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Can crafting empower the developing world?

This is a post was originally posted on Make & Meaning on February 14, 2010 in its entirety, as the site said goodbye recently after opening up the floor of the craft and creative worlds to ask deeper questions about just what is it that we’re doing here? My fellow Make & Meaners were Pip Lincolne, Alice Merlino and Kim Werker with Diane Gilleland and Paul Overton at the helm. RIP, Make and Meaning, I’ll always love you!

As of tonight, I’ve been back a week from Guatemala. It’s funny how I was there only a few days, but have spent the past 7 mulling the disparities in our lives. The knowledge that I know they’re never going to be equal in my lifetime, no matter how hard I try to suss it out, cuts me to the core. And I have an idea. Maybe it will resonate with you, maybe not. I just wanted to air out the thought.

After writing about the altruistic applications that craft can have for years, it was eye-opening to be faced with a situation that we could really help change, if only a little. Right in the middle of everything, just past the field where the children play, smack dab between two houses, next to a pasture with a sad looking cow, with a path running down its right edge leading to more houses, was the village dump.

Literally smoldering in a heap of rotting food and crisp packets and carrier bags and other daily detritus, was exactly what we try so hard to ignore. What we hide from sight, our dirty little secret, a melange of foul odors and disintegration, what is taken from our houses and placed somewhere faraway and out of sight. And this is just trash of a small village, without the luxuries of microwave meals and individually packaged tea bags.

But in the DIY community that’s one thing we’re good at, right? Using our trash in creative ways? What have we learned from those crafty trials and late night genius ideas, are they just fodder for our personal blogs and craft forums? Is it proof positive that we are creative? Do we do it for ourselves, or for the possible recognition?

As I walked through the village, I asked one of our interpreters what the wisps of material I kept seeing tangled up in the power lines were. They were kites made by children. Constructed by crossing thin sticks together to make a hexagon frame with cut-up plastic bags laid taut on top, and tiny strips from bags fluttering as the tail. What else could they make from trash, perhaps something they could play with that couldn’t get loose and fly away only to be trapped out of arm’s reach?

I’m not writing this to be damning or critical of where you choose to show your creations, I’m just enlivened by what could be done. It’s a challenge, really. What toys, household devices, yard items, gardening tools could we, the DIY community, come up with? We’ve managed to decrease the size of our own household trash and recycling bins. Why are we doing it? To create? To reuse? To save the earth? What about saving people with these same ideas? Is that too much of a leap? Does it make things too real, too big?

I think the answer is no. I think we are ready to use our ideas to help others in developing countries. I think it might gives us the jumpstart we all need to truly challenge our creativity. We’ve shown our peers and parents and television audiences how to reuse and remake and how to be crafty, what about seeing what we can do with a slightly different demographic?

The main (and most toxic) thing that needs to be tackled are ways to reuse the plastic put in the dumps, mainly plastic carrier bags, snack packets and soda bottles. Burned in the dump, on the curb, in houses the plastic enters the lungs of children as they run around streets already filled with broken bottles and disease-ridden homeless dogs looking for shade and scraps.

Maybe it’s just me that’s near breathless with the possibilities that could be created for people who have next to nothing. Something solar? Something handy around the house? Something waterproof? I can still see and smell the stomach-wrenching blue fumes steadily drifting down the village street. And while I might want to look away and ignore it, it’s already singed me and got my brain on fire. What about you?

Here are some ideas that have been called attention to by some friends:
*Flip Flop (I Was)
*Pure Vida (Eco Block)
*Conserve India
*DIY Solar Solutions for Developing Countries
*15 Innovative Eco-Friendly DIY Projects
*Making a Soccerball from Plastic Bags
*Solar Powered Water Heater Made From Beer Bottles & Hosepipes

The last photo above is from my trip. The other photos are by Tommydavis209 and Islandgyrl, respectively. Many thanks to Kelly Rand for some of these awesome links!

