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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the small-scale, hand manufacture of goods. Handicrafts were the predominant form of production until the appearance of large-scale machine industry, with which they coexist, although they have lost much of their former importance. The characteristics of handicrafts are the use of simple implements of labor; the decisive importance of the artisan’s skill, which makes possible the production of high-quality, artistic goods; and small-scale production, in which the artisan works alone or with an extremely limited number of assistants.

Handicrafts emerge with the rise of human productive activity. Developing along with technology under different social formations, handicrafts assume various forms. In conformity with the stages of the social division of labor, they are usually subdivided into domestic handicrafts, commissioned (made-to-order) handicrafts, and handicrafts produced for the market. Domestic handicrafts, the earliest form, prevail before handicrafts develop into an independent sector of the economy. Produced by the members of a household to satisfy their own needs, they are an inseparable part of the subsistence economy.

Commissioned handicrafts are produced by an artisan to fill a consumer’s order. The raw materials are provided either by the artisan or by the customer. Commissioned handicrafts also include work performed by an artisan in a household other than his own, in return for pay by the piece or by the day. However, this type of work is sometimes placed in a separate category, especially if the artisan is a journeyman.

The phrase “handicrafts for market” refers to the small-scale production of goods, which the artisan sells either to the consumer at a local market or to a merchant. Handicraft production for a local market, in which personal contact between the producer and the consumer is maintained, is, like commissioned handicrafts, based on the narrow division of labor within a small urban or rural area. Production of goods for sale in distant regions is based on a broader division of labor, entailing the development of exchange and barter and the emergence of the merchantry as a distinct social group. Associated with the development of commissioned handicrafts, and especially handicrafts for market, are the rise and development of towns as centers of handicrafts and trade.

Narrower definitions of the term “handicrafts” and different approaches to classifying handicrafts are encountered in the historical and economic literature. Often, the concept of handicrafts does not include domestic handicrafts, which are designated by some other term. For example, peasant domestic handicrafts may be known as domestic industry. Sometimes, only commissioned handicrafts are included in the concept of handicrafts, and handicrafts for market are referred to as cottage industry. The term “handicrafts” sometimes designates commissioned work and marketed work only at the stage when artisans are small-scale, economically independent producers who personally own the means of production. In this case, the concept of handicrafts excludes domestic handicrafts and some commissioned handicrafts, as well as the work of artisans who are enslaved by capital (that is, artisans who work at home for the capitalists). In Russian works on economics and statistics, 19th- and 20th-century artisans are often referred to as kustari (craftsmen). The multiplicity of meanings attached to the term “handicrafts” is further complicated by the fact that different languages use nonequivalent terms meaning “handicrafts” or designating the various forms of handicrafts.

Domestic handicrafts were characteristic of primitive communal society. The members of primitive economic groups produced stone, wood, and bone articles; clay pottery; and cloth, which required mastery of the techniques of spinning and weaving. The transition to a farming and stock-raising economy and a settled way of life gave a powerful impetus to the development of handicrafts. Metallurgy originated at this stage of development, and construction became very important.

Craft techniques increased in complexity, and especially in metallurgy new branches of production appeared, characterized by technology requiring highly skilled workers. These trends resulted in the emergence of craftsmen engaged specifically in a particular handicraft (for example, blacksmiths and potters). The emergence of specialized artisans, which is the first step in the long process of the separation of handicrafts from agriculture, is one of the most important stages in the social division of labor.

Throughout the history of precapitalist class societies, domestic handicrafts continued to be widely practiced. The peasant population produced most of its own simple handicraft goods. In addition, handicraft goods were produced in the households of representatives of the ruling classes. There was a trend toward specialization by artisans in the largest households, including the royal and temple estates of the kingdoms of the ancient East, the large slaveholding estates of classical antiquity, and the feudal estates of the Middle Ages. However, commissioned and marketable handicrafts gradually took the leading role in the development of handicrafts. The laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (18th century B.C.) mention smiths, builders, stonecutters, carpenters, tanners, and shipwrights, who were probably hired and paid by the day. In ancient Greece, the Hellenistic states, and ancient Rome more artisans owned a business and produced goods to order and for the market than in the ancient East. A significant proportion or perhaps even the majority of these independent craftsmen were concentrated in the cities.

