Inverting the Guild: Conserving Endangered Craft

Craft Guilds have existed for centuries and are traditionally monopolistic in nature. Guilds sought complete control over their own local markets and by guarding information and controlling conditions of entrance into a craft, guilds limited the labour supply. In a medieval context, this serves a purpose of protecting livelihoods and intellectual property, but now that we find our crafts dwindling, it seems only logical to reimagine how we can treat specialist craft information.

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Rachel is a designer, craftsperson and forager. She has spent the last 2 years researching naturally derived colour as an essential part of place making at Grymsdyke Farm. Having originally trained as a jeweller, Rachel’s work often questions the role and relevance of endangered heritage crafts in contemporary and future life. She has recently exhibited at The Barbican Centre, Flat Time House and Van Gogh House.

The Heritage Craft Association compiled and published a ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’. Ranking traditional crafts by ‘the likelihood they would survive to the next generation, based on intangible cultural heritage’. The crafts on this red list have been deemed ‘under threat’.

It now seems imperative that we devise tangible ways of preventing the cultural loss of the death of a craft. The simplest way to keep knowledge alive is to share it, in detail, with as many people as you can.

Rachel Jone and Ciara Callaghan hosting a workshop
Big Shop Friday hosted the Redways Colourways exhibition which brought the colours of the workshop series together in one space to share with the wider community. Photo by Chris Henley.

The Guild Collective was founded by artists and natural dyers Rachel Jones and Ciara Callaghan in 2020 to share and explore the power of natural dyes to connect people to places.

The Guild Collective seeks to question and invert what the role of a Guild is in a contemporary context. Now that many heritage craft skills have become endangered, the role of a Guild should be to share and not guard craft knowledge. If we are to act in the best interest of craft, creating inclusive and accessible craft experiences for all is essential.

This summer, in response to the Milton Keynes Council initiative Reclaim the Redways*, we as the Guild Collective devised our first project, Redways Colourways.

This project documents the colour palette of natural dyes that can be made from plants growing along the Redways network. We ran a series of ten free public workshops through which citizens of Milton Keynes engaged in a re-exploration of their surroundings, turning the Redways into Colourways.

The practice of natural dyeing offers a connection to place and a means of building on local knowledge. Natural dyes can challenge people’s perspective of where they live by taking common plants and uncovering the magic and art that lies just beneath the surface.

Plants being collectively foraged on the Redways
Each of the ten workshops began with a colour walk around the Redways to explore what plants grow there and which have the potential to yield colour. Photo by Chris Henley.

The engagement was aimed at local communities who inhabit specific areas along the Redways so participants could arrive by bike, foot or wheelchair. It was important that the participants could be the experts on their own territory, and all we were doing was casting this territory in a new light.

Plants being collectively foraged on the Redways
Each of the ten workshops began with a colour walk around the Redways to explore what plants grow there and which have the potential to yield colour. Photo by Chris Henley.

Each of the ten workshops began with a colour walk around the Redways to explore what plants grow there and which have the potential to yield colour. Plants were then collectively foraged to create a dye vat where together we revealed the colours that the plants held by dyeing flags and bags.

The landscape-led colours that were created from these plants are a reflection of local ecology. Plants which can be used to create colour grow everywhere, not only in rural settings. They can be found on the side of the road, on roundabouts, alongside train tracks and behind supermarkets. The plants will be different depending on the location, which creates the specificity of local colour.

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Each workshop participant dyed a ‘Redways/Colourways’ tote bag to dye to keep. Now there is a group of people in MK with these tote bags in different colours based on the hyperlocal dyes which grow in their part of the Redway. Photos by Chris Henley

The plants and trees which grow along the redways are many and varied. Some were planted and cultivated many years ago and others are perennial ‘weeds’ that have self-seeded. The impact of harvesting these plants for the workshops was minimised by following and sharing ethical foraging codes and by using species that grow in abundance, as well as trees and shrubs that require annual renewal pruning. The project encourages a sense of seasonal living and the development of a proficiency and confidence in what is available for harvesting at different times of the year.

Redways Colourways exhibition at Big Shop Friday
Redways Colourways exhibition at Big Shop Friday, by Chris Henley

We sought to ask how a deeper connection to land and plant life can lead to more meaningful engagements with the public spaces we inhabit, and to examine the working relationship between people, land, materials and processes, highlighting this chain of meaningful connections.

Plant-derived colour acts as a vehicle to discuss bigger ideas of material connection to locality and connection to and care of green public space. By asking questions of the journey our materials make and their true origins, find the stories we do not know about these colour materials and to fill in the blanks on the things we take for granted. The project’s aim is to bring the significance of the ecology and seasonal shifts that define the landscape into our designed spaces to generate a more considered relationship with the colours that surround us.

With a heavy focus on hyper-localism, Redways Colourways focussed on building a fuller picture of the story that colour can teach us about local plant life and the lost knowledge surrounding it. The close geographic connection of the colour to its source results in a process of colouring a space with the landscape that surrounds it.

* Reclaim the Redways consists of five creative commissions to encourage people to use and enjoy MK’s famous Redway network between July 2021 – March 2022.

Following an open call for proposals, Milton Keynes Council awarded five Reclaim the Redways creative commissions to build on the increased public uptake in cycling and walking during the pandemic.

MK Council COVID-19 Economic Recovery Funding has been allocated to encourage people to walk, ride, scoot and use public transport more often as they commute to work, explore their local areas, enjoy being outside and take time out to improve their fitness.

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