Yes, Craft Can Save the World. Slowly. (Or, 7 Times Emily Matchar Was Wrong. And 2 Times She Was Right.)

woman knitting loc 1941 copy

So Emily Matchar’s article in the New York Times, Sorry, Etsy. That Handmade Scarf Won’t Save the World., last week was, in a word, flawed. It came up on my radar 3x in 1 week, actually, from radically different individuals.

Here’s the thing, though, she has valid points. Here’s the other thing, I think they’re the wrong points.

1. “Once a mark of poverty, handmade is hot these days.”

Um, really? For everyone? First of all, when making things by hand started, it was necessity, not poverty, that made it a reality. Secondly, this is not an objective truth. It’s a subjective statement, meaning, “in my world, [handmade was] once a mark of poverty.” Thirdly, this statement sucks all the joy out of making, suggesting that craft is solely about making ends meet post-Industrial Revolution, not about actually enjoying said act of craft. This is not a hot note to start on, but I digress.

2. “Our hunger for handmade has gone beyond aesthetics, uniqueness and quality. In progressive circles, buying handmade has come to connote moral virtue, signifying an interest in sustainability and a commitment to social justice.”

Nope nopity nope nope. Just because I care about sustainability and social justice doesn’t mean I get high on “moral virtue.” It means that I give a crap about how things are made and how the people that make them are treated. I make and buy handmade solely because of “aesthetics, uniqueness and quality.” And know scores of people who do, too. The fact that the Times has printed this as from a person who speaks for crafters is two things: a) sad and b) possibly delusional. I’ve read her writing and agree she has her points. However, her points are not the points of many of us.

3. “While buying homemade gifts is a lovely thing to do, thinking of it as a social good is problematic.”

According to Emily it is problematic. Because actually, here’s how and why craft can save the world. Learning to sew and knit and make garments teaches us how they are constructed. Those hours that we spend making garments are not to make ourselves socially superior. We make things because we like to make things. (Or maybe Matchar just hates making things and wants to prove a point?) And in learning how to make things, we begin to understand that the $10 shirt we buy at the store with the handbeading takes 10 hours (or more!) to make. Making things allows us to put this together, which then changes our buying practices. Since we’re a friendly bunch, our friends sometimes want to learn how to make things too, thus, they end up changing their own buying practices. We’re like a cult of slow-moving awesome.

4. “Very few of us will order a $50 handmade scarf on Etsy when one is available for $5 at Target.”

What if the $5 one is horrible and the $50 is just what we want? Once we learn how to construct garments, the game changes. Plus, nylon won’t do wool’s job, amiright? Once we start to make things, we see that if we make (or buy) something that we truly want, we will want to keep it for 10 years (and if we’re choosy about materials, it can even last that long!), not 10 weeks. Making things wisens us up to the fast-fashion problem. And once we begin to put things in our wardrobes that we actually want, they stay. Items that we kind of-sort of like end up being discarded soon.

5. “Is it better for my dollar to go to the likable, just-like-me Brooklyn mom selling handmade headbands on Etsy or to a company that uses garment factories like Alta Gracia?”

Ah, Alta Gracia. This one sounds pretty good, right? Well, not until you realize that there is only ONE Alta Gracia. In fact, it is such a special unicorn there was that whole book written about it. Yes, it is better to put your money towards factories like Alta Gracia. But, in the fast fashion world, Alta Gracia’s are not the norm. Your average factory is doing things like locking doors on workers and not providing toilet paper and not conducting safety checks on fire escapes. Additionally, according to their website, Alta Gracia “sells “collegiate branded products” to the bookstore retail channel.” Now I sure as heck love my hoodies, but wearing sweatpants 24/7 is not my jam. If it is your jam, I apologize, as you were, you elastic-loving shapeless charmer! You are safe in the knowledge that your money is well spent! Yeah!

6. “These same economies of scale most likely make a toothbrush factory less wasteful, in terms of materials, than 100 individual toothbrush makers each handcrafting 10 toothbrushes a day.”

Wait a minute. How did we get to dental products? I am so confused. I do love an argument that is predicated with the words “most likely,” however, don’t you? In other words, there is nothing to see here, she’s just guessing at something to make an argument. Emily dear, I’ve seen your writing, you are worth more than guessing about toothbrushes in an article about scarves.

7. “A potentially positive effect of the handmade movement has been the creation of a new income stream for parents (mostly mothers) and others who need flexible work.”

Yes. This is a truism. The handmade movement has provided a lot of people flexibility to try new ventures. To some that ups the number of crochet dilettantes, but to me, it just means more people trying different ideas on for size… which is pretty dang rad.