The rise of professional and particularly urban professional handicrafts were accompanied by the emergence of a qualitatively and historically new social stratum—the urban artisans, who played an important role in the development of society. Under feudalism, the artisans owed their specific social position to the fact that the land was not the chief element in the means of production in handicrafts, as it was in agriculture. Consequently, urban artisans did not experience land dependency, although they suffered from other forms of dependency on and exploitation by the ruling classes. Urban artisans were more involved in commodity-money relations than the peasants.

New forms of handicrafts emerged, owing to improvements in the implements of labor, the increased skill of the artisans, the rise of a substantial number of professional artisans, the trend toward increasingly narrow specialization, and the appearance of many new craft specialties. The overall result of all these developments was that the technology of producing many new, more complex goods was mastered in antiquity (late fourth millennium B.C. through the middle of the first millennium A.D.). The entire economy was affected by the use in handicrafts and in agriculture of improved implements of labor, as well as by the introduction of better weapons and equipment, such as swords, daggers, helmets, and armor. At first, copper and bronze were used. Iron was used extensively from the first millennium B.C. The development of many crafts, particularly smithing and armoring, was accelerated. There were improvements in the production of fabrics from silk (China), as well as from flax, wool, and cotton (India). Dyes were used. With the invention of the potter’s wheel, probably in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C., there was considerable progress in the production of ceramic goods, the best of which were made in ancient Greece and China. Glass production developed. Craftsmen learned to produce writing materials, such as papyrus (ancient Egypt) and parchment.

In the early Middle Ages, handicrafts were most highly developed in certain countries in Asia and North Africa, including the Arabian Caliphate, the Middle Asian states, and China. As early as the first millennium and the beginning of the second millennium A.D., these countries had cities with large artisan populations producing expensive cloth, weaponry, and jewelry for distant markets, including Europe. The urban artisans were also skilled in the construction of complex architectural works. The artisans of Asia and North Africa knew methods for producing certain kinds of high-quality steel (Damascus steel), paper (China, from the second century), and porcelain (China, from the third to fifth centuries).

In the Western European countries, urban handicrafts developed rapidly from the 11th and 12th centuries, fostered by several particularly favorable conditions, including the existence of towns that had won broad rights of self-government. The establishment of special privileges, such as personal freedom and city courts, for the townspeople, including the artisans, contributed to the transformation of the urban artisans into private owners of the means of production. The guilds, well-developed forms of artisans’ trade organizations, defended the interests of the master craftsmen. The handicrafts of most medieval towns were oriented toward local markets, but major centers for the production of handicraft goods for more distant markets also emerged. Textiles and metalworking were the leading handicraft sectors producing for distant markets. The chief regions and centers of textile production for export were northern and central Italy (Florence, Siena, and Pisa), Flanders, and Brabant (Ghent, Bruges, Ypres, and Louvain). The centers for processing metal and making metal goods, some of which were produced for export, included Milan, which was known particularly for weaponry, and Nuremberg. Venetian glass was famous far from Italy.

Medieval technological progress was associated primarily with urban handicrafts. By the 13th century an improved loom was widely used in Western Europe. The hand-operated spinning wheel was first used circa 1300. By the late 15th century, a foot-operated or treadle spinning wheel had come into use, significantly increasing the labor productivity of the spinners. An improved overshot waterwheel was introduced in fulling, metallurgy, and metalworking. The introduction of the blast furnace and the conversion process in the mid-14th century led to the radical restructuring of metallurgy in the 15th and 16th centuries. Relatively cheap books became available with the introduction of movable metal type in mid-15th-century Germany and with the replacement of parchment by paper, the production of which was mastered in Western Europe in the 14th century. Firearms were first produced in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The rise of capitalism led to a radical change in the economic importance and organization of handicrafts. Even during the early stage of the development of capitalism, with the expansion of commodity-money relations, domestic handicrafts declined, and the production of handicrafts for market increased. Many artisans lost their status as economically independent producers and became dependent on buyers-up. As a result, many of them became de facto wage laborers, who worked in their own homes for capitalist entrepreneurs. This type of capitalist work became especially common in the countryside, which was beyond effective guild regulation. Although guild handicrafts remained very widespread, they yielded their progressive role in technological and economic development to new forms of industrial production. The guild system declined and fell apart.

