In her 2006 book Thrift to Fantasy: Home textile crafts of the 1930s-1950s, Rosemary McLeod traces the history of home-based handwork in New Zealand. With beautifully detailed photography, she shows examples of women taking pride and displaying their creativity with scraps of fabric and thread, making beautiful aprons and oven clothes from hessian (usually washed sacking), embroidering traycloths and dressing table sets with images from Europe and Mexico (but hardly ever from Aoteoroa), and knitting and crocheting incredibly detailed colourwork from leftovers.
Since the 1950s the widespread knowledge that enabled women to create these objects, and to appreciate the skill that went into their making, has shrunk to a specialist knowledge held by only a few people. Handwork, at least in Western countries, has been generally considered ‘daggy’, old-fashioned, unnecessary in an age when cheap clothing and household goods (when did ‘homewares’ appear?) are in shopping centres within everyone’s reach. In the 1950s I remember my mother ‘turning the sheets’ – cutting up the centre where the sheet had worn thin, sewing the edges together and re-hemming the old centres (now the new edges). This created a hard line up the middle of the sheet, which wasn’t made of soft linen to start with, in my memory, but was stiff as canvas – but it greatly increased the length of time it could be used on a bed. When the turned sheet finally wore out again it would be cut up for rags, strips for tying up garden plants, larger ones for wiping up paint and oil, and linings for cushions, pillows and other places where it wouldn’t be seen.
I’m certainly not advocating a return to this life, in which work (women’s work, anyway) was largely marked by thrift, drudgery and an obsession with re-use. It was dreary – no wonder so many women spent any spare time they had bringing the touches of colour that McLeod describes into their lives. But our lives now are so colourful and filled with easily obtained tastes, sounds, smells and sights that it can be hard to remember the simpler pleasures of making things yourself.
There is, it is said, a boom in homemaking of many kinds. It is acceptable to cook interesting food at home – compulsory if you want to avoid having obese children. Slightly more odd, perhaps, to sew your own or your family’s clothes. But there are now businesses advertising sewing classes in the suburbs of many major cities in Australia and probably other places (try googling ‘sewing classes’ and the name of your city), and sewing machines (now renamed ‘sewing computers’) are becoming more popular consumer items.
Along with the revival of interest in sewing is a greatly renewed interest in knitting and crochet, and the products that you need to undertake this once-private home craft have become the stuff of international business. Women at home with babies pick up an old slowcooker, a second-hand ball winder and some packets of dye and order hanks of undyed yarn on the internet, often from India, China or South America, and set themselves up as a hand-dying business. More serious players, like The Wollmeise or Lisa Souza, have set themselves up for the longer haul in a serious way. It’s not clear when an ‘indie’ dyer becomes mainstream, but there is a lot of money to be made if you have the skill. The key to their ability to make money is that the internet is their shop – their marketplace is theoretically unlimited. Some have their own website; some set up a shop at etsy.com. and, if they have any nous at all they become shopkeepers at Ravelry.
Ravelry is a free international site for knitters and crocheters, spinners and handweavers. It is approaching one million members, about half of whom are in the US where it is based, with tens of thousands each in Canada, the UK, Australasia, Germany and Scandanavia, and smaller numbers in just about every other nation on the globe. It is a social networking site, with forums and friending, personal pages with your projects displayed and the facility to ‘favourite’ projects and leave public or private comments on other people’s work. But much more than that: it has a huge database backend, with user-generated listings of patterns, yarns, and the ability to see how patterns look when knitted up (many thousands of times, in some cases), or what yarns people have successfully substituted, or how a particular yarn behaves when knitted in a certain way. But underpinning Ravelry is the fact that it is a business: membership is free, but there are unobtrusive ads on all the forum pages – cheap (a few US$ a month) for retailers and targetted at the forum. So Australian designers can advertise in the Australian forums, queer dyers can advertise in the queer forums, retailers specialising in soft yarns and baby patterns can advertise in mother’s groups and so on. The site’s owners, Jess (a knitter) and Casey (a programmer), based in Boston, have built up the business in five years from a part-time job for Jess to a full-time job for both of them plus two part-time workers, who live in other US cities. At the Ravelry shop you can buy patterns (pdf download for a few dollars), hand-dyed yarn (thousands of retailers worldwide of varying skills to choose from) and knickknacks like stitch markers and hand-crafted needles. Almost all of these are only available online, and the transaction are of course painless through Paypal. The celebrity culture on the Knitternet is serious: The Yarn Harlot is a Canadian blogger and writer, who has raised over $1,012,500Cdn for MSF through her Charity Knitters Without Borders, has seven books in publication. If she is going to mention an indie-dyed yarn she now needs to warn the retailer in advance so they will not be over-run by orders, the dangers of which are discussed below.
