Sociology Wrap Up

So, what have I learned about the craft movement through the sociological lens?

1. When Richard Foley asked Richard Sennett what the guiding idea of his book, The Craftsman, was, Sennent answered, “Making is thinking.”  In our post-modern society, we are increasingly separating the hand from the head and dummying down our systems.  As people, we need to re-attach the hand to the head – the act of creation validates us as human.

2.  The top occupations for women (mostly service based) do not allow for working with our hands.  For that reason, the craft movement is bound to be more popular with women than with men, who may receive their fulfillment on the job.

3.  Crafting has always been a way for women to form communities.  These communities form faster and easier via the internet – ironically, in a time when the digital age has all but stopped face-to-face communications.

4.  Crafting, working with the hands, is good therapy for men and women.  Like I said in #1, the act of creation validates us and as I said in #3, it helps us to reach out to others.  Both are important to our mental and emotional well being.

5.  Pattern making is a pain in the butt, but I wanted to share something more than a few toys for the toy society.   I feel pride and fulfillment every time some one makes up one of my patterns, and I also feel as if I have shared some of my knowledge to someone else.

6.  Traditional women’s work can be used to subvert (and indeed, has been used in the past to subvert) traditional values.

7.  Creative arts are used for expression of individuality (duh) and for taking back control of one’s public image.

8.  Giving can sometimes make someone feel like a thief in the night.

9.  Crafting can seem like a way out of the capitalist values this country holds dear, but capitalism has a way of subverting everything.

Crafting away from capitalism?

Hooray for inter-library loan! I finally got my copy of Handmade Nation: the rise of DIY, art, craft and design, a documentary by Faythe Levine. One of the themes throughout this documentary is craft as a way to get away from capitalism as it exists today.  Andrew Wagner from American Craft Magazine says in the documentary that a crafter is “someone making stuff by themselves, for themselves.”  Sabrina Gschwandtner of KnitKnit Magazine says that “a crafter is… making a stance against hyper consumer culture” and Dennis Stevens of Redefining Craft says that “people are subverting the capitalistic big box retail system.”

Really?  Maybe some are.

The pressure to sell what you make, to participate in capitalism and not just make “by yourself, for yourself” is enormous.  Every time I make something someone tells me that I should sell it.  And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me.  A simple crunch of the numbers, however, shows me that I would make less than a dollar per hour to make one of my dolls, and only a couple dollars per hour to make a doll’s t-shirt.  This is the reason I only dabble in selling – most of the things I make are given away.  But the lure is so strong – make money from doing what you love!

This view is supported by Sara Mosle in her article for Slate.  She says that the allure of “is the feminist promise that you can have a family and create hip arts and crafts from home during flexible, reasonable hours while still having a respectable, fulfilling, and remunerative career.”  This fantasy, of course, is false, and it is only peddled to women.  Etsy is made up of 96% women because men “have evaluated the site on purely economic terms and found it wanting.”  One of their biggest success stories only makes $15,000 per year, and that is before the costs of supplies are deducted from the gross profits.  “Etsy exerts a downward pressure on prices,” Mosle claims, because the crafter is in competition with the rest of the world, and therefore cannot charge a premium.  Sounds like capitalism as we know it – people doing piecework for below-subsistence pay.

Some of us choose not to participate.  I craft because I love to make things and generally give away the items that I  make.  Other things I keep for myself.

Why sewing almost died and how it came back to life

The rise of the ready-to-wear garment industry nearly killed home sewing.  Although this is probably the most oft-cited reason, it isn’t the only one.  Ready-to-wear sales didn’t overtake fabric sales until the 1920’s, and it was the middle and upper class that drove these sales. As these store bought dresses became more standard, and only the poor truly had to sew their own clothing, and homemade dresses became a mark of poverty (Gordon).

Unless you told someone, how would they know you still had to sew your clothing at home?  While some dressmakers had skills to rival the best tailors, most did not, and the homemade look was perceptible.  Stripes that don’t match, hems that bulged and puckered, wrinkles and pulling, incorrect fabric choices – all these point the finger at the home sewer.

Sometimes I go to the thrift store and I know without even looking at the interior seams that something was made at home.  Does this sound elitist?  Maybe.  But it is part of the culture we swim in.  Consumerism dictates that store bought is better, and never mind the substandard frock that your mother made.  Sewing had a bad rep.

Hardly anyone makes their own anything anymore.  So why didn’t sewing die as well?  Store bought clothing has never been cheaper or more prolific, and in spite of this, home sewing is making a come-back.

So why do I still sew?  For the same reasons women still sewed after they could afford ready-to-wear (and the same reasons that many people sew today).  Sarah Gordon writes “For many women, sewing served as a tool for self-definition – they used it to seek some control over their appearance, to make some money, and to express creativity as well as ethnic or class identity.”  While so many people define themselves in terms of their jobs, I prefer to define myself as a person who likes to make things.  I express my creativity through sewing – because it is and always has been a creative exercise.

Traditional women’s work or subversion of traditional values?

