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Craft resurgence in economic recession

Knitting and other crafts are no longer the preserve of nanas, hippies and middle-aged housewives – even schoolboys are taking them up.

Babiche Martens/APN

Recession takes people in different ways – most of them bad – but it’s an ill wind.

The crafts industry – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – is resurgent, with the latest booms in handmade items occurring in vintage clothes, home cheese-making and book-binding. What once seemed a passing fashion, when the young appropriated the once-naff woolly knitted hat, and even took to wearing their nanas’ tea cosies, has burgeoned into a revived craft movement that has both ideological and fiscal origins.

Paradoxically, although craft has thrift at its heart, and is in itself a rejection of big business, it is one of the few big growth sectors in the economy.

Te Papa this weekend is host to a big new annual craft venture, Handmade, which is running 159 workshops in food production, textiles and other artisan skills, to meet growing demand for lessons in skills once routinely passed down the generations, but which have petered out in recent decades.

Even the humble thrift shop has had to step up, with a surge in “up-cycling” old clothes. Wellington used-clothes charity shop Opportunity for Animals has trebled its floor space in the past year, outgrowing its enlarged premises in Kilbirnie and having to open a second shop in nearby Newtown.

Recession might seem to be the obvious impetus, but a number of other factors are feeding into the handmade comeback. Handmade organiser Melanie Walker, of Avenues events management, says the recession is a major factor – “I don’t think there’s any doubt that what’s happened has changed the way we think about the world” – but there was already a growing tendency for people to seek out personal, intimate, creative activities to counterpoint their working lives, which typically are spent working with impersonal technology. The credit crisis redoubled that appetite as people reassessed their consumer habits and also looked for more meaningful experiences than shopping for goods.

“At the same time, people have become much more conscious of green issues – not just throwing things away, but perhaps finding new ways to use them. And there’s the idea of making something that could be passed on, that will be special.”

A standout characteristic of Handmade’s attendees is that there is no dominant demographic. People of all ages have signed up for classes, and that includes plenty of men. Others in the craft supplies and teaching sector report increasing participation by young men, who don’t see any gender stigma in such activities as knitting and embroidery.

Young teenaged boys were among the exhibitors in last year’s No Rules – Rediscovering Embroidery exhibition at Auckland’s Objectspace gallery. Seb Clarke, then 12, became fascinated with dogs and, after collecting books and information on different breeds, began making embroidered dog badges. His father, Objectspace director Philip Clarke, recalls a friend asking Seb if he would make a badge of her cat. “He said, ‘I don’t do cats.’” His “thing” was dogs, and although he has sold quite a few badges, it wasn’t about the money, but about expressing his interest in dogs.

A doll made in Karen Walker fabric by Louise Cuckow

Clarke says the growing importance of crafts is partly a reflection of people questioning the source of consumer goods. Consciousness of overseas factory conditions and concern about the provenance of food have fed into the interest in DIY. It helps account for the feverish interest in cooking programmes on tele­vision and cookery schools and classes, and has also begun to affect the fine arts community.

Although most exhibiting galleries ignore crafts, up-and-coming artists are increasingly using craft techniques in their work, says Clarke. The emerging “indie crafts” movement is partly a reaction to the immense prices achieved at the high end of the art market, along with a trend among leading artists to “specify” their work, rather than create it. He instances British artist Damien Hirst, who typically conceives of a piece or installation, but engages skilled people to put it together. Equally, single paintings now selling for as much as US$200,000 have fuelled concern that the fine arts sector is “bloated”.

In reaction, artists are exploring hands-on skills, Clarke says. It’s now common for arts students to make and sell ceramic and textile pieces, and explore obsolete techniques like typeset printing as part of studying graphic design. “It’s part of a renewed respect for ‘haptic’ knowledge, the idea that the hands can develop skills that almost seem to become independent of the brain.”

An additional factor is a move towards experiential activity and away from shopping. Clarke says increasing numbers of people are facing the fact they won’t be able to afford to buy a home, or can only afford a small apartment, and this limits the amount of “stuff” they can accumulate. They are choosing things for their homes that have emotional content, rather than mass-produced items. That feeds into a desire to be distinctive and expressive, rather than conforming to a trend. It’s also part of a reaction against the long-prevailing minimalist and industrial trends in design – “although I think the idea of something handmade and intimate displayed in a minimalist environment is intriguing”.

A further skein of the crafts surge is the idea of “rescue”. Clarke instances Unitec crafts lecturer Simon Gamble, who turns damaged Crown Lynn plates into toki pendants. It’s also the impetus for Opportunity for Animals’ inaugural fashion show later this year. Organiser Debra Ashton says recycled clothing is becoming routine in many wardrobes, and the charity shops will be demonstrating high-end fashion looks with cheap-as-chips used clothes, to raise money for a contained wild cat sanctuary.

“A few years ago, you’d probably never admit you’d got something from a charity shop, but it’s quite cool now, if someone says, ‘That’s nice, where did you get it?’ and you can say, ‘It cost me $10!’”

