I was lucky enough not to get COVID until April 2022. When it finally caught up with me, I spent my quarantine lying in bed and watching one particular YouTube channel for hours. I didn’t have the mental energy to read my bedside stack of books or do much of anything, but I became obsessed with watching other people do, or rather make, things. The channel was “Still Standing” and through its hour-long marathon compilations, I learned about people making fezzes in Egypt, giant candles in Mexico, and dyed textiles in India—traditional crafts that have endured, in many instances, for centuries.

While I was lying in bed and watching videos of expert traditional craft makers, many Americans were learning to sew or knit or throw clay themselves, especially during the first round of lockdowns. In addition to toilet paper shortages, some stores ran out of yeast and bread flour as waves of people tried to learn how to bake bread.

In a May 2021 New York Times article, Steven Kurutz collected stories from both hobbyists and professional artists about what crafting provided during the height of the pandemic. He quoted Carol Sauvion, who produced the documentary series “Craft in America,”: “It gives them a sense of independence and a sense of security. I made this. And I solved the problems involved…That’s what craft gives us. It grounds us again.” Independence, security, and groundedness were especially needed during lockdown. According to Mr. Kurutz, “the pandemic has supercharged the popularity of craft—or maybe just reminded us of its emotional and practical necessity.”

Art education professors Laurel H. Campbell and Jane Dalton agree with the idea of craft as a means to feel grounded. They argue that handwork, stitching in particular, provides a valuable reflective outlet. For Dr. Campbell, embroidery is a meditative practice: “stitching fills a space in life that calls out for solitude and calmness. I can ponder small and big questions while I stitch and consider how the very act of stitching connects me to generations of my family.” 

For many of us stuck in our homes, crafts (both newly learned or dug out of the closet) were welcome distractions and sources of entertainment, control, and satisfaction. Some also found moments of connection with others through online communities, learning from YouTube or getting inspiration from Instagram. This connectedness made possible by the internet has boosted many corners of the DIY industry, for those teaching, learning, and selling. For some, these activities were not only sources of individual well-being but also a means to connect with others to the extent possible in digital spaces. 

For others, craft means still more.

For the artisans I learned about from my bed, their crafts are their livelihood. For many, that livelihood is in danger. It’s remarkable that some of these artisans are “still standing”  despite the disruptions the pandemic caused to their supply and demand. While businesses like Hobby Lobby increased their revenue by billions of dollars over the last five years (and some smaller equipment suppliers have done well too), many experts in traditional crafts struggled to stay afloat. 

In Los Angeles, the Olvera Street merchants have been selling handcrafted items “such as pottery, candles and Mexican folk art” for almost a century. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in May 2020, these vendors, many of whose families had been selling there for generations, have struggled to stay in business. Keeping up with rent for their stalls was increasingly difficult when crowds were no longer coming to purchase what were considered specialty (rather than essential) items. “Their survival is intertwined with tourism and cultural events such as Day of the Dead, Blessing of the Animals and Las Posadas, a nine-day Christmas celebration,” reported Mr. Vives. Now, with the return of these celebrations and of tourists to the area, business has resumed. But the potential vulnerability of these artisans has been revealed in a new way: the expertise held by these craftspeople could be lost with the closure of their businesses.

So where does this leave the lockdown hobbyist? Should we put our money towards supporting professional craftspeople rather than trying to learn a craft ourselves? Instead of buying that pottery wheel that will probably sit unused after a week, should you buy a bowl from a local artist?

Katy Clune is Virginia’s state folklorist and the director of the Virginia Folklife Program, which supports, documents, and promotes a wide range of cultural traditions across the state. While a large part of her program is dedicated to facilitating year-long apprenticeships to train up more masters of traditional crafts, they promote amateur participation too. Last fall, they helped to organize the return of the Richmond Folk Festival, which was attended by a record-breaking 230,000 people. In addition to showcases by expert luthiers and Bomba dancers, they hosted workshops introducing beginners to their crafts. 