8. “It’s important to support artisans who retain knowledge of traditional art forms. Many handmade items are also higher quality than their mass-produced counterparts.”

Yes. This is also true. However, where do they fit in terms of Alta Gracia-level quality? Because if they are better than mass-produced goods, which you clearly state here, your strongest argument so far (#5), is further falling to pieces.

9. “But will buying handmade change the economy or save the world? Not likely.”

According to you it won’t, that is. However, for people off making garments (and shocker, they are even enjoying it!) and realizing the sham of fast fashion, things are changing. Their decisions are making dents in how our future will roll. Small dents, but they are making dents.

Now, when I started my career writing about crafts, I told myself I would never ever be negative about someone’s work. And look, here I am. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. However, I’d like to think that I’m speaking up for all the people making changes in their clothes-buying habits. The ones slowly changing how they think about materialism and fast fashion. The ones creating positive dialogue about handmade things, instead of trying to tear down something they don’t even particularly seem to like.

Handmade was here before the resurgence that began around the turn of this century. And it will stay. And people will learn lessons from it and continue to make items they want for their wardrobes. And these choices will be freeing and amazing and ultimately help change the conversation away from needing to hit the latest sale at The Gap. No, it will not be a fast change, but making garments isn’t a fast process, either. And we like it that way.

And no, my tiny blog is not the New York Times. But maybe, just maybe, someone will read this and remember that handmade can save the world in its own way. And feel proud about wanting to learn new things, instead of dissed at doing it for “moral virtue.”

Yes, there is room for all sorts of voices regarding craft, even for this article I’m railing against. And because there’s room for it, there’s also room for a piece that is a reminder of how good craft can be. How good makers can be. How good for us (on a global level) it is to learn how to make things. How making things gives us an education about how unfair things are in this world. And, yes, a piece about how our skills can change the world, by the items that we create, by the purchases we don’t make, and the resulting conversations we have in that wake.

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21 Responses to Yes, Craft Can Save the World. Slowly. (Or, 7 Times Emily Matchar Was Wrong. And 2 Times She Was Right.)

  1. Tita Boluso-Rimando May 12, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    Love the back&forth pov’s. Keeps the craft industry exciting and engaging. So c’mon now, whether we save the work or not, whether handmade is a real hard-core business or not, let’s just keep crafting <3

  2. Emily Smith May 12, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

    I’m a huge advocate for makers and artisans, and I completely stand behind what you’re saying wrt making from scratch, the knowledge of what proper construction is, and the steps it takes to really integrate “slow fashion” into your life.

    I wanted to add a few to the pile that were glaring at me while reading both articles:

    Hasn’t Etsy completely sold out? The changes around what designates an item as “handmade” are so loose now, that I no longer look to Etsy for handmade goods – or even feel remotely good about my purchase. The lines between artisan/makers and large corporations that exploit humans, resources and the environment are *way* too blurred to even be considered separately – especially when purchasing on the internet. It gets really, really confusing when you consider where certain craft supplies come from.

    That’s where I think Matchar makes a good point. If we’re talking about the new Etsy – than I agree. The older Etsy model – and the broader idea of being a crafter/maker within the maker movement is a completely different story. She COMPLETELY glosses over this!

    Not every maker is trying to make money from their craft.

    It just isn’t so black and white!!!

    It’s possible to make something from scratch, and still exploit lots of people. But that doesn’t mean that the process is completely wasted. The value of making something from scratch goes beyond feelings of superiority to other consumers – it’s more about taking the time out of your day to learn, explore, educate yourself and innovate (which you say). You will get things wrong, even as a maker. That’s the thing – our entire society is dependent on this level of exploitation and consumerism. You may use pom poms that were made by child slaves. The trick is to inform yourself and do better next time – that is, if you care enough.

    I think the conversation about *who* will be the force of change – the maker or the large corporate entity – is the wrong one. If we’re really, truly trying to innovate, shouldn’t we be working together on finding solutions? Isn’t part of the maker ethos failure? If we make something from scratch and realize that it isn’t solving any problems, doesn’t the seasoned maker go back to the drawing board and execute the better solution? Shouldn’t we be demanding the same thing from large corporations as well?

    The thing I despise about Matchar’s article – which you totally nail – is that she’s framing making as some sort of commentary about social class that completely dismisses the value that it contributes to the world, beyond Tupperware parties (although – Tupperware parties are pretty awesome). Her point about infrastructure is valid – but why turn around and say that crafters / makers are wrong when they’re faced with the exact same problems that large corporations are – except at a different scale?

    Makers can iterate quickly. Corporations can’t do that so much. Let’s work together!

