This chapter highlights the broad range of crafts that have evolved in Europe from the Middle Ages to today, from parchment to pottery and from woodwork to weaving. It also explores how women’s relationship to crafts has developed.
A Europe full of trades
You might think that the processes craftspeople undertake are static and unchanging. But in reality, the journey from creative idea to finished product is a dynamic one. There are all sorts of factors that can affect how a craft develops, for example, the availability of raw materials can be affected by economic relations and trade between regions, nations and continents, while the movement of people creates new opportunities for knowledge-exchange, which leads to ever more creative possibilities for enterprising and curious craftspeople.
To understand how Europe (and the rest of the world) functioned before the Industrial Revolution (1760 to 1840), we can think of it as artisanal and handmade.
There were many skills, trades and specialities that made up this artisanal world. Let's take for example the craftsmanship of leather and hide. This sector was made up of no less than 12 different craft specialisations: from engraving to embossing leather, and from the creation of leather goods (bags, shoes, belts, etc.) to the manufacture of saddles. A complete list of craft activities - containing those that still exist and those that have disappeared - has thousands of entries.
The development of crafts is strongly linked to urbanisation. More people in one place increases a craftsperson’s earning potential. The coming together of artisan workshops of the same type in a particular area or street made it easier to procure raw materials and to sell finished products. This proximity also led to the development of a positive kind of competition, leading to both an improvement in product quality and the supervision of any infringements of the different local rules.
Today, ‘souvenirs’ are sold en masse to tourists from these historic artisanal neighbourhoods, which are sometimes deprived of their identity by the display and sale of cheap imitations and counterfeits.
A diversity of craft materials
How much a handcrafted product is worth - and can be sold for - depends on a lot of things. There’s its quality and quantity, the provenance and rarity of its raw materials, but also how hard it is to make, how long it takes, and how skilled or even how famous the craftsperson might be.
In general, the most expensive materials in Europe came from afar (such as ivory and ebony from Africa and Asia). Large quantities of silver and gold that arrived from the Americas enriched Spain but increased the cost of living everywhere. Tobacco and many other foodstuffs (potatoes, beans, pineapple, corn, etc.) also spread slowly in Europe, affecting the history of agriculture and food but also affecting crafts through the manufacture of terracotta containers, pottery, wicker and glass that could be used for food storage and consumption.
The history of silk is interesting. This material was already known during the Roman Empire but its ’secret’ was unveiled in the 6th century during the Justinian empire when some monks brought silkworm eggs hidden in hollow sticks to Byzantium. In the 12th century, silkworm breeding and silk production started in Sicily and Calabria and spread throughout Europe.
The production of porcelain has a long history marked by many ’stages’. It starts with a Chinese monopoly of a few objects arriving in Europe in the 14th century and called ’white gold’. In the 16th century, the East India Company marketed the manufacture of porcelain in soft paste, which was present throughout Europe until the end of the 1600s. In 1707, in Saxony, the secret of hard-paste porcelain was discovered - the addition of kaolin. During the 18th century, the ’secret’ spread throughout Europe.
People who work with pottery are often called ‘ceramists’. This can mean both a producer of semi-finished ceramics (biscuit) and a decorator of the same. In artisan workshops the two functions are often performed by the same people, but there are also many cases of differentiation of skills in pottery production, for example, lathe operator, oven operator, enameller, or decorator.
The world of crafts has held on to some of its ‘trade secrets’ - particular methods or processes that earn a craft some fame, intrigue, and therefore greater earning potential. The secrets of the leather workers in Florence is one example that sees people travel to Italy from other countries to respond to a personal 'artisan vocation'.
Tanning and leather working dates back to prehistoric times. Tanning is the process of treating animal hides to make leather and it was only in the second half of the 19th century, with the invention of the ’rotating cylinder’, that tanning lost its artisanal character. Many artisans still deal with the transformation of leather into bags, shoes and clothing. These products can sell for large sums if they carry the name of big fashion brands.
