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I Took The Handmade Pledge

May 16, 2012 - Time to Flagrantly Knit in Public!

It's that time of year again... Worldwide Knit in Public Day is approaching! This event has been celebrated for a number of years, and just keeps growing. You can read about all the global knit-ups at www.wwkipday.com.

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Here at Wise Daughters, we'll start the day off right on Sat, June 9. Join us 9:30 - 11:30 for a knitting party, complete with free breakfast courtesy of neighbours Locomotive and Tea Bledz. Michelle Willis will provide live jazz piano. What could be finer?

Then, if you're still itching to knit, head downtown to Nathan Phillips' Square for the Downtown Knit Collective's WWKPD event (details here).

Why? Because we often craft quietly at home, but it's way more fun with a crowd! Celebrate your skills and passion for fibre with people who totally get it!

April 16, 2012 - The New Craftivism

According to Betsy Greer’s entry in The Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Sage Publications, 2007), “the term craftivism surfaced in the first few years of the 21st century and gained an online presence with the website www.craftivism.com in 2003 to promote the symbiotic relationship between craft and activism. After craft skills such as knitting regained popularity, the idea emerged that instead of using solely one's voice to advocate political viewpoints, one could use their creativity.”

Compelled to knit, but no longer compelled to make their families’ clothes, a lot of women (and some men) have been knitting hats for chemotherapy patients and premature babies for quite some time. There have even been “knitted knocker” projects for breast cancer survivors. More recently, some U.S. knitters have been following pretty specialized patterns to get their point across in the rekindled reproductive health debate in the U.S., but we’ll get to that later…

The interesting thing about craftivism is that it can be public or very private. As Greer points out,
“In promoting the idea that people can use their own creativity to improve the world, craftivism allows those who wish to voice their opinions and support their causes the chance to do just that...but without chanting or banner waving and at their own pace.”

I had the opportunity to take part in a study of craftivism last year, as one of the interviewees in a project called 'Making' Our Way Through: DIY and Crafting Communities in Toronto, by Arden Hagedorn and Stephanie Springgay. Their premise was this:
“Crafting, something seen as amateur and static in the past, should be understood as more than meets the eye. Though we must concede that mass production of items previously made by craftspeople are now subject to mass production on the largest of scales, the practice of handmaking continues because people do not see themselves reflected in capitalist products. They want something more, something they can feel grateful for, something that energizes rather than exhausts them, something that is beautiful. The seemingly organic persistence of craft is useful for more than those interested in taking part in these rising communities.”

So, handmaking can be seen as somewhat subversive in and of itself – a rejection, however quiet and personal, of capitalist products and mass production practices. A new homesteading movement is happening among people who wish to live “off the grid.” Handmaking has also come to be applied to activism of a very interesting variety.

Streetknit (www.streetknit.ca) is a Toronto initiative that encourages knitters to make warm scarves, mittens, hats, socks, blankets, etc. for people living on the street and in shelters. Wise Daughters hosts a packed monthly knit-up for volunteers. This is the group’s call for support: “Every year people in Toronto freeze to death because they have nowhere to come in from the cold. We can't knit shelter, but we can do the next best thing. We're asking you to put your needles together to keep someone warm this winter."

While knitting for the homeless is not necessarily a political act, homelessness is decidedly a political issue.

During the recent, brief strike by Toronto’s library workers, I received this email message one morning: "We’re having a Knit-In at City Hall this Wed (28th) at 11 am. Knit your support for Library Workers!" I’m not even sure who organized the knit-in, but I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this variation on the classic sit-in.

There were also calls last fall to knit for the Occupy Movement, originating in the U.S. Last fall, at the peak of the worldwide Occupy movement, I came upon a Facebook page calling for knitters to take part: “Scarf by scarf, mitten by mitten. Support your local Occupy Protesters this winter. It's going to be a cold one and they need warm things! If you're a yarn whore like me I'm sure there is at least an extra scarf or pair of socks or mittens in your stash. Knit them up. If you don't know where to send things look on www.OccupyTogether.org or www.occupywallst.org.”

