Handmade in Britain – the quiet revolution for craftsmen

First published in the Sunday Times on 17th May 2015. 

A few doors from my London office, a showroom called the New Craftsmen has appeared. It displays the wares of British craft manufacturers. They range from stationers to ceramicists and furniture producers. Most of the items are bespoke and could be called luxury goods. None is cheap, but the pieces are classy and designed to last. The enterprise’s founders, Natalie Melton, Catherine Lock and Mark Henderson, believe in the importance of artisan skills and the idea that many people now have too much stuff — so some customers seek fewer but better objects in their homes.

There has been a quiet revolution in Britain. Old craft skills are being revived and a new generation of makers is emerging. Consumers are much more interested in how goods are made and what is in them. This certainly applies to food and drink, but also to durables. The creative entrepreneurs behind this movement need to demonstrate technical mastery, often combining traditional methods with modern processes.

But this is not 21st-century mass production — which all too often is accompanied by total automation, complete dependence on imports and a throwaway culture. Primark, with a giant store almost opposite the New Craftsmen, is the classic example of such an offering. Its clothes are astonishingly inexpensive, but the entire model is about volume and nothing feels made to last. It is undeniably a hugely successful business, but it cannot be the only future of commerce. There needs to be room for locally made, enduring products that provide British manufacturing jobs and reinforce the local skill and supply base.

These trends are being amplified by the maker movement. This started in America and is really the digital transformation of the thousands of hobbyist producers grafting away in their workshops, garages and kitchens. Thanks to 3D printers and the sharing of designs online, making complex products in small batches is now feasible. While this is very much manufacturing with machines as opposed to handmade production, it seems to me there is considerable overlap between the two developments. Some commentators suggest there may be another industrial revolution under way: the reshoring of production; the rise of flexible, distributed manufacturing; and the growth of armies of makers.

The range of events for makers is impressive. Last month the Maker Faire UK was held in Newcastle. This is part science fair, part country fair — a gathering for tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, artists and students. April also saw Bespoked, the handmade bicycles show in Bristol. There are hundreds of new, independent makers of bikes, components, accessories and apparel, all growing thanks to the booming cycling market. And London Craft Week has just taken place, with jewellery, textile, glass and clothing makers exhibiting their wares. Makers need to use both experiential and digital means to reach the public.

One powerful sales channel available to individual makers is Etsy. This is an online marketplace for independent vendors, with about 1.4m active sellers and 20m customers worldwide. Last month the company went public on the Nasdaq stock exchange, one of only three B corps to do so (these are businesses adhering to certain social, environmental and trans- parency standards). Etsy was valued at $1.8bn (£1.1bn) — the biggest ever New York-based, venture-capital-backed start-up float. It is yet to post a profit, and time will tell whether Etsy can adhere to its anti-corporate founding philosophy, but thousands of craft makers selling through its website are certainly flourishing.

There are all sorts of initiatives to help makers break through, from Makerversity, a pioneering community of businesses housed in a basement of Somerset House in London, to the legion of creatives raising money on crowdfunding websites. From blacksmithing to bookbinding, these entrepreneurs are gaining a core of supporters.

Craftsmen today benefit from the growing desire of citizens to understand the provenance of what they buy, a hunger for real products and a rejection of a disposable culture. Britain has a glorious heritage in manufacture and design, and we can capitalise on that with new ideas, talent and techniques, often combined with old brands and time-honoured methods. Many of this new generation of makers work together in collectives, partnering to sell their output or share knowledge or premises.

It is hard to know if the impact of these mostly micro enterprises is material in economic terms. I hope some will scale up and become major concerns, without losing their soul or integrity.

Of course, they cannot be the only solution to the revival of manufacturing in Britain. We need more investment, more research and development, greater innovation, a more skilled workforce, a revitalised supply chain and a rational energy policy. But we also need a belief in making, an emphasis on quality and a pride in the idea of British production.