Back in 2014, one year after I opened my online shop, it became clear that ‘Agnes Ashe’ should be on Instagram. The occasion that prompted my boarding this particular social media train was when the US craft platform, Etsy, decided to make a UK television advert. In order to be included in the selection procedure Etsy wanted to see your work on Instagram.
The above is the first post I made on Instagram back on 8th May 2014 and over the next couple of weeks the pictures uploaded on a daily basis included my painted silk scarves, flowers, my garden and, of course, the ubiquitous coffee shot!
I haven’t posted a coffee photo in years and it is rare that I post any food or cooking pictures these days, but I still post many flowers and, needless to say, my silk painting work. But, in this fast moving world of everything social media, Instagram, is not the same platform it was back in 2014.
Instagram has been around for about 11 years and during the first five years there were no significant algorithm changes, not even when Facebook bought the platform in 2012 as Instagram hit 50 million active users. By the time I joined in 2014, Facebook had already introduced advertising the previous year despite considerable grumbling from their longtime users.
However, 2016 was the watershed year when ‘the Algorithm’ (basically how other people find and see your posts) was totally overhauled. From this time onwards Instagram and visibility have been a moveable feast. I guess for high profile Instagram stars and celebrities it is all part of the social media game, but for regular individuals or small businesses posting on Instagram whether simple posts, stories (recent example below) or reels, it is not quite the useful beast it once was. It has turned into somewhat of a voracious monster for me gobbling up my working time prepping not only photos, but videos and slideshows. I suppose some aspects of social media work are creative, but I would rather be creating and painting scarves.
I paint silk. I have painted silk for over three decades. I have mostly painted silk scarves, but I have also painted silk for dresses, jackets, trousers, skirts, blouses and cushion covers, but this is the first time I have painted silk for face masks. Or, should I properly call them face coverings. This is my response to the so-called ‘new normal’.
Back on December 31st as midnight struck and folk celebrated the arrival of the New Year who knew it would be bringing us Covid 19. A highly contagious, nasty little virus that would suspend global normality as country after country entered lockdown.
After much procrastination and discussion our ‘leaders’ finally decided that perhaps face masks (sorry face coverings) could help reduce the spread of the virus. And, now, here in England, as the restrictions of lockdown are slowly eased, covering your face is to become part of the new normal. If you want to travel on public transport or visit your local hospital you will be required to wear a face covering and we are all encouraged to don them when entering small shops where social distancing is difficult.
I expect like me you have already seen the odd ‘used’ face mask littering the environment. I read that people can buy packs of disposable face masks quite cheaply. The consequence of being cheap and disposable means thousands of non-recyclable masks end up as waste in landfill. Surely, if you don’t need a single-use mask for medical reasons why buy any disposable ones when you can make your own reusable and washable ones. And, if you can’t or don’t want to make your own there are now thousands of cloth versions available online. There are plain, striped, spotted, floral, paisley or even animal versions of face coverings made from cotton, linen, polyester, non-woven fabrics and even silk. Like many people with access to a sewing machine I decided to make my own mask. Then I’ve made some for my family and friends. And now, I have also painted and made some silk face coverings for my shop.
It is most definitely a stranger world when you can only see people’s eyes. Talking and evening breathing with a mask on your face is not a pleasant experience, but we are requested to wear these masks/face coverings to help stop the community spread of Covid 19.
Yes, yes, we have been asked to wear a face covering, but nobody said it has to be dull or dark or serious. Why not take this new normal regimen as an opportunity for a brighter, lighter-hearted or even amusing response to this awful crisis.
Now I’ve always known that my creative work varies noticeably with how I am feeling. Obviously this personal acknowledgment is not from a serious, in-depth, psychological assessment, but just a vague, airy-fairy type of observation.
I expect you’ll find this mini challenge/quiz all too easy. These ‘sequence’ photos are a selection of the scarves I’ve painted so far this year. They are a before lockdown and during lockdown series. As an aside, how good it would have felt to have been able to type a sequence of ‘before, during and AFTER images’. Soon, we hope, soon. So which are the before and which are the during scarves?
I think it’s quite obvious, you’ve probably guessed but here are the answers to confirm your no doubt perceptive choices.