During WWII, women were busily knitting socks for soldiers as part of their own pursuit of freedom and democracy. The argument can be made that these knitters are doing the same. Whatever one’s opinion, it’s intriguing to see handmaking re-emerge as a response to a global political crisis.

Emily Matchar, author of New Domesticity, due for release in 2013 writes:
“One of the more interesting aspects of the New Domesticity is the way certain old-fashioned domestic skills are being used to make explicit political statements. While not all crafters have any kind of political agenda, of course, there’s a certain subset of the DIY craft movement that considers their work “craftivism” (craft + activism). Craftivism includes a wide range of beliefs and motivations, from environmentalism to feminism (re-valuing traditionally devalued women’s work)… to anti-capitalism.”

She notes, “Knitting has become particularly symbolic of an anti-status quo spirit. The knitting-as-social-protest seems to date back about a decade, though it has definitely become more prominent lately. In 2002, the first Revolutionary Knitting Circle held a “global knit-in” at the G8 Summit in Alberta, Canada, and the group has since spawned others across Canada, the US and Europe. Since then, there have been all kinds of “anarchist knitting mobs” and such across the country, and ”yarn-bombing” (covering pieces of urban infrastructure like lamp posts or parking meters in knitting) has become a new form of (illegal) street art in the past few years. In December 2010, yarn-bombers famously wrapped the Wall Street bull statue in a pink and black sweater.”

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Just this winter, a very creative initiative has taken off in the U.S. Organized by a group called Government Free VJJ (www.governmentfreevjj.com), the idea is to knit a uterus (or other parts of the female reproductive system) and mail it to male members of Congress. Patterns are helpfully provided.

The group’s website explains:
• We are women, we are strong, we are smart. And we have a sense of humor.
• We do not need government interference with our doctors or our healthcare.
• We do not need government probing our vaginas to help us make decisions about abortion.
• We do not need government to give us guidance about whether or not to take birth control.
• We do not need misogynistic pundits calling us sluts and prostitutes.
• We are half of the population and we will not be treated as children or a disenfranchised minority.

Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent, female or male…Tell your male government representatives: “Hands off my uterus! Here’s one of your own!”

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I can’t help but wonder if Motion M-312 (concerning when life begins and the rights of foetuses) coming before Parliament later this month will spark a similar wave of knitivism.

March 24, 2012 - Desire, Drive, Discipline, Determination and Duty

An MBA grad recently told me that there was a course in the program on “how to be an entrepreneur.” When the students arrived for the first class, they were told, “If you signed up for this course, you’re not an entrepreneur.”

So does that mean entrepreneurship is conducted entirely by the seat of one’s pants? No. But I see the point that book learning won’t go very far in preparing you for this life.

I found this quote in a business article:
Successful entrepreneurs are people who are fully committed to their business ventures. You have to be prepared to put your heart and soul into what you’re doing. You have to truly believe in your product or service, and be prepared to work long hours to get others to believe in your product or service, too. You have to be ready to go without treats such as holidays, and even necessities such as salary, for what may seem like an endless stretch of time. And you have to do all this without the safety net that salaried employees are used to, such as benefits and pension plans.

It’s scary, no doubt about it. Unless you’ve got backers, you’ve got to be ready for some short-term but potentially terrifying downward mobility.

The author of this article went on to describe entrepreneurs as “Type D” people – D for desire, drive, discipline and determination. True enough. The discipline part is just as important as the rest, and I suspect may be the weak spot for some indie business people. All the passion in the world isn’t going to keep you on top of everything. In fact, too much passion can be an obstacle to getting things done, or foster the illusion that other people should simply fall in love with your magnificent product or service. Alas, customers need to be wooed. A lot.

It also helps enormously to be a Jill of All Trades. If you can do your own bookkeeping, graphic design, content writing, and maybe a bit of carpentry and plumbing, you’re off to a good start. You can’t avoid tasks you don’t like or aren’t good at. Social media is a prime example; it requires constant attention, and only you, as the spokesperson for your brand, can attend to it. The job of spokesperson for your brand is a critical one. It’s you who will leave a positive or negative impression on someone, forever associated with your business.

