Under the Glue Gun

We’re having an interesting cultural moment, in which it’s suddenly hip to engage in the kinds of domestic arts that women used to practice out of necessity and for survival.

Call it the new wave of craft, domestic craft, domestic arts, or the new domesticity. Some link it to the third wave of feminism, to the DIY philosophy found in punk rock, or to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While it may be related to all of those things, it looks in some ways remarkably like the very thing it’s trying not to be–Mom herself, or maybe Martha Stewart, that icon of domesticity.

Martha the muse, or specter, is never very far away, whether the purveyors of the new domesticity are hobbyist entrepreneurs who market their wares; stay-at-home moms who adore Stewart and make scrapbooks; or art- and design-school graduates who loathe her and make ironic and kitschy crafts, such as iPod cozies and latch-hooked rugs with soft-core porn motifs.

For example: Go online and you’ll find a flock of craft websites and blogs. Start at Jenny Hart’s Sublime Stitching site, where you can order a kit for stitching a martini glass on a tea towel. Find your way to NotMartha.org, where you can learn how to make oatmeal energy bars, and then to Susan Beal’s West Coast Crafty blog to read about upcoming craft sales. Click on the link for a book called Bend-the-Rules Sewing by Amy Karol and you’ll end up on Karol’s website, which has a link to her blog, Angry Chicken. And from there–if you’re as intrigued as I was by a recipe for summer pudding with rum whipped cream–you’ll end up on Oprah.com, because the recipe appeared in O, Oprah’s magazine, a cousin to Martha Stewart Living.

Sure, Gen Xers like me associate Stewart with baby-boomer corporate badness. Then again, though I love looking at ReadyMade magazine, dig deep enough in my recycling bin and you’ll find old issues of Martha Stewart Living. After all, a lot of women in the current crafts movement didn’t inherit their skills from their mothers or their grandmothers. They learned them from camp counselors, in the Girl Scouts, from friends in their dorms, from classes and manuals, and from Stewart.

In the book Get Crafty: Hip Home Ec (Broadway, 2004), Jean Railla, founder of the webzine GetCrafty.com, describes her path from crafty kid to women’s studies major to website producer, for whom anything “domestic” was drudgery and whose diet consisted of cigarettes, coffee, and beer. She then began taking better care of her body and became interested again in the crafts of her Girl Scout years: knitting, sewing, and cooking.

It’s a trajectory so common among Generation X crafters that it could be scripted: Girl Scouts, punk rock, feminism, college, 9-to-5 job, followed by a rediscovery of crafts and an interest in all things domestic. For a lot of women, reconnecting with these skills feels like a rebellion against the Betty Friedan school of feminism, which regarded domestic work as stifling and meaningless. And while Stewart’s brand of domesticity may not seem rebellious, she was, in fact, one of the original postwar domestic entrepreneurs.

“Martha Stewart is our mom’s generation of DIY,” says Faythe Levine, a 30-year-old Milwaukee, Wisconsin, filmmaker who has interviewed dozens of crafters for Handmade Nation: A Documentary About the Rise of DIY Art, Craft, and Design. Levine, who grew up in the 1990s punk scene in Seattle, also owns a boutique and gallery, coordinates a craft fair, and plays musical saw in a band called Wooden Robot.

While Levine, with tattoos up both arms and tons of hipster cred, doesn’t look like Stewart, what she whips up with a glue gun sure looks like Stewart’s creations. Her signature craft was once a hand-cut and machine-sewn felt owl with a card in its back pocket. Yet Levine says she isn’t interested in Stewart because Martha’s too corporate, too far removed from the day-to-day work of making things. While Stewart amasses her media empire product lines, Levine lives at the other end of the spectrum: She has no insurance and works part time in a bar to make ends meet.

Perhaps the association with Stewart or the stereotype that links domestic craft with housewives is what has prompted a lot of today’s crafters to make items that are imperfect or a little shocking to Grandma: a knitted vibrator cozy or a baby hat embroidered with a skull and crossbones.

But subtract the irony, and the crocheted sushi, knitted sweater vests, and latch-hooked pornography of DIY crafts don’t look that different from the items displayed in county fair textiles exhibits. They use the same techniques and derive from the same impulse: to make things with one’s own hands.

Excerpted from Oregon Humanities (Fall-Winter 2007). Subscriptions: free (3 issues/yr.) from 812 SW Washington, Suite 225, Portland, Oregon 97205; www.oregonhum.org/publications.php.

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