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Folk Art - Craft From the Past

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olk Art is craft from the past - history in an object. Whenever we admire a beautifully woven basket, a perfectly carved decoy duck or an exquisitely hand sewn quilt we are appreciating articles of folk art. But what exactly does the term "folk art" mean?

Simply, it was adopted in America early last century to describe works made by people who had never had any formal training in carving a decoy duck or sewing a quilt for instance. Previously terms such as "naive" or "primitive" had been used to describe such objects, but neither is as evocative as the term "folk" art - the simple, ordinary, modest art made by plain ordinary folk.

Folk art is always unique and embodies the spirit of it's creator, comprising both decorative and utilitarian items. It is rare these days to find original items at inexpensive prices, and neither can they be found in great quantities, but from time to time beautiful folk art items can be found at car boot sales, markets and country auctions. Before industrialisation and mass-manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary people hand made objects, such as decoy duck s both for decoration and for everyday use. It's these handmade items that are so desirable to collectors today.
Folk art is always unique and embodies the spirit of it's creator...

Painted tinware, hand-turned wooden bowls, all kinds of baskets, colorful quilts and other textiles may still be found. Spongeware pottery - which is named from the pieces of cut sponge used to apply patterns to the pottery surface - is much harder to find in the UK than it is in the USA as a large amount of spongeware was exported to the US from the 1820s onwards.

Hunting with decoy ducks became popular in Victorian Britain, although Native Americans have a long history of using lures and carving is a tradition firmly rooted in American folk art. The finest American ducks were carved in the 1920s and 1930s, and beautiful examples are still being produced today. In top condition with original paint, a decoy duck could fetch more than $20,000 if made by one of the big names such as Elmer Crowell of Cape Cod.

Many basket weavers were farmers who made their own containers for agricultural use - look out for those bearing the initials of the farmer who made them, or stencilled details of the contents.

Rustic textiles in coarse linen and woollen cloth were woven on domestic handlooms which were often very narrow - so the pieces of cloth then had to be joined together to make larger items such as sheets and bed covers. You may find some with characteristically bold patterns in reds and blues.

Quilting, which is the quintessential American folk art technique was also carried out in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in Wales and Northern England where keeping out the cold was so extremely important. Women used the long winter hours to apply their needlework skills to create the beautiful quilts we treasure today. Their skills crossed the Atlantic to America with the first European settlers.

Bringing these wonderful old handmade items of folk art into our homes is not just a great way of honoring the traditions of the past, but is also a way of paying tribute to the many unknown, but incredibly skilled folk who crafted them so beautifully.

Caroline Jones

Caroline Jones lives in Devon, England and delights in visiting craft fairs and festivals to indulge her passion for collecting vintage and folk art items for her home and shop.


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