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What's So Great about Hand-Made?

Whether it's dog biscuits or sealskin parkas, creating items by hand builds culture and communities.

By Madelyn Chung, Sasha-Ann Simons and Lauren Solski, 5 Mar 2010, TheTyee.ca

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[Editor's note: The Tyee is proud to co-publish with Rabble.ca a multi-part investigation of Maker Culture -- the do-it-yourself movement fast evolving in North America and beyond. This is episode eight of 11, running Fridays.]

Last year, Linda Brown, a leathercrafter who specializes in the fine braiding and fancy knotting of kangaroo leather lace, left her home in Sooke, British Columbia to take a trip to Thailand. While she was there, she was working on some zipper knot pulls on the beach. "I'm not a wealthy person," said Brown. "I like to get away, but when I get away I have to work." Nearby beach vendors were all curious to know what she was doing, and soon after, she was teaching 20 people how to make zipper pull knots.

"What a wonderful experience to share that with people in another country," said Brown. "It gives you so much joy, not just in making the product, but the joy of the kind of people you get to meet as a result of it."  

Do-It-Yourself (DIY), or "making" has become a popular trend over the past few years. Fashion publications like Teen Vogue encourage its readers to "do-it-themselves" by offering how-tos and instructions from notable fashion designers. But making is not only limited to fashion and clothing. Sites like etsy.com have opened up a world for craft makers and artists to create, sell, and share their work. Others even create their own home decor, and eco-friendly homes made from natural materials, like straw bale.

Living green: sustainable homes and décor

A mid-life crisis/business venture turned Dean Reeds into a true maker. Reeds had spent a decade working on the Toronto Star website and felt he had nothing to show for it. Now he's a web designer and communications co-ordinator near Collingwood, Ontario. And he wants to make the world a better place. So a few years ago he decided to build a house -- a 1,500 square foot, two-storey, three-bedroom straw bale house in Wasaga Beach.

It's a cottage to be exact; made mostly of straw, locally-reclaimed trees, and materials acquired from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. These building supply stores accept and resell quality new and used building materials. "It amazed me how difficult it was at the time to find the right choices, environmentally friendly choices," Reeds explained.

He says he wanted to build a house that was radically different than the textbook version. In Reeds' case, 'building' a home didn't just mean walking into a model home and choosing simple options, like the colour of the carpets and the type of cabinetry. Reeds fell in love with the project and wanted more. He developed a business interest -- to help others make environmentally friendly building choices, and his straw bale cottage would soon become the prototype for this venture.

Some organizations showcase eco-friendly building on a larger scale -- including lots of community participation.

Remember the first little pig who built his house of straw? Well, meet the Fourth Pig -- an Ontario-based company that promotes ecologically balanced methods of construction and energy production. They teach sustainable building design and installation, and tackle the work themselves -- for anything from a home to a community centre.

Melinda Zytaruk, project manager, says that one of their goals is to see people more engaged with and less alienated from how things are built. "There is a strong element of community involvement in a lot of the straw bale structures we build. Communities can come together and share their skills and resources to help with certain elements of that process," she said.

There are a number of alternatives in natural building materials -- it depends on what's available on-site. Options like timber scribing with locally harvested lumber, and the dirt from the excavation site in rural areas can be incorporated into an aspect of the building.

"Straw is an amazing material with very good insulation properties. It's a waste product from the agricultural sector so it's fairly inexpensive. It's malleable and flexible as a wall structure, and it goes up fairly quickly. It can be quite beautiful when it's finished," Zytaruk said.

Recycled cardboard is another natural material used to construct, particularly furniture and other types of home decor. The stiff, paper-based product has done the unthinkable and constructed everyday household items, like clocks and lamps. It's even been used to design and build functional chairs.

Third-year La Roche College interior design student Marvin Chung spent a grueling two weeks on his freshman year class project. His group of three pulled all-nighters to construct the "first cardboard lounge and rocking chair in the world, that is able to rock both front-to-back and side-to-side," Chung boasted.

The final product is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and so functional that it could hold a baby elephant -- a whopping 200 lbs!

And, now, two years later? "It's still rocking like no one's business," said Chung.

