It’s the ultimate act of buying local: attending the city’s growing number of indie-craft events. Perusing the silk-screened Ts, hand-felted scarves, and reconstructed antique costume jewellery, it’s easy to think you’ve tapped into an underground community that’s unique to Vancouver.
But the fact is, the phenomenon is growing worldwide. No one knows this better than Faythe Levine, author of 2008’s Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design (Princeton Architectural Press) and director and producer of the documentary of the same name. She’s seen it—and recorded it—firsthand: the Austin seamstress who embroiders sign language on cowboy shirts; the Knitta group, which tags New York with its knitted “graffiti”; and the L.A. crafter who makes tiny hand-drawn wooden bird brooches. And she’s travelled as far away as Australia to talk about it.
Watch a sneak preview of Handmade Nation.
Now she’s hitting Vancouver with her film, in the kind of DIY style that suits her subject matter. The city’s first screening of Handmade Nation will take place next Thursday (July 9) at 8 p.m. at the Rio Theatre (1660 East Broadway), preceded by an hourlong Got Craft? market. Levine will lead a Q & A and do a book signing after the screening.
For Levine, the light went on when, as the designer of such items as a machine-sewn plush owl with a pocket in the back for messages, she was selling her wares at the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago in 2003. “I saw all these like-minded people and the vendors interacting with the customers—I saw there was something bigger going on, and it just took a year to really develop it to the point where I wanted to make a documentary,” she explains to the Straight by phone from her home base of Milwaukee, where she also established the popular Art vs. Craft fairs.
That “something bigger” wasn’t just the craft fairs she began travelling to across the U.S.; there was also a burgeoning on-line community where crafters were setting up shops on hubs like Etsy.com.
Levine also witnessed the rise of original events around the act and sale of crafting. “People are doing more hands-on events where, say, crafting groups meet at bars,” relates Levine. “There are more events like people coming together to work on hats for homeless people to keep them warm. I think the craft fairs have become social gatherings, with organic food or homemade food.”
What Levine also recognizes in her book and film is that this art movement that’s largely driven by women owes a lot to the punk and zine scenes. And she’s seeing something political happening: people making and wearing indie crafts as an act against mass consumption.
“By choosing to make something yourself out of recycled materials, you’re choosing against waste, you’re choosing against big-box retailers,” Levine explains.
For her, the drive to make things with her hands has its roots in Girl Scouts, summer camp, and after-school programs. “Personally, I think my motivation comes out of that sense of self-worth and gratification that comes out of completing a project you had a part in creating. It’s very empowering: to pick the yarn, pick the stitch, pick the materials. Something I’m interested in presenting or expressing is that creating is very empowering.”
Things have changed a bit since Levine conceived her film and book—chain and department stores have borrowed the indie, handmade look for their mass-produced clothes and accessories. Does she think things are becoming too corporate?
“I think there are pros and cons. The handmade aesthetic has been really co-opted as a marketing trend right now—some could view it as disappointing,” Levine says. “But I see it this way: if I’m unfamiliar with handmade culture and I go to Target and it has silk-screening and an unfinished edge on a T-shirt, then I open my paper the next day and see an ad for that boutique that sells things that look like that too, then all of a sudden that aesthetic is more approachable to me. People’s designs have also gotten ripped off. But a wider audience has gotten exposed to the work; it’s not as insular.”