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Weaving their way KNITTA leadMembers of KNITTA and volunteers cozy up parking meters in Brooklyn.
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Weaving their way Knitting Group lead
By Frances McInnis
If you were strolling in Brooklyn Heights, New York on the morning of May 14, 2009, you might have passed 69 parking meters sporting cheerful knitted cosies: blue and yellow stripes; crocheted cartoonish flowers, a rainbow of thick acrylic yarn. The Knitta graffiti crew had struck again! Members of the Houston-based crew (who go by aliases like PolyCotN and MascuKnitity) have “tagged” everything from abandoned beer bottles to Notre Dame Cathedral with their spray-paint-free graffiti. They have also inspired copycats around the globe who congregate online to share photos of their own knitted capers: a pre-Industrial-Revolution pursuit at work in a post modern world.
Knitta is part of a thriving Do-It-Yourself craft movement. Today’s DIYers are reviving the hand-making skills that, only a generation or two ago, were a normal and necessary part of daily life. “The craft movement went through a phase when it was all about your grandmother. Now it’s starting to be more people in our age group,” says Andrea Tucker, who, with her black hair pulled back, looks younger than her 29 years. Tucker organizes an indie craft fair in Vancouver, BC called “Got Craft?” with husband Robert, 31. She says that the indie DIY scene is miles away from the average community centre craft fair – more underground punk zine than Little House on the Prairie. “Before somebody discovers these kinds of shows, they have no idea crafts can be like this.”
Knitted human hearts (aorta included) and felt perogies filled with organic catnip are displayed next to sturdy messenger bags and kitchen tools at the May 2009 “Got Craft?” held this year at the Royal Canadian Legion building on Commercial Drive, an eclectic, ethnic area of the city. The room is packed. The shoppers who lined up outside the doors this morning include a mix of hipsters, hippies, and moms with baby on hip (mostly female, though I do spot a couple of gents). At some tables, a sharp elbow is required to get close enough to see the homespun creations. Despite a global recession that has left malls empty and consumers spooked, it seems that alien monkey plush toys are in hot demand.
But DIY craft is not all quirky stuffed toys and making a buck. The movement, which grew out of punk rock’s Do-It-Yourself ethic, is a reaction against mass-consumerism. This is craft-as-antidote, enlisted in the fight against pollutant-emitting factories and unfair labour practices.
“DIY is our generation growing up and saying ‘I don’t want to shop at Wal-mart,’” says Stephanie Menard, 30. Menard’s political and environmental ideals were the engine behind a decision to quit her job three years ago to be a full-time crafter: “In terms of picking a career, I didn’t want my life’s work to be about taking from the earth.” DIYers are keen recyclers who give new life to bike chains, old curtains, and plastic bags; Menard uses reclaimed fabric to make her jewellery and portrait dolls (which are anatomically correct and carry tiny fabric beer cans and iPhones). Doing so keeps money in her pocket and the fabric out of landfills. Reusing fabric, she says, also means her pieces have a past, a history spanning back to the previous owner.
Menard clearly cherishes the objects she produces, and it does seem logical that handmade objects would be more meaningful than their mass-produced counterparts. When you make something, you create a shared history with that object. You pick its colour, design, and materials. You unpick the crooked seam or re-stain the wood when it comes out the wrong shade. It makes you furious a couple of times, but when it is done, you feel fantastic. And every time you see it, wear it, or use it, you feel the effect of that process of creation.
The process of creation is on display at the shared studio space of crafters Julie Chung and Tiffany Ho; the brightly-lit room is filled with works in progress, sketches, and racks of samples. A few half-empty cups of coffee sit cooling on a table littered with magazines. Mismatched chairs are arranged in a semi-circle, and two Boston bulldogs lie asleep on a precarious turquoise couch. This is production on a human scale – a few lengths of fabric rather than bolts and bolts of it, batches of fifteen or twenty, not thousands.
DIYers do not insist on making everything and buying nothing – after all, many crafters make their livelihood selling their creations. Rather, they encourage us to think about the lifespan of the objects in our everyday lives. Beyond the country of origin, what do we know about the provenance of the stuff we buy and use? Where did the materials come from? Who put it together? What machines and processes were used? “We are promoting buying something from someone you’ve met, from someone who made it themselves, and who knows where it came from,” says Robert Tucker. Online craft marketplace Etsy.com also wants “to reconnect producer and consumer, and swing the pendulum back to a time when we bought our bread from the baker, food from the farmer, and shoes from the cobbler.”
