The Meaning of Making: the bringing together of craft industries

What better moment than the evening before a general election to debate the past, present and future of making in the UK?

Emma Bridgewater, founder of the world-renowned pottery in Stoke-on-Trent; Kelly Sidgwick, brewster and co-founder of Good Chemistry brewery in Bristol; Chris Holden from Ajoto in Manchester; and Simon Topman, CEO of Acme Whistles in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, came together to provide four fascinating perspectives on the meaning of making. Speaking to an audience of more than a hundred makers, British, Australian, and Canadian academics, and university students, panellists told stories of how they make, why they make, and why they love making.

Meaning of makingThe event began with visitors exploring a series of exhibits in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Chloe Smith of Casabi Designs explained how she makes her delicately beautiful pottery in Wolverhampton; Fraser Knight from Shackleton Instruments in Norwich talked people through how to make a banjo; and Brita Hirsch demonstrated how beautiful a tweed jacket made in Macclesfield can be. When the lecture theatre was full to its capacity, Emma Bell, Professor of Organization Studies at the Open University, introduced the idea of the meaning of making. In particular, Emma emphasised the importance of remembering that most people working in the UK still make things, many with a high degree of skill and often with their hands.

Then, after a short demonstration of what an Acme whistle sounds like, Dr. Scott Taylor of Birmingham Business School introduced the panel, making clear how fortunate we were to have such a depth and breadth of experience in the room. Prompted by Scott’s questions, Emma Bridgewater spoke of the earliest days of her pottery, especially the importance of getting to know the people with the skills that have passed through generations. Kelly Sidgwick described the joys of working for yourself, especially if you are making something that you have a long-standing passion for – you know and appreciate every component. Chris Holden spoke with great insight on the importance of communicating how making happens and why it is important for the objects we use every day.

Meaning of makingSimon Topman told a range of entertaining stories, all of which had clear messages about managing and organising complex craft processes. Questions from the audience ranged from wondering why Birmingham is so central to the maker community, how local products can go global, and why we have such a desire to own and use beautiful things. The debate ended with a presentation of Chloe Smith’s pottery to each speaker.

So what do we take from all of this? First, there’s a genuine passion for making in this region and beyond – in makers, of course, but also in consumers. Second, there are lots of people who want to hear about making – and then ask questions of the makers. Third, when you bring together such a diverse group of people, fascinating conversations happen that can continue after the event.

The insights are also feeding into the book that Professor Emma Bell and Dr Scott Taylor are editing with other leading academics – The Organisation of Craft Work – Identities, Meanings and Materiality. We designed the event as a means to explore how Birmingham Business School can work with Craft industries and provide a conduit for shared practice and resources. As Geoff Ransome from Shackleton said as he was leaving, ‘See you next year’. Maybe that’s a good idea….