Craft? I nearly died…

Striped pajama squid earrings and a blue-ringed octopus pendant. Made for a marine biologist, natch.

Crafting is my favourite thing. I’ll try anything, from Fimo to glassmaking, basket weaving to soap-making – I love it all, except scrapbooking which is a waste of money and time and shouldn’t be allowed. The wonderful thing is that although the craft scene here is relatively limited (our best craft supplier is Hobbycraft, a place utterly devoid of creative energy or even a single wisp of human cheer) the Americans are ON IT and write thousands of blogs, tutorials and articles every single day on making your own stuff. Hell, they even started Etsy, which if you manage to sift through all the stuff that’s being resold from wholesale under the guise of handmade produce still provides people like me to actually send a bit of what they make out into the wider world. Things like a moose antlers hat for a newborn baby should – nay, must – be made publicly available, let’s face it. And with Craftzine, and Craftgossip, and Craftgawker, and the dozens of craft resources available online, it looks like this fad is a fad no more; we’re taking over the world and covering it it crochet as we go.

But even though I used to avidly devour these blogs every day, soaking up the ideas like a thirsty Spongebob, these days they tend to fill me with nothing but ennui and a horrible foreboding sense that we’ve already ruined it for ourselves. People making stuff has the potential to be world-changing, the idea that if you need anything, want anything or want to improve anything you already have you can make it happen yourself with glue and some accoutrements of some description. Just think what it could mean for the hideous consumption-disposal society we’re in at the moment; think how it could change the way things are valued, and the way we treat the things we already own. People making stuff has the potential to shape style to be the way we want it for once, as opposed to us being told by a committee of thin and unsympathetic designer-types that this Summer is marine and pastels AND NOTHING ELSE IS ALLOWED. If everyone could sew, perhaps people might even – finally, after all these eras of struggle – get hold of a pair of trousers that actually fits! 

This is the potential of the Craft Movement. And yet, somehow, it has taken a much more annoying turn.

You see, the worst thing about being a crafter (a term, by the way, which I resent; I would much prefer to be called something a little less evocative of Pritt sticks) is that it verges, always and dangerously, on becoming pointless whimsy. People think crafts and they think of women knitting while the heady scent of oestrogen fills the chintz-filled room. And while a good deal of us hate this and want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the idea, the online craft world seems to insist nowadays on encouraging us, rather than making useful and genuinely exciting and creative things, to simply fill our lives and our homes with cluttery, girlish, unnecessary tat.

For starters, crafting nowadays seems even to comprise anything that you have not immediately taken out of a packet, which means that a good deal of the ‘tutorials’ are so obvious as to be vaguely laughable. Look at this:

 It’s a cutout of a moustache on a stick. The tutorial has four steps and multiple instructive pictures. I would need fewer instructions to grow a real moustache from scratch. Come on. Not to mention that the whole thing ends with the valuable advice to put them all in a mason jar. 

Now, don’t get me started on mason jars. Except I believe I shall indulge. For those of you not acquainted with the lingo, a mason jar is one of those jam jars that looks vaguely old-fashioned and has a loose metal disc in the top of the lid rather than a fully closed lid to get a better vacuum seal on your jam (because the air shrinks as the jam cools and ah you don’t care). For some reason they have suddenly become the life and soul of crafting and now it also counts as art if you do anything – really, anything – with a mason jar. People spraypaint them for ‘a beautiful and cheap vase’, make them into wedding decorations, bake cakes in them, make candle-holders out of them, tie a ribbon around them as if that required even a bare iota of effort, and the thing that really grinds about the whole thing isn’t just the obvious fact that they are just glass jars, not the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but mainly that thousands of people are going out, buying and glooping up millions of brand new glass jars when perfectly serviceable old jam jars are probably lying in their bin – but they aren’t mason jars, so they aren’t cool.

Next, this: utterly unnecessary items, for which there is a very good reason they are not available in shops. There are, for example, very few items in the world which need a cozy. Teapots, mugs, hands and feet. Not lens caps

Thank god, now my apple won’t get…warm? Cold?

And candle cozies are the worst of all – candles produce their own heat so why they should require any kind of cozy or mini sleeping bag of any kind is utterly incomprehensible. And there is just so much of it all: not just cozies but wreaths, terrariums, centrepieces, placeholders, napkin rings, cake stands, and a million other twee pieces of clutter are what we supposedly dying to make and what we supposedly all desperately need in our lives. There are two problems with this: not only is this production dreadfully wasteful – all those beautiful brand new resources going to make things that really only can be thrown away in the end because you can’t recycle a mason jar once it’s covered in rhinestones – but also, it is hurting the reputation of crafters. Kindles, cameras, iPods have cases, not cozies, and it is this babyish terminology that make us all seem like flustery little women blithely passing time. 

The waste is a real issue, too. I don’t think it is fair to claim you are ‘upcycling’ a huge pack of plastic cups into a lampshade if those cups could also have been used for the reason they were siphoned out of the earth as oil, refined, distilled, mixed, moulded, packaged and sold. As cups. For drinking. And you have to be careful about what you’re upcycling too, because if you’re about to take a mallet to your old laptop thinking that the circuitboards will make a groovy necklace there’s a considerable chance someone else could actually fix up the laptop and use it for another five years, thus making use of a lot of very useful metals and other things which I imagine live inside a laptop (well, internet juice of course, and flanges). I don’t think we should sacrifice fun for the sake of a few scraps of wool, of course – but I do think that recycling is at its best when you are making something great out of something otherwise unusable, like a phone case made out of an old lotion tube. Isn’t it awesome?!
 

