Common causes and care-full making

Man using overlocker sewing machine
Justin sewing scrubs at Northumbria University. Photograph: Matt Lievesley

Each member of the Crafting the Commons network has been invited to write a post for the blog, capturing their thinking about commons and commoning as the project unfolds. This post is by Justin Marshall.

Dr Justin Marshall is an Associate Professor of Design at Northumbria University. An aspect of his work is concerned with the role and significance of digital tools within craft practice, both in terms of new aesthetic opportunities, and how the creative use of this toolset challenges the concept of the ‘handmade’. More broadly, he is interested in how craft, as a materially sensitive and human centred practice, can have value in multidisciplinary research projects that investigate areas beyond the normal scope of craft practitioners. In relation to this piece, and previous to his academic career, he has sewn many, many miles of ripstop nylon in the production of large-scale inflatable sculptures.

With an interest in Makerspaces as sites of co-creation, and the open sharing of knowledge and skills, i.e. as sites of commoning, my intention for this blog post was to visit a number of spaces and related organisations, e.g. repair shops and tool libraries, in order to get current first-hand experience of projects and activities.  However, the COVID 19 crisis, like many aspects of life and work, has not only restricted and changed what we do, but made us think about its context and significance.

In 2013, I instigated and managed the first Makerspace/Fablab in the Southwest. This was a period in which Makerspaces were rapidly opening around the UK and there was a degree of euphoria and optimism. There was some belief they could provide a model for a new making revolution, based on personalisation, localism, the unlocking of individuals’ creative and entrepreneurial potential and the open sharing of productive knowledge. One of our missions was to facilitate the co-creation of projects that sort to move beyond personal satisfaction and/or commercial gain and respond to clear unresolved needs, be of benefit to the wider community and to achieve some common good. For all our efforts, (there were moments of satisfaction), but broadly ……………………………………we failed!  And I know we were not the only ones. There was a degree of individualism, a desire to gain new making skills or respond to personal concerns/desires/economic imperatives that dominated the agendas of many of the users of our space.

Fast forward to our new global reality and the potential of existing Makerspaces, Fablabs and their communities to valuably contribute to a shared challenge becomes clear.  For example, the Coronavirus GitLab is freely sharing multiple projects from their global community that have rapidly and creatively responded to critical needs for developing affordable and appropriate PPE and other medical equipment. This demonstrates how the model of a non-hierarchical self-regulating organisation, such as the Fablab network, can redirect their skills to respond to a common humanitarian cause when a crisis is evident; they can make care manifest.

This upsurge in the desire to, literally, make a positive contribution to the COVID 19 crisis is evidently not restricted to existing communities of makers. In the UK the lack of scrubs in the NHS has been a recent concern. New groups have rapidly sprung up to respond to this particular need. For example, ‘For the Love of Scrubs’  a Facebook group created for amateur sewers to share with others patterns, advice and the items they make has gained approx. 50K members in less than a month. Their desire is clearly to be practically useful, but in addition there is an instantiation of care (and pride) in the items they make. This balance between the instrumental putting to work of skills and a broader desire to express care, is I would argue, one of the features of a craft ethos and practice; mediating care through materials and production.  This is only one of innumerable different ground-up initiatives that have created temporary communities of making in various forms and scales. One of the motivations for me writing this piece has been my involvement in the Northumbria University Design School’s scrubs production initiative, instigated by the Fashion Department’s technical staff, but drawing in a range of academics and volunteers from outside the University; an ad hoc community formed out of a shared desire to ‘make’ ourselves useful. Although working at a larger batch production scale than the individual home sewer community described earlier, and putting to work manufacturing systems that are the foundation of industrial commercial production (though repurposed to a social end), I would contend that at its heart there is still much skill and care, there is craft.

More broadly, and as raised in earlier blog posts, this crisis has challenged established hierarchies of value based purely on the measures of a free market economy. In the context of this piece, it is worth noting that the craft of sewing has been an undervalued and under-remunerated skill. This can also be said of other activities such as nursing and care working (that embody care in a more explicit way). These roles are now being recognised and lauded (even by the Leader of the Tory Party!) as at the heart of our society, and so indirectly our economy.

This is an unquestionably dreadful crisis, but it provides us with a rare opportunity to glimpse alternative ways in which people think about their priorities, their values, and how they contribute to shared challenges. In thinking anew about the value of making and associated material resources in a care-full human centred and community-oriented way, we can reaffirm a craft ethos as a part of the pressing need for alternative, commons-based systems of labour organisation, governance and public policy.

People using industrial sewing machines
Northumbria Design School's scrubs production initiative. Photograph: Justin Marshall
Lisa Falaschi
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