New York-based event designer David Stark has designed events for clients like Rachel Ray and Target. He's also built a DIY enterprise that has enthusiasts rushing to download his how-to videos. But it's his cardboard furniture that are the most unique and futuristic.

From vases to tableware to cacti statues, Inhabitat.com calls Stark's creations "incredible."

"The end product is something that is often mind blowing, but it's the process and creative journey that really makes me tick," Stark wrote on his blog.

But can this sort of building and furniture design scale?

Dean Reeds has given up the straw bale consulting business but continues to rent the cottage on a weekly basis. "I don't know, maybe I'm just not a good salesman," he admitted. Reeds added that he's cynical about this movement, "unless it's forced by necessity, by perhaps a gigantic economic meltdown, there will still be just a small fraction of the public interested in this building system."

Still, he manages to remain hopeful. "When I look at the hand-crafted, non-straight lines and custom work -- I see the labour of love in there, all the choices I made are right there on the wall in front of me and that's something I really enjoy."

Northern Makers

Growing up in Pond Inlet, Nunavut provided Inuit seamstress Karliin Aariak with skills she would hold on to for the rest of her life.

"Being able to sew with the raw material that we're able to get brings you a sense of connection and a sense of accomplishment," Aariak said.

Aariak learned to sew animal skins at a young age and carried her talent on into her adult life. Like any original maker, she creates parkas, mittens and anything else she wants or needs. Aariak has organized several fur fashion shows in Nunavut and is also a North American champion for sewing seal skin. She currently manages a popular store in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Malikkaat Ltd. sells traditional Inuit creations, including crafts, jewellery, tools, carvings and garments.

"Inuit are naturally resourceful and sustainable," Aariak said.

Inuit have carried on this useful skill to the 21st century. Although the territory of Nunavut has become more modernized in the past three decades, there are still many creative links to the past. Maker Culture is prevalent in the north because several pieces of clothing are still handmade; many of which are made from animal skins.

Inuit use everything they possibly can to create something new.

"Traditionally, when Inuit hunted, they used the meat to eat, the fat to burn, the skin obviously for garments and to keep warm during the harsh weather. And then the bones were used either for tools or entertainment," Aariak explained.

In Inuit culture, when an animal is killed, it is not simply gutted, skinned and disposed of, but rather respected and put to use -- often to the deepest buried bone.

While some people in Nunavut purchase commercial clothing, Aariak believes it is important to not only support Inuit seamstresses, but it is also important to support the hunter.

"We need the hunters to catch the seal in order for seamstresses to make the clothing we do make. It's about supporting the industry," Aariak said.

Seamstress Qajaq Robinson considers her family original makers.

"When I was growing up in  Igloolik, you didn't have the option to go to MEC [Mountain Equipment Co-Op] and buy yourself clothing, so you made your own parkas because it was warmer than what was available commercially," Robinson said. "In terms of animal parts, everything was used; right down to the ribs of larger animals, like bowhead whales, were used as part of the frame of a house. Often, bone was used to replace what wood is more commonly used for now. Tendons and sinew were used as thread, meat was consumed and fur and stomach linings were used to make waterproof things, like raincoats."

Today, wood, tools and clothing are available to people living in Nunavut, however Robinson said Inuit still practice many traditions.

"It's not as much today as it was before, but it's still a tremendous amount. Very little of any animal goes to waste," Robinson said.

Although the option to shop online does exist, many Nunavummiut choose to buy local or make their own clothing. Connie Burke is currently a student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario. Burke grew up in Iqaluit, where she often modeled for fur fashion shows. If she had the choice, Burke said she would always choose Inuit fur clothing over modern fashion available.

"The clothing itself is better than things you can buy at a store, like kamiiks [a seal skin boot], for example, are very warm and waterproof," Burke said.

While some people in Nunavut purchase commercial clothing, Burke said she will try to avoid it whenever possible.

"I believe wearing traditional clothing is having pride, respect and also knowing that somebody hand made it," Burke said.

Craftism: making locally, and making money at it

In 2003, Cat Mazza, an artist from New York, created a venture to protest Nike -- one of the world's most infamous corporations, in terms of sweatshop labour.

