The Forgotten Everyday Origins of ‘Craft’

A new book explores the fascinating medieval history of a word whose current meaning has little to do with skill or labor.

A close-up detail of the book cover for 'Craeft'
W. W. Norton

In his new book Craeft, the archaeologist and BBC presenter Alexander Langlands offers a fascinating and surprisingly relevant dive into a subject that might seem niche to many—the origins of traditional crafts in medieval Europe. The reviews, by and large, have been enthusiastic. But some of the article headlines present a curious opening argument for the work. A short write-up in The Guardian is introduced, “Craeft review—not just a load of old corn dollies.” In The New York Times Book Review, a thoughtful piece by the renowned graphic designer Michael Bierut is similarly branded, “Before Glitter and Glue Sticks, Craeft.”

You’ve probably encountered this cliché before: Something in the news—perhaps a sea of handmade Pussyhats—is “not your grandma’s knitting.” The word “craft” can seem to demand an apology or clarification: a reminder that no serious, technically accomplished endeavor should ever be confused with the homespun. For decades, academics have explored the ways in which traditionally domestic and feminine pursuits (as well as the creative traditions of communities of color and of artists in the developing world) tend to be dismissed as “craft,” as distinct from “art” or “design.” In Craeft’s introduction, Langlands quotes the late, eminent furniture designer David Pye, who because of this divide once characterized craft as “a word to start an argument with.”

So if “craft” is guaranteed to start a fight, what is “craeft,” exactly? To understand this, it helps to know a bit about Langlands’s backstory. He’s trained as an archaeologist and specializes in Anglo-Saxon Britain; but he’s better known to viewers of British TV from his role as a presenter on the BBC’s historic farms series, including titles like Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm. Langlands’s television experience appears to have inspired him to view archaeology more experientially than he had before. Not content to unearth artifacts and speculate about how an ancient object might have been made, or who might have owned it, he’s intrigued by how things were used, and what it might have been like to work with them in historical context.

For Langlands, the Anglo-Saxon word “craeft” is distinct from our modern word “craft” in spirit and in practice. “Craeft” means having the wisdom of one’s surroundings, understanding nature and the seasons, and knowing one’s materials, as well as how objects and systems fall apart. To illustrate the point, Langlands’s book offers a bewitching virtual tour of life in Medieval England. Describing his happy first experience with filming Tales From the Green Valley (part of the historic-farms series), Langlands writes:

I was spending nearly every single hour of every day immersed in historical farming. I was tending, ploughing, scything, chopping, sweeping, hedging, sowing, walling, slicing, chiselling ... the list is almost endless. Most significantly, I was watching with an archaeological eye how my actions were altering and reconfiguring the material environment around me.

This, in a nutshell, is what’s at the heart of Craeft: It’s vignette after charming vignette of ancient processes, described in exuberant detail as Langlands travels through Spain, France, England, Scotland, and Iceland. Readers get a richly atmospheric peek into “craefts” like the thatching of roofs, the spinning of wool, and the tanning of hides.

Langlands’s discussion of how the modern word “craft” acquired its cultural baggage begins with language. When the term “craeft” first emerged in England during the middle ages, it connoted power, physical strength, and skill. But as early as 1200, it began to mean “cunning” or “sly.” (Even today a weaselly person might be called “crafty.”) Later, perhaps due to its association with “power,” it also began to hint at the supernatural, as in “witchcraft.” But none of this quite explains why, today, outlets reviewing Langlands’s book feel the need to reference “corn dollies,” as if preempting reader judgment about a word that once just described a sphere of activity, like “technology” or “food.” And Langlands doesn’t quite fill in this gap.

He does provide a lively history of the Arts and Crafts movement that originated in mid-1800s Great Britain and flowered in North America, which industrialized later during the Gilded Age. Langlands highlights, among other things, the movement’s connections to progressive politics (William Morris, of floral-wallpaper fame, was an ardent socialist). Nineteenth-century English design reformers like Morris and John Ruskin believed workers should have the satisfaction of creating goods from start to finish, rather than just toiling endlessly on single parts of things. The movement’s central irony is that the economics of the craftsman ideal don’t work: Then, as now, most people cannot afford to solely buy goods that have been handmade by a well-paid individual. Accordingly, Arts and Crafts masterpieces, like Tiffany silver, are more apt to be found in museums—hardly the realm of the humble glue stick.

