CRAFT is as unlikely an area as you could possibly think of to be radically transformed by telecommunications.It’s very old-fashioned and it definitely doesn’t digitise. Stereotypes would have you believe that knitting, needlecraft, quilts and crochet are the domain of the infirm and the elderly, while the internet is the realm of geeks, sexting teens and floundering media moguls. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We hardly think of craft when thinking about e-commerce or the communications revolution. We blame the internet for everything from Susan Boyle and the “chk chk boom” chick through to cyber-bullying, the collapse of quality journalism and the end of Western civilisation as we know it. We rarely blame it for driving an entire generation of our best and brightest to needlework and applique.
Yet for reasons that are practical, cultural and economic, the convergence of fibre optics and fibre has changed the practice and status of craft. Craft is suddenly diverse and globalised, immediate and accessible, innovative and everywhere.
Craft had a bad rap with my generation. The crafts I encountered as a teenager were often terrifyingly bad, were found only at daggy fairs and fetes or came exclusively from hippies, retirees or seachangers in picturesque tourist towns. Craft seemed anachronistic, irrelevant and often indulgent. It may or may not have been aesthetically pleasing but it was rarely of practical value, it was difficult to find, and pretty much inappropriate for utilitarian use.
How quickly things change. The internet is to the craft fair what the iPhone is to the telegram. At any given time, it is a 24/7 market of handcrafted objects. The lovingly crafted doilies are still there, but they sit in online stores next to hand-embroidered laptop bags, cult creatures, offensive objects and intricate jewellery made from recycled junk.
Etsy alone has more than 250,000 tiny retailers selling exclusively handmade, bespoke and short-run objects. I’m definitely not the doily demographic but I’ve been a sucker for handmade notebooks, T-shirts and bags. For crafters, the global market has changed what is possible. If you’re designing personal and whimsical T-shirts, knitting, needlecraft, crochet, quilting or woodwork, finding people in your neighbourhood who appreciate it has always been difficult. The odds of finding enough people to sustain your hobby or grow into a business were infinitesimally small.
It is not just the access to markets that is transforming crafts. It is also the access to knowledge. It has become easier to find information than it has ever been. Grandma’s know-how or a collection of dusty old books have been superseded – or supplemented – by a wealth of online tutorials. There are tens of thousands of pages of “needlework tutorials” and hundreds of video tutorials. Everything from purchasing materials, to finding courses, to one-on-one forums offering advice and feedback are now at your fingertips.
For all the economic and technical changes, perhaps the biggest factor is a cultural one. The internet is creating a generation of creators whose expectations are different to those who grew up in the mass media era. When culture was exclusively and professionally produced for you, the idea that you would have a go at making anything was a big leap.
The internet is not a place to passively receive. Internet users create their own blogs, their own websites, upload their own music and videos. Embedded in their expectations is the idea that culture is something you create and not something you passively consume. It is as true of clothes and crafts as it is of web pages and music videos. Not so long ago, the thought that you would publish your own writing or curate your own images was unthinkable to most people.
Today, millions of people do it without thinking about it.
Whether it’s the recession, the threat of global warming, or simply a cyclical change, the return to craft is symptomatic of a return to creating. There is a growing desire towards the unique and the authentic and away from the commercial or the mass-produced. It may just be another one of those things for which we can blame the internet.
Originally published in The Age.
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