I still remember how much it hurt when an anonymous respondent wrote on a customer survey, “It wouldn’t hurt the owner to smile.” I couldn’t believe I’d been caught not smiling. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much. And I usually want to smile… I’m delighted to see people come into my shop! I have to assume I had a headache or something, but it was a reminder that I’m on duty every minute – even outside the shop. There’s another “D” for the list!

March 13, 2012 - Being in the Physical World

Ok, first a confession and some context... I watched a TV with 3 channels encased in a huge wooden cabinet as a child. I thought computers would never catch on, the first time someone in my creative writing class at university brought his story printed in barely readable dotty letters on perforated paper. I never want to read a book on a Kindle-thingy. I only tolerate my computer screen because it's gigantic. I like the real world - the one I can experience with every one of my senses. I never even understood Stairmasters; I thought, unless you live in a bungalow, why not just find some actual stairs (ideally outdoors) and climb them? Of course, the simulation craze has gone way beyond Stairmasters now, with tennis, bowling, guitar playing, painting and virtually every other activity known to humanity replicated on screens of every size, around every corner. Oh, woe is me!

Even at the conference I attended last weekend, entitled Craft and the New Economy, there was a huge emphasis on technology, such as the digitization of patterns and designs that can produce gloriously complicated fabrics or ceramics. It's all very impressive, and no doubt exciting if that's what you're into. But for me, the point of craft is to manipulate the materials I'm working with, not to manipulate images on yet another screen. Basically, if I don't end up with something on my shirt - paint, threads, fluff - I don't want to do it.

My kids are grown, so I don't even know how little kids spend their time. For sure some of them are getting messy making quirky, lopsided objects of their own design. But I still fear the extinction of the scribble. Perhaps I have a paranoid perception that all this virtual living will make kids colour within the lines (literally and metaphorically speaking). If there is one thing my mother taught me, (much to my initial dismay when she got her hands on my colouring books), it was never to colour within the lines.

March 11, 2012 - The Politics of Handmade

Yesterday I had a chance to get away from the shop for a bit and reflect. I attended a conference called Craft and the New Economy at OCAD, presented by the Ontario Crafts Council. I came away with much food for thought, and fodder for a whole bunch of blog posts. For now, I'll share some ideas on the rather vast and complex question of how to make handmade goods accessible to the average consumer, rather than available exclusively to an elite group of shoppers.

I always urge handmakers to charge fairly for their work. Underpricing only undervalues the craft and quality that go into the product, and in the end, serves neither the maker nor the client well. There is no doubt that this means some products will be priced at a level out of reach for many buyers. It's why you'll rarely see handmade socks. At two days' labour per pair, they'd have to cost $200 just to cover yarn and pay the knitter minimum wage. Typically only the close friends and relatives of devout knitters have the pleasure of receiving such socks as gifts.

Pricing is something of a feminist issue as well, given that most handmakers are women, and that traditional women's work continues to be undervalued. Sometimes I hear older visitors to the shop sniffing at the prices, arguing they could make the same items for a fraction of the cost. I want to ask (and sometimes do), why they feel their skills and time are worth so little. One of yesterday's speakers mentioned her discomfort with marketing messages along the lines of, "Not your grandmother's ________ (embroidery, sewing, knitting)," and I absolutely related to her comment. If it weren't for my foremothers' skill and passion for craft, I wouldn't have embarked on this journey. I want to honour their work, not dismiss it as hokey or old-fashioned. Design tastes evolve, of course, but appealing to hipsters in this way seems both disingenuous and short-sighted to me.

Let's look at a sweater like this one made by Vintage Baby Revival:
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At $60, it's obviously more than a baby cardigan you might find at a major retailer. But let's assess the value of such an investment:

1. It is designed to expand with the baby, fitting for a good 9 months.
2. It is made to last, out of quality yarn. Cared for properly, it could be worn by half a dozen babies.
3. It travelled a block, on foot, to get from the maker to the retailer. Can't beat that carbon footprint.
4. The maker's earnings will circulate in the local economy.
5. The retailer's earnings will also circulate locally, and bring tax earnings into provincial and federal coffers.

