Friday, November 26, 2010

a handmade nation, divided?

A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to host a film event here in town. It was part of a local craft celebration, a night for artisans in the hood and surrounding countryside to show off their art, do some networking, make some sales and watch a documentary. The turnout was fantastic, and the crafts on display were gorgeous.

Folks brought handmade guitars, birch fishing creels, pottery, wool sweaters, and more all scattered around a table of books on how to do everything from brewing your own beer to making your own furniture. When mingling was done, Connie, the proprietor of Battenkill Books, announced the film Handmade Nation, and we all stopped chatting and plucking to sit and watch the big show.

When the hip little indie documentary was over, I got to speak a little about homesteading and then there was an open discussion about film and the modern state of Craft in America. One woman raised her hand and brought up an amazing point that hadn't crossed my mind. In the film, it was all urban hipster types, making hand-blown glass, letterpressed posters, designer embroidery, and apartment decorations. Even the items that were more utilitarian (things like dresses or quilts) were treated more as specialty designed artsy clothes more than what you'd wear to stay warm in. Yet all around our little Cambridge train depot there was only utilitarian items. The person who pointed this out asked why the crafts in movie, or the younger crafty folk in the film, where just making the knick knacks they would usually buy? Why weren't they making things of use?

I was knocked over by this question. She was taking a somewhat self-righteous stance, but her point was valid. However, all I could think about was my sheep farm and the platypus night light.

The movie did focus on the urban craft scene. It wasn't about traditional craft as much as it was about a consuming public turning into a producing public—trying to show us that a new generation was picking up their grandmother's knitting needles and working with their hands. So I was all for the documentary, in that sense. But it was a sharp contrast to the earth-toned pottery, undyed yarns, and wooden guitars around the walls of this particular crafting junction. Where even our hobbies shaped by the environment we live in? Was there something more to our traditional crafts as opposed to their anime-shaped dolls or tiles with owls all over them?

That said, I'm not knocking this modern crafts movement by any means. One of my favorite gifts I ever received was from a fair just like the ones featured in Handmade Nation. A small night light in my bathroom glows bright yellow and melted into the tile is a happy little platypus. My college roommate bought it for me the Christmas after I moved to Idaho. Knowing I was living in a rugged homestead and a proper gift would be an oil lamp or some chicken-encrusted mug she opted for the most ridiculous, most non-farming item she could find. I adore it. I have brought it across the country and it has lit up three happy bathrooms, in three states, for years. It is as knick-knacky as it gets. It may not be able to carry hot beverages, play a song, or cross-tie a horse in a barn but it makes me smile. It was made with care, funded a local Boston artist, and I have never seen another bathroom with one like it. What's so bad about that?

This Christmas my gift-giving won't be as grandiose as I once planned. The realities of being the sole breadwinner for a mortgage and a start-up farm means dropping a couple hundred bucks on gifts just isn't practical or, well, realistic. But I will spend a few hours making, baking, sewing, and being clever. I ordered some wool-blended flannel for 70% off online and between the discounts and free shipping was able to get enough fabric and patterns to cover my entire immediate family for half of what it costs for a sale sweater at L.L. Bean. Between warm pajamas, hats, and scarves and some homemade breads and jams, I think it'll be a nice handmade holiday. If I knew how, I'd make everyone glass platypus night lights but a girl needs to keep some goals a head of her. Gotta trot towards something.

28 Comments:

Blogger LouisianaMom said...

Wouldn't the hope be that some of these artisans are practicing skills of sustainability ... I mean one less thing that they are purchasing from a corporation means they are moving towards being more self sustaining, no matter how practical. I am all about practicality too, but I m also about frugality ... so if I can enhance my life (even aesthetically) in a more frugal manner I feel like that is an accomplishment!

November 26, 2010 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger GirlSavorsLife said...

I love handmade gifts-- the very best. Your family is very lucky!

November 26, 2010 at 7:00 PM  
Blogger Farmgirl Cyn said...

It's pretty much handmade or nothing this year. And I choose handmade. There will be cold processed soaps, crocheted dish cloths, a knit hat, preserves, pestos,etc. And, truth be told, I like it this way!