Designer clothes in good condition are now commonly recycled, but even damaged older items are salvaged, as people re-imagine them and try out creative skills. “People are finding ways to personalise old clothes, adding a flower to hide a stain, or recutting, or taking in the seams,” says Ashton. And the savings are considerable. “You can get a pair of jeans for $3 or $4, and put together a whole look for $10, which, given the state of the economy, is pretty good.”

There’s also a busy emerging market for handmade goods, in a similar spirit to the popular farmers’ markets. Some crafts­people are making a living from their work, but this is still uncommon.

Journalist Rosemary McLeod, who curates and collects textile handcrafts, and has written a social history, Thrift to Fantasy, about New Zealand women’s handcrafts from the 1930s to the 1950s, says people who set out to sell their wares should steel themselves for a little disappointment.

“There is a difficulty in getting paid for the amount of effort you’ve put into making things, and people are often advised, ‘Don’t go to so much trouble, people aren’t prepared to pay for it’, which is a pity. You’ll get people picking the items up and prodding and poking about, and then they’ll say, ‘I could make that.’ And they never do. There’s this idea that ‘it’s not that hard’ and ‘I can do this at home’, and that’s reflected in the booming sales of books and magazines telling people how to do all these things.”

Seb Clarke's dog badge

But a skilled craftsperson’s work takes years of practice to replicate, McLeod says, and the prices paid for even superb pieces seldom cover the time, creativity and skill involved. She instances a single-colour intricately hand-stitched quilt on sale in a Wellington gallery for $1200 – not a lot for months of work, built on years of practice.

There is still a degree of sniffiness in the arts community about crafts, perhaps because of the lingering perception that if anyone can do it, it can’t be that special. At its heart, however, the craft movement is anchored in a much more democratic ethos than the fine arts, in that talent is not essential. Anyone can learn to knit or make a ceramic item. But there’s no doubt that once skills are combined with special flair, the result can be considered art.

The pricing and mismatch between the fine arts and crafts worlds seems unlikely to be redressed any time soon; as Clarke points out, even Te Papa only hired a full-time crafts curator in recent times, and most galleries continue to ignore the body of craft projects. However, the work of a number of quilters is recognised as falling into the fine arts category, and there’s a growing internet marketplace for handcrafted jewellery, ceramics and textiles.

There’s also a lot of subversive crafting going on: cross-stitched pornography, pillows with rude messages, even guerrilla knitting, in which things are knitted onto lampposts and other public property in the dead of night. Handmade has an avant-garde “knitting installation”.

It’s tempting to think a lot of this is a playful subversion of “nana’s” art, and is more of a craze than a movement. But awareness that things like knitting and crochet were the exclusive domain of untrendy middle-aged women is scant nowadays. From the 1960s on, such skills were passed on from mother to daughter less and less, McLeod says. So a lot of the old stigma associated with “the domestic arts” being nana-ish and dowdy has died out.

Anne Scott, who exhibits textiles and edits New Zealand Quilter, says the younger generation of ­crafters is coming to the various techniques with no preconceptions about their use. “I think that’s why you’re getting young men learning them. They don’t see it as something they’ll be laughed at for doing. It is a means to an end.”

Television’s Project Runway has been enormously influential, inspiring young people to learn such skills as pattern-drafting, says Scott. Her Minerva Gallery doubles as a thriving craft bookshop at a time when mainstream booksellers are in crisis. She says increasing numbers of children are coming in for craft books, and the shop has become a tourist destination. “We even had a couple of Brazilians in recently, who told us they’d read about us while they were in Australia, so they made a special trip here to come to the shop. Amazing!”

McLeod thinks the demise of craft began with the pill and women’s liberation. Women increasingly went out to work and didn’t have time to make things by hand. And for many, having to laboriously make things had been something of a tyranny. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, was hugely influential in encouraging women to see the domestic arts in a new and not particularly fond light.

The idea of thrift became outmoded, removing a further impetus past generations had for recycling. Through the early part of last century, everything that could be was recycled, including such unpromising textiles as sacking and laddered lisle stockings. As consciousness of the privations of war and the Depression faded and consumerism increased, such thrift was mocked, and then quite forgotten. “My collection ends at 1960,” McLeod says. There was some subterranean activity, a bit of a beating pulse in the hippy culture, with crocheted ponchos and beaded bags, and there were a lot of beautifully embroidered clothes coming out of India which were very popular.”

But over time, the routine passing on of sewing, knitting and other such skills died back. The Women’s Institute movement helped keep it alive, but it faded from the mainstream and from the school curriculum. The last year in which a schoolgirl could gain a School Certificate qualification in embroidery was 1963 – and it was certainly never foreseen that one day, schoolboys like Seb Clarke’s friend JB Bones would willingly be taking up needles and threads and embroidering elaborate battle scenes. Tea cosies and doilies may never be the same again.