For me it goes thus – chirpy, energetic, outward-looking, and my work is bold, loose and conspicuously colourful. Conversely, hit a pessimistic period and it’s all introspection, lethargy and hints of moroseness, and my work becomes contained, restrained and muted. I have to say it’s never been quite so obvious as this!!!!
My painted scarf, Venus Falls Blue, has undergone the layering treatment. And, again the finished scarf is most definitely an improvement in my opinion.
I have kept and uploaded before and after pictures. These show how adding even pale dyes in large overlapping sections across the whole work can significantly change the look. In this case I used pale pink and pale blue.
Obviously, the second layer has knocked the original yellows back considerably.
Even though it is spring at the moment and there are yellow daffodils, yellow tulips, yellow forsythia, yellow mahonia, yellow primroses and even some yellow dandelions already out, I am not actually feeling it for ‘yellow’.
As you can see below, the yellow is slowly disappearing.
And, finally after steaming again, it’s finished and in the shop.
It’s not really surprising, but it is very annoying and it most certainly isn’t flattering. One of my photographs of my original work has been used by a website promoting mass produced scarves.
Last week I was doing my monthly online research and tidy up, and checking my Google Analytics, when I saw this search results page and noticed one of my scarves. Naturally, I had been expecting to see my work on an image search for ‘hand painted silk scarf’, but not my photograph associated with another website, and, to add insult to injury, wrongly describing the scarf as hand dyed and not hand painted.
Over the years I have been contacted by various people and asked if they could use a photo. I’ve always said that’s fine and mentioned in passing it would be nice if they included a credit for me. However, these people have not only purloined my photo, they are also using my painted scarf to advertise their website, all entirely without my permission and with no acknowledgement or link to my online shop. I did a quick recce of their site and it is a puzzle, oddly changing and without any details of who or where in the world it is based. Something doesn’t feel quite right about it and I won’t be clicking on any of their links again even if they do pinch another photo.
I have worked hard to promote my business. During the past five years, as well as designing and painting the silk, I have spent hours photographing, photoshopping and managing the presentation of my online shop. I have paid for and attended a photography course to improve my product photography and photoshoot skills. I am both angry and disappointed that my work (the silk painting and the photography) has been used in this way and my luxury scarves have been linked to a dubious, mystery website. I suppose this kind of episode is to be expected in the ‘Wild West’ world of the Internet even for a minnow venture like mine and it’s simply a case of shrugging your shoulders, forgetting about it and getting on with business as usual.
I have been having a serious clear out of cloth. I am trying to be disciplined about this. I am attempting to organise all my work materials so there is studio space that is conducive to work and not one that is so chaotic it drains me of all my creativity.
During this protracted endeavour I came across some of my old silk work. In the photo above there is a bird hidden within all the colours. The original idea came from a medieval bas-relief bird I photographed on a visit to a cathedral (possibly in Germany, but it could’ve been in France) a couple of decades ago. In my memory it was always Speyer Cathedral on the Rhine. However, I have just Googled Speyer and though the magnificent 11th century Romanesque church is the building I have in mind’s eye, I can’t imagine where I thought this bird was ‘perched’. Strange how our memory plays tricks with us, isn’t it?
Anyway, I can now see that my ‘stork’ and ‘heron’ phases had a long forgotten forerunner lurking somewhere in Europe.
Of course, a freehand one-off motif once designed doesn’t remain fixed for very long.
Over time my bird motifs have lost most of their definition and morphed into little more than blobs with spikes!
Might be time to track down my old photos and revisit the original ideas and try working up a new motif or two from the primary source material. I haven’t unpacked either box marked ‘photos’ yet, but I am hoping that I didn’t bin them all the last time I had one of my ‘once every 10 years’ clear outs.
Put “reading wr” into Google, and before you’ve completed typing the word “writing”, ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ appears in the top five most popular searches. Also known as ‘the three Rs’, the expression ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ was a great favourite with the Victorians. Within the English school system it has been shorthand for the basic essentials of education. But all is not quite as it seems, not least as it is obvious to a competent six year old that only one word of the ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ actually begins with the letter ‘R’!
