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January 2013

Attitudes to arts education giving me 1980s flashbacks

Standing on a train platform the other day I could have been transported back to the 80s. To the right a poster for a Stallone movie, to the left a Schwarzenegger one. A new Bowie single out. Oh yes, and headlines about recession.

But it was a very 21st century phenomenon that really made me think of the 80s –  the podcast I was listening to featured Sir Christopher Frayling, former head of the Royal College of Art and author of On Craftsmanship towards a new Bauhaus, talking about the current devaluing of arts education – especially in relation to design and making.

Like outgoing chair of the Arts Council in England Liz Forgan, he was decrying the fact that arts subjects have been left out of the core curriculum for the reforms of secondary education in England.  

Frayling was also talking about how the Russell Group of universities did not recognise arts and design subjects as important

It was this downgrading of the value of arts, design and making that took me back to the 1980s and an interview for a place at Cambridge that may well have set me on a very different course to the one my teachers anticipated back then.

80s style copy

Me in the 80s - I'm the stoppy one on the left! 

At that point being very able at maths and sciences I was on track for an engineering degree. I already had gained my maths A level a year early and thanks to a combination of my own desire to pursue all by interests, a school that believed in diversity and my natural traits of overachieving and bloodymindness, was now studying for art, further maths and physics A levels, as well as fitting in a Drama O level/GCSE.

So there I was in Cambridge meeting a senior member of the engineering department feeling nervous but OK because I’d already achieved one of the standards for entry. So it was a shock to be described as a “typical female” who couldn’t make up her mind about science v arts. The attitude was that art was a waste of my time – despite my arguments that spacial awareness and an aesthetic sense were in my view important skills exhibited by many engineers.

This was the first time I had really encountered the attitude that art and design was a lesser type of education or skills. It was a shock – especially to someone who came from a family filled with artists and makers.

It was that experience that made me think beyond my expected career path and I’ve spent all my adult life in one creative sector or another – theatre, TV, publishing, craft.

Over the years there has been a change in this divide between science and engineering and the designers and makers – note the rise in discipline of product design. So it is depressing to think that education in the UK might be returning to the attitudes I experienced in that dim Cambridge study. It also goes hand in hand with the lack of publicity given to the value of design and making skills, include heritage crafts, to the UK economy.

We risk returning to the assumption that art education is about creating pretty pictures and not about how visual skills can equip people to find different types of solutions to problems. And those different approaches can be as important to great innovation as research  in lab.

For the UK to be a success we need the skills of science and engineering and the skills of art and design to turn the ideas of the former into great products.

1920s glamour

I'm in the process of some fashion history research because I am looking after a family heirloom.

 This beaded dress belonged to my great-aunt Dorothy who was both formidable and elegant. That's certainly my memory of her as an old lady and the pictures of her, my grandmother and their other sisters show some very well dressed young women during WW1 and the 1920s.

Dorothy was an artist and jeweller who married a well off older man - as result she was a widow living in a large house with a maid and an unmarried sister or two for a lot of her life. She seemed like a character from a book to me.

The dress is a prefect match to that - exquisitely beaded and stitched, drawing on the mid-20s Egyptian obsession for the diagonal panel, it is the bold choice of someone who loves colour and isn't afraid of making an entrance.


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 The pictures aren't great because I didn't want to handle the dress too much and risk damaging it. For the same reason I've only had a tentative look for a dressmaker/fashion house label and not been able to see anlything obvious.

So now I'm trying to find a 1920s dress expert. There's nothing a intricate on display at the V&A and very few similar items pictured online. So I need a specialist to find out more and to tell us whether it would be worth finding a home for it in a fashion display.

If anyone knows and expert please poit them this way.






Grateful for the knits

As the snow falls outside and I huddle with my laptop cursing the radiator that's picked today to stop working,  am very happy to have been working on a few cold weather items.

Admittedly some of these items may be going to my sister but right now I'm glad to have them here.

Until now I haven't been much of a cowl fan but recently I've begun to see the point of something that doesn't unravel from my neck as I walk and which in some cases can double as a hood.

In part it's because of my fascination with the moebius cast on and in part because I've been coming across some fab chunky yarn (both forgotten in the stash and amazing bargains - oops). So I've been playing about with different circumferences and with flame stitches because I like the idea of having a bonfire to warm my neck.


I've also been experimenting with hats using a cable band as the basis. I've been looking at old family photos of my fashion conscious grandmother and great aunts during WW1 and the 1920s. And this has left me thinking about interesting hatbands, 1920s headbands and Edwardian knitted caps. 

And so I've been playing about with various Dk yarns including this Araucania Milodon and at least have a new warm hat.


Unfortunately due to flu and various other distractions, including work, I haven't made much progress on new gloves for myself or the ones promised for my sister.

There's just this poor abandoned cuff...