The Aura of the Analogue in a Digital Age: Women's Crafts, Creative Markets and Home-Based Labour After Etsy
Work data:ISSN: 1837-8692
Type of work: Article (academic)
At a time when the success of the Etsy website and the Cath Kidston label (among others) marks out a space where women's home-based crafts practice is elevated from the local market to the high street, this article examines the renewed popularity of the handmade and of craftproduction and its relation to economies of amateur labour.1 The article situates the popularity of the handmade original as a desirable aesthetic object and part of a broader return of credibility to previously disparaged women's craftpractices. This credibility has occurred via younger consumers as well as through the increased potential the internet has created for small-scale business models, where amateur producers with no formal training can set up a creative business. The focus here is on the Etsy.com online marketplace and its spin-offphysical markets, and on those practices employing yarn (for example knitting, crochet, needlepoint and weaving) and fabric (sewing, felting). The article then critically examines the economic, political, technological, social and cultural affordances that have enabled this re-articulation of (largely) women's domestic work. I locate current debates around home-based craftproduction and creative work historically by turning attention to the nineteenth-century British Arts and Crafts movement, and its longstanding association with progressive labour practices and small-scale production. Finally, the article considers the claims to radicalism made on behalf of design-craftor indie craftscenes after Etsy about the desirability of the homemade and small-scale production models.
It may seem incongruous, but much of my recent thinking around the contemporary popularity of the handmade really came into focus in the most digital of contexts. For almost half a decade I have run my games studies course with one week of workshop activities focused on participants coming up with a game concept in two hours and then presenting a 10-minute concept pitch to the whole group. The participants work in teams, broken up into various roles based on industry practice: producer, marketing manager, game designer (lead), level designer, art director (lead), 3d/2d artist, animator, technical director (lead), AI/physics programmer, sound engineer, writer and so forth. With time at a premium and the activity taking place in a computer lab, for the last four or so years before 2011 the 'art director' and their team have logically sought inspiration and imagery for the pitch presentation online; cutting and pasting existing material from the internet that matched their own vision into the pitch PowerPoint.
In 2011 something curious occurred. In all classes the 'art director' hand drew the concept artwork for their team. There had been absolutely no change in the framing of the activity given to the students; rather the shiftwas in them. After years of enacting the 'digital revolution', this year's cohort defaulted to manifesting their creative ideas directly from their mind to the page via their hand and a pencil. Not a single person had done this before, and now they all had. This incident coincided with a period in my own life where I found myself looking out for good deals on film for an old-school Polaroid instant camera because of my teenage step-daughter's interest in analogue photography. This particular retro technology valuably combines the instantaneity of the digital photo (taken for granted by generations unaccustomed to waiting for their holiday snaps to be developed) with the material artefact of the actual photo. When you are a 'digital native', analogue is new.