Parchment was a precious material used to conserve and propagate history and culture for centuries. Its great durability made it preferable to papyrus, and it was used from the 5th century until the end of the 13th century when it was gradually replaced by paper. Parchment was also used to build musical instruments.
The artisans involved in the production of parchments used different skins depending on the place of processing, usually sheep, goats, calves and even pigs, which work well as writing surfaces and were used extensively for book-binding.
The skins were soaked in water and lime, so it was easier to remove the hair and scrape off the meat. They were then tied on to wooden frames, where they remained to dry.
The resulting parchments varied in quality, colour and texture. The parchments of the papal ’briefs’ were very thin and very white, those for the binding of books were thick and dark, while those for writing were light and thin. Even when paper replaced parchment, many rulers continued to use parchment for their public documents well into the 20th century.
The craftspeople who engaged in metallurgy had various specialised tasks: extracting pure metal from minerals, refining it, melting it, and transforming it.
Blacksmiths created iron and steel objects in the forge, where the metal heated by the fire became malleable. Farriers were blacksmiths who specialised in trimming and shoeing the hooves of horses. Before the Industrial Revolution, each settlement of a certain importance had its own forge.
The boilermaker made and repaired copper boilers, kettles, cooking pots and cookware. The metal, purchased in sheets, was bent and beaten until it took the desired shape. A thin layer of tin covered the inside of the containers so that the copper did not make the food toxic by oxidising.
Goldsmiths not only worked gold (the malleable metal par excellence) to create jewellery but also made tableware and silver objects and all the precious objects necessary for religious ceremonies (like chalices, ostensories and crosses) and secular celebrations (like crowns, sceptres, necklaces and medals).
Lace-making employed thousands of women throughout Europe. They manufactured lace for altars and sacred vestments, as well as lace for brides' trousseaus and for the clothing of the nobles and the wealthy. Unlike embroidery, which takes place on existing fabrics, lace is born only from the thread and the tools necessary to weave it. Depending on the type of lace, and with the support of the pillow (a padded circular drum) or special cartons, the lace makers used needles, crochet hooks, shuttles, bobbins or simply their fingers, as in macramé.
Weaving has been around since the Neolithic age. It has been practised since ancient times (continuing with the addition of the family loom) in specialised workshops with a labour force made up of people enslaved by the Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, weaving returned to homes until the 12th century when organised production was resumed and extended to various European countries. Linen fabrics were produced in northern France, Switzerland and southern Germany. The sailcloth in Brittany was produced in the Baltic. The most famous silk fabrics were from Lucca (Italy). Also, woollen clothes came from Italian, English and Flemish productions.
People have been employed in weaving workshops since the 13th century, and the Industrial Revolution saw woollen fabrics produced and exported around the world on an immense scale. As a result, weaving can be seen not as a hand-made craft but as a proto-capitalist industry - a system of trade from which modern capitalism ultimately derives.
Woodworking was one of the first crafts, starting with the construction of shelters, huts and houses on stilts. Even the first tools were made of wood - spears, clubs, ploughs, and rafts which over time became boats and ships.
Among the most renowned wood craftspeople are the furniture makers: carpenters, cabinetmakers, inlayers and luthiers. Famous names include Maggiolini (carver), Brustolon (carver), Boulle (cabinetmaker of Louis XIV), Chippendale (English cabinetmaker from whom a style of furniture takes its name). Since industrial furniture-making processes have taken over from carpentry, the value of many furnishings is no longer in the craftsmanship but in the signature of the famous architects and designers who thought them up.
Glass artefacts in the form of glass paste have been found dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE. In ancient Rome, the production of glass came much closer to industry than to craft. The production of glass-blowing in moulds invented in around 100 BCE enormously increased the number of products that could be made. In Venice (where the glassworks were moved to Murano in 1291 for fear of fires) the glass artisans were strictly controlled to prevent them from revealing the secrets of their work abroad. Barovier invented crystal in Venice in 1450 while Bohemian crystal was born in the 17th century.