Crafts and Home Economics

Administrative / Biographical History

From the early years of the Women's Institute Movement in England and Wales, crafts played an important part in the organisation's life. In Mar 1918, the Advisory Trade Subcommittee was formed with the main aim of organising the establishment of the Women's Institute Toy Society. The Society's aims were to co-operatively buy materials, for toy makers, collect orders, and exercise control over sales, for which it was to charge commission. In the annual report of 1918, it reported that the Carnegie Fund had given £1000 for 'the purposes of initiating and assisting cottage industries through Women's Institutes'. In Nov of the same year, the Industries Committee was appointed by the Executive Committee to 'decide on the general policy for the organisation of Industries and the administration of the Carnegie Grant in all matters affecting the County Federation in respect of applications for loans to forward industries or for any other purpose...' However, the following month it became clear that the Toy Society was in difficulties due to producers failing to attain the standards necessary for the goods to find an audience and was wound up the following May. Nonetheless, the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) had appointed a Technical Advisor on Handicrafts.

In the Annual report of 1919, the Industries Subcommittee recorded its opinion that either 'immediate steps must be taken to put the establishment of industries on a trade footing' or the committee must set forth a recommendation that 'handicrafts work for the self-supply of the maker and her fellow members should be encouraged by the NFWI as opposed to the setting of trade industries for the open market'. This latter option was chosen so that handicrafts was thenceforth administered by the NFWI as a means of supplying the members' own needs by the exploitation of local materials and fostering comradeship and pride in home-making as well as improving traditional standards of quality in their work. The Industries Subcommittee was renamed the Handicrafts Subcommittee in May 1920.

This aim of reviving handicrafts for the home led to the establishment of the Guild of Learners, separate but complimentary to the work of the Subcommittee itself, which had the object of improving 'conditions of rural life by encouraging home and local industries'. The Guild was officially launched at a conference of county handicrafts organisers in Feb 1920 called for that purpose and Miss Somerville, a member of the Handicrafts Committee, was appointed as Honorary Secretary. Its name was slightly altered to the Guild of Learning of Home Crafts while the Industries Subcommittee, which decided on its policy, became the Handicrafts Subcommittee. By 1922 there were over 600 members of the Guild, reaching 1000 by 1927. Schools and classes were formed for students and speakers addressed branch meetings. A loan collection was established at Headquarters to offer guidance and examples of work and the work of the Guild was made part of the Subcommittee's remit.

The teaching of crafts in the NFWI continued as one of its main activities throughout the 1920s to the 1940s. Exhibitions of members' work were important to the NFWI, and a series of such events took place in major venues in London throughout this time. The Guild was central in running a system of proficiency tests to assess and promote levels of skills in particular areas of this work. Crafts took on a particularly important practical significance during the Second World War as rationing of a range of materials came into place, as had equally been the case during the economic depression of the early 1930s. Much of the work in this area was funded by grants from the Development Commission for particular projects, a situation that continued until the abolition of the Commission itself. In 1946 the Guild's name was changed once more to the Guild of Learners of Handicrafts as the Ministry of Education now included cookery and other such activities under the title of homecrafts. This was followed by another change in 1955 when it became the Handicrafts Guild.

From the establishment of Denman College in 1947, the teaching of craft skills to members by demonstrators no longer solely took place at the branch and federation level. Crafts courses remained the single largest type of course available to members well into the 1970s.

In the mid-1960s, the Handicrafts Subcommittee was renamed the Crafts Subcommittee. The Guild of Learners was disbanded at the same time as the Produce Guild in 1973 and the systems for proficiency tests, hitherto open only to guild members, were amalgamated into one and opened up to all WI members at this time. At the same time, the Agriculture & Produce Subcommittee and the Crafts Subcommittee were discontinued. Their craft, domestic subjects and food production work was reorganised under a new Home Economics and Specialised Crafts Subcommittee in 1975.