Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Craft/Life

In an age when people like to talk about "the end of blogging," I still read craft blogs. Nowhere near the number that I once did, but as the quantity has diminished, the quality has increased. Now, I focus my attention on the blogs of people whose work I respect and whose writing challenges me to think about what I make and why. One of these blogs is by Karie Westermann; earlier this week she wrote about the commodification of the craft revival. This is a topic that I think about often, and in this blog post I'm adding my voice that conversation.

Love what you love, make what you make, from Dropcloth Samplers
There was a time when I read dozens of posts on craft blogs every day. At that time I was working in commercial publishing (magazines). I was responsible for producing up to 24 craft articles per year, plus associated online content and blog posts – between three and five posts per week – for almost four years. Reading widely – indiscriminately – was a necessity. I had to churn through that much material just to keep the content factory running. So I read blog posts about making necklaces by covering lengths of chain from the hardware store in embroidery floss or spray paint, and I reblogged directions for projects that involved "altering" (let's be real: defacing) books, and I pretended to be interested in Shrinky-Dinks and repurposing thrift store finds. Sometimes I got to do something that actually was interesting – I taught myself basic book-making for one story; commissioned some great knitting patterns and projects by other people; sewed a thing or two I was proud of. But in private, to my friends and family, I often described what I did as "showing people how to make crap out of junk." 

At first it was fun, then it got to be a bit monotonous, and as time wore on, I came to hate the make-it-and-forget-it crafts: activities that involved minimal skill and resulted in things of minimal value, things that were destined for the garbage dump. What value there was in those crafts came from ad sales, from page views and clicks-per-million, not from carrying on time-honoured traditions, building skills, or contributing to a larger movement (no, "pinning" yet another cute way to use a Mason jar doesn't count). It all came down to satisfying someone else's bottom line and it took up almost all of my time. Crafting was my life and it was exhausting.

The more I made crap out of junk, the more I longed to create things that had both style and substance, or, to quote a famous craft revivalist, things that were both beautiful and useful. I learned to sew and knit and embroider when I was a child – I've been practising some of those crafts for almost 30 years now – and the deeper I got into the world of disposable craft, the further away actual craftsmanship seemed. Technique didn't seem to matter; specialized vocabulary seemed a thing of the past. (I'll never forget the blog post I saw that called for "a round circle of wood.") I wasn't contributing to a conversation, I was shouting into the void.

Since then, my life has taken some twists and turns. Crafting is no longer my life or my livelihood. I work for a non-profit organization now, and it's been more than two years since I read a blog post about spray-painting a trinket from a thrift shop. I gave away all my random craft supplies: goodbye, glitter, glue gun, mod-podge. I craft less, and when I do craft, it's mostly knitting. But I'm able to spend time making things that are meaningful to me; that use materials I've chosen according to my own criteria and skills I've taken the time to cultivate. The quantity has diminished, but the quality has increased.

I still think about how we create and assign value to our skills, to the products of our work, and to ourselves. I've met a lot of crafters, and their interests and abilities are as unique as they are. And while I'd like to think there is one right way (my way, obviously) of crafting and promoting craftsmanship, over time I've learned that there isn't. Crafting trends will come and go; commercial interests will exert their influence and succeed or fail. As with many things in life, I suspect it's cyclical; we surely aren't the first people to worry that it's all about to go down the tubes.


In the end, I'm with Karie: I'll practice my craft to the best of my ability. I'll choose the materials that are right for me, and work on projects that have some meaning, or at least some practical application to my life. I'll be honest about the things that work and the things that don't, and thoughtful when I try to figure out why. I'll cultivate meaningful connections in my work and I'll celebrate the contributions that others make to the craft. Maybe we're all doing something slightly different, but we're all in it together.

***
P.S. I don't read as many food blogs as I used to, either, but I read enough that I noticed a little dust-up happening back in March. In a way, this blog post from Lottie+Doof echoes some of Karie's messages – the threat of homogenization; the idea of food blogging as a viable "lifestyle" (read: lucrative job) when really it's a hard grind at which not everyone can be successful; the challenge to stop accepting the status quo, to push boundaries and to "do better." Interesting parallels.
P.P.S. I was lucky to work with a host of brilliantly talented, creative, kind, funny, hard-working people in my magazine days. I want to make it clear that my comments refer to my own work, not to theirs.

4 comments:

  1. I've been following this conversation too and it's really interesting that a number of blogs I follow are responding to Karie's initial post. Because I'm not on twitter, instagram or facebook, blogs and pinterest are my main crafting reading/browsing inspirations but I have stopped reading some - mostly when they started accepting advertising. Even though they would make the disclaimer that they were curating their advertisers, I always thought it changed the nature of their posts even though I don't blame bloggers for trying to earn some money - blogging does take a lot of time and I appreciate that.

    But I do think real crafters who enjoy the long process of making - and it does take time! - won't really fall into the trap of getting seduced by these quick lifestyle fixes. No one spends hours and hours knitting a sweater or months making a quilt to look cool and embrace a lifestyle; we do it because we love the process, choosing the materials, the sense of pride in creating. Slow crafting is what most of us embrace and I think it's that acknowledgement that will keep the craft industry from being too commodified.

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  2. I went and read the original article that you linked to, and found myself nodding in agreement with a lot of both what you and Katie have to say- I feel like Pinterest is awash in craft activities that have many people buying supplies to make some random thing that is destined for the garbage. Things should be both beautiful and useful, and sadly not a lot of DIY tutorials out there have those results- they are just beautifully photographed so they look better than they really are.

    As a blogger though, I do wish that more people were still reading blogs- I think Pinterest totally changed the landscape, and things moved to more of an Instagram style of interaction, with people (including myself) pinning things that they likely will never end up doing. We're interacting with Pinterest more because it satisfies a craving to feel like we have potential, like we could do that thing. Blogs ask more of us than Pinterest does- they ask us to follow a story. But right now, the pictures matter more than the story.

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  3. Yes yes yes. If I never see the headline "quick and easy" again I would be very happy about it!

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  4. Sorry you've stopped blogging as I agree with what you've been saying about making things of quality and beauty. It's also true that we often gloss over the time we take making things and I'm quite guilty on that count.
    Best of luck in your new profession and may you enjoy the craftwork you do with a purer pleasure than you did before.

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