Which brings us back to “craft”: Apart from its use as a marketing term for, say, microbrews, the word today doesn’t usually connote a skilled trade. Unlike “working,” “crafting” is commonly understood as fun: It can be self-consciously silly, feathered, decoupaged, and brightly colored. It’s fun for kids and meditative for grownups. In most cases, the product of a crafting session is less important than the relaxing process by which it was made. This is the case not only because mass production has trained consumers to value the widespread affordability of manufactured goods. It’s also because industrialization permanently altered how people understand work, leisure, and time. Craft is leisure, but it’s terribly efficient: It provides the satisfaction of transforming a stack of materials into a tangible, recognizable finished object, often by way of a therapeutically repetitive process. Craft’s magic trick is that it’s play that’s been designed to look like work.

Hard as it may be to believe now, there was a moment not so long ago when social reformers were worried that people had too much free time. The rational measures of work that are often taken for granted today were unfamiliar concepts when the U.S. and Great Britain first industrialized. The notion that work had an “on/off” switch didn’t come naturally to people whose work lives had largely been governed by the seasons and the rhythms of the agricultural calendar. The natural consequence of the factory clock was the advent of recurring blocks of unplanned time in workers’ schedules, which posed a challenge: What was one to do? And if one wasn’t a laborer, but a 19th-century moral scold concerned with public vices like gambling and drinking, what was there to do in one’s off hours?

Plenty, according to the historian Steven Gelber, whose book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America chronicles the rise of what he terms “productive leisure.” “Hobbies developed as a category of socially valued leisure activity ... because they bridged the worlds of work and home,” Gelber writes. While hobbies appeared to provide a break from the office and factory life, Americans’ cultural aversion to idleness demanded a sense that one always be busy in some fashion. Enter craft, or “craeft” as metaphor.

Craft began to thrive during the 1910s and ’20s in the classroom, too. The little-known but highly influential Scandinavian philosophy of sloyd, first outlined in 1865, turned the study of craft into something resembling one of the liberal arts by arguing that such projects could build students’ characters and intellects. Likewise, the educator and philosopher John Dewey privileged the benefits of making of things over the quality of a finished object. Craft instruction began to animate  classrooms and summer camps alike.

By the 1930s, toy companies were producing hobbycraft kits by the thousands; magazines promoted activities like furniture and carpentry for men, knitting and sewing for women, and beading and pottery for kids. Craft kits were packaged with supplies, instructions, and patterns. Rather than true “craeft,” kits are closer to assembly. The convergence of “process over product” educational theory and the hobbycraft industry is what doomed the word “craft” to associations with the unserious and unskilled. Where the word had once connoted expertise and skill, even supernatural abilities, by the mid-20th century, it had become an instant signifier of amateurism.

What Langlands is advocating for in his book is more widespread knowledge about the time when craft was integral to daily life. In the era he studies, activities like beekeeping  weren’t escapes from reality, but essential to it. He also smartly notes that neither “craft” nor “craeft” is a synonym for “working with one’s hands.” At its root, the word “manufacture,” which is associated with mass production, means “to make by hand.” Most of the cheap goods we buy are made at least in part by people. The reason assembly isn’t “craeft,” to follow his logic, is that the final form of an assembled object is predetermined, requiring no ingenuity or material wisdom.

In Craeft, Langlands calls for living and working with awareness of our environments, materials, and challenges in real time. We don’t have to quit our jobs and start keeping bees in order to do this. Every architect thinking through climate-change-resilient design is applying “craeft” logic to their work; so are chefs who source all their produce locally, and jewelers who use only reclaimed gems and metals. We need not be literal about “craeft” to enjoy its benefits, or to see how it might benefit the world. Sometimes, a metaphor is the right tool for the job.