After going all un-Boomer ish last post and plastering my personal life all over the blog, which has had great positive responses, I thought I’d do a quick share of something I got into over lockdown, which began as something of a time-pass and then turned into both a kind of mindfulness practice and also my latest soapbox to yell about: shitty crafts.
You know how at primary school, they get you to try everything?
Painting! You will totally be painting at primary school. A tree, an animal, a scene from circle storytime, and -inevitably- that old favourite, the self-portrait. (Which the school, with no respect for IP on your precious output, will reproduce on a cheap tea towel and flog to parents as a fund-raising exercise). This self-portrait will have an extended afterlife in your home (maybe duplicated in grandparents’ homes), whereby it will live as a precious object elevated beyond use-value. Like the Turin shroud, it will be locked away in a drawer for years, jealously preserved, and occasionally pulled out for admiration. Until, maybe 10 years later, somebody runs out of drying-up cloths at a family dinner and they drag out your memorial tea towel and everyone has a good laugh at the misshapen heads and twig-like fingers. At this point, you decide that you are Not Good At Art and that only those kids whose Reception Class portraits actually resemble the human form should continue with drawing beyond the age of 8.
Creativity, and art and crafting more generally, are fundamental parts of Infant School life. Classrooms and your home proudly display your pastel sketches. Somebody gets that clay pot as a birthday gift and declares themselves overjoyed with it. C.P.Snow’s Two Cultures are nowhere in sight as primary teachers get you to paint your knowledge about local ecosystems, sing about arithmetic and do stuff like chromatograms. (Here’s a high-speed and jarring video of what’s actually a rather lovely thing to watch).
And then, the singing. Lots of singing. When you’re 6, nobody really puts it out there that some people have good voices or some people are tone deaf. It’s assumed that singing is something you all enjoy and all need to be doing, for the sake of that enjoyment. (Unless, my kids remind me, you’re at church school – in which case the singing will be more, more, more. More of it, more intense, and with more expectations around what that singing means and what it does).
But by senior school, all this stuff gives way to narrower versions of what kids need, and the division between the kids with innate talent and those without has turned into an exam-and-qualification based – and even a ‘future career’ based – division, between the creative and technically-skilled kids, who will follow creative and maker paths and the non-creatives, who will build their lives around non-creative roles.
It’s easy to let go of your creativity – and your confidence in your creativity – once you’re out of primary school. Like the vast – and saddening – numbers of adults who claim that they ‘can’t dance’ and the (thanks to the choir boom, lessening) masses of adults who think they ‘can’t sing’, many of us gave up on creativity and craft long before we even got to senior school.
So the recent boom in crafting must be a good thing, right?
Well … maybe yes and also maybe no.
The marriage made in purgatory between Instagram and crafting has produced an archive of images of perfection and glamour. I’m not the first to note this, so we’ve no need to dwell on it right here.
As a Pinterest user, almost everything I see is utterly gorgeous. Aesthetically pleasing, sensorially arousing and above all, inspiring. When I was a commuting working parent (having it all, ho ho ho) I never had time to try any of this stuff. Lately, there’s a bit more free time in my life. And very lately, there was loads of it.
Lockdown, then. We were among the lucky ones, for whom time and headspace opened up.
I was inspired by the old (but highly contested) adage that, with 10,000 hours of practice, any skill can be folded into the self, while with 20 hours ‘deliberate practice’, anybody can become a good-enough practitioner in anything. I decided to find something to do over lockdown that wasn’t either of my usual two free-time activities, which boil down to a pretty binary choice, standing at either extreme of the movement-stillness continuum: – reading-writing or something fitness-related. With all this extra time, I thought, I could be one of those people who use the opportunity to dive into a new hobby or skill.