In the leading sectors of industrial production, the industrial revolution was followed by the extensive replacement of handicrafts by factory industry based on machines. Handicrafts could not compete with cheap, mass-produced factory goods. The replacement of handicrafts by machine industry proceeded with varying degrees of intensiveness, depending on the branch of industry. In the developed capitalist countries, commissioned handicrafts and handicrafts produced for the market survived primarily in branches of industry concerned with serving the needs of the consumer, or in branches associated with the production of expensive artistic items. For example, even after the introduction of factory industry, there was still a demand for tailors, shoemakers, repairmen specializing in various household items, cabinetmakers, jewelers, and bookbinders. Attempting to make use of the achievements of machine industry, which was more highly developed than handicraft production, artisans often used small, inexpensive motors and machines.

Handicrafts have remained stronger in economically underdeveloped countries, where they still account for a significant percentage of the output. Even in these countries, however, handicrafts are giving way to factory industry.

From a social point of view, artisans, as small-scale owners of their own workshops, are part of the petite bourgeoisie under capitalism. In the USSR and other socialist countries measures have been taken to draw artisans into cooperatives. For artisans and craftsmen, craft cooperation, which has radically transformed small-scale domestic industry, has become the simplest, and the most accessible, road to socialism. (SeePRODUCERS’ COOPERATIVE.)


Marx, K. Kapital, vol. 1.
Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch, 2nd ed., vol. 23. (See subject index entry Remeslennoe proizvodstvo [“Handicraft production”].)
Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. Ibid, vol. 21.
Lenin, V. I. “Kustarnaia perepis’ 1894–95 goda v Permskoi gubernii i obshchie voprosy ‘kustarnoi’ promyshlennosti.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii, chs. 5–6. Ibid., vol. 3.
Ocherki istorii tekhniki dokapitalisticheskikh formatsii. Edited by V. F. Mitkevich. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Ocherki po istorii tekhniki drevnego Vostoka. Edited by V. V. Struve. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Ellinisticheskaia tekhnika (collection of articles). Edited by I. I. Tolstoi. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Lips, J. Proiskhozhdenie veshchei. Moscow, 1954. (Translated from German.)
Domashnie promysly i remeslo. Leningrad, 1970.
Masson, V. M. “Remeslennoe proizvodstvo v epokhu pervobytnogo stroia.” Voprosy istorii, 1972, no. 3.
Pikus, N. N. Tsarskie zemledel’tsy (neposredstvennye proizvoditeli) i re-meslenniki v Egipte III v. do n. e. Moscow, 1972.
Fikhman, I. F. Egipet na rubezhe dvukh epokh: Remeslenniki i remeslennyi trud v IV-ser. VII vv. Moscow, 1965.
Sergeenko, M. E. Remeslenniki drevnego Rima. Leningrad, 1968.
Kulisher, I. M. Istoriia ekonomicheskogo byta Zapadnoi Evropy, 8th ed., vols. 1–2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Levitskii, Ia. A. Goroda i gorodskoe remeslo v Anglii v X-XII vv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1960.
Svanidze, A. A. Remeslo i remeslenniki srednevekovoi Shvetsii. Moscow, 1967.
Bücher, K. Vozniknovenie narodnogo khoziaistva. Moscow-Petrograd, 1923. (Translated from German.)
Levasseur, P. E. Histoire des classes ouvrières et de l’industrie en France avant 1789, 2nd ed., vols. 1–2. Paris, 1900–01.
A History of Technology, vols. 1–5. Edited by C. Singer, E. I. Holmyard, A. R. Halle, and T. I. Williams. Oxford, 1956–58.


Prerevolutionary Russia. On the territory of the present-day USSR the gradual separation of handicrafts from agriculture began during the Bronze Age, with the development of metallurgy and the establishment of the first foundries. By the beginning of the Common Era handicrafts had reached a substantial level of development in Transcaucasia and Middle Asia, where a number of major handicraft centers emerged. In Eastern Europe ancient remains of handicraft production have been discovered in the Crimea and other southern regions.

Among the East Slavs progress in the handicraft production of iron tools in the second half of the first millennium A.D. played a decisive role in the spread of agriculture as the basic economic form. Among the tribes of the central Dnieper region, metallurgy originated at the beginning of the Common Era.

Pottery, which began to become a distinct handicraft in the second century A.D., became a completely separate branch by the eighth or ninth century. In the ninth century craftsmen produced all the basic implements of labor and types of arms characteristic of the subsequent feudal period of Russian history. The formation of the ancient Russian state (Kievan Rus’) stimulated the development of handicrafts, which attained a high technical and artistic level. Small-scale market production of handicrafts began in ancient Russia, especially in the towns, between the ninth century and the first half of the 13th. Handicrafts became differentiated. For example, the jewelers’ trade became separate from smithing, and within the latter trade several specialties developed. Jewelers mastered the techniques of niello, embossing, enamel, and gold and silver inlay. The analysis of archaeological finds and written sources has provided evidence of the existence in ancient Rus’ of several forms of professional artisans’ associations similar to the guild organizations of Western Europe. In the 12th through early 13th centuries, master craftsmen in more than 40 trades, including carpentry, joining, coopering, tailoring, icon-painting, shoe-making, and tanning, worked in ancient Rus’.

