A Brief History of Crafting

The article for today is a very brief introduction to the history of crafting, and has been written by Catriona Hogg, one of our crafting instructors.

The crafting aspect of the AHA is not one which gets a lot of press. There is only one club which has any crafting instructors and there are only three of us. Now that we have more people who are interested in the crafting and we are increasing in number it seemed like a good idea to increase the number of crafting blogs on Encased in Steel. To give people a little bit of background about the crafting aspect of the Academy: it started alongside the combat when Ben Kerr and others set up the society now called Glasgow University Historical Arts Society away back in 2007. It has been running in the Glasgow group ever since but we haven’t quite managed to expand outwards to other groups yet. There are only three of us full crafting instructors with a couple more joining the ranks within the forseeable future. Throughout the years we have tackled many different crafting disciplines, most of which includes basic crafts like sewing, knitting and chainmaille but we do teach complex crafts like making crossbows and different kinds of armour. Obviously the more complex the craft the more time, money, materials and equipment have to go into making it.

Now that there is a bit of background on crafting within the AHA now we can get on to the main part of the article: what are the origins and history of crafting? And also why look into this subject at all? It’s something I didn’t think about until I joined the AHA in 2009 and at one point thought ‘Oh, where did this come from? Which part of the world did it come from? How long have we been using these techniques?’ A brief browse on the internet brought up a Wikipedia article and a few blog or forum posts, some more scholarly than others. As far as I can find there are very few academic journals or books dedicated to this, and it’s not very surprising. It’s a very hazy subject and most people don’t give it a lot of thought. There are also quite a few obstacles to finding the answers. One problem we have in trying to identify the origins of crafts is that material decomposes very quickly and any pieces that are left do not have a lot of context surrounding how it was made. Or if you are thinking about items like arms and armour, the regular run-of-the-mill weaponry and armour might have been melted down for the materials or it has rusted away from being left in damp conditions (like a grave). In an Anglo-Saxon burial mound (like the ones found at Sutton Hoo) the body still had some scraps of material on it, the fabric itself does not tell us very much. Other items in the mound would give a closer indication as to the social class and possible wealth of the person. More solid items like the famous Sutton Hoo helmet (see below) tell us whether the person was a warrior of high rank or if he was just a simple foot-soldier. The intricacy of the helmet shows a great deal of craftsmanship so it was more likely that someone with plenty of money would have worn that helmet. But how was it made?


With items like pottery, helmets and swords there are certain marks which indicate the kind of equipment used. Most sought after craftsmen would also have had maker’s marks, for the sole purpose of identifying who made the piece. There are also some archaeoligical finds like chisels and hammers which are more substantial. However, fabrics don’t give us this kind of evidence. Later garments like those from the industrial revolution have tell-tale signs of factory make. The amount of fabric we have from earlier periods of history have not survived, and the few that have don’t always survive well enough to indicate how they were made.What we do know is that there were institutions called crafting guilds which mostly came to prominence in Europe (but the information I have relates to England) after the Norman Conquest. You had to pay to be a member but there was protection against opposition and trade opportunities for the members. A young man during his early teenage years could be taken on as an apprectice by a Master in the guild and then learn the skills they needed to start being paid for the items he made. This could take from 5 to 9 years depending on the trade. It was quite a desirable position despite having to pay for it. The boy (and it was only men who could take up this opportunity) would receive food, lodging, clothes and would be cared for by the guild as well as learning a solid trade. Once he was deemed good enough he achieved the rank of Journeyman and was then allowed to marry. To become a Master a Journeyman would have to complete a masterwork in his related craft. The guild would hold the monopoly on all crafts done within that town or city and had fines for anyone found who broke their charter. While it was more likely that the necessary skills were passed on from Master to Apprentice, we also have some archaeological evidence of pattern being used. One source we have is a 16th century German text which has patterns for many different garments and other items like tents and flags. There was a kickstarter which was getting funding to have these books translated into English and published with images and descriptive text. It can be found here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1511672022/drei-schnittbucher-3-16th-c-austrian-master-tailor?ref=live for those who are interested in looking into this further. This is a fantastic piece of evidence which could increase our knowledge of how clothing (and other items) were made in 16th century Germany.

However, while the guilds were well protected there were various issues (most of them seem to be beareaucratic) which closed the guilds down and favoured small family run businesses instead. Then the Industrial Revoltion took over, which brought a whole different way of manufacturing items. Different additions to spinning wheels and looms to make producing fabrics faster were introduced and took off. The first mills were established by the 1740s, steam powered machines came along not long afterwards. By the early 19th century the number of steam powered mills was increasing and by 1870 the mills themselves were being built bigger, better and faster than ever before. They created a large number of jobs but the conditions were dangerous and very unhealthy for the lowly workers. Scotland’s biggest contribution to that was from Robert Owen in New Lanark, he abolished child labour and corporal punishment. He founded a school, free health care, evening classes for adults, and gave decent homes to the workers. The village and mill are still there to go and visit if you are ever in Scotland. This was the beginning of the mass production we all know and love today. Throughout the centuries there have been times when hand knitting and embroidery have come back ‘into fashion’. Since I started with the Academy such a thing has happened, a lot of my female (and some male) friends have taken up knitting with gusto. Since 2009/10 I have started more projects than I have finished as I tend to get bored easily but knitting is a very good way to pass the time and can be quite calming… unless something goes wrong when it can be incredibly frustrating!

This is only a brief overview of the history of crafts, there is much more to it than this. Most of the information I have found is freely available on the internet if you search for it. There are probably more in depth essays and such on different subjects like the guilds and the mills but if you are looking for origins, they are harder to trace. It is very much like trying to trace the origins of combat. Human beings have been making things and fighting since the dawn of time. We’ve just found bigger and better ways to do both.