Friday, April 4, 2008

Craftivism, consumerism and spending money on recycled goods...

Last year I read Judith Levine's Not Buying It
It details a journalist's pledge to spend a year not buying anything except 'essentials'. Whilst it didn't go as far as growing her own food and doing without toilet paper, it certain challenges the idea of socialising without spending, doing without, not buying into fashion and the role of consumerism and identity.

Well I've been thinking about this in regard to crafting. I love making things, whether for myself, for others as presents or to sell. I have always been a huge fan of all things second hand-give me a market or op shop and some free time and I'm in a happy place. I've extended this to my small business Polka Dot Rabbit and I like to reuse children's toys and books, sheets, shirts, and various fancies....Some of these I find, most I buy second hand from charity shops and occasionally ebay and esty. The real dilemma is how many things I have to buy to enable me to make my crafts. I prefer charity shops as my spending goes to a good cause. But it's still spending money! And at times compulsive spending. I have a big stash of second hand jumpers, ill fitting clothing and odds and ends stored under my bed, as well as a box of books and comics, and a bookcase full of poorly folded curtains and sheets. When you like second hand goods, there's never really an end point, there's always another tea towel or fabric reminant to buy or quick dash to Lincraft or Spotlight to purchase the materials necessary to make your second hand stash in to something wonderful. In your head, there's a competing dialogue between what you have, what you could buy, what you are planning to make, and what you could make if you had this and this and this and this....

I read this article What Would Jesus Sell? by Jean Railla of GetCrafty on the Murketing blog. It raises some great issues about the commodification of crafting. It contends that while buying handmade items is applaudable, it can still be buying for buying's sake and also discusses the retail shadow behind the whole Buy Handmade Christmas pledge and campaign from last Christmas. Buy Handmade invited arty loving consumers to buy from people who make handmade goodies, rather than mass retailers. I loved the idea of Buy Handmade as I know how handmade things are seen as something to be kept and treasured (anyone else's folks still get out the chrissy ornaments you made in Kindergarten to adorn the tree?) .

But then I hadn't really thought that it was initiated by websites which make money from people's creativity. Or where the products used to make the crafts come from. For example, is it any better to buy something handmade if it is made from fabric woven in third world conditions? And where do our needles, thread, quick unpicks etc come from? Sweat shops or legitimate fair trade factories? And further to that matter, how many crafters are crafting in efffectively third world conditions? Cutting out fabric on the living room floor, hunched over a desk or kitchen table (anyone heard of an ergonomic sewing machine?). And how much is that labour valued? There's a common sentiment amongst those who knit that you should never knit a sweater for your significant other. The money spent on wool and the hours of labour will never be appreciated unless the garment is worn regular with proud proclaimations of admiration from your beloved. Obviously you need a meaningful middle class job or frural living to enable to send hours crafting and still have a roof over your head. And what about the selling of handknitted garments? Winter is coming, I need some fingerless gloves. I can go to a retailer near my house and get some handmade by a local crafter. They retail at $25 of which I assume the knitter gets perhaps $15. That wouldn't even cover the cost of wool and needles, let alone the cost of labour. Are [predominantly female] crafters worth so little that we are constantly underpriced by others and more importantly, ourselves?

As well as labour issues, there's also the big trend towards eco-logical crafting -recuse, remake, recycle, repair the wold- using trends such as felting. Felting is where you can re-use old sweaters as fabric to make gloves, hats, whatever you like really....You can either knit your item and felt it, or felt existing items (such as jumpers) and use the material to make your item. This is where the issues begin for me. Felting shrinks wool. So you may need lots of jumpers. Unless you have a bundle handle ( and enough space to store them), you may have to go buy second hand jumpers. To felt, you need to use lots of hot water and mutiple hot wash cycles. You may even choose to use your clothes dryer. This translates to lots of water and electricity. I live in Australia in the middle of a massive drought. Big carbon footprint.

I can give you another example. I thought I'd make some coasters. So picked up some second hand coasters to cover in paper. This required buying the coasters and some spray glue and spray varnish. The varnish didn't work so I had to buy a thicker one and a paintbrush. So my second hand coasters ended up costing me, oh, $40 plus to make. And it's not like I'd ever spend $40 on coasters, regardless of who made them. Of course, I will reuse the glue and varnishes and I was an active participant in my craft from which I derived some enjoyment
( the varnish dilemma aside) but it was hardly an ecofriendly exercise!

Things I am Thinking About:

Where do my materials come from?

What carbon footprint does my crafting leave?

How much time do I spend shopping for materials?

How much money do I spend on materials?

Have I spent money to make money?

What are my materials worth?

What is my labour worth?

In thinking about all this I have decided to take ONE MONTH from the start of next week (that's Monday April 7th) to see how I manage crafting without buying anything. No buying more fabric 'just in case' or another quick underpick because I can't be bothered looking for the three I already own. No more spending money to make money. No more buying things I don't really need and the expense of things I already have. But I don't want this to be an excuse to do nothing. I intend to be as productive as always in the next month. Maybe more so. Maybe this will give me a chance to try some craft techniques I've always been scared of due to the prohibitive initial outlay (mosaque and screen printing anyone?) Who knows? Anyhow watch this blog and see how I go....

PS: you can read another take on What would Jesus Sell here and also Etsy's response.

PPS: Another site you might like:


Kakariki said...

I am absolutely with you!

Drewzel said...

Hi! I found your blog after reading your article in Mixtape #3, as crafting for mental health is really important to me.

So when I read this post, I was like YES!!! She understands me! I didn't pledge handmade last year for similar reasons...I often think about how those goods we buy to craft with are made and who's exploited so that we can buy fabric and wool to our heart's content. I also read things where people say "let's only buy handmade and put those nasty $2 shops out of business"...but then I start thinking what do the sweat shop workers do for a living when people stop buying their goods? Sweat shops are awful, but we need a practical alternative. Go back to starving and prostitution? No thanks.

I can't say I've reconciled any of these issues (especially as I have enough trouble getting out of bed in the morning, let alone solve the world's problems)... but I really wanted to thank you for expressing so well some of the thoughts I've been having since I first heard about the Handmade Pledge.

Having said that, I ove handmade, but I am still guilty of unnecessary consumption and shopping just as much under the guise of "supporting fellow crafters", and I also have a stash of crafting materials collected via the op-shop.

What's a girl to do?

Polka Dot Rabbit said...

oh I can very much relate, it's quite a vicious cycle and indeed a condrum (sp). I am even starting to think about what I make and what it would b e like to only make things that I find personally meaningful rather than things because they are popular or sell....does this get back to art vs craft I wonder!?

Rianne said...

This is great info to know.