The message should be bolder, more confident, more anarchistic! We should be showing people that not only can you make a moustache on a stick, but that with a few more minutes of effort you can actually make your own clothes, pottery and cosmetics! We need more of Instructables in the mix and less of Women’s Own! We need to repossess crafting, and this time do it properly and move beyond the miniature versions of cupcakes or knitted keyboard covers. Blokes need to feel that they can make their own stuff without getting stigmatised by the gushing flood of X-chromosomes these images are sending forth. The other stuff is all great fun and excellently creative (do you think I didn’t notice that the apple cozy is a monkey? Outstanding.) but I reckon that we can’t be taken seriously until we get outselves out of the ‘nifty gifty’ zone and into the ‘Noble Handworkers of the Modern Age’ zone. Once people assume we’re all making our own paper, socks or mugs, then we can get to work on making cozies for them.

The cool kids are raving, but I’d rather be engraving…

“Hey mum, did you bring anything cool back when you finished your year in Berlin, like a piece of the wall or something?” “No dear, but I do have this rather eclectic selection of lampwork beads.”

Forgive the poor lighting in this picture, but I just had to show you the fruit of my weekend’s labours. For those of you who don’t know me too well, I’m a bit obsessed with crafting, and in particular I have a lot to do with making jewellery in various media. But making my own beads directly out of glass is something I have always wanted to try and never been able to have a go at, so when I found a course at a Volkshochschule (adult evening school) in making glass beads like the Vikings, I couldn’t whip the 20 euros out of my pocket fast enough. For 7 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday, I and a collection of overweight middle-aged women sat patiently at flames, melting rods of glass over lengths of wire with our fantastically intelligent Phd-qualified teacher, who had her doctorate in archaeology and had since then become fascinated by the glass-bead-making techniques of early civilisations like the Vikings, Celts and men of the Middle Ages. It is one of the best weekends I have had so far here in the city; the techniques involved are mesmerising, and winding glowing translucent globules of glass around each other and pulling them into long spiralling threads is tirelessly beautiful to watch and do. The only way I could have been happier is if I could have ignored the nagging sinking feeling that in some way I am wasting my youth. Thus is the curse of Blue Peter.The point is, though, that the Volkshochschule in Germany and in Berlin especially is utterly wonderful and I urge all world leaders who are reading this (Condoleeza, you know you ma dawg) to come over, have a gander and then try their best to replicate it. Germany makes a big deal of learning for the whole duration of your life. No matter what you are interested in or what you choose to learn, it is simply important that people are given the chance to try out and educate themselves about new things without having to sell a kidney for it or jump through thousands of academic hoops; when I first started learning silversmithing in the UK, I had to write a compulsory portfolio about all my work, all the techniques I learnt and developed and all the health and safety fandangos that I was forced to pretend to adhere to. No-one on earth wants to do that for nothing, of course, and so what resulted was a lacklustre selection of doodles of my projects accompanied by write-ups using a formula I adapted from GCSE chemistry experiment write-ups and, my favourite part, a section in the back about techniques where I had simply sellotaped (or I think a few bits were simply stuck on by coffee stains) chunks of textured and worked metal directly onto the tissue-thin printer paper I was using for this monument to laziness. I received a merit.


In Germany, if it’s a thing, there is a no-strings course you can do in it. There are courses which are simply accompanied walks around certain districts which stop by certain interesting things; courses where you can make sushi; courses where you go to the theatre, although I’m not sure how that differs to, oh, say, just going to the darn theatre; courses where you can make animals out of felt, hats out of leather, trousers from your own patterns…the selection is exemplary and it feels wonderful to be in a land where every curious whim can be indulged and then broadened into a full-on obsession for a matter of a few euros or so. Some of the women on this course (sadly certain courses do have a certain gender bias) had been to four or more of exactly the same course just because they like the teacher and the particular format. One woman, who kindly spent all the time she wasn’t making her perfect beads glaring over her flame at me and snapping that I was DOING IT WRONG, had even bought herself all the equipment and extra materials to use in the course. Admittedly, it escapes me why she continued to attend the weekends rather than simply using all the workshop equipment she had bought to actually do the hobby she did in the comfort of her own home, but then again I suspect she may have been lonely; she was binge-eating Russisches Brot, an odd kind of thin gingerbread biscuit which inexplicably always comes in the shape of letters, for the entire length of each class – if that’s not a warning sign I don’t know what is.


Anyway, I absolutely lapped it up and would like to give a virtual standing ovation to Germany and Berlin for understanding that it’s great to have something to learn and practice no matter what else you do with your life. I would also like to reassure people that the standard roles within the classroom are in no way made obsolete once people reach adulthood. Our teacher’s pet was, naturally, Miss Russisches Brot. The troublemaker was the woman sitting next to me (who also had a continuous stream of treats, peanut M&Ms, flowing into her mouth as if on a conveyor belt) who, once she realised she did not have the knack for glasswork, declared loudly that the problem was that Viking beads were simply ugly and that’s that. The quiet unassuming one sat adoringly next to Shrewface (teacher’s pet) and spent the whole time making fistfuls of identical monochromatic purple beads and whispering how much she loved purple. I wonder who I was. Probably the class slut.


Am starting a course in silversmithing tomorrow. Stay tuned.