Culture | Contemporary craft

A look into the new handmade

The term “arts and crafts” evokes nostalgia for the bygone days of glitter, Elmer’s glue, and sticky hands. Back then, we used construction paper, scissors, and tempera paint and innocently called our creations art. Some of us went further and cut up magazines, sewed quilts, or crocheted toques and scarves. Associated with childhood in this way, the arts and crafts can seem harmless and juvenile.

But today, grown-ups are using craft as an alternative way of life or as a form of activism and protest. Green movements now go hand-in-hand with do-it-yourself culture, and local craft communities are claiming to battle the forces of materialist capitalism, one crocheted sock at a time. Craft has become much less effete and, judging by the communities that have developed around it, much less juvenile.

Craft making has, in fact, long been linked to activism and cultural movements. Often, social unrest is accompanied by the desire for people to come together and return to traditional ways of life. The sixties and early seventies were marked by a notable rise in craft and handmade items – during the Vietnam War, quilts were made as a form of political agitation. These days, knitting circles have been created throughout North America and Europe to protest the war on terror, and craft has been used for environmental activism to encourage society’s respect for the things we use. Elizabeth Kalbfleisch, a professor of art history at Concordia University, comments that the present movement “is a way for people to connect in an urban environment…. It’s a movement driven by young people who feel disconnected…. In troubled political times, there is an interest in returning to simpler practices.”

There’s no doubt that craft has been on the rise recently. Many say that we are riding the wave of another arts and crafts movement, or even better, that craft is feeding into society’s ideological shift away from an unsustainable economy. Craft may be at the forefront of the next social révolution in its ability to strengthen bonds between people, materials, and the methods used to create the items that populate our day-to-day lives. Like every movement, the craft movement seems to be grounded in the idea of progress and social change. 
But it’s impossible to pin down the existence and nature of such a movement without first defining its boundaries. When it comes to craft, this is difficult because the concept incorporates a number of interconnected ideas. It’s an umbrella term for everything from cabinet-making to soap-making to knitting, and craftspeople can be artists, artisans, skilled workers, hobbyists, or businesspeople. “Craft means different things to different people,” states Kalbfleisch. As she sees it, there are many practitioners of craft: those that stress the value in “studied, trained work,” those in the “fine arts” or “high arts” that use craft as a medium, and another group of people who “wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves practicing artists or craftspeople, who are just the public that is embracing craft practices.”

In an essay, “Craft Fairs Redux,” to be found in the book Handmade Nation, Susan Beal remarks that “in just a few years, craft fairs have mushroomed into sustainable annual events, continuing to attract more and more vendors with remarkable wares for sale.” Since the first Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago in 2003, almost every major North American city has begun to hold regular craft fairs. The Internet has also provided the nationwide community space that craftspeople previously lacked. Sites like Etsy.com, Craftster.com, the German site DaWanda, as well as a host of design blogs have all contributed to the selling and promoting of local handmade items on a global scale.

But though all this talk of the resurgence of craft paints the medium as the easy way out of a recession and an alluring way for artsy types to support themselves, it’s not clear whether such dreams are indicative of reality. Being self-employed in a niche market isn’t that simple, says Rachel Dhawan, a self-employed craftsperson in Montreal. Dhawan started a business as a jeweller and silversmith two years ago, and now earns enough money to support herself. But Kalbfleisch remarks that “there are very few art stars and fewer craft stars; living off craft is ‘the exception rather than the rule.’” Despite the optimism that Handmade Nation, journalists, community web sites, and bloggers have encouraged, paying the rent through craft takes a lot of effort and can be a big leap. 
Dhawan argues that the biggest problem the craft world faces is pricing. Once a craftsperson makes the decision to support themself through art, they have to start charging much more for their wares. Selling handmade products is a business like any other; the hardest part, says Dhawan, is convincing consumers to spend more of their money in order to support local businesses. This may be hard, since the choice between a $30 pair of jeans made in Southeast Asia and a $200 pair made in your own city is obvious at first. But Dhawan claims that the latter is, in the end, more economical and environmentally friendly. Clothes made by skilled craftspeople last longer, look better, and are made of higher quality material. “That’s a big leap to get over,” says Dhawan, “and that only comes if individuals find themselves frustrated [with the status quo] and with an intense desire to have something different.” 
As a thrifty student, I found the Valentine’s Day craft fair at Church St. Michel alienating. It presented art that I didn’t need, expensive soap that I didn’t see the value of, and clothes that I didn’t want to wear. On the other hand, the vendors were friendly and the general vibe was exciting and enjoyable. I felt comfortable talking to everyone, and people were approachable and excited to share their stories. While I found the content lacking, the spirit I wanted was there. All the craft fairs that I’ve gone to, in my opinion, have been marketed toward the wrong crowd. While cities like Toronto, Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver will always provide a fresh supply of young, well-off, and well-educated professionals willing to decorate their homes, the necessary step that the craft movement has to take is a step down. We need handmade goods that offer utility, and we need skilled professionals that offer quality items that we can use. I’m willing to spend money on handmade furniture because it will last longer. But why should I spend money on candles and cute knitted socks when I can find cheaper alternatives or don’t need them in the first place?
The world that I’m looking for wasn’t to be found in contemporary craft culture. While craftspeople are on the right track, the consumers still have a long way to go. The craft movement is on the rise, but mostly among yuppies and those that are already settled in life. The movement seems to have stopped at its most susceptible market, and it’ll take a large part of the population to concede to the admirable ideology of craft. As Kalbfleisch remarks, craft is often seen to be “soft,” but “it can also be quite edgy.” I want the spirit of DIY mixed with pacifist political agitation and a change of lifestyle on a global scale. This wish is reflected by a large part of the craft movement. But if a back-to-the-roots barter-based economy is what we want, we may have to wait a while. 


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.