Stitches and Threads: My personal Journey through Traditional Handicrafts

Traditional textile handicrafts are on a long journey. Where that journey will end is anyone’s guess. Traditional handicrafts were once necessary, useful, crucial, but the advancement of new technologies and changes in current lifestyles has altered all that. Where does that leave their future? As an artform? A tourist attraction?  Will young people take on the mantle? How can we engage them? Should we engage them? Should we save the art or the craft? Is it a choice or can we save both? Should we save neither?
Earlier this year I was given the amazing opportunity to research these questions whilst undergoing an in-service training visit to Nicosia, Cyprus. The trip, funded through the Grundtvig programme, was led by Anazitisi Cultural Centre based in Nicosia, and included participants from Romania, Germany, Greece, Finland and UK.
We began our visit looking at various textile handicrafts and how they were used in our own organisations. Many of the participants were teachers so there was a lean towards the educational use but the overwhelming image was of its use in engaging small children, teaching not only the craft but the associated skills it brought along with it. I have always been interested in textiles and was looking forward to not only increasing my own skills in this area but also ways it could be used in my work.
We followed a long desk-bound day with a warm sunny day in Lefkara learning traditional lacemaking patterns and stitching techniques with lace maker Rita Charalambous.  How much better can it get? Our wonderful host gave us her skills, expertise, patience and a fabulous traditional Cypriot lunch. It took all day but I left Lefkara proudly clutching my small piece of lace, inspired and hopeful that I would be able to reproduce the technique back at home. Whilst stitching and learning we spent the day discussing the future of traditional crafts in Lefkara. It was a bleak conversation. Rita doesn’t see a future for Lefkara lace and despite it being a vital tourist attraction for Cyprus and the only form of income for many people, it is definitely in decline. Young people do not have the time or inclination to sit and make lace and it is a poorly rewarded craft. To compete with cheap foreign imports the lace makers must charge prices well below the worth of their product and it takes many hours to create. There was no persuading Rita that lacemaking could modernise to make it more attractive to young people. In her mind it was done this way and that was the only way.
The following day we visited Julia Astraiou, a Cypriot artist who uses traditional weaving techniques and patterns to create contemporary artworks. It was inspiring to see how the traditions could be kept alive in this way but even Julia admitted she struggled to engage the younger people. And something was lost. The designs didn’t seem as important in this context. Similarly, a visit to an exhibition ‘Beyond Dress Codes: From Traditional Costume to Contemporary Fashion’ showed an exciting new way to contemporarise and make useful traditional designs but was it necessary? Do the designs mean anything anymore?
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. There are exciting new initiatives taking place: The Cypriot authorities have set up studios for traditional craftspeople enabling them to continue their crafts. They pay them for their work and sell these to tourists through craft shops. They display not only their work but their working methods, preserving the artform whilst enhancing the local tourist industry. My view is that traditional designs evolve – they didn’t exist 200 years ago and probably won’t exist 200 years from now – but the craft can be and should be maintained. Perhaps not as a vital part of life as they once were, but as an artform or a method of enhancing other artforms; a skills base with skills learned through doing these crafts being transferred to other areas. I definitely left Cyprus feeling there is still a place for these traditional handicrafts, wherever in the world they may be. 

We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of all our funders which currently includes:

  • Arts Council England
  • Blyth Town Council
  • Community Foundation
  • Edward Gostling Foundation – RW Mann Trust – Shears Foundation
  • Erasmus+
  • Great Northumberland
  • Hadrian Trust – High Sheriff of Northumberland – Rothley Trust
  • Heritage Fund
  • National Lottery Community Fund
  • Northumberland County Council
  • Postcode Community Trust
  • Sir James Knott Trust
  • The 1989 Willan Trust – Wellesley Trust
  • the Coalfields Regeneration Trust