Preserving and Developing Skills

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 2/ 2012: Skills

Knowledge, skills and tools are important components in the development of any human society. It is plausible that the human race has developed and survived through the ages largely because of the tools we have and the knowledge and skills we have developed to use them. The last 30 years’ new technology has changed the way we think and live to the extent that today ‘we are all cyborgs’, as Donna J. Haraway puts it in her Cyborg Manifesto*. Haraway asserts that the machine and the human organism have been fused together.

This development also affects the world of contemporary crafts. As new computerised machinery develops, we observe that traditional ways of working with crafts are challenged, perhaps even in the process of becoming obsolete. In this issue of NorwegianCrafts, the aspect of new technology in crafts is discussed by Christer Dynna, editor of Kunsthåndverk, and textile artist and Professor Kari Dyrdal in the article Beyond Established Patterns.

«As new computerised machinery develops, we observe that traditional ways of working with crafts are challenged, perhaps even in the process of becoming obsolete»

Knowledge, skills and tools may also serve as ways to distinguish one group of people from another, and to attain advantages. Having the knowledge and skills to use a certain material may help a person survive or achieve a higher quality of life. An example of this might be the people who lived in the Nordic region 1,200 years before the Viking Age and how they handled the knowledge of extracting iron from bogs.

The discovery of iron and the knowledge to extract it dramatically changed their lives. They were able to make better tools. Axes, swords and everyday tools like sickles and keys could be made from iron rather than bronze, giving them more strength and longer life spans. Iron made a huge impact on the development of agriculture, and in the TV-program Norske røter (Norwegian roots)^, archaeologist Lars Fredrik Stenvik defines the discovery of iron as perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of mankind.

The iron was extracted through ovens, but none of these are preserved. This is because they were destroyed after use, probably to ensure that the knowledge of how to extract iron would not be available to others. The iron was traded for luxury goods such as bronze, gold, silver and glass. To maintain the value of the iron in the marketplace, it was essential to keep the knowledge, skills and tools secret. And, according to Norske røter, it’s plausible that the powerful chiefs who controlled iron production distributed the material as far south as the Roman Empire – an important trading partner.

The new iron tools paved the way for the Viking Age, starting in the early 800s AD. A new material, new knowledge and new tools also meant new professions, new craftsmen. With new tools, large ocean-going ships could be built from wood, and the Vikings could travel far and wide to raid, trade, explore and settle.

«To maintain the value of the iron in the marketplace, it was essential to keep the knowledge, skills and tools secret»

To be a craftsman is to master a skill. And if you read Richard Sennett’s book on the subject, The Craftsman, life is all about mastering skills. These are often transferred from a teacher and learned through practice; to Sennett’s mind, some of the important aspects in learning a skill are trial and error. In The Craftsman he airs the idea that we can become better people if we become ‘craftsmen’, and that a society of ‘craftsmen’ is a healthy society.

However, as Kjetil Røed explains in his essay Life as a Workshop (NorwegianCrafts issue 5/2011) and again in his essay Montaigne’s Cat (this issue), Sennett defines craftsmanship more broadly than ‘skilled manual labour’.

For Sennett, ‘craftsmanship’ names the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake’, and good craftsmanship involves developing skills and focusing on the work rather than on ourselves.’’

The concept of a ‘craftsman’ could therefore apply to ‘skilled’ parents, ‘skilled’ engineers, ‘skilled’ chefs and so on. The concept covers every discipline that needs some kind of practical or theoretical knowledge and that can be carried out by someone with the ‘basic human impulse to do a job well’.

«a society of ‘craftsmen’ is a healthy society»

In The Craftsman, Sennett discussed the violins of Antonio Stradivari, a man famed for making excellent instruments. His secret knowledge died with him; no one has thus far been able to recreate the sound and finesse of his violins. In this respect, the violins of Stradivari remind us that knowledge and skills may be transferred from one person to another, or, as in Stradivari’s case, they may not be transferred at all. The consequence may be that knowledge and skills are lost.

We live in an increasingly specialized world. New tools and technology are invented, new materials discovered, new knowledge and skills developed, and all the while, traditional skills seem to become obsolete. Making things with traditional materials is also becoming increasingly expensive. Businesses that used to have factories for materials such as porcelain or textiles are outsourcing their production to China, India or anywhere where production costs are low, and, usually, the skills are high. How does this trend affect the knowledge and development of crafts?

The answer may have something to do with art schools. Oslo National Academy for the Arts has recently invested in new equipment for working in ceramics and textiles. It may seem irrational to invest in kilns when the industry is outsourced to China, a country where knowledge, tools and skills are highly developed, but we can also view this from another angle. Art schools may become important research facilities where skills are preserved, developed and challenged.


. * Donna J. Haraway (1985) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, Socialist Review, no. 80. (

^ NRK: Norske røter_, TV-program in three episodes that looks at the history of Norway from the first-known inhabitants to the Viking Age, approx. 1,000 AD. (

’’ Richard Sennett (2009) The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books, page 9.