TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Impact of Crafts in Our Global Economy

The 1970's saw a revival of crafts and hobbies that hearkened back to the pre-industrial revolution era.  Crafts that demanded fine motor skills, used historic, often hand-made tools, and emphasized simple materials.  All kinds of do-it-yourself kits hit the stores: macramé, paint-by-number, pottery wheels for kids, glass trimming tools, beading, sewing, embroidery, knitting, stained glass and so on.

Hobbies became entrenched into the middle class psyche.  Niche interests developed communities where classes, guilds, and groups formed.  This exposure led to increased value given to the arts, leading to specialized degrees at universities and the growth of galleries dedicated to specific interests.

Fabric of Life

 The 1980's saw a partnership of understanding grow between non-profits, non-governmental agencies, foundations and others who were interested in the economic development potential that the arts could bring to distressed communities.  I learned about fair trade in the late 1980's, finding the marriage of all of my interests:  art, economic development, and entrepreneurship.  For almost 25 years, I have been working in some capacity to promote both artists and economic development projects that use handicrafts as their tool for change.

Dye Verse
The middle class in the United States and Europe has been key to supporting efforts for promoting the arts, in all of its forms.  In the last 10 years, we have seen a decreased ability from all sides (governmental, academic, and financial) to support the arts.  Our economic crisis is not a joke.  It is real and we are witnessing the death of the middle class.  There have never been more millionaires in the United States than there are now, while poverty increases at a rapid rate.

Last night, I watched my nightly dose of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report.  Jon Stewart had Fareed Zakaria on as a guest.  A regular on the show, Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and I always enjoy his commentaries.  Here is a clip of the interview where he talks about his new book, an examination of technology and globalization on the American worker.

Zakaria  points out that the United States is in deep trouble because corporations have, in their global capacity, moved manufacturing and services out of the country to other places where they can access cheap labor and all of the enticements places with little or no regulation offer gold seekers.  The argument is always that the American public is at fault, since they are the ones that demand cheap products.  In a sense, that may be true.  But, I believe that it is mostly so because there is less buying power now than ever before since World War II.

Fiber Arts Connection

Instead, Zakaria says that we should use Germany as a model.  The most stable economy in Europe, they have weathered this recession and actually show growth, largely due to their exports.

I chewed on this for awhile and once again, saw how important craft production is in all of our local economies.  Yet, this sector is undervalued socially and economically.  Images of all of our TAFA members popped into my head: working in their studios, raising sheep, re-working designs, organizing villages, drawing, cutting, sewing, spinning, painting, dyeing, tying, ironing, tearing apart, putting back together......  endless amounts of work, dedication, inspiration, frustration, stubbornness, experimentation, failures, successes....

Cloverleaf Art and Fibre

We are now the one of the largest manufacturing bases of America and Europe.  Each studio is like a small factory.  Our demand for green supplies has brought a return to animal husbandry, indigenous plant crops, organic farming, and small mills.

Colin's Creatures

Here are some numbers:

            Top Ten Craft Segments by Sales
  1. Woodworking/Wood Crafts        $3.322 billion
  2. Drawing                                         $2.078 billion
  3. Food Crafting                                $2.001 billion
  4. Jewelry Making                             $1.446 billion
  5. Scrapbooking & Memory Crafts          $1.440 billion
  6. Floral Decorating                         $1.303 billion
  7. Crocheting                                    $1.062 billion
  8. Card Making                                 $1.040 billion
  9. Home Décor Crafts (Non-Sewing)         $948 million
  10. Wedding Crafts                                         $803 million

  • Vietnam:   Quantity. Vietnam has about 2790 craft villages of which over 20% of households participated in producing eleven major products groups such as lacquer, Porcelain, Embroidery, Bamboo and Rattan, Sea grass, Textile, Paper, Folk picture, Wood, Stone in the country
    Export value: According to statistics, the products export value of craft villages reached USD 273.700.000 in 2000; increased to more than USD 850.000.000 in 2008; and reached USD 900.000.000 in 2009 with 100 countries worldwide on the market.
  • Value of quilt industry in the US economy (2010):  3.58 billion  (Quilting in America)

Alison Yule Textiles

I could go on and on and find the numbers that show how important the art and craft industries are to our global economy.  Yet, we, as a group, are seen as insignificant and not taken seriously.  We are doing this for fun, because we don't want a "real" job, because we are weird or anti-establishment.  Most of us are "called" to this unrewarding work (in society's eyes).  We are compelled to do this. 

There is a weeding out process that happens when the young crafter begins experimenting, thinking that this might be a good way to live life.  Once they begin to seriously set themselves up for business, most drop out.  It is hard work.  Even with a degree, a tiny minority can find well-compensated work in an art or craft related field.  Those who stick with it, find themselves needing to learn all kinds of skills that have nothing to do with the real work they want to produce or sell.  They must become marketers, photographers, book keepers, and so on.

Kantara Crafts

The internet has completely revolutionized the marketing of crafts.  In the past, individuals and small businesses looked to galleries, craft fairs and trade shows for representation.  Now, everyone has the potential of creating a formidable presence online.  What?  The middle class is disappearing in the United States?  Well, maybe the new Russian elite might want to buy a weaving...  Websites and blogs have become increasingly user friendly.  Social media connects people from around the world.  In theory, this is the most democratic and revolutionary transformation business has had since the Industrial Revolution.  The reality is much different.