In the Baltic region, handicrafts emerged somewhat later than in most of the regions of Eastern Europe. By the 13th century the Baltic region was producing weaponry, cloth, pottery, and bronze and amber ornaments. From the 13th to 15th centuries, Riga, Revel (Tallinn), and Dorpat (Tartu) were the major handicrafts centers.

In Middle Asia the ninth and tenth centuries were marked by the broad expansion of the handicraft production of cotton fabrics (Urgench, Shash, and Isfidzhab) and silk (the Merv oasis); copper goods, such as swords, shields, and knives (Fergana); and saddles, quivers, tents, and rugs.

In Transcaucasia almost every form of handicraft developed in the ninth through early 13th centuries. Armenian rugs and fabrics from the city of Dvin were internationally famous. By the early 13th century, the city of Ani had artisans specializing in 38 different trades. In Azerbaijan major handicraft centers included Barda, Shemakha, Gandzha, and Baku. Earthenware, cloth, metal items, and other goods were produced in these cities.

The development of handicrafts was interrupted in the 13th century by the imposition of the Mongol-Tatar yoke. During the 14th and 15th centuries, handicrafts developed considerably only in the northwestern Russian lands (the Novgorod feudal republic and the Pskov feudal republic) and the territories held by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which were not affected by the Mongol-Tatar conquest. In the 14th century, after most of the Ukraine and Byelorussia had become part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Magdeburg Law went into effect in many of the cities in the annexed territories, contributing to the development of a guild system. Guilds were established in L’vov by the late 14th century and in Kiev in the first half of the 15th. “Brotherhoods” of artisans were characteristic of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Lithuania. The artisans of Kiev, L’vov, Minsk, Vilnius, and other handicrafts centers were oriented primarily toward foreign trade. Village handicrafts served the extremely narrow domestic market.

In the region between the Oka and the Volga the mid-14th century was marked by an upsurge in handicraft production, associated to a significant degree with military needs. Moscow became the most highly developed metalworking center in the interfluvial region. Bell- and cannon-casting developed, as well as minting. In the villages handicraft specialties also separated from agriculture, and some artisans almost completely broke their ties with farming.

At the turn of the 16th century certain handicrafts became associated with particular geographic regions. Ustiuzhna-Zheleznopol’skaia and the Vodskaia piatina (one of the five territorial and administrative divisions of Novgorod the Great) became known for iron-working and smithing, and the White Sea and Dvina regions, for the extraction of salt. Tanning and pottery developed throughout Russia.

The unification of the Russian territories into a single state and their liberation from the Mongol-Tatar yoke created favorable conditions for the development of handicrafts. However, the rapid strengthening of state power hindered the formation of associations of free artisans. To a significant degree, handicrafts were concentrated on the votchiny (patrimonial estates) of secular and clerical feudal lords, as well as land administered by the Court Office. At the same time, handicraft production developed in the urban slobody (tax-exempt settlements), which belonged to the feudal state. Domestic handicrafts were extensively developed in the villages. The number of rural artisans working to order and for the market increased significantly beginning in the mid-16th century. Throughout the 16th century there was a substantial increase in the number of crafts specializing in metal, leather, and wood. Artisans representing more than 200 trades worked in the Russian towns. Trade in handicraft goods expanded. Large associations of master craftsmen, such as the Pushechnyi Dvor (cannon foundry) and the Armory (Oruzheinaia Palata), developed within the state economy.

In the 17th century the socioeconomic development of the Russian state led to the large-scale transformation of handicrafts into small-scale commodity production for the market. In addition to Moscow, which had artisans representing about 260 trades, many other cities and towns became important craft centers, including Yaroslavl, Velikii Ustiug, and Ustiuzhna-Zheleznopol’skaia. The transformation of handicrafts into small-scale commodity production for the market accelerated in the eastern Ukraine and Byelorussia after their incorporation into Russia in the mid-17th century. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Ukraine had artisans working in more than 300 trades. In many regions of the Russian state peasant handicrafts outgrew the limitations of producing for home needs only and went into production for the market. (Viaz’ma sleds, Beloozero spoons, and Yaroslavl linens exemplified this trend.)