[ETA: I wrote this last night, but I think I’ve been phrasing this all wrong. The reason why I’m so excited to uncover ideas that are made by the DIY community and see how they could be used in developing nations is not because I think we’re doing it wrong. Instead I see the power, the strength, the genius that we hold in our hands but don’t necessarily recognize. I don’t think we truly see how fascinating our creations are and how they could have broader applications. Sometimes our crafts get dismissed as hobbies or weird pastimes, and they are anything but. They are actions and thoughts and ideas that have true, real world power. We have gifts to share not only within, but beyond our own community, and are more powerful than we may realize. We are powerful, smart and important, moreso than we often give ourselves credit for. Don’t just celebrate craft, celebrate your own unique strength, ingenuity and vision- whether by yourself or with the rest of the world.]

Craft Hope… On US shelves now!

When I started so many years ago, I had no idea what I wanted it to be. In my wildest initial dreams, I would have loved for it to have been Craft Hope, that Jade Sims has so lovingly and amazingly created. A site that is a catalyst for mass action, but sometimes what we hope isn’t a) what we’re good at, b) what we’re meant to do, and c) where we’re needed.

Yesterday I received my copy of the new book, Craft Hope, on my doorstep, and it is so incredibly lovely and just, well, perfect! I am so honored to have been included as a designer in this book, along with some amazingly and incredibly talented people.** I whipped up some easy peasy fingerless gloves to donate for people who might want to do some mindless knitting for the greater good and just have a small bit of time and/or a small bit of wool.

Congratulations, Jade, on such a lovely book and for all the thousands of people you’ve aided along the way with donations from your Craft Hope projects! And thanks for filling the void that I thought I initially needed to fill, doing a mightier job than I ever could of done because it’s where you need to be.

Even though they don’t know who to thank, there are thousands of people out there with items obtained from Craft Hope projects (like the recent project collecting hand towels for the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies to help clean animals effected by the oil spill, over 65,000 items!) whose days you’re making brighter.

More info:
*Craft Hope over on Facebook
*Interview about the book with Jade over at Lark Crafts
*All month this month over at Craft Hope: Month of Hope! Giveaways! Links! More about my fellow designers!
*BOOK GIVEAWAY! I’ll have an extra copy of the book to give away, and am not sure what I’m going to do with it yet, as I’ve been working on other things than the blog the past few months… Give it away here? Donate it?

**Who are the other designers? They’re Stefani Austin, Ellie Beck, Amanda Carestio, Christina Carleton, Lisa Cox, Maya Donenfeld, Malka Dubrawsky, Molly Dunham, Celine Dupuy, Cathie Filian, Wendi Gratz, Jenny B. Harris, Vickie Howell, Rebecca Ittner, Rebeka Lambert, Kathy Mack, Kaari Meng, Manda McGrory, Jhoanna Monte, Aimee Ray, Eren Hays San Pedro, Amanda Blake Soule, Blair Stocker, Amanda Swan, Beth Sweet, Susan Wasinger, Dana Willard, Rebekah Williams and Geninne D. Zlatis!

As for what these designers made? That’s for you to discover in the book for yourself!

Craft in Prisons…

The above pillow is part of Fine Cell Work’s newer collection of pillows.

Currently Fine Cell Work is in need of volunteers in Yorkshire. If you know anyone in Yorkshire that might be interested, please pass this along or direct them to the Fine Cell Work website.


Fine Cell Work is very eager to hear from any keen stitchers who might be interested in chatting to us about the possibility of going in to HMP Wakefield in Yorkshire to teach our group of male stitchers there. The group is well established and is full of very able men but currently no teacher is visiting and they would really benefit from a weekly or fortnightly visit from anyone who is familiar with stitching, either tapestry or surface embroidery – or even better both!

We are looking for 2 to 3 volunteers to go into the prison together and would need people who could commit to at least a year on a weekly or fortnightly basis. This is a great opportunity for anyone who is a keen needleworker to help foster and encourage our stitchers in a prison where the group has been established for some time but is now needing more regular contact from a visiting tutor.