One suggestion for the derivation of this concise gem was put forward by the late Professor Bruce Archer following some research into design practice. He proposed that it evolved from a similar expression commonly used in the eighteenth century. The three Rs then were considered to be ‘reading, reckoning and wroughting’. This was where reckoning was the usual term for mental arithmetic and wroughting was the word used for making.
Portrait of a Boy Artist – Nathaniel Hone (1718-1784)
Portrait of His Son Sketching – Nathaniel Hone C.1769 Ulster Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The value of making, physically creating with one’s hands, was considered of more value in the past than it is in our ‘cerebral’ contemporary times. The process of forming and fashioning in a material way was about acquiring skills but also at the same time it was seen as a means to learn about culture. For fortunate folk of the eighteenth century educating their children was not simply an education in how to make a living, but how to live a cultured life.
Then, along came the Victorians with ‘The Factory Act’ of 1833, that imposed a duty on employers to provide half‐time education for employees under 13 and then ‘The Education Act’ of 1870 which aimed to provide education up to the age of ten on a national scale. Here is the opening statement made on 25th July 1870 by Earl de Grey and Ripon when introducing the Elementary Education Bill, second reading.
EARL DE GREY AND RIPON
My Lords, it is a satisfaction to me, and a circumstance which will very much shorten the observations it is my duty to make, that in moving the second reading of a Bill, the object of which is to establish a system of national education throughout England and Wales, I need not, in the present political and social position of the country, detain your Lordships by any arguments as to the importance of the spread of education, or as to the advantage to be derived not merely by those immediately affected, but by every class in the community from the establishment, as speedily as possible, of a system by which the means of elementary education may reach every home, and be brought within the reach of every child in the country.
There is absolutely no doubt that mass education was a positive development, but it was mostly the rote learning of the ‘Gradgrind’ type and the ‘3Rs’ were most definitely reading, writing and arithmetic with wroughting considered manual work eventually confined to the world of the apprentice. A contemporary version of learning through wroughting is this submarine pictured below. It is a replica of the Victorian original built by trainees.
Since the Victorians the value of art and craft and learning through wroughting has gone in and out of fashion with educationalists. The famous Maria Montessori was a great believer in learning through doing and considered that it was essential for nursery aged children to learn through physical activity and hands on pursuits.
Earlier this year, for the Crafts Book Club, the value of including art and crafts and making within an educational system was debated as part of an intriguing discussion on craft. The interview with Sir Christopher Frayling (below) was recorded following the recent launch of a paperback version of his 2011 book ‘On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus’ .
And, if the book and/or the interview are too long here’s a link to a pithy summary article penned by Frayling setting out his eminently valuable views.
As I have been writing this post I have reconsidered the 3Rs in the light of computers and Google, and think that perhaps for the 21st century we should instead have the 3Cs, Comprehending, Coding and Creating!
Every inch of my silk scarves are hand painted by me. It’s obvious, I know, but that means like other artisans who craft all their own pieces, I can’t compete with mass-produced work. I’ve written several posts about my experiences of selling on Etsy and last May commented on the relationship between crafters and Etsy. More recently it has been reassuring for me to read that I am not out of step with many of my fellow artisans who like me have found that Etsy is no longer the platform for their work.
Interestingly, earlier this week, the American business magazine Forbes interviewed Gil Luria, director of research at the investment firm D.A. Davidson, concerning the state of the online marketplace Etsy. And, in his commentary he opines
. . . . . the biggest change in the run up to Etsy’s 2015 IPO — [was when] the company removed its requirement that all goods sold on the platform had to be handmade. This gave big manufacturers access to Etsy’s loyal customer base. When Etsy started listing $10 bracelets from Chinese factories right next to $100 bracelets handmade by homemakers in Wisconsin, the homemakers could no longer compete.
Initially you may think that perhaps hand painted silk is not as easily copied and mass-produced as some jewellery appears to be, but a big manufacturer simply takes original artwork for a scarf, scans it and then laser prints it onto silk over and over. This state of affairs doesn’t merely affect solo crafters. Within the luxury brands sector companies often have their work copied, and, as I am sure you have noticed, fake versions are found at street markets all over the world. One feature which frequently adds value to handmade work is when there is only one of its kind and consequently even a limited ‘print’ run is unacceptable let alone approving mass production. When Etsy permitted mass-produced stock to be listed directly side by side with handmade they effectively undercut and devalued handmade and at the same time diminished and diluted their own brand!
