Craft in the Contemporary World: The survival of hand printed textiles in the digital age

Photo by Nguyen Nguyen from Pexels

Technology has been extremely influential in the development of visual culture since the 17th century. The presence of technology is visible at every level of artistic creation. Although since the Arts and Crafts movement, craft has constantly been characterized as being hostile to technology, technology has been a major decisive factor in the growth and expansion of new types of practice. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a movement about integrity that emerged in opposition to the rampant culture of industrialisation. The movement emphasized on the value of materials and methods while celebrating the maker. The main debate surrounding the movement was its practicality in the contemporary world. It was argued that the Arts and Crafts Movement was not realistic in a mass urban and industrialized society. However, numerous craftspeople have grasped new technology and used it skilfully to create extraordinary works of art. Today, digital technology is transforming the face of craft and design. The digital revolution allows designers more time to experiment, investigate and design, while inventive manufacturing solutions are offered by ingenious technologies.

‘Craft’ and its changing meaning in the digital world

Man’s ability to use stone and make tools has been referred to as his ‘first craft skill’. The spirit of ‘craft’ is built on three interconnected notions: direct experience, personal vision and mastery of a medium, and the foundation of craft lies within ‘production’ and the need for the craftsperson to be a free-thinking expert. There also exists an attachment between craft and history. Craft knowledge results in an important engagement with the past, built on materials, methods and processes. Therefore, there rises a need to include craft history into the critical theory of craft, by understanding craft knowledge to avoid ‘craft’ being perceived as anti-intellectual and sentimental.

Craft shares its borders with art and mechanical production. It is more than the process of making and there exists a strong connection between craft and cultural identity, as evidenced by the fact that craft changes over time and varies between regions and cultures. The easy recognition of crafted artefacts and their functions despite their origins from different cultures and time periods and differences in details, methods and materials, can be attributed to the inherent structures that remain the same. Overall, ‘craft’ is largely associated with being handmade, significant in meaning and principle for both the maker and the user.

The meaning of craft in the digital world needs to be re-evaluated as digital technology acts as a new medium for craft expression. An artefact can be ‘manipulated indirectly and still be considered to be crafted’. There exists a close relation between digital methods and craft practice, reasoning that hand and brain actions that occur while using a computer are equivalent to production processes that require personal dedication and tactic knowledge. The ethos of craft presumes an experience involving physical exertion and ‘getting your hands dirty’. This concept of craft expression as a ‘production-centred ideal’ is challenged through the evolution of digital technology. To deny the status of ‘craftsmanship’ to processes such as the digital manipulation of imagery is to discard an opportunity to revive craft in the digital era. The delicate human collaboration with technology is arguably vital to craft.

The development of large scale manufacturing technologies in the 20th century has had the impact of separating people from both the manufacturing process and the products themselves. While mass production has brought us less expensive, alluring merchandise, there has been little space for craft based authenticity. Uniqueness and individuality in products are desirable characteristics to the human frame of mind. Unlike industrial production methods, digital technology allows for this. The concept of mass production is being replaced by a new hypothesis: ‘the individuation of experience’. This change in paradigms may lead to craft and design being synonymous, and function as complementary characteristics in shaping the craft experience. It is improbable that we can create authentic objects, until we are comfortable to come into dialogue with technology. The dichotomous relationship between craft and technology is so repulsive that we impulsively endeavour to unite attractive traits with the practical characteristics of machines to overlook the fact that technology plays an influential role in the arts and crafts.

The impact of digital technology on the design and production of printed textiles

The visual layout and surface pattern of printed textiles have continuously changed with the introduction of new technologies such as engraved plate, roller printing and silkscreen printing. Each of these changes has created a new ‘visual language’ which evolves with the introduction of new developments. Digital imaging technology for textile design has been to a great extent driven by manufacturing concerns as opposed to a desire to exploit the artistic possibilities of the medium. Customer demand for shorter runs and customised products has pushed the textile industry to explore mass customisation. Companies such as Nike use the internet as a medium for mass customization, allowing its customers to individualize and create a product by letting them make certain selections.

The impact of digital technology can be observed both on the working methods and the created object. The issue of limited colour in traditional printing methods has been found to be discouraging and exasperating, resulting in a hindrance to creativity. Digitally printed fabric is testing traditions of conventional pattern making by providing greater freedom in terms of using surface and colour. On the other hand, professionals remark on the absence of ‘ownership’ or association with their digitally printed textiles. Technology has allowed for the possibilities of using custom-printed digital fabrics in traditional crafts such as quilting and patchwork to give ‘meaning’ to the final product. Digital technology has opened up massive creative possibilities for textile artists specializing in one-off or limited edition textile prints, drastically changing the ‘crafting’ of printed textiles. The role of the computer in the creation of digital textiles has advanced from that of pre-print production to a developed design tool. Digital technology is aiding the recovery of the hand-crafted. Previous research shows how traditional block printing craft houses have adopted digital technology to create exciting hybrid textiles that go beyond the use of digital technology to imitate the handmade. However, many textile artists assign incredible importance to the hands-on process of working with the print process; the scattered nature of digital print separates the creator from his work and denies the fabric an ‘aura’ that illustrates the emotive substance of the maker’s touch. Digital technology offers an apparent risk-free environment in which mistakes can be easily corrected and previous versions restored. Nevertheless, each advanced print can possibly be one of a kind and endlessly diversified. The craftsperson can reintroduce ‘risk’ by creating hybrid textiles or can consider the process of digital imaging itself both a crafting tool and medium.