If you are interested in helping us at HMP Wakefield then please phone the office and chat to Kim Nightingale on 0207 931 8973 or email

And that’s only one example of programs that allow inmates to dually gain from the therapeutic process of craft and the practical product to sell. Here are just a few more examples:

A Stitch Doing Time
Our Children’s Place (NC)
Embroidery at Cuddalore Prison
No offense: Crochet Behind Bars
Hiland inmates restitch their lives
Shakopee Women’s Prison Project
Knitting Behind Bars (via Interweave)
Lithuanian prisoners knit for poor Afghans
Inmates learn social skills through knitting
Lebanese inmates stitch their way out of prison
From scraps of prison cloth a miniature world grows
Female convicts knitting winter clothes for Afghans
Stitching in Cells: Teaching prison inmates the art of quilt making
Lady Anne Tree: Meet the aristocrat who’s got the prisoners in stitches
Mosaic Liberation (post about Carrie Reichardt from Radical Cross Stitch)

And this is just the small list… Have any links for specific charities doing this sort of work? Send ’em on!

Knitters Without Borders

In response to my post last week about Haiti, lovely crafter and blogger Kristin from reminded me about Knitters Without Borders.

Knitters Without Borders was started by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (aka The Yarn Harlot) in response to the 2004 tsunami. For the Knitters Without Borders Challenge, she asked knitters to take note of how they were spending their money for one week. During this week, they were asked to put aside money that they would have spent on a “want,” instead of a “need.”

Small change, right? Well, think about how much money you spend on coffee, the newspaper, gum, a new sweater, all the little bits and bobs you purchase during the week that you really don’t need, but just happen to want… just because it’s there. Since 2004, Knitters Without Borders has collected over one million dollars of that supposed “small change,” with the money donated to Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders!!

Definitely something to think about when you’re too lazy to search for your favorite lip balm/pen/shampoo and just want to go to the corner store and buy a new one. I’d imagine that if you, too, took the Knitters Without Borders Challenge, you’d find yourself with more than just pocket change.

Thanks so much for reminding me of this, Kristin! (You can read her lovely post about KWB over here!)

Goodbye 2009, I Want A Goat (dot com)

Here we are at another closing of a decade. Thankfully, unlike last decade, we aren’t worrying about technology crumbling or the world ending. Regrettably, however, there are more of us living with our countries in wars and recessions and other problems than in 1999, making us wish Y2K was our biggest problem.

And here at the end of 2009, even though I don’t know half the songs involved, I’m loving the message from this mashup of Top 25 Billboard Hits from DJ Earworm, United State of Pop 2009 (Blame It on the Pop). A song I discovered thanks to a Tweet from @jackgraycnn, reminding us to ultimately “Don’t worry/ Just get back up/ When you’re tumbling down,” something I’d like to think as more of a gentle pop culture directive than merely wishful thinking.

And speaking of Twitter, it seems to have been the buzzword for 2009. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to cast the gruff and tumble year of 2009 good riddance, with its long job searches, skimpy bank accounts, tears of frustration, quickly escalating death tolls, heartbreaks, warring politicians and never-ending worried nights about bills and bills and bills. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to dance.

And ready to welcome a more altruistic buzzword onto our cultural radars in 2010. A buzzword that speaks of love and hope and hugs and helping hands instead of short-and-sweet technological blips of our daily musings. Need a starting place to get ready for that new word? Or a way to jump-start that new feeling? Check out the video below* (be careful, though, as there is some “bad language”) for the awesome project I Want a Goat.

And remember that the $20 it costs you to buy a goat for a needy family in eastern India will go a hell of a lot farther than the $20 it costs you to buy imported organic pomegranate juice. And that doing good means looking a lot further than the nearest mirror.

Asking yourself, “Why goats?” Look no further than the I Want A Goat website:
For tribal people who are landless, raising goats is a great alternative source of income. Families who breed goats can earn a good profit selling the kids in the local market. The extra income, usually from being paid to read email or other data entry tasks, provides a safety net for families that can be used for things like medicine, food during lean periods and farm equipment.

Whatever situation you might find yourself in this December 31, 2009, you could do worse than throwing up your hands in a tiny wee celebration, dancing to much needed goodbyes and fully embracing the new decade just waiting for us to greet it.
*This project was brought to my attention by the always illuminating Elephant Journal. It’s based on a Saturday Night Live skit called “I’m On A Boat,” which is linked and further explained here.

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