Metal handicrafts, which were associated with Serpukhov, Tula, Kashira, Aleksin, Tikhvin, Beloozero, Kizhi, Galich, Nizhny Novgorod, and other towns, expanded in the 17th century. Coopering developed in Kholmogory. The artisans of the Pomor’e (in the Severnaia Dvina region and in the Kargopol’e), Vologda, and Viatka, who were especially famous for carpentry, were also shipbuilders.

In the 17th century, flax-processing centers included Pskov, Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Smolensk, Kaluga, and Viaz’ma. Yaroslavl and Vologda were centers of the leather crafts. The stonemasons, who were subordinate to the local voevodas (military governors) and the Prikaz Kamennykh Del (Office of Stone Masonry), were an important group of artisans. The most experienced jewelers and armorers worked under the tsar’s court administration in the Armory, the Gold and Silver Rooms, and other institutions, producing objects of great artistic value.

The development of handicrafts in the 17th century, which laid the foundation for subsequent achievements by Russian artisans, was also among the important socioeconomic factors that made possible the reforms of Peter I.

Although large-scale manufacturing developed in Russia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, handicrafts and domestic industry continued to be very important. Outside the chernozem region, villages such as Pavlovo, Murashino, and Lyskovo (the province of Nizhny Novgorod), in which the majority of the inhabitants were engaged in handicrafts, became handicraft centers.

In the 18th century handicrafts continued to develop in the towns and villages. New handicrafts turned out the same products as the manufactories, including damask, felt, and worsted wool. In addition, new products were developed, such as braid, ribbons, and lace. Luxury items were widely produced. During the 18th century urban artisans belonged to guilds, and they were regulated by a number of legislative acts (the decrees of 1721, 1722, and 1785 and the Decree on Guilds, 1799).

From the 18th through the early 19th century handicrafts were almost universally transformed into cottage production, which, in terms of the organization of labor, was often the equivalent of the decentralized manufactory. Although the number of craftsmen in cottage industry increased, the development of manufactories and, later, factories and plants resulted in a sharp decline in the proportion of handicraft goods in the total volume of marketed commodities.

The development of cottage industry in the 18th and 19th centuries was an important manifestation of the rise of capitalist relations in the Russian economy. Through this process the master craftsmen lost their independence and became subordinate to the power of the “buyers-up” (skupshchiki) and other representatives of the growing bourgeoisie. During the 19th century cottage industries were included in government statistics. The development of commodity-money relations, as well as rising agrarian overpopulation, resulted in the extensive development of cottage industries throughout the countryside in the 19th century. Most of the peasant craftsmen, however, did not break their ties with agriculture. For many of them, handicrafts were only a supplementary source of the means of subsistence.

By the end of the 19th century there were about 7 million craftsmen in Russia. In the early 20th century some regions, especially the central chernozem, became known for specialized cottage industries. The handicraft production of cotton, silk, and linen fabrics was well developed in the provinces of Moscow, Vladimir, and Tver’. Metal goods, such as knives, locks, and nails, were made in the province of Nizhny Novgorod. The province of Tver’ produced leather footwear. Wooden goods, such as barrels, wagons, sleds, and furniture, were made primarily in the northern regions of European Russia. Cottage industries in Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, and the Ukraine produced rugs and ceramics.

As a result of the development of machine production, the number of craftsmen in Russia declined in the early 20th century to around 4 million. Capitalist relations developed with particular rapidity among craftsmen specializing in a single handicraft (for example, Pavlovo knives, Orenburg down-filled goods, Tula samovars and hardware, Kimry footwear, and Kazan furs). The condition of the craftsmen deteriorated after they were drawn into the system of capitalist production. For example, their earnings declined, and their workday became longer. Craftsmen’s artels, which had begun to emerge in the mid-19th century, became more common. Conferences of leaders in the cottage industries were held in 1902 and 1910.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 changed the status of artisans and craftsmen. Most of them joined socialist artisans’ cooperatives. Craftsmen’s wages, workday, and social status were regulated by the same legislative acts that covered the condition of industrial workers at socialist enterprises. Special attention was devoted to preserving and developing the best traditions of the folk handicrafts, such as Gzhel’ ceramics, Dymkovo toys, Palekh miniatures, and Khokhloma wood painting.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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