Sample printing is the biggest market for digital textile printing due to the high cost of materials needed for digital printing. However, the high production costs have not deterred the use of digital print within the textile industry, although the key creative advancements are usually found in the mid to high end of the industry. Digital technology has brought about a print revolution by liberating textile designers from restrictions that they have traditionally faced. Programmes such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator exhibit the ideal platform for textile design, offering designers the freedom to work with both bitmap and vector-based images and create realistic effects. Digital printing technology is advancing rapidly and has the potential to aid in the creation of higher-quality textiles.

Survival of craft in the digital era

In the extremely competitive market of the 21st century the uniqueness of a product is of crucial importance. The ‘authenticity’ of a product instantly creates a unique brand identity. Much like craft itself, the meaning of authenticity and its role in steering ethical behaviour has been the centre of a debate. Authenticity is not just the ‘genuineness’ of an object. It has more to do with the consumer’s understanding of genuineness and his desire for to own an authentic product that gives him a sense of historic connection.

The revival of craft in the contemporary world can be explained through the theory that when threatened, the concept of authenticity turns into a critical issue. The craving for authenticity has become a significant feature of contemporary society. The need for authenticity has become crucial in our search for self-hood, entertainment and in the products we own. Globalisation is an important cause for the apprehension over authenticity as increasing globalisation has created a divide between individuals and their traditional identities. The obsession with authenticity is a response to the apparent loss of a ‘personalized self’ in the modern world of mass production. The purchase of such authentic products allows the user to break away from reality and connect to a history, to which the product is related. Furthermore, the need for authenticity may be connected to an individual’s perception of status. Ownership of unique products presents a sophisticated image. The revival of craft and its products as genuine representations of authenticity in a society overwhelmed by worldwide brands that adopt these qualities. He portrays a current social marvel in which consumers are trying to ‘accept’ reality while at the same time enjoying technological progress.

Authenticity is needed not only by the consumer but also by the craftsperson, but in different ways and for different reasons. The craftsman is deeply influenced by the consumer’s pursuit for authenticity and his awareness of the consumer’s need for authenticity pushes him to adapt his creations into ways he assumes would satisfy the consumer. Therefore, the craftsman’s search for authenticity is a bigger cultural process, where ‘survival’ is at stake and the consumer’s need for authenticity is part of the cause for the loss of authenticity.

In contemporary society, the ‘market’ has been a decisive factor in the evolution of craft. Craft has continuously changed with needs and tastes to cater to the demands of the market. However, craft has struggled to compete with the production efficiencies of mass manufacture and advanced technologies. A case study by Dr. Cigdem Cihi (2007) of the Turkish block printing tradition ‘Yazma’ links the decline of the craft to increasing industrialization. The study also suggests that changing social lifestyles, fashions and tastes have had an impact on the survival of the craft. The reluctance to adopt, revise and interpret the traditional techniques of Yazma to suit modern tastes and utilities has been addressed as an important factor that led to the decline of the craft.

In contrast, a 2007 case study by Dr. Anjali Karolina and Heli Buch documenting Ajrakh block printing describes the evolution of the traditional craft to adapt to technological changes and varying tastes. Traditionally, Ajrakh textiles were used mostly by men as a wrap. Some types of Ajrakh were used as veils, bedspreads and quilts. Today, Ajrakh printing is used to produces a wider range of objects such as saris and bags. The materials used have been altered over the years to meet time constraints and the growing market demand. For example, machine made cloth is used in the place of hand-woven cloth and chemical dyes have replaced natural colours. Therefore, there has been a change in the function of handcrafted textiles to satisfy the contemporary market. However, although traditional crafts such as Kalamkari and Ajrakh printing have adapted to changing lifestyles through modifications in the traditional methods, these crafts have managed to retain their essence and provide its customers with the ‘authenticity’ that they so desperately search for.

Digital technology is not rendering handicraft obsolete, instead the introduction of new technologies is helping the recovery of the handmade. Hand-crafted textiles are time consuming, unique and often intricately detailed. In contrast, digital technology is famous for its speed and accuracy for reproduction. Although there are clear cut boundaries between the traditional and the technological, there is an opportunity to make a transition between these boundaries. There are two ways in which digital technology can be used to produce ‘crafted’ textiles: by using digital technology to imitate traditional craft practice or by using handicraft techniques such as embellishment or over printing on digitally printed fabric to bring the ‘aura’ back to the textile. These methods have been repeatedly suggested by other researchers to support their case that digital technology has brought about a print revolution while preserving the authenticity of craft. However, some argue that such technological innovation has resulted in the industrialization of the craft itself due to speedy production and rising demand and that the increase in the production of hybrid-craft products threatens the authenticity of craft on the authority of innovation.

The ability of digital technology to mimic the characteristics of the hand-crafted is a potential threat to the survival of the handmade. However, simply because digital technology exists, we are not destined to accept it. The link between handicraft, materials and the environment can easily oppose this techno-aesthetic supremacy, resulting in the survival and growth of craft.

A design professional with 5+ years of diverse experience in creative direction, illustration, graphic design, branding, content strategy & UI/UX

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