NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Two young women–strangers–sit across from one another on the subway knitting brightly, multi-colored scarves on the F train heading into Brooklyn.
They give one another knowing smiles and one removes her earphones. "So where do you get your yarn?"
Knitting, crochet, quilting, weaving, silk screening, sewing, book making, scrapbook making and amateur interior design have hit the big time among many young women.
According to the Crafts Report, a trade magazine based in Iola, Wis., almost half of crafters in the $13 billion-a-year industry are under 45 years of age and two-thirds are women.
Boutiques selling handcrafts, craft fairs and Web sites such as GetCrafty, KnitHappens, Craftster, ChurchofCraft and Knitty are measures of a boom.
What’s going on?
Homemade wares were once the key to survival, but as industrialization replaced locally produced goods, they became basement hobbies by the 1950s, largely sequestered off in a cultural corner.
But in an era of rising anxiety about the effects of globalization–on everything from the economy to social cohesion to the biosphere–many young women in their teens, 20s and 30s are joining a push to make things local and more personally connected. And for many of them knitting and stitching is the way in.
"There’s something undeniably empowering about saying, ‘I made that,’ whether the finished product is a crocheted tea cozy, a water bottle chandelier or a rig to connect your iPod and a car stereo," says Julia Cosgrove, managing editor of ReadyMade, a Berkeley, Calif., magazine chock full of craft project ideas. "The DIY movement offers its members the utmost independence, so it’s no surprise that feminists, who had long fought for independence and equality, should find a home within its confines."
Restoring a Connection
As postings on message boards on sites like Craftivism show, DIY, as the do-it-yourself movement is known, is not about learning how to hang your own wallpaper. It’s about taking charge of your own life, removing it from the sphere of commercial transaction and restoring a connection to women’s historic work and the traditional joys of domestic arts.
"I get kind of hurt in a special place in my heart when I hear ‘This ain’t your grandma’s crochet’ or ‘Your mama never made anything like this,’" a Portland, Ore., nurse posted on the Craftser site. "It’s a major diss on matriarchy that’s rather uncomfortable . . . Here’s a big ups to all the moms who brought us to where we are, and here’s to us who bring into the material world our own versions of things past."
"Every time I meet other women in a knitting circle, I am recreating the quilting bees of over a century ago. I am facilitating growth in my community," Betsy Greer, founder of Craftivism, a site that links crafting with activism, wrote in her master’s dissertation on knitting. "I am re-establishing a connection via my own channels, reclaiming something that was lost in the postmodern quest for more, more, more."
From Survival to Pastime
DIY has philosophical roots in the 1970s "back to the land" push by young people against a rising tide of materialism and an effort to reclaim the skills and means to make their own food, clothes and homes. "The Whole Earth Catalog"–first published in 1968 and recently called "Google in paperback form" by Apple CEO Steve Jobs–was their bible.
Today’s DIY movement–with movable boundary lines that can be extended to include anti-globalization activists and self-described feminist knitters–has morphed the philosophy to fit a 21st century world where corporate monopolies, globalization and intensive advertising have alienated the average consumer from production more dramatically than ever.
That alienation comes to an end, female crafters and their clients argue, when commerce is reclaimed as a face-to-face, hand-made affair.
Economically and philosophically, many young women who align themselves with the DIY sensibility also say it distances them from big corporations that don’t pay living wages or provide health care for workers, oftentimes women from the developing world.
Supporting the Feminist Community
"My friends who go out of their way to make their own stuff or purchase from within the DIY community often talk about wanting to support women-owned small businesses," says Lisa Jervis, founding editor of Bitch magazine, based in Oakland, Calif. "It is a desire, not only to protect the environment and reject corporate capitalism, but to spend money in a community that is explicitly feminist."
But as the DIY movement becomes trendier, it has also begun to play the cat-and-mouse game with imitative mass consumerism.
Sew-your-own accessory kits are now sold with the popular Bratz doll series. Minneapolis-based Target, the sixth largest U.S. retailer, offers products like Granny Squares, a kit that comes with crochet hook, plastic needle and 300 yards of yarn in six colors.
This is partly why Jen Angel, co-creator of the now defunct Clamor magazine, which published from 1999 to 2006 and called itself "your DIY guide to everyday revolution," is weary of associating DIY culture explicitly with products.
"To me, DIY doesn’t have anything to do with crafting; it has to do with personal empowerment," she says. "It’s about knowing that if there is something that you want to do, you can go out and gain the knowledge and do it yourself, instead of waiting for someone else (a man, your family, the government) to do it for you."
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker living in Brooklyn. "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," her first book, which will be published on Simon and Schuster’s Free Press in spring of 2007. You can read more about Courtney’s work at http://www.courtneyemartin.com/.
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