Wednesday, May 13, 2015


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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Toward a handmade wardrobe

One of the things I've been thinking about a lot since I've moved is the role that craft plays in my life, and how the things I make, and the work that goes into making them, have also helped me form my identity and find my community. I've been mulling it over a lot this winter – thinking seems to go hand-in-hand with being in "fibernation" – and now I'm going to start writing about it a bit to see if I can make sense of it. This is the beginning of that process.

With the arrival of spring, my mind turns to sewing, but it's been several years since I've made anything more than a zippered clutch or a tote bag. This year, though, I've got the urge to spend some serious time at my sewing machine.

I've recently read a number of blog posts about making an entire wardrobe – a challenge I've been considering for some time, but that I've never really done anything about. My blog-reading tends to be heavily skewed toward knitting rather than sewing, but there is some crossover, and it's in these posts that I've found my inspiration. Karen's recent posts about wardrobe planning and being very intentional about what she makes really got me thinking, as did Felicia's posts about simple sewing.

In short, they are both talking about taking a good look at what you really love to wear, assessing the clothes that you own, and then making more clothes like the ones that you love. It's about choosing to spend time and money on things that will provide enduring value, rather than one-offs that you're making just for novelty's sake. It seems obvious (how long does it take to knit a sweater? how much did all that yarn or fabric cost?), and in some ways it's a natural extension of the movement away from "fast fashion" toward buying ethically made clothing. It's about being deliberate about how you allocate your resources, whether those resources are money, time or effort (or, realistically, all three).

When it comes to clothes, I know what I like and I have a decent idea of what looks good on me, but I also know that I often choose to make things that fall outside of those two criteria – most of the time because I am attracted by the novelty factor. There are basic things I've made that I wear again and again, and there are elaborate things I've made that never get worn, despite how long I laboured over them or how much the materials cost.

Thing is, sometimes I want to reward myself by splurging on luxurious yarn, or I want to support a designer I know, or I want to join in on a community project – even though I know deep down that the yarn won't stand up to the wear and tear of being a wardrobe staple, or that the pattern won't really flatter me in the way I'd like it to, or that I'm joining the knitalong just for the camaraderie, rather than the end product. If I'm going to make my wardrobe, I need to think more carefully about what I make: I need to go for hard-wearing, versatile wardrobe basics, and limit the more frivolous one-offs.

So one day last week I sat down with a notebook and jotted down ideas about what I'd make if I were to make my entire wardrobe. I thought about what I've made and what I wear, and then zeroed in on where those two categories overlapped. Basic A-line skirts, simple boat-neck tops and yoked cardigans, made with natural fibres, in neutrals or jewel-tones: those are where my strengths lie. I'd like more basic bottoms – especially trousers (a challenge, but one that will be worthwhile, I think.) Complex cabled or lace sweaters in bright hand-dyed yarns are fun to knit, but they don't make it into the repeat-wear pile. I'll save the complex patterns, the hand-dyed yarns and the knitalongs for accessories – quick to knit and something I generally get a lot more wear out of.

I think the next step is to gather some patterns, and maybe try Polyvore to see if it will help me visualize how the patterns go together. Ravelry is a great resource, but what's your favourite source of sewing patterns? I'd be grateful for tips!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Crafty meanderings

April lived up to its reputation: cold, dark, rainy. Not pleasant, but the rain did the trick, and aside from a few crudbergs that remain in shady places, the only sign of the enormous snowbanks that lined the streets all winter is the gravel in the gutters and on the sidewalks – grit from days when salting wasn't enough, bits of asphalt from where the blades of the plows dug too deep into the roads. 

Now the grass is beginning to green, the lichen on the maple trees glows chartreuse in the sun, and brave crocuses and daffodils turn their faces to the light, all purple and yellow. Up the hill on Tulip Street, the boulevards are planted with hundreds of bulbs; I've changed my route to work in the hopes of seeing the first blooms someday soon. Maybe by Victoria Day.

What's to be done when it seems like the grey, rainy days will never end? Hunker down with the pinkest knitting project you can find, of course. This is a February baby sweater for a March baby. She might turn out to be a tomboy, who knows, but she's the first girl baby in my circle in a few years, and I couldn't resist the pink yarn, the lace, the mother-of-pearl buttons. 

In other news, I signed up for a weaving class. It's a step (or three) up from my little rigid heddle loom: a four-heddle floor loom, big enough to make a blanket on, if I really wanted to. Tomorrow we warp our looms, which might take the entire three-hour class; then we start our samplers. If we get far enough, there's a scarf in the offing. (The first project always seems to be a scarf. I get it, but...a lady can only make so many scarves she'll never wear. Maybe I'll magic the finished object into a pencil case or something.)

In knitting news, I did a bit of stash diving yesterday. I have enough yarn to make three weeks' worth of socks, four sweaters, one toy rabbit, a fair-size afghan and any number of shawl-type accessories, which I should probably try to remember next time I start fantasizing about spending an entire paycheque on yarn when I'm in Toronto at the end of the month. A fond hope but true.

I'm working on a hap as part of the Knit British hapalong. I love just about everything about this project – the history behind the garment, the organic construction, the endless possibilities for colour combinations, the versatility of the finished object. I've wanted to make one for myself for ages, and I know I'll get a lot of wear out of this one.

Given how long its taken spring to arrive, I'm not sure how much wear I'll get out of this dress (erm, maybe that should be, "given that it's still just yardage.."). But hope springs eternal! And so today I've got some cutting-out to do, and a bit of practising to get my French seams back up to snuff.

Hmmm, and what's this? Plans are afoot. More later this week!