She conceived a handmade petition for Nike president Phil Knight, by asking artists around the world to "sign" the petition by contributing 4x4 inch stitched squares, which Mazza put together to form a 14 foot knit, Nike logo.

"The Nike logo acts as a signature for fair labor policies for Nike garment workers," Mazza explained.

The project, called the Nike Petition Blanket, investigates the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labor.

Over a five-year period, virtual and handmade squares were collected on tour, electronically, and by postmail. Mazza received "signatures" from over 40 countries. Since then, the petition blanket has been exhibited at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, and is currently at the Art Gallery of Calgary.

The Nike Petition Blanket is part of a greater project also created by Mazza in 2003.

microRevolt is a web-based project that hosts freeware, knitPro. It is loosely based on the idea of "molecular revolutions" inspired by the philosophy of Felix Guattari. Guattari is a French philosopher and psychotherapist, and the founder of schizoanalysis and ecosophy. His concept of molecular revolutions is the idea that small acts of resistance can initiate change.

"Craft, or knitting -- mostly, seemed like an interesting place to begin mobilizing hobbyists in anti-sweatshop organizing," said Mazza. "I worked in digital media in my day job and found the history and overlaps between textiles and technology to be fascinating, so that folded into the concept as well."

The project, which was launched in 2003, investigates the dawn of sweatshops in early industrial capitalism to inform the public of the current crisis of global expansion and the feminization of labor.

Its freeware knitPro translates digital images into knit, crochet, needlepoint and cross-stitch patterns. Users simply need to upload .jpg, .gif, or .png images, and knitPro generates a graph sizeable for any fibre project. The freeware digitally mimics the tradition of pre-industrial craft circles who freely shared patterns, and passed them down from generation to generation.

knitPro users are stitching a variety of images, such as lo-tech video games, children book characters, candid snapshots, pop celebrities and symbols of political uprising. Some even create logos of big-named brands, such as GAP and Barbie.

"I think it's safe to say there is a rise in DIY craft, in consumer consciousness, in valuing the handmade and eco processes, in producing and supporting micro-economies and all these really exciting things," said Mazza.

"The resurgence of DIY is meaningful in that it has shifted some value to production, not just consuming things, but the pleasure really in making. This is what's lost when everything we use is manufactured elsewhere -- the tactic knowledge and pleasure in making."

microRevolt is an example of how makers use their artistic talent and creativity to raise awareness on social issues in politically charged and socially provocative ways.

Craftism defined

"Craftivism," a term coined in 2003 by writer Betsy Greer, is based on the idea that each time you participate in crafting, you are making a difference.

"It's a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite," said Greer on her website, craftivism.com.

Other makers use their creativity for different reasons: to make some extra cash, or to support local businesses.

Erica Secnik, a massage therapist from Pickering, Ontario, took on making soaps to finance her extra expenses, and because she found store-bought soaps too costly.

"I always wanted to give out some thank you gifts, and I went to the store and found they were all pretty expensive! So I thought, 'You know what? For what I see, I think I could make these!'" she said.

Secnik also encouraged her 11-year-old daughter, Emily, to venture into her own business.

The product? Gourmet dog cookies.

"I wanted her to learn to get a job. I think it's important for kids nowadays to learn the value of a dollar," Secnik explained. "I wanted her to just use her melon and think about things such as setup and cost and time, and what to do with her money afterwards, when she's worked really hard for her money."

Crystal Hall, the creator of a cloth diaper business called WeeOnes by JaJoC, feels that buying locally made products is ideal for giving back to your community.

"You generally will get to meet the artist or the maker, and you get to create relationships with local people, so you know that they really put time and effort into this, and that they've really thought about every little aspect of it," said Hall.

Operating her business in Whitby, Ontario, Hall makes her cloth diapers by hand, and only uses locally-made products.

"Local made also helps keeps jobs here. It helps keep moms at home. It helps keeps your kids with you. If you can keep jobs where you live, then everybody wins."

Made by hand adds value

Whether the end result is a straw bale home, a sealskin parka, or gourmet dog cookies, makers can take pride in knowing their creation is one of a kind.  

"People do appreciate a handmade product," said Brown. "I make things for people that they've envisioned in their mind and want to have, and I make it for them. You can't get that off the shelf."  [Tyee]

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