Craft is a tricky word. When we feel ourselves pulled in by the unforgiving vortex of digitized everything, we plead for craft, throwing it out like a life preserver a desperate appeal to the forgotten soul. In those moments, it becomes a metaphor for a kind of imperiled humanity. But what about craft, we ask?
What about craft, indeed.
The word itself is just as easily relegated to parody, as in arts and crafts, braided lanyards and strings of beads the eternal rainy-day alternative at summer camp: Hey kids, let's do a craft! Martha Stewart, of course, is the modern-day patron saint of craft, and can be credited at least in part for elevating the word itself to verb status (crafting) which, given the labor-intensive nature of handmade anything is well, perhaps way overdue.
Martha's rigid discipline, however, is clearly not for everyone. But for those seeking guidance, her product lines offer pre-selected color palettes and necessary materials so that home-improvement projects are, in a sense, sanctioned in advance. Given the market, this is good business: in a culture that gives us assisted living and assisted dying, maybe we can call this assisted design. It's DIY with a little help from a fairy designmother. Kind of like ghostwriting, except that the ghost owns the company.
Martha's domination of the craft market may induce ridicule, but the basic appeal and value of the handmade thing itself is fascinating. At its core, it's therapeutic. It's personal. It's fun. It is, occasionally, even hip. Hardcore practitioners call themselves craftistas. Many are vocal in their pledge against consumer culture (and here is where the movement, such as it is, most faithfully evokes its Ruskinian ancestry.) And most trade piety for a healthy does of self-parody: one site's manifesto is "No Tea Cozies Without Irony."
Today, it doesn't take a major marketing deal with Kmart to make craftwork profitable. Websites like Etsy and Elsewheres are portals through which individual craftspeople can display and market their wares. Most are organized by retail taxonomies bags and purses, toys and t-shirts and resemble old-fashioned marketplaces in the sense that they provide space and services to numerous merchants. Yes, some of these "merchants" are stay-at-home-moms who like to sew. But don't be fooled: others are people just like you.
Of course, most designers like to make things. The difference here is that these are not, strictly speaking, designed things. Sometimes they're letterpressed or silkscreened, and occasionally, there's a laser-printer output in there somewhere, but for the most part, they're knitted, sewn, baked, sculpted, salvaged, glued and massaged into one-of-a-kind things. Sure, you may have little need for crocheted salt-and-pepper shakers, and the notion that someone spent real time quilting a pet toy gives new meaning to the notion of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but before you give in to the temptation to mock them, make sure you are not, somewhere deep down, at least minimally capable of seeing yourself as one of them. You may still choose to relegate it to a rainy day, but in this new world, the opportunity for invention, on your own timetable, along with a happy marriage of craft and commerce suggests more than just braided lanyards. Just don't call it arts and crafts.