The kids are all grown up and pretty much not around home now, I save my personal carb allowance for beer, and any bread I ever baked has always been a horrible thing (dense craggy crumb encased in dental-work shattering crust), so the lockdown baking surge lasted about two weeks. Nobody wanted bread – hell, nobody even eats bread in our house. Certainly, nobody would ever eat that particular bread. I needed other things to do. Being utterly hooked into the culture of production and achievement, I wanted something with an outcome. No soothing jigsaws for me. No, I wanted product.
Overnight I took up natural fabric dyeing, shibori, crochet and kombucha brewing. I recognise these as hilariously typical lockdown activities and swear that the internet didn’t foist them on me. I don’t belong to Instagram, but I did grow up in the 60s and 70s, when these kinds of pursuits were all around, from your grannies and aunties who all knitted and sewed, to your teen friends who wore tie-dye T-shirts and batik trousers. In my family, we remember mum’s famous home-made ginger beer explosion (and also granny’s delish elderflower wine). Crafting and brewing were not self-expressive pastimes, but money-saving necessities, in working-class homes back then.
In April 2020, I filled our home studio space with dried plants, kilner jars, yarn and transported myself back to when I was 14.
Results were not fabulous. At first, I was stoical.
When the fam sipped timidly at the kombucha, pulling faces, or when one of the kids asked me whether I’d done my usual health-nut thing and refused to use sugar in the brew, I’d defend my sour product. “It’s not like commercial stuff – of course it’s sharper. Think of it more like apple cider vinegar, something we’re doing for our gut health”, I would say, virtuously gulping down a full tumblerful and thinking about Tim Spector’s advice.
Even my youngest, who famously doused his food with vinegar as a kid, and ate lemons without puckering as a party trick, pulled a little face when he drank the brew. Soon enough, he’d joined the rest of the family in taking just a shot glass of the stuff. Scobies multiplied and bottles of kombucha took over a whole shelf at one point, as I became the only one drinking the full daily tumblerful.
Back at the workbench, turmeric dye with alum or milk mordant worked nicely, but safflower stubbornly refused to offer up its yellow gorgeousness, no matter how long I boiled and steeped it, what mordants I tried with it, or what fabric I tried it on. And while I found Alice Yokote’s channel mesmerising and watched her make hundreds of shibori designs, I lack – even in lockdown slowdown – patience and determination to do it properly.
I mean – who the hell wants to iron a pillowcase, like, ever? And as for ironing it before you scrunch it up and dye it, well, that’s beyond tedium, my dear. My shibori experiments quickly turned into a kind of bulldog-clip frenzy, where I’d shove as many clips and clamps as I could onto a hastily (and nastily) folded piece of fabric.
When my 10th crochet sample was almost as crappy as my first, when I was still having to ask my saintly next door neighbour to show me over the fence how to turn a row without mysteriously increasing or decreasing, and when I still had to watch that damn video of how to do a starter slip knot every single time, because I could not remember / embody it, I began to feel less stoical.
I joined an online group run by the lovely people over at Worthing’s sustainable craft project, The Good Stitch and posted pics of my wobbly test squares. Experienced crochet hands peered at the images and offered diagnoses and tips to make things better. Everybody counselled practice, patience, repetition and advised that doing loads of small squares or circles would help bring my skills along.
After another 3 quadrilaterals that were definitely not squares, I realised that even 20 hours of practice was not looking likely to see me producing the minimalist contemporary cushion cover of my Pinterest dreams. At that point, two things happened.
Firstly, I realised that I didn’t actually even want to learn what sc2tog, ch-3 picot means, because I didn’t want to follow a pattern. The crochet, it dawned on me, was something I was enjoying doing, as an activity which was quite different from the reading and the writing I do, i.e. I didn’t want to think too hard. I wanted to be on automatic, in flow, not stopping every ten minutes to check a pattern or silently counting stitches to increase and decrease. Early on in the beginners’ crochet process, I learnt to do ‘magic circle’, thanks to saintly next-door neighbour. I made 4 very wobbly circles and then went back to doing long endless chains, up and down, up and down, because that didn’t take any concentration or counting. I didn’t even care by now if the thing was waxing and waning, as I kept on making that beginner’s crochet mistake of losing and adding stitches.
