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In modern times, many people think of crafts as procedures for producing or decorating objects by hand, in contrast to producing objects by machine on an assembly line. A craft guild is a collection of craft workers who collect and transmit knowledge about the craft. The group may be limited to one craft only, such as pottery or lace, or it may be a larger organization of crafters in many disciplines. Some guilds are organized quite formally, while others are very informal.
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a craft guild was an organization of workers trained in a particular specialty. The guild trained new workers through a long period of apprenticeship and evaluated samples of the trainee's work to award journeyman or master status. The medieval craft guild monitored the quality of products in the marketplace, participated in government locally and nationally, and in general protected the interests of its members. Today, trade unions have inherited some of these functions, especially those relating to contracts and government interactions, while modern guilds retain the emphasis on craftsmanship and artistry.
Members may be professional artisans, skilled amateurs, or beginners with an interest in a specific craft. Most craft guilds have a series of tests, which both evaluate a crafter's skill and provide a framework for training new crafters. Some guilds offer formal training, while others share expertise and methodology informally.
A craft guild that has members practicing many different crafts may offer certain financial benefits to craft workers. Arts and crafts fairs are often organized by guilds, and they are an important way for artisans to present their work to the public. Galleries are often managed by a craft guild as well. Typically, a jury chosen by the organization reviews an artisan's work before including it in a show.
Educating the public is an important task for a craft guild, since many people in an industrialized society have no idea how objects are made. An organization may take an historical approach, writing and lecturing on the history of the craft, demonstrating craft procedures, and even maintaining museums. Another might take a more "hands-on" approach by providing basic instruction in a variety of crafts and providing studio space.
If you go to a good medieval or renaissance fair, you might get the chance to see demonstrations on things like woodworking and metalworking from people who can show how things were done in craft guilds in the middle ages. It is cool to see people doing things how they used to be done, and to hear the history of some of these techniques from people who have really done their research.