Ms. Clune says that the persistence of these traditions is about much more than maintaining knowledge or supporting the livelihoods of the artists. Quoting Dylan Locke, a bastion of the southwest Virginia folk arts scene, Ms. Clune describes community participation in the arts as contributing to “civic repair”: “Nurturing cultural well-being feels especially crucial as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and face deep partisan divides that threaten to make us focused on our differences, rather than what we have in common.” Whether or not you are an expert at a craft, a whole community benefits when there is broad, healthy participation in its cultures—and crafts are part of cultures. 

Even in Mr. Kurutz’s 2021 article, in which he highlighted the individual satisfaction that comes from crafting, he suggested that this satisfaction comes from both the pleasure of the task itself and the fulfillment from supporting your community. For Michele Tuegel, taking out “her Sears Kenmore sewing machine for the first time in a decade” gave her purpose and calmness. “It’s made me mentally get through this without depression. I feel like I’m donating my time and resources to the good of other people, to the good of the community.” As of May 2021, she had made 1,620 masks.

For some, the rich potential of crafting also includes activism and resistance. Returning again to the work of Drs. Campbell and Dalton, the craft movement might be seen “as an alternative to mass production and the busyness of modern life” and it “offers respite from the need for immediacy.” By making something by hand, we are not only able to relax or decompress in that moment, but also more generally remove ourselves from the incredibly fast-paced current of modern life. Experiencing slowness can be a valuable antidote to some of our frantic default speed. This is perhaps even more necessary as we come out of the pandemic. For many of us during lockdown, the last thing we wanted was for our days to pass by more slowly. Now, as the pace of life has picked up again, it is all the more important that we remind ourselves of a different rhythm and a different pace from the productivity- and busyness-obsessed reality we otherwise live in.

Crafting is also an alternative to mass production, both by making something instead of buying it, and by causing us to think about what goes into making the things we do buy—like how much human labor and resources go into these products. We’re less likely to just throw away a sweater that we spent weeks making. 

According to Dr. Alice McGovern and textile artist Clementine Barnes, craftivism can be a protest against fast fashion: “The mend, repair, re-wear and upcycle movement is one such example which has gained popularity, urging consumers to enact more deliberate, personal actions and agency to reduce their consumption and reliance on fast fashion and engage in more sustainable choices around fashion.” 

Movements grouped under the umbrella of “craftivism,” a term popularized by activist and writer Betsy Greer, go further, using craft methods to actively protest and push for social change. McGovern and Barnes write that “craftivists, who use crafts such as sewing, knitting and embroidery to start conversations, raise awareness and protest injustices.” Examples of this are Marianne Jorgensen’s knitted covering over a tank in protest of the Iraq War and the famous “pussy hats” of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. 

There is a deeper richness to the activities we think of as just hobbies. So how do we turn our isolation hobbies into community catalysts?

Maybe you join that quilting club advertised at your library and meet neighbors you never would have otherwise. Maybe there’s a craft tradition in your family or part of the country you begin to learn about. Some of these skills may be in danger of being lost. Even if you never master them or make a living from them, just learning their history and the smallest parts of what makes them what they are helps preserve them for future generations. 

We can also evaluate our instinct to turn first to YouTube when we want to learn something or need a question answered. Instead of Googling how to learn a new skill, is there someone in your neighborhood or family who could teach you? Or a class at your local craft store? 

To resist the potential materialism of DIY culture, we can take stock of what we already have, where we get it, and if we’re likely to use it. If I’m not going to use that yarn in my closet, is there someone else who might? Can I mend or repair something I have, and buy new things from local artisans? 

As with so many things in our world, the ripple effects of the choices we make around crafting are complicated and difficult to predict. But researchers and hobbyists agree: it is good to work with our hands. Let’s be creative not only with what our crafts look like but also with what they can lead to.



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