Thursday, September 8, 2016

Handmade Nation now

It's so funny that I felt compelled to write a post tonight, because I hardly ever do. What makes it funnier is that what compelled me is something that began around the time I first started this blog, a very different time indeed.

Waaaayyy back in 2008, back when Etsy was so young, back when I was just starting to explore this idea called MischaLee, there was a woman named Faythe Levine who was exploring this exploding movement, a reinvigoration of craft culture. She published a book that year called Handmade Nation, titled after her documentary which would be released the following year, in 2009. I excitedly scoured the internet and magazines during that time period, learning about all of the crafters doing their thing, reading craft tutorials and stories. I learned about her project while she was still making it, and I ordered the book immediately when it came out. She began screening the documentary after its release, and I missed every screening. Would you believe that I didn't watch it for the first time until tonight?? I ordered it on (another blast from the past from that era) when they sent me an email that it was soon going out of print. What the heck took me so long?

I'm not gonna beat myself up about how tardy to the party I am (by 7 years, haha), but it was actually interesting watching it now in this later context. I had so much nostalgia for the excitement and possibilites I felt when I used to see these women making their own careers and forging their own paths. I remember so clearly the aesthetic from that particular craft revival. Everything felt very punk, very kitchy, so DIY. It was incredibly cool seeing these people around my age bucking the norms and experimenting with what it means to be an artist or maker as a viable path in adulthood. I have a lot of craft books from this time, when it was really novel to see a craft book that wasn't something your mom or aunt would use to do a weekend project. These were young people recycling materials, making things with a modern feel, and rejecting the trends. I went to the first few Renegade Craft Fairs in New York, and would geek out seeing the makers whose blogs I read.

What struck me was how much has changed. The question was posed towards the end of the documentary of how the capitalist machine would affect the handmade movement over time. It felt very grassroots initially, but it has definitely become more mainstream through the last few years and taken on a new life. I've watched big companies jump on board to collaborate with indie makers, something that really wasn't happening much back in 2009. I've also seen big companies striving more to have more "authenticity", or to highlight handmade aspects of their designs. They speak more to the quality or roots of their brand more than ever. There are many more small collections and limited runs being released. One bad thing that has happened is indie artists and makers getting ripped off at a staggering rate.

The aesthetic has definitely evolved too. Things are much more polished. The handmade goods now have a bit less of that homespun character that initially charmed people. Now products are expected to be more perfect, they ride the line between a manufactured and a handmade look. Displays at craft shows are much more involved, everything is more professional. I think it has become much more competitive, so this is part of the reason. It is harder than ever to get into some of the big craft shows as a vendor. I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing, but I think while it's exciting as a customer, it also seems more intimidating to a person who might be interested in moving towards a maker life.

Watching Handmade Nation just had me pondering a lot of questions, although to be fair these are things I think about frequently. Will this trend continue to hold? Will small brands become more and more like polished, sanitized big brands until they are indistinguishable? How much growth can happen if you keep your company small? It sometimes seems limiting. People often shop small brands to "support real people" but big brands employee far more people. I wonder sometimes if it's really unrealistic to be so exclusive, especially when you consider how hard it is for a smaller business to provide things like health benefits. Is smaller really better? Is the current handmade movement too removed from its roots? Where do we draw the line for handmade? There are many people designing on a small scale and outsourcing production to specialized companies. I wonder where they fall in the spectrum.

None of these questions are meant to undermine what's happening today. I still love the handmade, indie, and craft movement. I love small businesses and support them every step of the way, and obviously I AM a small business. I just like to think from different perspectives and explore ideas. I'm curious to see where the indie road goes, so to speak. This culture that Handmade Nation covered has changed so much in just a few years, I can't imagine what else is in store. I will keep following my favorite makers and evolving with the times. I think it's so cool how the internet has really opened up the worlds of possibility for more people than ever, to forge their own paths, make their own careers, and connect to like-minded individuals. Not to mention the easily accessed exposure to new ideas that is at our fingertips. Amidst the insanity of the times (let's NOT talk about our current election) it's good to know there are still things to look forward to.