Deborah Grayson Studios

The serious craft business has enough on its plate with the business of product design and production.  For small operations, there is the often desperate attempt to get out there and see direct results through self-marketing.  It's an exhausting process in an ever-changing environment.

This is the key strategy behind TAFA's mission:  Markets for Members.  TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List intends to alleviate some of this by bringing the serious fiber artist and small textile business together.  It can help streamline the individual efforts into collective groups where members do not have to swim alone.  Yes, members still need to learn some of these skills if they want to effectively create a decent presence online.  But, they do not need to spend as much time on capturing an audience.  That is what TAFA hopes to do for them, to get out their and market the group as a whole to the various niches that can support them: galleries, interior decorators, boutiques, collectors, museum shops, and shoppers.

In order to do that, TAFA needs a new website, one that has all of the bells and whistles that will attract that kind of a crowd.  This will cost $5,000.  TAFA is currently a project of  Rayela Art, my business.  Even if we were structured as a non-profit, it is very hard to apply for funding for arts related projects in this climate of need.  There are so many natural disasters globally, victims of war, families losing homes, people in need of homes....  It is my firm belief that we should be able to raise this money from those who understand both our importance and our potential.

We are currently fundraising on IndieGoGo for these funds.  If you are financially able to support us in this way, we ask that you do so now, at this critical juncture.  TAFA now has 287 members representing 23 countries.  We intend on growing the membership into the thousands, becoming a hub for the whole textile and fiber arts community.  Help us get there.

Our members are offering gifts as a thank you for donations on this page: Click
But, the best perk we have is 18 months of advertising for $215.  
That is less than $12 a month! 

Once we reach our goal, it will still take three months for the design team to create the site.  Ads that are current when that happens, will transfer over to the new site.  Similar sites charge over $200 a week! 

Types of ads that would do well on our site:  health, bed and body, organic, spirituality, antiques, gardening, yoga supplies, other crafts, jewelry, and so on.  We are mostly women between the ages of 35 and 65, both in our membership and in our facebook demographics where we have 1,700 fans.

Of course, all donations are welcome.  Those who cannot donate can help by spreading the word.  We thank you from the bottom of our artsy craftsy hearts!

Please feel free to ask questions about TAFA, our strategy, or the new site here.  A dialogue on the economic impact of the art/craft industries would also be very interesting to me.  So, don't be shy!



  1. Important overview, Rachel, and a good introduction to how TAFA members contribute to the cultural sector. The arts/culture sector continues to be undervalued, even as it is an important contributor to local economies all over the world, including in North America. We work with women's artisan groups in Thailand and Laos. Most of these women are farmers; the income from their craft work is, for many of them, a critical support for their families and communities. They need export markets as well as local ones to survive. The younger generation is not continuing these cultural weaving traditions for a number of reasons. By seeing their mothers and grandmothers making money at weaving, more of them may consider it an option -- one that will give them a choice to stay in their villages (if they want to). In Laos in particular, women have few employment options outside a very few cities. This work is critical for them. TAFA will, with its new website, be an important way for people to find textiles and fibre art that enriches their lives and helps both individual artisans and groups that are trying to maintain their cultural traditions.

  2. Thanks, Ellen!

    You make two good points that I think about a lot: the connection with agriculture and the industrialization of developing countries.

    Historically, craft production has developed side by side with agricultural production. It has been the "down time" industry between growing and harvesting seasons, especially in colder climates.

    Now, we see both the partnership in the field (as I mentioned with animal husbandry and with a demand for organic materials) and in urban areas. As our populations become more concentrated in urban centers, we see efforts to bring the farm into the city, including the growing of supplies (bamboo, reeds, plants for dyes, etc.).

    Another important sector modern crafts affect is in the recycling industry as contemporary crafters look around at waste and use it as the material for their work. Paper, cloth, metal, plastic, toys, broken components- all salvaged by the growth in recycled and re-use movement.

    Then, with the exodus of the young generations in the production of traditional crafts, we already see many of these techniques die out in historical places where crafts were central to a culture. In Iran, for example, they no longer produce many carpets. Most come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and neighboring countries that are not as technologically advanced. Instead, skilled carpet makers in Iran offer their services for repairing carpets.

    Throughout the world, we are losing our masters as they age and have nobody to pass on their traditions. Even though it is more dehumanizing, the young migrate to jobs in factories. Traditional craft production helps keep family and village structures intact. Contemporary ones form new communities. All struggle to survive.

  3. Thank you so much for highlighting this, Rachel. Ellen brings up a point I'm facing with my handcrafts workshop here in Istanbul, as I talk to potential funders: if we do not establish a wholesale base of products produced here in this country for export, we will not be able to make enough to support our workforce of women locally, many of whom have relocated from agricultural areas to this urban environment. Crafts are dying here, yet if they are not made contemporary, hip, and ethnic chic (in other words, turned into trendy commodities), they are ignored. So as a designer, I'm caught between the desire to give women work, yet must make it aspirational to the world market. Tall order!

  4. Yes, it is a difficult process, but I also think that we live in one of the most exciting times in craft history. Part of the trick has to be in either keeping products affordable by incorporating elements of the traditional (like MarketPlace does in the clothing they produce), or by appealing to wealthy audiences who can pay for the labor (like Alabama Chanin).

    Phoenix rising from the ashes?


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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