“I am Handmade”: Crafting in the Age of Computers

The following piece is contributed by Samantha Close, one of my PhD Candidates in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She shares here some work she has been doing about crafting in a networked culture, work which has so far yielded a very compelling short documentary about the people who make the things we like to buy on Etsy, and which she believes will become the focus of her dissertation.

“I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers”  Samantha Close I wasn’t prepared to fall in love with crafting. It was a brisk January in Boston, 2013, and I was at the Modern Language Association annual conference engaged in the serious business of academic talk about comics. But in the breezeway between the official conference hotel and the convention center, where more or less every academic in the United States (and beyond) who does work related to literature was presenting papers, lay the most fortunate Barnes and Nobles bookstore in the world. For the occasion, the store had moved everything related to classic and contemporary highbrow literature to front and center.

As a student of popular culture who had presented on Spider-Man adaptations the year previous, I sighed a bit at the bookstore’s idea of what academics would find interesting. Still, books are books. And sometimes, books are next to knitting magazines featuring fan-written patterns from which to knit items that Jane Austen’s characters might have worn at various points in her novels. As a fan of Jane Austen in general (Pride and Prejudice in specific) and an enthusiastic cosplayer, I was delighted. That I had no idea how to knit was a minor, insignificant detail.

A year and a half (and two shawls, three hats, and innumerable attempts at socks) later, my dissertation research has centered itself around transformations in the communities, economies, and meanings of creative work, with artists and crafters who sell their work on Etsy as my major case study. I made the documentary short “I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers” as part of that research.  Throughout the film I’m exploring what it means to be handmade.

For some, it’s all about their hands and their materials. Physically crafting objects tends to involve repetitive motion and immersion in the feel of things, the flow. Others delight in tinkering, working out what merino fiber, silver poly clay, and broken metal sextants can become with some patient trial and error.

In the larger cultural context, I’d argue there’s more similarity than first meets the eye between spinners meeting up in a New York mall food court comparing fibers, techniques for making thread, spindles, and wheels, and athletes converging on the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course comparing training regimens, costumes, course-building techniques, and methods to get through Cannonball Alley. They’re both examples of embodied participatory culture.

However, as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, access to the materials of participatory culture is often contested. Many of the crafters and artists I spoke with are fans, who create their own patterns, jokes, items, and designs by riffing on and re-mixing popular culture. Fans have gradually won acceptance for this kind of work as legitimately creative and share-able, but the economic systems for exchanging fan crafts are still extremely murky. As Francesca Coppa points out, “In the past few years, the nature of the arguments I have been having as a fandom advocate has changed: In the past, I found myself arguing for the legitimacy of our works; now, I find myself arguing against their exploitation.”

Fans—and crafters more generally—should have the right to keep their work within the gift economy as well as the right to benefit economically from their work if they so choose, without ludicrously high licensing fees. The film’s larger narrative tracks several crafters who do seek to turn their passions into full-time jobs. This is harder than it sounds, and winning the fair use battle isn’t even the half of it.

When what you love to do, you also ought to do, and ought to do for eight-plus hours a day, your body and mind can both rebel. It’s a dilemma that I’m intimately familiar with as an academic. Particularly as one who broke down and bought a ridiculously expensive ergonomic chair set-up when the simple act of sitting at my desk computer to edit this film became overwhelmingly painful. But I’m still glad I made the film. Ultimately, this is the larger meaning of what it is to be “handmade.”

People need different balances of work, play, and overlaps there-between, and we’re going to struggle to find them. We can and should build structures and communities of support, places where people can be real about the difficulties they’re facing and find some answers, and we must respect people who have found the amount and arena of struggle that works for them. You can’t make a silver origami cat without the kiln.

For those local to Southern California, “I Am Handmade” will screen at the CSU Long Beach Human Cinema Film Festival on Thursday, November 13. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Samantha Close.

Samantha Close is a doctoral student in Communication at the University of Southern California.  Her research interests include fan studies, critical theory, theory-practice, new media, gender, and race. She focuses particularly on amateur media production and transforming models of creative industries and capitalism.  Her writing has recently appeared in the Sampling Media anthology published by Oxford University Press.  She also likes cats and knits.  A lot.