The hope is that this rapprochement of producer and consumer makes handmade goods more personal and less disposable than mass-produced ones. Craftsmanship takes precedence over producing objects quickly and cheaply. Objects are customized and made to fit the consumer perfectly. We can slow the relentless pace of consumption simply by loving the objects in our lives, and keeping them around.
“What’s more DIY than a bicycle?” asks Elly Blue, managing editor of BikePortland.org. There are certainly lots of bikers who craft, and crafters who bike. Blue believes this is because cyclists are DIY naturals. “When you buy a car, there are all sorts of accessories to buy, but with bikes, it’s often better and more fun to make things yourself. Plus, you need to do the basic maintenance on your own bike,” she says. She also sees the DIY ethos at work in the way cyclists actively get involved, campaigning for local bike infrastructure and organizing community rides. DIYers and bikers, she says, share ideals about sustainability and making small-scale changes to change the world.
Blue is currently organizing BikeCraft, a bazaar of bike-themed handmade goods that was first held in 2005. In searching out vendors for the event, she has seen bottle-cap rear-view mirrors that attach to glasses or helmets; reflective handlebar bags made out of duct tape; headlamps made from teapots and cameras, and hand-sewn leather shoe-straps and cycling caps. Bike-minded crafters convert bike parts into clocks, wind chimes, jewellery, stencils and screen-print, and/or letterpress bike motifs onto furniture, clothing, and stationery. “Anywhere in the punk DIY community,” she says, “biking has always been a theme.”
A fairly experienced screen-printer herself, Blue says she enjoys DIY projects for the same reasons she loves cycling: they are “real, hands-on tasks that get done.” Both biking and crafting, she explains, offer her an escape after working all day in front of a computer, a chance to trade the virtual world for a more tactile one.
Faythe Levine has just cleared security at the airport in Kansas City, Missouri when I call her. She is traveling the length and breadth of North America screening Handmade Nation, her documentary about the rise of the DIY movement. Dubbed “the ambassador of handmade” by the New York Times, Levine is a maker, a craft fair producer, and the owner of a boutique and gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (She also plays musical saw in the band Wooden Robot, which provides the soundtrack for the film.) Although she has previously worked on music videos and commercials, this is her first foray into feature-length.
“I’d become so immersed in the DIY craft community and felt I wanted to capture it, make sure they were getting the respect and acknowledgement they should. My concern was someone outside the community would come in and do an exposé of cute girls at a craft fair,” she says. Levine travelled 19,000 miles to complete some 80 interviews. She financed the work largely on credit cards, and her risk seems to have paid off. After viewing an eight-minute trailer on YouTube, the Princeton Architectural Press commissioned a book of the same name, co-written by Levine’s friend and fellow crafter Cortney Heimerl.
Handmade Nation casts DIY as a social phenomenon, a movement based on community and friendship. “It’s a way to support different communities; it’s a way to meet people,” says one of the film’s crafters. Makers often work together to share studio space, tools, opinions, and advice or just to “shoot the shit,” as one of them put it. DIY is not about connoisseurship, or even necessarily skill, it’s about joining in.
Levine says the Internet has been crucial in allowing like-minded crafters to connect. Crafters post photos of their masterpieces on Flickr and Facebook groups. They are prolific bloggers, sharing tips, articles, frustrations, and inspirations. They tweet, they podcast, and they gather in forums. They buy and sell on Etsy.com, and sign up for craft swaps to exchange handcrafted gifts with strangers. Diving into the web browser history of a DIY crafter yields a range of content, from a thoughtful essay about DIY’s ties to third-wave feminism, to a photo gallery of craft-inspired tattoos, to a forum discussing how to repurpose toothpaste tubes and three-ring binders.
Despite the varying range of interests shared by individual crafters, there is a sense that all are working toward a common goal – a goal to make everyday life more sustainable, communal, and fulfilling. One parking meter cozy at a time, DIYers are knitting together a new way to live.
Handmade Nation www.indiecraftdocumentary.blogspot.com