I don't remember a time in my life when I wasn't crafting in some way. I recently found a latch hook rug of a cocker spaniel I made when I was seven or eight. Our house is littered with crafting projects I'm working on and ones I've completed. In a job that relies heavily on being intellectual, crafting has always been a way for me to engage in something creative.
Crafting allows me to tap into a different part of my brain, to use my hands and be in the moment; to viscerally create something and watch it grow. Crafting is where I find what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines as flow, a highly focused mental state. His work explores happiness and creativity and he argues that we are at our happiest when we are in a state of flow. This state is one where we are so involved in an activity that we are completely absorbed, nothing else matters. We’re “in the zone.” It is a time where we are engaged and fulfilled and we can ignore other concerns—such as our egos. We are involved in the activity for its own sake and are completely present in the moment. Flow is associated with curiosity and persistence.
For me, I’ve realized that one of the places that I find flow is when I craft, when I’m doodling or making buttons, or taking pictures, or making a collage. I can transform what was once a game of Scrabble or a button or thread into jewelry or cufflinks, or the Tardis. And, in doing so I can also care for myself, which is radical and transformative and something we always need to do more often.
Crafting is also a journey. When I create, I am not in control. Even if I think I know what my final product will be, it does not mean that it will turn out the way I originally envisioned. When I craft, I need to accept changes and imperfections as part of the process. They are essential to the experience and creations.
These new experiences can create beautiful imperfections that can be offered to others as tangible gifts the recipient may love as much as I do. One of my favorite things is when someone sees my buttons and starts to laugh about the images I’ve created. It is a way to connect to people and share memories and stories.
For me, crafting is also a political statement. It is a feminist act. Much has been written and critiqued about the role of crafting and its relationship with third wave feminism. Some argue that the popularity of crafting has set women back to a time before feminism, but I would argue that crafting has made feminism a tangible action and not just an intellectual pursuit.
There is a long relationship with women and crafts, or what have been labeled as “domestic arts” which were defined as unproductive female labor in the home. Sewing, crocheting, knitting and needlework were done not to make a profit; instead creative work was done by women to clothe their families, quilt blankets, and other domestic tasks. These domestic practices of women were used to keep them in the home during a time when male-dominated activities performed outside the home and that brought in money to the household were activities that were valued. Because of this history, for a long time crafting was not viewed as a fine art and excluded from professional practice.
Yet, although crafting has long happened in the home, women used it to organize groups, practice collectively, and meet up with other women. They used crafting to pass down traditions and educate their daughters in the construction of art. Crafting circles became sites of consciousness raising and brought awareness to women about feminist ideologies and community concerns.
By the mid 1990s, crafting became strongly identified with third-wave feminism. Young women, such as myself, were reclaiming the domestic arts, participating in crafting and using it as a space to express ourselves and resist traditional notions of crafting. Crafting has become an anti-capitalist, environmentalist movement where women join together to form collectives, engage in social activism, anti-sweatshop ideals, and even use crafting as a way to protest or do guerilla art, such as yarn bombing.
For me, crafting has always been a site of activism. I have been a part of crafting groups, made work that recycles and repurposes objects, have designed political statements through crafting, and have used my work to redefine the spaces around me.
Right now I’m cross-stitching a Tardis. I’m not sure what I will do with it or where it will go. I am already seeing all the imperfections, but as I watch it transform from a white canvas to a blue police box that is definitely bigger on the inside, I think of connections to other women and communities of crafters and I am able to find meditative flow during a time in the semester where there is always too much to do.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.