastest boat in the world and Formula One racing cars. But the small embroidered object made as a shoulder implant and shown at the V&A Power of Making, seems to be the image that has caught the imagination of the press. His talk again raised an underlying concern with the human-machine relationship – all the embroidery is done by a standard machine, and I came out wondering what would be the role beyond a historical one, for the craftsperson. I feel sure that humans will be able to embroider more complex shapes than the machine in use, and more complex techniques may yield yet more applications – in summary, this is an exciting new area with much yet to discover and invent. I think my friend would have especially enjoyed this talk.

Lunch Break

Sandwiches and a chance to chat and enjoy the RIBA building and its nice loos.

Vegetable Leather, Wild Scientists, Gold Detectors, and The Benefits of Fighting

The three-phase presentation after lunch was the most energetic and covered in my view the most radical topic – synthetic biology. The session was introduced by Prof Freemont whose slides brought me straight back to my undergrad degree in Biology, particularly the genetics lectures in the Wolfson.

First up was Suzanne Lee – she is growing vegetable leather (yes, vegan leather and it has some quite weird properties) – produced by bacteria in plastic trays – from which she is making clothing and developing ‘in-vitro’ dyeing techniques, with the vision of creating garments that are grown complete and ready to wear and require almost no processing. Again, this raises questions on the role of the seamstress, the designer, the pattern cutter, the tailor, etc and whether a craftsperson now needs to become an engineer or scientist, as she effectively has. A good speaker with a fabulous outfit, one to watch and a very exciting topic.

She was followed by American collaborative partners Dr Ellen Jorgensen of GenSpace community lab – also wearing a great outfit and then Dr Mitchell Joachim (an architect of living tree-buildings, and adorned with dreadlocks), who is also involved in the extraordinary Genspace in Brooklyn. Anyone can join to run science experiments (‘it’s like a gym’) in synthetic biology which is closely related to genetic engineering. Amazing stuff – but also disturbing enough to provoke the first doubts to be expressed by the audience; the question was raised as to whether these experiments would be safe, particularly in the light of the fact that any member of the public can access the labs. We were reassured with the response that ‘America is the Wild West’ and it is much harder to set up a lab like this in Europe – you need a licence. So that’s OK then….

The subsequent session was led by co-founder of the jeweller’s network Benchpeg, Rebecca van Rooijen, and we were treated to a discussion with Karin Paynter and Peter Oakley on old and new jewellery techniques and how new technologies are coming into the field from other areas, then being adapted and remerging from this profession to again extend into others. We were reminded by the other panellist Jamie Hall of the importance of knowing where you have come from and acknowledging the development of technologies through past centuries – refreshing in this whirlwind of futuristic visions.

Next we had another film, with Prof David Gauntlett addressing the audience via pre-recorded self-edited video. His fresh approach to presentation was the perfect demonstration of how we now have the opportunity to become the producers as well as consumers of media content. He gave some good pointers and interesting insights on getting online to connect with others, answering audience questions taken via Twitter and this film will also be available to all. The main thing I took away was that you can reach out to new collaborative partners via online networks in a way that has never been possible before – so take advantage of it! (And buy his book!)

The final discussion built on the new media theme and was energetically led to ensure we all stayed awake, by Clare Reddington of Watershed. She announced the new scheme at Pervasive Media Studios for craftspeople to explore digital technologies, and we were encouraged to visit the digital show at the V&A this weekend. We also heard about some UK working-learning centres, in some ways like the one in Brooklyn discussed earlier, from Chris Thompson of Ravensbourne, and Dr Martin Kemp let us know that a great place to start if you want to get into new collaborations is the government-run Knowledge Transfer Network with its many specialist divisions, where you can connect with people in different industries. Funding opportunities are also available. Also in this session, Tine Bech gave some very useful insights into how to approach collaborative working from a craftsperson point of view – she shared, for example, what she had learnt about working with a much larger commercial enterprise, and the importance of conflict in collaborative relationships.


All in all a fascinating day and a very energised although a relatively small audience – I felt that the CC are very committed to promoting and developing craft and its engagement with technology in the UK; this is an amazing sector to work in for those seeking to respond to the multiple opportunities that are springing up. I’d say there is going to be an increasing role for hybrid labs across the country, and a need for hosts and brokers to connect partners across disciplines and help to manage them for successful outcomes and improving the model.

Next time, it could go a step further, taking inspiration from the ReWire Unconferences where the delegates set the agenda – and we really will be working in completely new ways…but whatever form it takes,  I am bringing my knitting. Who knows what it might turn into…