What is arts and crafts? Arts and crafts 101

Arts and crafts describes a wide variety of activities involving making things with one’s own hands. Arts and crafts is usually a hobby. Some crafts (art skills) have been practiced for centuries, others are more recent inventions. William MorrisJohn Ruskin and others promoted an “arts and crafts” movement in the late 19th century, which popularized the phrase.

Both children and adults enjoy arts and crafts. Children in schools may learn skills such as woodworkingwood carvingsewing, or making things with all sorts of material. Many community centers and schools have evening or day classes and workshops where one can learn arts and craft skills.

clay molding

Clay molding

What defines arts and crafts styles?

What was the Arts and Crafts Movement?

The Arts and Crafts Movement, a design movement and philosophy, developed in England in the late Victorian era, beginning roughly in the 1860s. It got its name from an English organization called the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society that began in 1887. The Arts and Crafts movement was an international trend in the decorative and fine arts that began in Britain and flourished in Europe and North America between about 1880 and 1920, emerging in Japan in the 1920s as the Mingei movement. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms, and often used medieval, romantic, or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and was essentially anti-industrial. It had a strong influence on the arts in Europe until it was displaced by Modernism in the 1930s, and its influence continued among craft makers, designers, and town planners long afterwards.

The movement developed earliest and most fully in the British Isles and spread across the British Empire and to the rest of Europe and America. It was largely a reaction against the perceived impoverishment of the decorative arts at the time and the conditions in which they were produced.

At this time in England, industrialization was in full swing. People were leaving the country for the city, and larger and larger factories made an increasing number of mass-produced goods. In short, the world was changing, bringing massive shifts to all facets of society. The Art and Crafts Movement was a reaction to this societal upheaval. Its members were concerned with the growing mass-production of cheap goods and increasingly unhealthy urban environments. The Arts and Crafts Movement was as much about social reform as it was about a specific style of design.

One of the movement’s leaders was William Morris (1834 – 1896), a poet, designer, and reformer. Morris tended to look back to medieval times and the tradition of guilds, or workshops, of skilled craftsmen. Using a similar system, he wanted to rekindle appreciation of craftsmanship, believing that good design could be a positive force to encourage good society. He founded an interior decorating firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., that focused on beautiful, simple design for applied goods with a practical purpose in the home. He attracted many followers who adopted his beliefs and ideas, and they also became part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The term was first used by T. J. Cobden-Sanderson at a meeting of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in 1887, although the principles and style on which it was based had been developing in England for at least 20 years. It was inspired by the ideas of architect Augustus Pugin, writer John Ruskin, and designer William Morris.

Style of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Because the Arts and Crafts Movement was as much about a reform philosophy as it was a specific type of design, there isn’t a single set of unifying traits that identify Arts and Crafts works. But we can look at general qualities shared in the work of those who agreed with Morris.

While some fine artists were involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement, most examples of the style can be found in areas such as architecture and decorative arts. The latter includes things such as ceramics, stained glass, textile arts, wallpaper, furniture, and household goods.

Detail of a carpet design by William Morris
textile design by Morris

Morris and those who following him believed in high-quality materials and good, but not overly-complicated, design. Those who followed the Arts and Crafts Movement borrowed from several influences, most of which looked back to earlier time periods. You can see elements of medieval art, especially Gothic and Celtic; Japanese art in a focus on linear quality and the flattened sense of space and form; and Islamic art, in a focus on ornament and patterned surfaces.

Ceramic rice dish with dragon pattern, ca. 1898. The dish was made by Willian De Morgan, a potter who was inspired by Morris and his ideas.
ceramic rice dish

Arts and Crafts works also tend to focus on nature, but in simplified and stylized ways. And those who made the furniture, ceramics, and other goods worked with traditional methods of production, such as wood carving and block printing. They rejected modern technology, seeing it as one of the elements that was negatively impacting society.

Silk bed cover with block-printed design by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, ca. 1890
Block printed silk

Works done in the Arts and Craft style have patterns that tend toward rectilinear, or straight-lined and angular forms, but they do also include curved lines. Images are very stylized, but use many natural elements, such as flowers, vines, leaves, birds, insects, or animals. Colors tend to be natural tones, such as deep green, browns, rich reddish terra cottas, and similar earth tones.

What are the different types of arts and crafts?

Textile, Decorative, Paper, Functional, and Fashion Crafts

Crafting includes a variety of art forms, from sculpture and metalwork to knitting and printing. These crafts can all be divided into five basic types based on their form and purpose: textile, decorative, paper, functional, and fashion crafts.

Textile Crafts
Checking samples in knit store
Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images

These include any type of craft where you work with fabric, yarn, or surface design. Some examples are knitting, quilting, appliqué, weaving, and dyeing. Many of these could obviously also fall into the decorative or fashion crafts categories since the finished goods are often sold as sweaters or wall hangings. However, they are technically textile crafts since they all start with the fabric.

Other examples of textile crafts include the Japanese art of boro, a form of decorative repair that involves combining textiles from different sources. Japanese decorative stitching is known as sashiko.

As the name implies, paper crafts have to do with paper. Many kids get their first introduction to paper crafts in pre-school when they use carved potatoes to hand print designs on construction paper. The grown-up version of this is wood and linoleum engraving. Other paper crafts include papier-mache, calligraphy, and papermaking

paper flower

Decorative Crafts

Furniture making, metalwork, stenciling, stained glass, gilding, spongeware, and basketry all fall into the category of decorative crafts. This category also includes toy making and other arts—anything where the final product is a piece of decor. Unlike fine art, decorative art typically has some element of utility to it. A piece of furniture, for example, may be beautiful in its own right—but its main function is to provide a place to sit.

Combining furniture-making with metalwork is a popular trend. Arts and crafts and home décor magazines often showcase furniture constructed from wood but with metalwork legs or trim. The metalwork tends to be very industrial-looking but there is a good amount of ornate metalwork included as well.

Fashion Crafts
Fashion crafts

This craft encompasses all the elements of dressing the human body: jewelry, hats, leather-work (shoes, belts, handbags), and garments. It will naturally intersect with other craft types since jewelry can be made through metalworking and garments are fabricated by sewing—which can be classified as a textile craft.

Fashion crafts involve a variety of materials, from soft fabrics such as cotton, linen, and wool to sturdier materials such as nylon, canvas, and leather. Sewing is just one part of making a garment; design and construction of clothing is a multi-step process that requires precise technique and careful attention to detail.

Functional Crafts
Basket weaving

Many of the four other types of crafts can also be classified as functional. For example, decorative pottery—including serving platters and utensils—is often made with components that are okay for people to eat from. Many furniture crafts are primarily functional but can also be quite decorative.

Obviously, to attract the widest possible customer base, it’s good to have functionality built into your art or craft. Many times customers who won’t shell out the big bucks for an original creation just because of its good looks will justify the cost because it can also be used in day-to-day life.

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