November 26, 2010 at 7:10 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

The audience member brings up a very good point, and it coincides nicely with a question you asked in the last couple of weeks about the nature of the new homesteading movement and those participating in it. This is all very trendy right now. There's a reality show about it (that I can not stand and refuse to watch) which illustrates the trendy nature of this all very well. Yes, some of it is rooted in a desire to limit an impact and find some "reality" in a productive life other than shuffling papers that make someone else rich, but from what I've observed with the rise of certain magazines and public notoriety, I feel that a significant portion of this generation's back to the land and home craft movements are doing it because it's popular right now. Just like the bulk of the back to the landers from the '70s, it will last a few years and then dwindle down again to those truly committed to the lifestyle. I'm not trying to paint with a broad brush; I'm sure that there has been an awakening in society against the highly consumeristic, somewhat artificial sense of life that modern society values. But making boutique bacon in a west side flat while knitting designer doilies isn't a lasting change to a more sustainable life; it's going with an alternate flow while that happens to be a little more mainstream right now.

November 26, 2010 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

Interesting topic. I think that handcrafters make what sells. In your area people will spend money on beautiful handcrafted practical items, but they would never sell in the city. Practical items imported from China are readily available in town. People are not shopping for quality. My observation is that they are shopping trends, from their clothing to how they remodel their kitchens. They will buy a few small items at a craft fair, but few people will invest in a quality item. I have done it myself. I am a skilled seamstress, but I make doll clothes now because people want custom made clothes made from bad fabric for nothing. If you run into problems with your sewing project Jenna, drop me a line. I hope your family appreciates your efforts. Remember that pattern sizes are smaller than ready-to-wear sizes.

November 26, 2010 at 7:55 PM  
Blogger CJ said...

I think rural people tend to be more practical and would prefer to put their efforts into making something useful. Urban people don't see anything wrong with having to depend on someone else to make the things the need. So their efforts can be spent on making something more decorative than useful. Just a guess.

November 26, 2010 at 8:11 PM  
Blogger jenomnibus said...

This topic just came up in another blog that I read (and occasionally contribute to). The writer talked about how a friend of hers who immigrated to the States from Romania (if I remember correctly) just knew how to do all these things herself - bake bread, make stew, sew, etc. - skills that have been lost to the generations here. But her friend didn't think anything of it, this is just what she did as a matter of survival- while here it's a novelty to knit your own hat or can food or bake bread. I agree with Bob - it is probably a trend that will fade out after a few years for most people. However, it seems to be a much better trend to create your own tchotchke than buying mass-manufactured objects, so perhaps even when the trend passes, the sentiment will remain.

November 26, 2010 at 8:17 PM  
Blogger becky3086 said...

If you are making crafts to sell you are making them for people who aren't trying to live sustainably because people who are (such as myself) will look over everyone's crafts but won't buy. We buy what we need and if we want anything else, we'll just look for ideas and find out how to make them ourselves.

November 26, 2010 at 8:24 PM  
Blogger daisy said...

Handmade gifts come from the heart. This year we'll be giving homemade baked goods, nut butters and gifts-in-a-jar. Keep it real!

November 26, 2010 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Does someone you know knit mock turtle neck wool sweaters?

November 26, 2010 at 9:12 PM  
Blogger Missy said...

It really comes down to culture. Rural homesteaders are going to have a different (although not completely different) outlook on their crafts. Urban crafters are going to lean toward the more hip crafts that sell at big crafts shows. I saw Handmade Nation a couple of years back when it was released and saw Faythe Levine speak at a screening in Atlanta previous to that. Many of the crafters of the modern movement, and in the documentary, have roots in the DIY/punk culture of the early-to-late 90s, as I do myself. I also am extremely acquainted with the utilitarian craft movement, considering I'm a Southern girl who was trained at sewing/crafting/needlework from the time I could babble. I've lived in both worlds and believe me, no matter how trendy crafting gets, much of it has utilitarian roots.