Secondly, I decided that I might try to freestyle it – to treat crochet as a spontaneous, rather than patterned, activity. And to see what happened. I thought I’d invented freestyle crochet! Wherever you think you’ve invented something, it’s always a good idea to Google it. For sure, someone else will have already invented it. And that’s alright. Just check it, OK, to save you from hubris and social embarrassment. So yeah, the web turned up a whole pile of freestyle crochet and freeform crochet. It was, of course, gorgeous. Here’s one.
This was a bit off-putting, but also mildly inspiring. Maybe, just by doing random things and changing direction, changing stitches, I would produce something fabulous and original?
As the thing kept growing and shape-shifting, I got braver and had more fun with changing direction. (Revelation! With crochet, unlike knitting, you can just get on in there and crochet down the side of your stitched work. You can go round and round a square. And any crochet novice will confirm that decreasing and increasing is actually easier than not increasing or decreasing).
I soon gave up examining the thing to brainstorm what the piece might become, or trying to make clever anticipatory turns so that the ‘right’ tone of yarn would appear in a ‘suitable’ place. In a kind of altered state, I just crocheted whatever I fancied wherever I wanted to go. The result looks like this – only fit for a cat blanket, but she loves it and by now, I kind of like it too. It looks nothing like the elegant 3-D scrumbles that you’ll see when you hunt for ‘freeform crochet’. It’s an utterly random splodge of colour, pattern and shape. And, my darlings, making it was extremely soothing and great fun, by turns.
So, while Brian Resnick’s response to having poor hand-eye co-ordination (Hello, Brian! We know what that one’s like, too!) was to give up ball sports and go in for hiking and cycling instead, my response to this kind of ‘deficit model’ thinking is that we shouldn’t give up, but also that we don’t have to yearn for improved performance. Nah, we can all keep on giving it a go. I began to tell people that I was engaging in and supporting a movement for ‘shitty crafts’.
In line with my policy (academic habit) of always searching out the connections, I googled ‘shitty crafts’, to see if anybody else was writing about this stuff or pushing #shittycrafts. The main thing I turned up was a 2013 mountain-biker doing disastrous projects for laughs; and then a bunch of lovely young people hot-glueing pompoms and glitter to household objects in comedian Sam Reece’s ‘shitty craft club’ – an IRL actual activity pre-Covid. The tone here is whimsical and ironic, deliberately setting out to do activities and make stuff that are at once a nostalgic dip back into primary school culture and a satirical commentary on Instagram perfectionism. The shit factor here is real – there’s a gleeful joy in the horribleness of the final product.
My own parallel discovery of shitty crafts differs a fair bit from all this. There was a good slice of humour involved for us all in the WoBy house, especially at the beginning, as a kind of transitional mood over the period when everyone’s hopes for gorgeous outcomes to my studio time transmuted into pure and indifferent absorption in activity for me and into a sorrowful letting-go for everyone else. But, unlike those ironic millennials, deliberately setting out to do horrible stuff was never the initial goal. Product – satisfactory or disappointing as it might be – quickly faded out of any reckoning altogether, as I found myself completely taken up in process and flow and gradually developing a kindness towards myself, towards my lack of skill and towards everything that resulted. There’s no archness or camp irony at work here.
Wobbly circle – the crochet workaround is to pin it and water-spray. In life, there’s almost always a workaround.
I’m sleeping on that faded piss-yellow pillow slip from safflower dyeing, rather than sniggering at it; I’m happy that the cat is loving her snuggly new technicolour dreamblanket, full of holes and ragged edges; and I’ll be drinking that kombucha until Covid guru Tim tells me to stop it.
But I’ll be happy to attend a beginners’ crochet class over at Good Stitch once autumn sets in. It’s just that this time, I’ll be doing it with no expectations.