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The New Knitting: This Is Not Your Grandma's Arts & Crafts

To casual observers it may look like adults making toys and keeping them, but embroidery hoops and homemade clothes are officially cool.
 
 
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You don't have to handcraft your next checkbook cover out of an old plastic tennis racket sheath that you plucked from a neighbor's garbage bin, cut up and sewed. You don't have to adorn your bathroom curtain with repetitive designs (sea horses, say, or tugboats) using a chiseled half-potato and colorfast fabric paint. You could use the free checkbook cover the bank gave you and buy ready-made curtains. Nor must you snip the sleeves off that knitted top and replace them -- get out the matching thread --with floaty scarves. But hey.

The DIY movement wants you to make stuff. The DIY movement is huge, and sometimes it's charming and sometimes it's annoying and it is an anti-mass-production insurrection, a cuddly-soft revolt whose arsenal is crochet hooks, needles and glue guns. It is active in an all-too-passive age. It is a revolution against dehumanization in a programmed, processed world, and Doing It Yourself declares the self. It is an anti-retail uprising whose strategy is Make, don't buy -- at least not new, never full-price. It is one more way to recycle, restore, rescue and renew -- and every stenciled paper bag transformed into gift wrap, every lipstick tube transformed into a tampon case, cleans up the Earth while telling major industries: Fuck you .

A flood of books, many of them spawned by blogs, takes up that chorus. In Anticraft: Knitting, Beading and Stitching for the Slightly Sinister (North Light, 2007), Rene Rigdon and Zabet Stewart declare themselves "sick of homogenized culture, and these realizations have left holes in our hearts. We create to fill those holes, to be able to sleep at night knowing we've done something, even a small something, to confront the manufactured culture that is currently being churned out." In Lotta Prints: How to Print with Anything, from Potatoes to Linoleum (Chronicle, 2008), Lotta Jansdotter suggests chiseled turnips and carrots as well. In Creepy Cute Crochet (Quirk, 2008), Christen Haden promises: "You can teach yourself to crochet, often in as little as one day (it's true!)." In Alternation (North Light, 2007), Shannon Okey and Alexandra Underhill hail "enviro-chic." In Subversive Seamster (Taunton, 2007), Melissa Rannels and Hope Meng declare: "We derive the most fashionable satisfaction from knowing that we are reusing and recycling what already exists in this material world -- and looking damn good doing it!"

You already know this, or you will: Crafting is back.

Not as it was when pioneers made dolls from clothespins -- when your average person even knew what clothespins were. But that's the point. This is not crafting by necessity. This is not crafting to kill time. This is crafting to claim identity, to save the world from soulless junk. To casual observers it looks like adults making toys and keeping them. But this is a resurgence with a vengeance.

By the start of this decade, the counterculture had reached a near-endgame. Just about every aesthetic and activity that could have been informed by punk already was. We might not have been aware of this as such, and still we might not credit it, but punk spawned so much of the angryuglybeautiful, the violent getpisseddestroy that we take for granted now. And DIY: Punk was DIY music, after all. Played in DIY costumes at DIY venues, with DIY announcements taped to poles. But by this decade, punk was one-plus generation back. What hadn't yet been long-since punkified? What had stayed so uncool so long as to still be untouched?

Did someone say "embroidery hoop"?

I craft too. Check out these bottle-cap-framed miniature colored-pencil portraits, this coquillage matchbox.

These new crafting books -- and dozens more, such as Khris Cochran's The DIY Bride and Kristen Rask's Plush You -- turn the toothpick-whittling our ancestors did beside the bonfire into something now performed in dorm rooms under Che posters. And just as postmodern crafters refashion polyester golf trousers into floofy plaid faux-feather boas, they are also deeply invested in refashioning the public image of crafting itself. It is imperative that they distance themselves from past crafters, who were not cool: from the toothpick-whittlers and the summer-camp lanyard-plaiters to the late-20th-century toilet-roll-cover knitters and tie-dyers. This is not your grandmother's crafting , they say -- literally. The Anticraft authors proclaim craft "de-grannified." Plush You! scorns a "stinky, grumpy old grandfather." Subversive Seamster 's authors urge readers to raid "grandma's wardrobe" and make sexy corsets out of "old man pants." It's as if they feel compelled to keep reminding us that they're young.

Well, every youth revolution must present itself as radical and new -- even if, as in this case, the tools and fruits of that revolt are age-old and one of its driving forces is nostalgia: for remembered "Star Wars"-era childhoods and for eras that ended long before these crafters were born, lost tiki-torch-lit cocktail party years adrift in sock-monkeys and napkin rings. They call it kitsch. They make what their ancestors made, but now it's funny, angry, sexual, political. Among its rabbits and robots and puppies, Plush You! spotlights stuffed felt donuts: frosted, with bugle-bead sprinkles. AlterNation shows you how to transform pillowcases and button-down blouses into saucy corsets. Anticraft has corsets and a crocheted cat-o'-nine-tails. Subversive Seamster , too, has corsets and the "Peek-a-Bootylicious Skirt."

