Craft Work

My google alerts sent something to my inbox yesterday saying that Stylelicious was mentioned in the New York Times. There is a very interesting article about Heidi Kenney of My Paper Crane called Craft Work by: Rob Walker. The article also talks about the amazing Faythe Levine and her Indie Craft Documentary which as mentioned the Austin Craft Mafia got filmed for at the Renegade Craft Fair Brooklyn.

Anyway, enjoy the article. I know this is kind of cheating as a blog post, but I have house guests coming today and floors left to mop.

Heidi Kenney is a married mother of two, and she likes to sew and make things. The fact that these things include dolls in the shape of giant tampons is perhaps the first clue that she is not exactly a housewife in the 1950’s-sitcom mold. Kenney, who is 28 and lives outside Baltimore, makes and sells a variety of stuffed, anthropomorphized objects — the tampon dolls are among her best sellers — like doughnuts, toast and toilet-paper rolls. She does this under the auspices of her one-woman brand, My Paper Crane, making her part of a wave of independent businesses selling handmade toys, clothing, soap, jewelry, housewares and other items.

Do-it-yourself products are now at the center of everything from the DIY Network on cable television to Craft magazine, due out in the fall. All of this raises the question of what D.I.Y.-ism is really all about — is it an ethic or just an aesthetic? While the phenomenon may be on the brink of producing a few craft-world celebrities — the stars of “Stylelicious” on DIY, for example — stories like Kenney’s open a window on a sprawling community of small entrepreneurs and consumers, which seems to have a completely different set of goals.

Kenney says that she has always enjoyed making things, and sold some of her handmade items on consignment in one store, but didn’t see the business potential until a few years ago, when she started a Web site. Her timing was good: selling online made it easier for her to reach more buyers, and it also made her one of a legion of individual creators and online stores that have sparked all kinds of crafty “sharing” and “communing,” says Leah Kramer, the founder of a site called Craftster. Kramer says that this online communing helped fuel the growing number of physical-world craft fairs, from the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn to the Indie Craft Experience in Atlanta, whose popularity has in turn led to the founding of permanent indie-crafter stores. Kenney is among those who have used all these channels to reach her audience and now fulfills 100 to 150 orders a month (more closer to the holidays) for her home-sewn goods.

Kramer and others figure that many craft consumers have borderline sociopolitical motives, seeking in these alternatives to mass-produced, corporate-made goods not just something unique but also a product with no murky labor or environmental-impact back story. Still, the more popular crafting becomes, the more crafters see mass goods in mainstream retailers that mimic the handmade look. This is part of the reason that Faythe Levine, who runs Paper Boat Boutique and Gallery in Milwaukee and coordinates that city’s Art vs. Craft fair, has begun filming a documentary that frames the contemporary craft movement as being partly descended from the indie-driven culture of zines and punk rock. Levine views the story of D.I.Y. crafting as one of building an alternative to mainstream consumption — not as a lifestyle trend. She also points out that this is an “art movement” that is dominated by female artist-entrepreneurs. “We’re talking thousands of women,” she says. “It’s really impressive, and powerful.”

This brings up the last striking point about the grass-roots version of D.I.Y.-ism. In the recent book “The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton,” Kathryn Hughes, a scholar at the University of East Anglia, tells the story of a transitional cultural moment: in the industrializing England of the mid-19th century, manufactured products were replacing “the handmade world,” and “new codes of gentility” suggested that “middle-class women should not engage in productive labor” but should devote themselves to being household managers — and, of course, consumers. As Hughes notes, many contemporary discussions of the supposed “new domesticity” trend exemplified by, say, Nigella Lawson, seem to imply that many career women secretly yearn for an idealized homemaker role. But that hardly describes Kenney, whose success with My Paper Crane allowed her to quit a cubicle job answering phones at an insurance company and spend more time being a working mom on her own terms. Her experience shows how the D.I.Y. craft movement offers a new way to resolve an old tension between traditional domestic skills and participation in the (economic and creative) marketplace: by combining them.

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