I used to make fun of my high school friend Kim, who was a member of the Future Homemaker’s of America.  They had after school meetings where they learned to sew, cook and do all the traditional women’s work that, as a budding feminist of the early nineties, I scorned. 

She was the one who patiently endured my ribbing and then taught me how to sew in the months before my wedding.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I am still sewing.  Oh, I am still keeping my feminist leanings.  Popular songs that have lyrics about a woman’s beauty as if that were the only thing she had to offer make me twitch, as do portrayals of moms and dumb blondes on TV.  A stain or a man should not be the center of life, and there are more than a few competant women out there.  So why should a traditional woman’s art grab me and hold me more than say, painting, which is more equal opportunity? 

Sarah Gordon, in her article  “Boundless Possiblilities”, written for Journal of Women’s History, states “As a way to hold on to traditions while simultaneously challenging them, home sewing was – and remains – a fascinating dimension of women’s work.”  By sewing their clothes at home, women challenged ideas of modesty and fashion.  In the past, sewing was a respectable way to earn extra money and enhance their economic position (this tradion continues with etsy).  And by using home sewing to clothe their families, women “helped shape the identity of the people [they] clothed”, including the identities of the men in the house. 

As a teenager, I had a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater – to reject sewing simply because it was seen as women’s work. I know differently now.  The majority of people on craftster or etsy are women, engaging in traditional women’s work but finding new ways to get us to think about what it means to be female in todays day and age – from the uterus plush toy to the pornographic latch hook rug, women are subverting traditional values by engaging in traditional work.

Crafting as Therapy

On October 9, 2007, my world ground to a halt.  That was the day a neurologist told me I had ALS.  I was no longer a human being; I was a disease.  I would spend hours on the internet fruitlessly researching my disease and popping donuts into my mouth.  After all, I was going to die anyway.  Soon I wouldn’t be able to chew – and who cares about diabetes and health?  I have one disease, bring ’em all on. 

I’d still look at Craftster everyday, though.  And if you look at my profile, you’ll see that I participated in several craft swaps almost directly after my diagnosis:  The Christmas Stocking Swap, The Silly Santa Swap, The PostSecret Swap, to name a few.  I couldn’t even tell my sister and brother what I had, but I could focus my energy on a doll or a stocking.  Eventually, during the PostSecret Swap, I finally articulated things that bothered me, about the diagnosis, about the army, all these things.  I believe craft enabled me to have hope for the future where there was none before, to let me quit my dead end job as a clerk and try for more.

I’m better now, kids (mentally if not physically).  Don’t feel sorry for me – that’s not the point.  The point, described by Emma Harris in her article, “The meanings of craft to an occupational therapist”, is that “as human beings, we have an innate need to make and create.  Thompson and Blair (1998, p. 54) discuss how humans are ‘continually trying to heal the divide between their inner world and their external reality’ and that ‘this tension impels humans to engage in imaginative and creative processes … that can for brief moments, give us a sense of balance and our deepest consolations and greatest glories’.  This phenomenon was described by Joseph several times during the conversation, and he highlighted that craft-making can be a means of providing a sense of hope and efficacy.”

I lacked balance, I needed consolation, and I needed hope, and I found them through crafty therapy.  I know many others use crafting as a means of therapy – many people answered that crafting keeps them sane on the first question of the day.

Question of the Day

Were you involved in any kind of crafting community before the advent of the internet?  If not, did you spend as much time crafting then as you do now?  In other words, has the internet community changed your crafting habits and made it easier to come out of the “closet”?


I'm a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie world...

When I was eight, I wanted a Barbie doll desperately.  Well, that and an easy bake oven.  My desires stemmed not from the attractiveness of Barbie’s perky bustline or her tiny shoes, but from a circle of fourth grade girls that sat under the shade of the school’s eves and traded tiny shoes and outfits from their dolls’ seemingly endless closets.  I wanted to sit with them and pass judgment on Barbie’s eveningwear, or prepare her to go out with Ken – but mostly, I wanted to be included.

I made a doll that night from my old and not-so-old clothing (much to my mother’s dismay).  I can’t remember ever playing with the doll or showing it to anyone, but this act of creation is burned onto my brain, right down to the stonewash bluejeans I cut up and the tapestry on my little sewing box.  In fact, I am fairly sure I never took that doll to school because during the eighties, something homemade was sure to invite torture.

Sarah Gordon, in an article she wrote for Journal of Women’s History, states that “if sewing and related arts were a source of pleasure and pride, then they were also a means of forming communities.”  In the past, women formed dress clubs and quilting circles, and some formed clubs that sewed for charity.  As sewing went out of vogue, there were fewer and fewer of these communities and they had fewer and fewer members.  Crafters had a harder time finding communities.  Fifteen years ago,  I did not know anyone who sewed beyond those who worked at the fabric stores.  And none of my real life friends sewed either.

Thank God for the internet.

Crafting communities now flourish – places like craftster and etsy and ravelry are booming with people eager to impart knowledge to newcomers and socialize with others.  My little doll never saw the light of day when I was eight because I knew that it – and I – would not be accepted.  I and my craft had no society, no community, no circle of fourth grade girls who identified with me.