I’ve been reading a couple of interesting essays lately on the value of craft, some specifically decrying the popularity of quick “weekend projects” and kits because they are shallow and require little to no creativity and skill.
Here is my “take” on it:
First, it’s important to define “good”. Most people who dislike quick weekend projects consider themselves consummate craftsmen/women. They have dedicated years of study to their handwork and produce work that is, generally speaking, higher quality and more original than people who work from kits. From their perspective, weekend projects and kits demean the value of craft, by reducing it to a low-skill, low-effort endeavor. This is important to them because it impacts the overall perception of craft: if most of what is seen in a craft is a low-skill and low-effort product, the status of the craft suffers.
Moreover, they argue, the ready access to kits and “recipe” projects discourages creativity: given a set formula to follow, an easy path, many people never venture forth on their own. This is mostly (IMHO) due to fear of screwing up, of making mistakes – the sweet assurance of a kit is that if you follow instructions, you will get exactly the product you want, with minimal chance of error. Whereas, if you enter the wilderness of your own crazy ideas, the odds of winding up with something completely unexpected are quite high. (In fact, letting go of the idea that you can produce your vision precisely is one of the first steps towards mastery, IMHO.)
I mostly agree with this, although I think the issue is not so much the availability of kits and recipes as the cultural expectation of using kits. Kits and recipes have great value: they provide guidance to the beginning crafter, holding their hands until they develop the basic skills of the craft. Weekend projects enable people to get the flavor of a craft without committing serious time to study. The challenge, from the perspective of a craftmaster encouraging others to develop skill in a craft, is getting people to move on from kits and recipes to original work, to move from weekend projects to a deeper exploration of the craft. Because deeper is better.
But is this really true?
People have tried to define “good” for ages, and I’m not going to try to define morality. But I do believe it is possible to define “good” for individuals, as something that contributes to their enjoyment of life – not only pleasurable things but also their sense of vital connectedness – depth of experience, if you will.
I believe that creative work contributes to that enjoyment, both by pleasure in achievement and in deepening that sense of connectedness to the universe. Doesn’t matter whether you’re inventing a better coffee machine, painting the next great art piece, or weaving a simple dinner napkin – it’s the act of creation, of doing something yourself, that seems to benefit most people. To that degree, craft is good.
But is “good” craft any better than “bad” craft?
To me, that depends on many things. I believe that working with your hands is calming and helps create connection – but that contemplativeness is accessible via any sort of craft, whether it be paint by numbers or scarf from a kit. I did counted cross-stitch – which is one of the least skilled, least creative crafts I can think of – for several years, and found the process of stitching someone else’s designs no more and no less calming than the manual process of creating my own original work. In other words, the mechanics of craftwork remain the same, and are calming, either way.
I also believe that designing your own work brings a sense of achievement and a degree of connectedness that working from a kit does not. I recall a fellow cross-stitcher who, when she received a compliment on a piece, modestly replied that it was the designer who should get all the credit – she was merely executing someone else’s design. While I think that’s an oversimplification, I also think there is greater satisfaction in designing as well as producing one’s own work – both satisfaction in achievement (because designing your own is harder than following instructions), and satisfaction in having conceived and birthed one’s own vision (connecting to the Muse).
That said, there are many reasons why someone might prefer kits or recipes – the primary one being that original, creative, skilled work requires a large investment of time and energy. For someone whose primary attention is elsewhere (job, childrearing, another avocation, etc.), that time and energy may not be available, making “kit” or “weekend” projects more appropriate. A lesser degree of connectedness is still better than none at all! and even a master may prefer simple finger exercises when his or her focus is elsewhere. Much of the calming benefit of handwork can be realized without striking out on one’s own, design-wise – which makes it perfectly appropriate for people who do not want to invest the time and energy in developing original designs. Unlike many craftspeople, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with someone who prefers to craft others’ designs. I believe doing so is less rewarding – but also a whole lot less stringent in its demands, so it really depends on where one wants to invest one’s life force.
I do believe that there is a crisis in craftwork, however, and that it is indeed related to the production of kits and recipes. There is a big difference between consciously choosing to invest one’s energies elsewhere, and unconsciously following kits and recipes because one isn’t aware of other options. I did counted cross-stitch for years without being aware of the possibility of designing my own work – it simply wasn’t something that people did, as far as I knew, except the godlike designers who magically produced patterns for me. This is the danger of kits and recipes: the artificial division of craftspeople into Those Who Design and Those Who Follow Directions. This can result in people losing access to the deeper degree of satisfaction an original creation affords, not by choice but through ignorance. And it is this problem, I feel, which needs to be addressed: how to ensure beginners access to books and magazines that teach the skills of craftwork and make creating one’s own designs seem accessible. This is particularly an issue in weaving, which is a complex art requiring (relative to other crafts) more knowledge and experience to design. I’ve been very glad indeed to see resources like Weavolution, the various Yahoo groups, and Handwoven’s social networking site “filling the gaps” and providing knowledge to those who want it.