A Dialogue: How Language Affects Our Perception Of Craft

The following conversation with David, a textile educator, researcher, and assistant professor at Parsons The New School took place on October 22nd, 2018. This email transcript has been published in full:

MATTER Prints Craft Language
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Hi Matter,

I am David, a textile educator and researcher. I am happy to say I know some people on your team and follow your work. Just a suggestion: you should clarify what you mean by print. It is sometimes in your story-telling incorrectly. A print is something printed. It is not a pattern. An ikat is not a print.

Best wishes for your efforts!


Hi David,

Your email has opened up an elaborate conversation for our team and we ended up having an internal discussion about the way we use the terms “print” and “motif”, especially in comparison to how they’re used in the industry. While we know that there is a disparity, we’ve used them interchangeably because it instinctively felt like an appropriate term to describe what we do with our textiles. We started using the term “print” because we began with the generational craft of blockprinting and that terminology naturally became a derivation of our communication.

We really appreciate what you said about the link between the language we use and how that can affect the value of techniques and mission to promote craft production as a means to livelihood, as the latter is something we’re greatly passionate about.

Out of our conversation, we actually think this would be a great opportunity to discuss how separate terms are used and the differences on how an educator such as yourself sees them and how we as brand use them in our communications. As we’ve often been asked to define terms such as artisanship and craft and perhaps there needs to be a deeper reflection on what these terms mean.

Would you be open to having a documented communication with us about the terms such as:

– Print & motif
– Artisan (Eg: whether the person dying the ikat threads is considered an artisan as this step could be potentially mechanized)
– Technique & craft (and any other terms used interchangeably)

Let us know what you think!


So interesting. I’m glad we could spark this.

Exactly, and there is so much of Matter’s mission that is about educating consumers, and changing ideas. In my life-experience (I’m 59), I have seen the decline of common knowledge about textiles. I’ve been teaching at Parsons, for example, for about 25 years. “Back in the day”, students usually knew, before they started the course, that there was a difference between a print and a pattern, a difference between silk and satin, a difference between fiber and fabric, because those words were still common knowledge — at least among people interested in clothing/fashion/apparel/whatever we want to call it. Today, incoming student are most often surprised that those pairs of words are not synonyms. Seems to me this is part of the general oversimplification of fashion that has come with the shift to fast and cheap fashion. (Don’t get me started on the way people are using “pant” to mean one pair of pants!)

We can use this email for a documentation, and Matter can use whatever I say freely, as my opinion… 🙂

– Print & motif
Print we know: a printed pattern, whether done by transfer, stencil, ink-jet, etc. Motif is interesting. I checked a couple of dictionaries, and it is often synonymous with pattern, but I think, in use, it often means (in my network) an element, or building block of a pattern — say a motif of roses arranged into a pattern of roses. I think about music, where a few notes are repeated throughout the composition.

– Artisan (Eg: Whether the person dying the ikat threads is considered an artisan as this step could be potentially mechanized)
I don’t know how to define artisan either. Seems like “artisan” is the word of the moment, used by everyone to mean everything! I’ve noticed it’s used differently in different places. For example, in India, at WomenWeave (maybe you know of that group in Maheshwar) even the bobbin winders are called artisans, in addition to people like weavers and embroiderers who use more complex techniques. In Sweden, artisan usually implies some kind of decision making, involvement or artfulness, about what the products look like, and potentially years of practice. Someone who winds bobbin could not be an artisan in the Swedish context. I’m curious to know what you all think. NEST for example, talks of the “New Artisan Economy”, and I guess that is supposed to include anyone who works with low-tech tools.

– Technique & craft (and any other terms used interchangeably)
I would not necessarily use these interchangeably. Technique to me means the specific technical way of doing something: the technique of using the heel of your hand to smack the woodblock, the technique of using tools to carve the block. Craft speaks to the bigger picture of making and meaning. The craft of woodblock printing is concerned with so things that are beyond particular techniques, for example, materials, generational or expert knowledge, aesthetics, sensibilities, etc.

Feel free to write again. I’m very nerdy about this.

Hi David,

Thanks for the thorough clarifications on the terms! I like what you said about motif and pattern in parallel to a music context of notes and the overall composition, that’s a beautiful comparison. As for technique and craft, we often use both interchangeably but I think what you shared about technique being a specific and technical skill, versus craft as a bigger picture of making and meaning – is a really important distinction.

As for “artisans” being the word of the moment – so true! We’ve seen it more and more in different settings. It’s almost as if its accessibility as a term and way of association has made its definition more of a blur. It’s so interesting that in Sweden, artisan usually implies decision making – that is not a characteristic we’ve heard of in its definition over here in Asia but it’s eye opening to see how different cultures/countries see it differently. For us as a brand, we choose to identify artisanship as as ‘skill in a craft acquired through generational transfer’, meaning we work mostly with artisans who were taught their skill by generations before them. Most of the time these are small family businesses embedded in a community whose identity and culture revolve around a particular technique and its processes.

Do you mind also elaborating on the difference between fiber and fabric? Also, so interesting that people are using ‘pant’ by way of meaning one pair of pants, I haven’t heard that one yet. The way we use language has so much more power than we think on our perception of fashion, I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on why you think people have shifted to use these terms more synonymously?


Yes, I think that is yet another reason to be proactive with language and meaning. Sweden for example, doesn’t anymore have any artisans of the type as India. We only have people who probably haven’t learned from family, but from design or technical school. They are something between makers and designers and business people, others are hobbyists.

I’ve found that it can be helpful to think of fiber as ingredient, and fabric as the thing made with it. A handful of wheat is not a chapati. Fibers are either found in nature or produced through chemical synthesis, and as we know, the long and thin type is what we clean, organise, make yarn with, eventually make into fabric. The words should never be used as equivalents. The reason, I suppose, that people mix those words up is just lack of awareness and education in this area. And I think people have been caught by language shortcuts: when someone says this is a “cotton fabric”, they really mean this is a fabric made with yarn made with cotton.

I agree with you so much that the verbal communication is a core part of what makes fashion, what we wear, meaningful.

We’re curious to know, what are some terms you’ve heard misused in the industry? Comment below.

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