There was a huge and very informative debate, which is on-going, that surfaced a couple of years ago involving the the state of craft ( link to the debate - read the comments). It seems now that this debate has morphed into the function vs. fashion debate. I say it's all good and that anything that moves us toward consuming less commercial products is a good thing - no matter the practicality. We all need a little whimsy now and then. Some of us more than others.;)

November 26, 2010 at 9:28 PM  
Blogger Cathi said...

Any chance you'd be willing to share where you got your wool blend flannel from?
It sounds lovely.

November 27, 2010 at 12:41 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I think if people are making things, then it is a good thing. You have to start somewhere and just making and creating is a huge step in a positive direction.

I have recently started a shop on etsy and I am making things that I consider very useful and also beautiful and fun. For me, combining beauty and utility is something that I strive after in life. I don't think everything we make has to be completely utilitarian and that creating for the sake of creating and for the sake of creating beauty is deeply important.

By making things, we can share this beauty and that which is useful. Sustainability requires interconnectedness which means that we can all fill different niches and create for each other, it doesn't have to be separated or divided.

November 27, 2010 at 1:07 AM  
Blogger coach said...

It looks like going to be a sunny day.Hope everyone keep good mood.
I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in this topic. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well.

Coach Outlet

November 27, 2010 at 1:34 AM  
Blogger Dani said...

Jenna - perhaps our homemade crafts come from, and are made by the heart, for pratical purposes, as opposed to the urban hipster type ideas which are being produced for commercial and profit purposes.

The urban hipster types are trying to jump on the bandwagon, by supplying people who can't be bothered to take the time to make their own items, but who want to be "seen to be green". Sad - but a true reflection of todays' society.

If everyone took more time to perform and create the basics they need for their daily lives, we might have a friendlier world, which is not 99.9% focussed on constantly "keeping up with the Joneses" and the resultant jealousy and greed that that engenders.

November 27, 2010 at 1:51 AM  
Blogger Paula said...

Hey Jenna- you and your readers may be interested to read a very new book called 'Spend Shift- How The Post-Crisis -Values Revolution Is Changing The Way We Buy, Sell, and Live' by John Gerzema and Michael d'Antonio. (Interesting read, btw.)

The long story short is that people were moving away from glitz, bling, and the latest thing prior to the Great Recession, which only served to drive the nail home. People are looking for value. Which is good news.

You can't always change the fundamental way that people spend their money, but if more are spending on hand crafted items, then I think, the better. I am one of those purely utilitarian types- in my house, if it's purely decorative, it's already an antique, and trust me, there aren't many of those. Most form is due to function.

The important thing is that artists- no, that's not the right word- craftspeople are supported in one way or another. Yeah- it'd be great if craft were strictly utilitarian. Art and Craft have their separate places. The important thing is that whatever it is, it's made here in the states, and someone is supported.

Maybe the next film needs to be about the new resurgence of utilitarian craft. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800's- early 1900's was in response to the Industrial Age. Maybe the new Arts and Crafts Movement (is there one?) will be in response to the Information Age and the Great Recession.

Who knows?

November 27, 2010 at 1:55 AM  
Blogger Gelfling said...

I too am planning on giving most homemade gifts this year... bread, preserves, blown and painted eggs from our chickens, miniature moss terrariums... along with a few sweet little pretty handmade things thrown in from www.etsy.com. If you haven't been there, check it out. There are beautiful handmade crafts, art, clothing, etc that you can buy directly from the artist, as well as a whole other community of vintage peddlers :) I'm even having my wedding dress made by one of the seamstresses on there.

November 27, 2010 at 2:52 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Cathy: Fabric.com had 19.99 a yard on sale for 6 bucks a yard, 70% wool! Great for pj pants!

November 27, 2010 at 6:05 AM  
Blogger ladybughomer said...

When my daughter was getting her degree in Studio Art with an emphasis in jewelry she often listened to her teachers and fellow students debating art vs. craft. I don't make this distinction as I believe (man do I believe this) that we are all artists. "Never apologize for your art." I am a contemporary quilter - a lot of craft, a lot of art and my quilts are made for love of the craft with intention to be hung as art - not very practical but oh so fun. Also - in the city mouse versus the country mouse debate - just remember - wherever you live doesn't make you better - it is how you treat each other and the Earth. Over and out - the old lady up the street - Kelly

November 27, 2010 at 10:59 AM  
Blogger E said...