Subversive. Sinister. "Scream yourself hoarse," the Anticraft authors propose. "We're all outcasts and refugees from the mainstream here. We want you to help us carry this along, which makes it political -- a stand against the current trends in society to sanitize grief, drug sadness, hide obscenities, stigmatize sex." Thenceforth come instructions on making scarves, stockings, purses, earrings, stuffed felt Easter eggs, a soft woolen hat. The hat is "an antidote to the bright colors this season forces upon (us)." The eggs are appliqued with decapitated rabbits: "Sew on bloody hole at the top left of the bunny body using red floss. Sew on the bone so it appears to be sticking out of the bloody hole. Embroider blood drips and arterial spray using red floss."

One of the revolving mottoes at the seminal site Craftster.org is "No tea cozies without irony."

At its most basic, we're talking popsicle sticks and Elmer's glue. At the far end of the spectrum, it's soldering irons and pearls. In between lies this vast realm of clever, creative, not bone-simple but still basically doable-without-a-design-degree projects, your rubber-stamped note cards and drawstring tote bag. That's what insiders, aka craftsters, like to call them: projects, lending all this snipping of felt and sewing-on of sequins a semiacademic, art-grant, observerish tone.

That tone is crucial, because the craftster scene is one to watch. Like earlier eras' garage-band and punk and 'zine scenes, this is one of those rare, actually of-the-people crusades that start from the bottom up: a few plebeian pals horsing around in a basement and somehow, somehow, whatever they come up with catches on. That this can still happen in a processed world should give us hope. In 2003, Boston-area computer programmer Leah Kramer started Craftster.org based on a lifelong hobby that she hadn't realized many others shared until she started posting project ideas and pictures online. Almost entirely by word of mouth, the site quickly expanded to more than 100,000 members. Thousands more join every month. Other sites pepper the Internet, long-tailing the crafting subculture into subsubcultures: the neo-knitters, the book-cover refigurers, the sewing-machinists. And yes, this anti-industry intifada is now itself an industry, with its own superstores, TV shows, ad-laden Web sites, celebrities and books, because after all this is America. Still craftsterism is, at heart, all heart. It has to be. Originality is non-negotiable when anything is made by hand. In a consumer culture where even the so-called customized is mass-produced -- think ring tones, think M&Ms printed with your favorite photograph -- this is the revolutionary part. Human one-of-a-kindness.

Even the same "project," completed by different crafters, yields different results. Because each finished product is so intrinsically personal, each stitch and each silver spray-painted pea a wee receptacle of memory (I did this part while listening to Tisto, right before the rainstorm, talking on the phone to Dad), and because the movement's ethos is so intrinsically populist, craftsterism (as punk and 'zines once were) is a social barometer. At craftsteramas like Boston's Bizarre Bazaar and San Francisco's new Renegade Craft Fair, whose premiere event drew bustling crowds this summer, the "projects" on show and on sale expose the hopes and dreams of an ever-increasing faction of the young and hip: their obsessions and their preoccupations. Their themes become memes. Making crafts takes precious time. What icons, which motifs, which messages are, to their makers, worth it?

Well.

Visions of childhood. Again and again, the kittens and the monkeys. And the big round staring eyes -- made of felt, buttons, French knots, beads, polymer clay, classic cheap plastic shake-'ems, set wide apart for maximum wistfulness and affixed even to renditions of non-living things: to stuffed popsicles and rocks and fruit, staring, usually smiling. Why? These are eminently fearsome, fearful times. Most modern craftsters belong to post-Roe v. Wade generations often criticized (and envied) as the most wanted, most spoiled, most infantile and most narcissistic in history. It's no surprise that so many solace themselves by spending days and nights with cuddly toys. The past, your own or some putative past that came before, is a known territory. How tempting to retreat into a time before anyone ever heard of global warming, a time without war (or with wars which, being so long ago, seem sanitized and not quite real).

"This is stuff to remind you of childhood, to comfort you in your darkened apartment," we read in Plush You! Its repertoire of staring-smiling felt fried eggs and staring-smiling stuffed fleece ice cream sandwiches and staring-smiling candy corn and staring-smiling trees and staring-smiling cookies and a staring-smiling Brussels sprout, all made by different craftsters, "represents real-world things but in a surreal, softly perfect way."

Visions of hell. Creepy Cute Crochet 's title says it all. Instructions that your grandmother might actually recognize -- "Row 4: Ch 1, sc 1 in same, sc 2 [inc, sc1] 5 times, sl st to close round (23)" -- lead to utterly adorable, round-bottomed Satans, Grim Reapers, and the like, to be stuffed with polyfill or poly-pellets. Amid its irresistible owlets and donuts, Plush You! includes zombie sock monkeys with loosely stitched gaping wounds, eyes dangling out on blood-red yarn, amputated legs ending in bloody stumps. Another stuffed toy in this book is a "poor little bunny whose throat has been cut." After drawing the slash with thick red craft paint, we read, add realistic droplets. One section on a nearby page shows how to craft vomit. Apply thick paint to make it "look as if gravity is at work and the fluids are pooling."

It's a 21st century merging of comfort and fear, childhood and death, escapism and protest. "We're all about the cute and pretty," announces Plush You! -- and yes. We have reached a point in history at which a certain sector of the populace finds puke pretty and cute.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including " Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto ."

 
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