Original post : 29 Aug 2013

A return to cottage industry?

We recently reported that figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal that 2.5 million people in the UK now run businesses from home which represents 52% of UK small businesses.

As we know that may not in fact cover all the sole traders working from home who operate below the VAT threshold. We also know that many of these small businesses will be specialist, creative enterprises.

Large numbers of people creating high quality handmade items from their homes using heritage crafts harks back to a previous era when it was common for people to spin, weave, make baskets, carve wood, etc, from workshops in their own homes. In other words we could be seen as entering a new age of the cottage industry.

Or rather we have one aspect of cottage industry – smaller scale, high quality, specialised work from home. What we don’t necessarily have alongside that are some of the other elements such as close communities that provide support and a structure to pass along skills.

In traditional cottage industries such as the weavers of Northern Ireland and Scotland the whole family was often involved in the business with wives spinning, kids carding and husbands weaving. Also there was likely to be a number of families and individuals carrying out the same sort of work in a local area. For example Dunfermline was a centre for the cottage production of damask linen.


Traditional weavers cottage, Ulster American Folk Park

This meant there were people around to share experiences with. Weavers or other artisans might meet each other at church or the pub, depending on the type of community, and share news experiences etc. You can still see this in some parts of the world – such as in Bali there are villages where the whole community specialises in one craft such as silver jewellery, baskets or umbrellas.

But in our new cottage industries it’s unlikely that our next door neighbours will be running the same sort of business and only some of us will socialise with other people in the same or similar situation. This means it’s essential to grasp the opportunities for networking and sharing experiences that are available. Using social media such as Twitter or LinkedIn forums like the PlanetHandmade one can provide one route as can talking to other people at craft fairs and shows (whether you have a stand or not) and attending local craft event s and talks.

Networking like this doesn’t mean giving away your design secrets but sharing or discussing the common factors everyone is experiencing such as how worthwhile different selling or marketing opportunities might be, supply chain issues and business information. We just need new ways to talk to our “neighbours”.

Then there is the issue of passing on skills. In traditional cottage industries this was most commonly through the family. Now there can be a struggle to find a local course to learn additional skills and if you grow where do you find people with the skills you need?

If we are entering a new era of cottage industries we may need to think about another traditional working method – the idea of the skilled master craftsperson passing on knowledge to apprentices. There are now opportunities for small business to offer apprenticeships but what designer makers and craft specialists need to think about is what an apprentice might offer them and what they could offer an apprentice as well as if passing on skills is affordable. 

This thinking about communities and passing on skills should be part of a bigger effort. If we are returning to an era of cottage industry what other important lessons can we learn? What worked and what didn’t? How to build a community that ensures cottage skills are valued for uniqueness and quality so businesses aren’t drowned by industry?

To create the right environment for designer makers in the future, it is useful to look to the past.




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