Quite apart from the loftier questions of economic and environmental sustainability, this sweater starts to make sense in purely mathematical terms when you you consider that $60 divided by 6 kids is $10 each. Not even a big box store selling goods manufactured in developing countries can compete with that.

At the far end of the spectrum, you've got something like a Hermes scarf. One of yesterday's presenters (speaking about the marvels of technology) showed how an intricate and beautiful hand drawing is digitized and printed onto luxury fabric to create this example of wearable art. It is a thing of beauty that only the 1% we've heard so much about this year can possibly afford. But it's an art object we can all appreciate and admire, albeit in a book or museum.

Another speaker lamented the "H&Mization" of such items, and I started to bristle at the elitism of her argument. I obviously agree that designs shouldn't be stolen, and I feel strongly about fair labour practices, but why shouldn't everyone have access to a garment that lifts the spirits because it's lovely to look at?

This is where things get murky. There is a conflict between the ethos and reality of handmade that can't be simply or easily resolved. Making things yourself is satisfying because it is both creative and resourceful. DIY can even be seen as an anti-capitalist resistance movement, but that's a blog post for another day! Selling what you make, however, does open a whole economic can of worms. Handmade doesn't have to be expensive, but it does come loaded with values that require some awareness-raising.

I welcome your thoughts!

My Junction Women's Art Round Robin

For the past three years, I've been part of an informal art group that basically makes projects together by passing them around at 3 week intervals, over the course of several months. The first year, we did altered books, each contributing pages using a variety of visual media. The second year, we wrote entries in each others' books. This year, we decided to go 3D, with shadow boxes, or dioramas. Themes have ranged from "the macabre", to "happy places" to "endurance."

I don't want to give too much away, because some of the boxes that make up my project will be on display during the upcoming women's exhibit at Wise Daughters (see www.wisedaughters.com for March 2 opening party details!). But I have to share this much...

My theme is "gender," inspired in part by the controversy last summer around baby Storm, whose parents are choosing not to disclose the baby's gender. As a lesbian and a feminist, I probably think about gender more than some people anyway.

Everyone had to tackle this theme in whatever way she saw fit, filling an empty box like this:

Today I received the box pictured below, filled, as you can see, with a plant that rather splendidly represents the theme.

This box is not exactly mountable on the wall, but will be on display during the women's show nonetheless. I can't even tell you how much this plant improved my day. It's been a strange and frustrating week, in fact, but this outrageous plant is just the thing to wrap up my Friday on a positive note. It's Family Day weekend, but let's leave the discussion about what makes a family for another blog...

Thanks to Anita for the inspired submission to the project!

Mistress of My Domain

It's been a few years since I've been responsible to a board of directors (my previous work was in the not-for-profit sector), or responsible for a staff of any size, and the freedom has been intoxicating.

Sometimes people assume Wise Daughters is a collective, I suppose because it kind of has that vibe, and because some other craft enterprises are structured as such. I jokingly reply that it's a benevolent dictatorship. I've been a collaborator and a compromiser all my working life, and I still think I play quite nicely with others, but being a dictator really kind of rocks. I'm beholden to nobody. If I succeed, I get to take the credit. If I fail, at least I won't feel I was powerless in the face of opposing forces, the way I sometimes did in my previous jobs (they were mostly elected forces, not much concerned with social justice).

So, here I am, mistress of my work domain. And, for the first time in my life, mistress of my domicile too. No partner, no kids at home, just a silly little dog who knows I'm the leader of the pack. In fact, I'm living alone for the first time EVER. Went from parents to roommates to partner and from there into motherhood, which lasts forever, but not under one roof (well, maybe if you have video game playing boy-men, but I have fiercely independent girl-women). When I found myself suddenly single last summer, the shock morphed into curiosity and then into invigorating experimentation into doing whatever the hell I want.

For example, last night, for Valentine's Day, I took myself to an incredible concert/reading with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale and Lawrence Hill. It was right up my alley, and I didn't have to be concerned about whether anybody else was having a good time. Recently I went to the live finale of Canada Reads at CBC. I play Scrabble often. Why? Because I can.

