What the Covid spotlight reveals about race in the craft sector

Karen Patel on race, inequality and Covid-19 in the UK craft sector. 

After the UK embarked on lockdown in mid-March, craft and creative organisations had to quickly adjust to the new normal. Crafts Council UK and Craft Scotland gathered sources of help for makers that included guidance on financial help available, tips for livestreaming craft and advocating for adequate financial help for makers at all levels. Arts Council England also announced emergency funds for arts organisations and individuals. During a very worrying time, professional makers have been trying to adapt to the new climate, but at the same time craft has never been more popular as a means to pass the time, with TV shows such the BBC’s The Great British Sewing Bee being moved to a primetime TV slot and attracting around 5 million viewers. Many makers have also been turning their skills to making scrubs for health and care workers, or making and selling novelty cloth masks on Etsy. In Australia, the social studio in Melbourne has managed to save the jobs of all its employees by switching to sewing scrubs for health workers. While many are rightly worried about the future of the cultural industries  post-pandemic, in some areas craft seems to have found a role in the current crisis. But in thinking about all these changes, and what they mean for the future of the professional craft sector, there is an urgent need to address the deep inequalities that exist within it.

Inequalities and racism in craft

According to the Crafts Council’s latest figures, the professional craft sector in the UK is dominated by white makers, and that has not improved in the past decade or so. Since 2006, the proportion of makers from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in the UK has remained at around 4 per cent, and this lack of change points to a systemic problem in the sector. In my AHRC-funded research on supporting diversity in craft, in collaboration with the Crafts Council, my findings so far suggest that the UK craft sector is far from inclusive, and that some craft spaces are unwelcoming for makers of colour. Some of the makers I have interviewed have told me about incidents of racism at craft fairs, and microaggressions from other makers, customers and suppliers. And some of the makers I have spoken to feel that value judgements about their work are frequently filtered through perceptions about their ethnicity, gender and sometimes class, making it especially difficult for them to build a successful career in craft (see the link to my findings at the end of this piece).

Since January 2019 there have been ongoing debates about racism in knitting on Instagram, and time and again knitters of colour attempting to call out racism and microaggressions have been accused of ‘bullying’ and (pejoratively!) labelled ‘social justice warriors’. In the meantime, in light of the recent increased attention on Black Lives Matter after all the events surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the Crafts Council, like many other organisations, sought to demonstrate their support for anti-racism by taking part in #BlackOutTuesday. However, this met with a lot of criticism, with makers of colour in the industry highlighting how the Crafts Council’s own actions are not inclusive. The Crafts Council have subsequently admitted they need to do much more.

This latest wave of conversation about racism in craft indicates the need for systemic, fundamental change in the sector to address inequalities that are mostly determined by race and class. At the moment, people of colour are doing a lot of the labour of highlighting the need for change and holding organisations accountable. Black makers are again having to go through the exhausting task of looking at empty statements and more racism online. This can adversely affect their work - some have been voicing their inability to make during such fraught and traumatising times for Black people around the world. All of this will not have the same emotional or mental toll on white makers.

Covid-19 and craft

The unequal impact of Covid-19 has highlighted the entrenched racial and social inequalities in UK society, and there is a danger that the crisis will only deepen existing inequalities across the board. We are already seeing this in the classed nature of the resurgence in domestic craft, with reports of stores such as John Lewis benefitting from the increased demand for sewing supplies and expensive fabrics. Those fortunate enough to work from home have the time and resources to turn their attention to making and baking, or developing their craft expertise. They can even choose to stay silent about Black Lives Matter and not engage at all with the protests or online conversations. Black makers simply don’t have that luxury.

Albeit in different ways, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter resurgence have both initiated activity around craft. The surge in the popularity of craft has seen many more makers may enter the market, contributing to the growth of a sector which seemingly has lower barriers to entry than other creative industries, given how sites such as Etsy and Folksy can provide online shopfronts for makers. But at the same time, through Black Lives Matter, a light is finally being shone on racism in craft in the UK context, and craft organisations seem to be willing to change and listen. In both respects, there is a (tentative) positive outlook for craft in the UK after the crisis.

However, the impact of Covid-19 could make organisations go back to their previous ways of working, in order to bring back a sense of normality and ‘safety’ as they try to survive the financial and social repercussions of the pandemic. This fear is already being voiced in the theatre sector, as actor and director Kwame Kwei Armah has cautioned:

Recessions and depressions make us smaller, not larger. We become our smaller selves and I fear that the lockdown may contract us, not expand us.

It is crucial that this is not allowed to happen – in craft, or in any cultural industry.

Karen Patel is a Research Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, Birmingham City University, and a Soundings advisory board member. To find out more about her project on supporting diversity in craft, visit craftexpertise.com.