    What I despise most:

    She’s missing the whole process side of the argument and looking at it from purely a consumer perspective. (ew).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

    • Betsy May 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

      Here’s what I think about Etsy: They’re a business, so they can legally change the rules at any point. The problem is that they started on supporting handmade things, so people thought that was their core; however, it’s not. The community shouldn’t spend their time arguing what Etsy should be doing. Instead, IMHO, they should be making changes to get away from Etsy and to make other platforms (esp. their own websites) stronger. Whether or not Etsy is bending the rules is not the community’s problem, rules are written in grey (and not black and white) for a reason, so people’s asses are legally covered.

      And yes, we should work together with larger entities, but until manufacturing is brought back to the US, it’s going to be difficult to have those discussions and changes. I.e. A manager of a factory in Guangzhou doesn’t care about anything other than keeping his job.

      I’m not trying to be contrarian here, as you’re asking great questions, just putting my $0.02 in!

  3. Kate Scoty May 12, 2015 at 9:32 pm #

    Well done! Handmade is an important way to make slow change.

    I enjoy making and mostly work with paper. But, the fact that I did at one time sew my own clothes gives me respect for handmade. Fast anything is not always good.

    • Betsy May 13, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

      I think you nail things on the head with the word “respect,” because we have lost respect for many things, such as the origin of things.

  4. Mary Halttunen May 13, 2015 at 7:38 am #

    Preach it sister! Some people forget that if you love your job you will never work a day in your life. I may not cure cancer today but I will have a good time.

  5. Nancy Nally May 13, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    The Times has a history of being condescending to crafters in their content. This is nothing new, unfortunately.

  6. Jessika May 13, 2015 at 9:20 am #

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I read the NYT article while coordinating roundtable meetings with makers and city leaders in my region for an Etsy pilot. I’ve given up trying to have this conversation online right now because I’m too frustrated and am focusing on projects I believe have the potential to impact how we view making craft and community locally. Hopefully it will help defeat some of this ridiculously narrow minded conversation on whether craft is a catalyst for social change or one more hipster marketing tool. I know both craft and an appreciation for making are tools for change and have seen them impact communities and raise the quality of life for families of all colours, classes, and capabilities. These articles do not reflect my experience as a participant in this movement or what I’ve seen in over a decade of facilitating opportunities to combine art, social change, and entrepreneurship.

    I’m weary of these articles overtaking the positive commentary about craft/handmakers. Point entirely missed. Looking at making through this lens only adds to the cultural shift of viewing craft as a middle-upper class indulgence and not an equalizing movement for all classes with the potential to remake the world. I wonder if people like Emily Matchar have done their research into how handmade (or khadi) was the driving motivation behind Gandhi’s principles for reclaiming community power or how it has been at the heart of many other social movements that have not only created lasting change but helped us become more aware of how we participate in (and critique) cultures of consumption.

    Change can be slow and tedious but who is to say we are not creating the conditions for real systems change? We owe the change from sweatshops to worker’s rights in the US to a few young ballsy Jewish women in Brooklyn (Google Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, and Pauline Newman!) I continue to see handmade/making as a continuation of the labour movement, the dismissal of it makes me determined to work harder at conveying this.

    Do we need to be careful to keep craft rooted to activism, community, and local culture? Or continue to work towards handmade and collective action improving manufacturing conditions? Or work with companies like Etsy to actually reimagine commerce in a way that is equitable and just? Heck yes, this work has only just begun! Do articles like this help empower us to realize the power of making or lead us to any kind of solution? No. It seems like the whole point of them is to foster apathy and disengagement with making as a movement.

    I am so thankful to you for continuing to have this conversation online & hope you submit this article as an editorial to the NYT!

    • Betsy May 13, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

      Jessika, I can’t wait to see what things you’re cooking up right now! And yes, you’re right, the point is entirely missed! The fact that Matchar doesn’t even seem to like the community is what cracks me up the most, to be honest. Personally, I’d much rather spend my time thinking and writing about things that I like, not things I don’t. And so many good names for me to look up, yeah!

      Given my years in the labor industry, I can know that change top-down is possible; however, that change doesn’t come up voluntarily, problems have to be found, documented, and then remediation steps need to be put in place. And sometimes verification that those steps are still in place a year later has to be done, too.

      Thanks for being an ally and for your thoughts!