There is certainly an urban/ruaral divide, a chic/real homesteading divide.

And then there is the racial/class divide. Those arms in the logo are so pasty white...

While no "movement" can be all encompassing I am curious - where are all the rest of the people? Not homesteading? Not blogging? Or am I looking in the wrong places?

November 27, 2010 at 12:32 PM  
OpenID breezyink said...

interesting topic, I like what ladybughomer said about city mouse vs. country mouse, not everyone is cut out for being a country mouse, (if they were, there wouldn't be so much country available!) but as far as crafting goes, I am by and large a practical person, but I also like to my living/working space to be pretty! So if I can make something that serves a useful purpose and looks good doing it, then great! But there are also many 'utilitarian' things which have their own asthetic charm, so can't we all just play nice? :)

November 27, 2010 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

I noticed a long time ago that people in rural areas and people in more urban areas are very different. We were shopping in our nearest urban area several years ago when I realized I hadn't seen a woman all day wearing jeans. However, where I live, you could go all day without seeing anyone who isn't wearing them. City wear is not practical in the country. City people really don't have to worry about snagging their clothes and dressing to keep warm the way country people do. I think both groups are making the things that sort of make sense to them.

November 27, 2010 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I hope this post didn't come across as negative towards urban crafters? I was trying to say that while I live this very country life, I appreciate my little night light so much. I think they both have a place in the world. I was just bringing up the person's comment of the difference.

November 27, 2010 at 7:32 PM  
Blogger m said...

Jenna, your post didn't come across that way, but some of the comments definitely have.

I really do look forward to the day when one person's choices are seen as simply as individual choices and not an attack against someone else's. (And a fist pump to ladybughomer--sing it, sister!)

November 27, 2010 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Tara said...

I have to agree with what some others here have said. From what I've seen, most city folks still view handmade goods as "special" and not for actual use. A disappointing number of people have looked at my handmade soap (that I gave them as a gift) and declared "Oh, it's too pretty to use!". I always want to beat my head against a wall when I hear that. I have nothing against urban crafters at all, and I do feel like there's a place for the purely aesthetic, but I think most people aren't quite ready to replace their everyday goods with handmade just yet.

That said, hubby and I just bought a set of hand forged fireplace tools, the very last set we'll ever buy, from the man who stood over the hot forge and hammered them out. That sort of "shopping" feels great!

November 28, 2010 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Cindy said...

Come on folks, I live in the city. I also have 4 laying hens, a breading pair of meat rabbits and a large garden. I weave, spin, knit, can, bake my own bread, make my own yogurt and we don't own a television. I have also never, EVER set foot in a Wal-mart.

I grew up in the country and most of the people I grew up with in the 70s and 80s were more commercial than I and my 'city slicker' friends are now.

Let's not judge people by were they choose to live.

November 29, 2010 at 11:47 AM  
Blogger Tara said...

Sorry Cindy. Just calling it like I see it where I live. I also based my statements on people I actually know - I can't speak for others, but my remarks were not at all speculative.

November 29, 2010 at 2:16 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

Understood Tara, maybe part of the problem is that this discussion started out with Urban CRAFTERS vs Rural HOMESTEADERS.


I know (and am in fact related to and grew up with) plenty of Rural CRAFTERS who wouldn't know one end of a pig from another and cook out of cans and buy their veg from Wal-mart. I also know many urban HOMESTEADERS who have been doing this decades longer than the trend.

I think we are comparing apples to oranges here. While a lot of homesteaders do crafts I consider 'crafters' to be something totally unrealated to homesteading. You can be both but you I don't see them as the same thing at all.

I have plenty of family members, country folks all, who tell me I am nuts to do all I do when I could just buy everything at the store and not work so hard. My city co workers say it too granted, but most of my homesteader friends are of the Urban type.

November 29, 2010 at 3:07 PM  

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