I am totally embracing my inner nerd (ok, outer nerd). My daughters joke about the number and variety of obscure free arts events I subjected them to as children (these experiences made them what they are today, if you ask me). Now I am at liberty to unapologetically pursue the oddest cultural activities I can find. Plus, I can eat single ingredient meals, hang around in my undershirt and fluffy swan slippers and yell answers at Alex Trebek during Jeopardy. It's fantastic.

Will I feel this way in 5 years? Hard to say, though I've read a lot of recent media articles about how singletons make up a large and growing percentage of households. Whatever happens down the road, I'm so glad I'm getting this time to truly be mistress of my domain.

Mary and Daisy

Social Enterprise Meets Handmade

Wise Daughters was pleased to be approached a few weeks ago by Human Endeavour, a Vaughan area agency serving marginalized communities through a number of programs and initiatives. One is Epic Mart, a "social enterprise incubator" that offers training, space, marketing and sales support to help people earn an income through craft. Wise Daughters now carries pillows made with beautiful fabrics, and unique hand-painted vases like these:

Pillows

Vase

Social entrepreneurship is a growing sector. Inspirations Studio, a program of Sistering, operates using this same model; for 3 years, Wise Daughters has been selling gorgeous ceramics made by women who are overcoming poverty, homelessness or trauma. The hottest item Wise Daughters has commissioned from Inspirations is this ceramic humidifier, a low-tech, free way to add moisture to homes heated by rads.

Inspirations Ceramic Humidifiers

Find out more about both of these programs at www.humanendeavour.org and www.inspirationsstudio.ca.

Meet Daisy

These days when you come to Wise Daughters, you'll meet Daisy, the dog I adopted last week. She's a 4 year old puggle (pug/beagle) who was sent to a pound because her elderly owner had to go into nursing care. She didn't cope well there, so was taken into doggy foster care by Snookie's Little Rescue, a national non-profit, and it's through them that we found each other.

Daisy

Daisy was clearly the alpha dog in her last home, and has work to do to learn her manners, but she's a very quick study. I can see her trying very hard not to displease me by barking. She's already learned to sleep in her own bed next to mine and to sit next to me at the shop (vs in my lap all the time). She needs a lot of reassurance, but once she gets it, she's as sweet and calm as any well loved dog can be.

It's just lovely for me to have her company, especially on those long days when there's a full shift plus an evening workshop. She's come to enjoy our routine of walk/bus/walk to get here, followed by a mad dash around the shop before she settles in for the day.

Don't worry if you've got allergies or are just not that into dogs - she's restrained behind the cash so she won't bound over to greet customers. But if you want to say hi, she'll give you a wag of her ridiculous curly tail.

Help for Handmakers

There's an embarrassment of riches in this city in terms of artistic talent. But few people possess a combination of creative skills and sales acumen. It's not always an easy blend. This is where I hope Wise Daughters can make a difference in 2012.

Since mid-2010, I've been offering workshops on The Art of Selling, to help makers with the often daunting business side of things. It's on the schedule again Jan 18, followed in the coming weeks by The Art of Marketing via Social Media (levels 1 & 2) and then Craft Fair How-To, each presented by crafters with a wealth of understanding in these areas. This cluster of workshops will really help equip handmakers with tools and tips for success in this very tough line of work. One of the most valuable aspects of these workshops, I think, is the chance to get feedback and share ideas with peers, since many of us work in isolation.

I've also decided to move forward with more consulting for crafters. I do quite a lot of it anyway, as part of the process of negotiating with artists who approach the shop, and I enjoy sharing what I've learned over the past 3 years. So I'm offering 30 minutes of free one-on-one consultation with handmakers who want help pricing, packaging and promoting their wares. I'll give you an honest opinion and help you determine where to focus your energy (besides making things). Some people are great at selling themselves, others would rather crawl under a rock. I can't change your disposition, but I can help you improve your written materials, for example, so your message is clear. Then maybe you can get your gregarious best friend to be your front man or woman at shows and sales!

If you'd like to know more, check out the workshop details at www.wisedaughters.com or shoot me an email at crafts@wisedaughters.com.