  7. Michael Nitsche May 13, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

    I am on the fence in regard to both, Matchar’s article as well as this reply. The Times article conflates “world” with “financial world.” That is hopefully just a rhetoric twist to evoke some responses – and it can easily be debunked on that grounds. Same is true for a battle of lifestyles and convictions. A lot is fair game in that exercise. But debunking it purely on those grounds does not work completely either. Just as arguing on it does not.
    The open question – to which I really wanted to hear a reply – was how craft today scales up to systemic change. Not through individual examples (there are a ton on any side of the argument) but principally. Is there a sustainable system for modern craft as production method that scales? And how? I would argue that even Gandhi’s khadi would not work anymore in a globalized economy.
    To throw one possible bone out there: one could argue that modern craft does not actually compete on the money market at all (and Etsy is the wrong starting point alltogether) but on the knowledge market. It is about sustaining and developing different kinds of knowledge instead of objects per se. Thus, education and documentation might be more important than the scarf. And the gains for society will be a new practice, a new stitch, a new way of turning wood.

    • Betsy May 13, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

      Michael, I totally respect your being on the fence, and for leaving a comment while on it. :)

      As for whether handmade will create systemic change, it could if: 1) -the tidal wave approach- enough people speak up so that companies with foreign factories listen and advocate for changes in said factories or 2) -the Twitter approach- someone in charge of advocating hears the message and decides to push it through. Funnily enough, once one big company publicly decides to make systemic changes, the other ones will generally follow suit because it means more brand loyalty. The problem is getting one big (enough) company to enforce those changes.

      And I like the notion of craft competing on the “knowledge market” vs. the “money market,” because you’re right, Ghandi and his charkha would be in trouble these days! But to me it works on a “the more you know” tipping point, even though learning new things works too!

  8. Heather May 13, 2015 at 1:20 pm #

    Brilliant response, Betsy, and great comments too. Just as an addition to Nancy’s point about the NYT being condescending to crafters, here’s a post I did earlier this year about an article they had in their design section about hand knitted chair cozies. I guess craft is okay if it brings in high end advertisers.

  9. Faye May 14, 2015 at 5:14 am #

    Has any one ask the Author if she does any craft,sounding to me like some one who can’t so will rain on those who can…..

  10. kirsten May 15, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    I learned to sew from my very middle class great grandmother who hand made everything; not entirely out of necessity, but because that is how things were done. And that is how you taught your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. it wasn’t about economics at all.

    There are so many economics issues to be addressed in the production and consumption of things; whether handmade or mass produced. And *gasp* there is room for all of them, because all of them exist in the world we know today. I am tired of the whole as individuals we must be shouldered with the burden of saving the world. I do think the vote with one’s dollar does make a difference. As one who makes a chunk of her living from making handmade things I know that someone deciding to shop with me or another artist makes a difference in our individual lives. We are part of the economy too, if only a tiny part. Obviously there is money to be made in handmade or Etsy and its counterparts wouldn’t exist. It’s more complicated than just pitting small production v. mass production. This hyperbole makes me tired, and you are right: it focuses on the wrong things.

    • Betsy May 15, 2015 at 3:01 pm #

      Yes, Kirsten! There is room for them all, which I think people will eventually learn, but possibly the hard (and long winding way?) I think a lot of the “saving the world” rhetoric is only helpful once we individually figure out what is right for us vs. what we think we should be doing. Only then can we make changes that, even though they are tiny, can have an impact. But if we do shoulder that burden, it becomes way too much and too hard to handle.

  11. Rebecca May 15, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    Making will always be a radical act. We were makers before we were consumers. Making gives us insight into what it takes to make stuff…the effort and skill are revealed. Once you know that everything changes.

    • Betsy May 18, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

      Yes and yes!

  12. Meg May 17, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    Betsy, I’m with you. Making your own, whether that is growing your own food, cooking your own meals from scratch or stitching & knitting your own clothes, changes your view on everything. It recalibrates our senses, our awareness of time and our value of money. It makes us want to spend time doing other things, whether we commercialise them or not, because using your own skills to meet some of your own need is highly satisfying. (I get more joy from digging up five months’ worth of potatoes from my patio garden & knitting my own sweaters than I ever did from my City job and salary!)

    One of the main reasons why the NYT article fails is it is written from the perspective of changing the world through changing the economy. What the author fails to realise is that the most radical thing we can do is to not look to the economy to create change but to look to our own skills and more of us becoming producers rather than consumers. Yes, we’ll still need to buy, but as you say, when you understand real quality you don’t mind spending an extra £/$ to buy from somebody who produces a quality ingredient/material/product.

    • Betsy May 19, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

      “What the author fails to realise is that the most radical thing we can do is to not look to the economy to create change but to look to our own skills and more of us becoming producers rather than consumers.”

      YES! I love this, and well said! :) And as you noted, it’s that “recalibration” that’s important and that ripples outward. Sadly, changing the world economy is going to take a lot of work and there is neither a silver bullet nor a wrong way to do it if dialogue creation is involved.


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