So that’s a few crafty ways to make money: dye yarn, write patterns, make little things, write witty books about knitting culture, or run a business that brings the makers together with the buyers. And you can make good money: when several designers donated 10% of their sales to Haiti earlier this year, thousands of US$ were raised. Through Ravelry you can also support your business by running a group for your customers, where they hear about new releases, share ideas and pictures of their projects made with your yarn and/or pattern, or you can ramp up the excitement if you’re running a knitting event – these are becoming very popular and people travel from Australia to the US or even the UK to attend Knitting Camps and Sock Summits. These offer a range of classes in techniques from well-known designers and teachers (celebrity fibre culture is very real), a marketplace with handspun, handdyed yarns and patterns, and a chance to be with several hundred – perhaps over a thousand – others, mostly women, who share your interest. (Men who are successful in the fibre world are still rare enough to be accorded the status of gods, sadly.)
But this is the internet, where things are not always exactly how they seem. Celebrity culture, relative anonymity and distance combine to make the possibility of fraud very real. There was the woman who took yarn orders she couldn’t fill a few years ago, became ill, then suddenly died – except that she was seen a week later in a local shopping mall. There were the cousins who advertised a knitting event in the North-Eastern US that people booked for from all over the US, paid deposits, bought air tickets, booked accommodation. Then a car crash involving family members caused them to cancel the event – but there was no money for refunds. There was the woman, one half of an extremely popular knitting podcast, whose husband left her for another woman and cleaned out her bank account. An on-air appeal brought in money, but her husband returned, chastened, was taken back, and in celebration they bought a new bedroom suite. And quite recently a woman in the UK organised a knitting event in Stirling that headlined many of the top US designers and teachers/tutors. Except she had not quite got the immigration status of the US teachers/tutors sorted, and the first ones to arrive were refused entry. Although the few hundred people who attended felt they’d got their money’s worth, the event unravelled from there, and none of the teachers/tutors, many of whom are very small business operators, have received the full remuneration they were contracted for; some are out of pocket for their airfares (and the extra expense incurred by having to fly to Dublin while the immigration mess was sorted). Now the company at the centre of the mess has been liquidated and there is probably no money. The complications caused by most of the creditors being outside the UK and the relatively small amounts of money involved are hideous. The downside of all this, of course, is that people are much quicker to voice concern, and have the channel (through Ravelry groups) to do so. Legitimate retailers who have a sudden crisis (for example, if the Yarn Harlot’s recommendation causes a run on their product and their yarn suppliers can’t respond quickly) are in danger of being accused of fraud, and people are less likely to plan attendance at large events.
But somehow the image of women crafting, gently making something out of almost nothing, seems to persist in the face of evidence that craft on the internet is a very big business, with the usual downsides of business at a distance. All over the world, people log on the German yarn shop The Wollmeise on a Friday night Sydney time, when she does her site updates, stalking her rare colourways – and there are many people around the world who have more of her yarn stashed away than they will ever be able to knit in their lifetime. (There is a joke that some people collect yarn, and some people knit.) Ysolda Teague, a young Scottish woman, adds a new pattern to her site, and thousands of people download it through Ravelry at $6US within a few days. People from Australia and the UK fly to Portland, OR for the Sock Summit. It’s a long way from aprons made from washed coal sacks and turning sheets: craft has moved from thrift through a fantasy of glamour to a fantasy of international business success, fuelled by internet shopping, and the access to global markets, the ability to transfer money by clicking a button, the knowledge that a few people are making a lot of money, but above all by the fantasy that, by making beautiful things we will somehow become more beautiful ourselves.