Every time we begin work on a new edition of the Red List we find that we need to make small changes to how we approach it, in order for the research to better reflect the changing reality of the world around us. In the 2023 edition the major change has been in how we define a craft.
How we previously defined a craft
Like any other broad category of culture, traditional craftsmanship is neither a continuum (like a rainbow), nor is it a collection of completely separate entities (like the elements in the periodic table). It can be made to seem like one or the other, depending on which analogy fits best at the time.
The Red List is partly based on lists of endangered animals, so it has served us well until now to think of crafts just like animal species, clearly distinct from each other. Animal species are not parts of a continuum, but are separated by the very real fact that different species cannot usually produce offspring together.
The question we have used to separate crafts has been: ‘Can a skilled practitioner move from one skill to another without substantial re-training?’ If the = answer is ‘yes’ then we have treated the skills as belonging to a single craft. If ‘no’ then we have treated them as two separate crafts.
There is of course the subjective matter of what constitutes ‘substantial re-training’, but overall this is the best way we have found to apply a methodology of endangerment to the complexity of crafts we see in the real world.
What’s the problem?
The problem with this method has become more apparent has time has gone on. Some crafts may employ the same basic skills but be separated by their cultural context. They might have a broad uptake across the country, but also have culturally significant manifestations that are specific to a particular geographic, ethnic or religious community of practice.
This has been especially problematic when a craft has enough practitioners nationwide to be classed as viable, but a particular culturallysignificant version of it is on the verge of extinction.
One example of this is Shetland lace knitting, in which a great many people around the country have participated, thanks to the many published pattern books and websites on the subject. At the same time there is a very particular community of practice within Shetland, producing lace in an unbroken lineage of skill passed on from one maker to the next, using the traditional double-pointed wires and leather knitting belt. It is within this cultural context that the craft is dwindling.
As a result of these two hitherto undifferentiated aspects, the inclusion of Shetland lace knitting in the previous edition of the Red List was quite naturally the matter of much debate and disagreement.
What’s the solution?
We believe that the Red List should absolutely be the place to champion the cultural distinctiveness of traditional craft practices, in the spirit of the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) upon which our work is based.
Therefore, with this edition we have begun to list crafts not just by virtue of their skill but also by their cultural specificity, especially when the crafts are more endangered than their more widespread equivalents. We have added six of these crafts in this edition and plan to add more in 2025.
A happy side-effect of this is to highlight where our work overlaps with the other four domains of ICH, including folk practices, festivals, religious beliefs and ways of seeing the work.
It will allow us to incorporate more crafts from diaspora and migrant communities that may resemble crafts previously practiced here, but with a significance intrinsically tied to the cultural groupings with whom they reside.