Earlier this week on Tuesday, 2 May 2017, Chad Dickerson, the Chief Executive of Etsy, quit his job following unexpectedly poor results for the first quarter of 2017. Etsy made an unpredicted loss of $421,000 (£325,000) during the period. The business is now under investor pressure to restructure – mmm, I wonder how many of those investors are crafters too?
I admired the original premise of the Etsy founders and the platform has certainly been extremely successful for over a decade. Dickerson once commented “Etsy is very much a community-based business. What we’re really trying to do is build an ‘Etsy economy’ that’s about connecting people.”
And from . . .
A handcrafted beginning (from the Etsy homepage)
Etsy was founded in June 2005 in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York to fill a need for an online community where crafters, artists and makers could sell their handmade and vintage goods and craft supplies. In the spirit of handmade, founder Rob Kalin and two friends designed the first site, wrote the code, assembled the servers and spliced the cables to get Etsy up and running. In 2008, Chad Dickerson joined Etsy as its first CTO, and created the company’s foundational engineering culture, treating “Code as Craft”. Chad became CEO in 2011 and began championing the “reimagination of commerce,” a transformation of every aspect of how goods are made, bought and sold. Under Chad’s leadership, the website that began in an apartment in Brooklyn has evolved into a sophisticated technology platform that connects Etsy sellers and buyers across borders, languages and devices, a company that spans the globe and a business that is committed to creating lasting change in the world.
Etsy has burgeoned into an enormous global ‘marketplace’. The successful original idea has grown and grown.
However, back in 2013 significant changes that broadened what was accepted as handmade work were introduced much to the concern of many Etsy crafters. These changes permitted the hiring of help to make your work and the opportunity for wholesaling your work.
I must admit at that time I was a newbie to Etsy and was more perplexed about ‘wholesaling my work’ than annoyed about it. I simply couldn’t imagine how I could create and physically paint enough silk myself and then offer it wholesale to be resold (mark up of at least 100%) at a price to even cover my costs let alone make a small profit. For me the wholesale idea didn’t fit with my craft. And, this is the rub – truly handmade, craftwork is neither cheap nor high volume. As you may remember just about a year ago I decided to close my Etsy shop as my one-off, handmade work was difficult to find, swamped amongst the thousands of laser printed or amateur silk pieces offered for sale.
The Etsy craft platform business model appears to have a hit a bump in the road as those 2013 policy changes have eventually resulted in less one-off original pieces and many more ‘me too’ products. And, if you are fine with the ‘me too’ world why not simply go elsewhere to buy/sell on Amazon Handmade or eBay. Etsy has ridden the crafting wave successfully, but nothing grows for ever and if, in the world of handmade, you water down your standards to achieve volume, quality will inevitably suffer.
I used to think that Etsy helped promote craft, but now I’ve realised that the resurgence of interest in craft and the ‘so-called’ boom was well underway at the grass roots before Etsy came into being. (If you are interested fellow crafter and early member of the Etsy craft community, Grace Dobush, has written a superb article about craft and the Internet.)
And, finally back to Chad Dickerson. During the 947 days that I had my Etsy shop, I watched several Etsy ‘live chats’ with Chad Dickerson and his Etsy staff. He came over as an interesting, thoughtful guy. He certainly appeared to believe in his quoted wish to champion ‘the re-imagination of commerce”. However, perhaps, at this point in time, we’re re-discovering that authentic craft has more local than global appeal.
Sorting through my collection of fabric I found a piece of silk I painted years ago with a colour combination I no longer like. It was pale enough to be over-dyed so I thought I’d experiment and work boldly with just one colour.
First the whole piece is covered with red and allowed to dry. Then a pattern is painted in a clear resist, allowed to dry and another layer of darker red applied.
It is difficult to see in these photos, but there are hints of the underlying original still present (more visible in real life). I have found it liberating and easy to be bold when working over a design rather than adding colour to a pristine white background. However, I have discovered just how difficult it is to photograph a large area of saturated red. Thankfully the wonderful resource of online photography forums saved me many, many adjustments on my camera by indicating that post-processing after shooting in RAW solves issues of accurately capturing this rich colour.