Making without context

This post was sparked by thoughtful conversations with Liz, Kelly, Beth, Marie, and Jenny. Thank you all!

When I was six, my mom taught me how to knit. We made knitting needles out of wooden dowels and beads and she showed me how to make the loops: Up through the front door, run around the back, down through the window and off jumps Jack. When I was older, I took up knitting as my own: I knit a sweater and then another one, and then I was teaching myself cables and lace from books we had, with my mom’s help. I learned about the history of different forms and techniques, and knitting’s modern history. Currently, several (most?) of my local friends are knitters and we talk about our projects, asking each other advice when an issue comes up. We trade tips and ideas and compliments. I read and appreciate all the expertise present on Ravelry–there’s someone else who’s made this, who knows how much yarn the project actually needs, who has a variation that I like even better than the original. Knitting is not only what I create; it is who I listen to and learn from; it is the community of other women who knit.

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The maker movement has become hugely popular in the last ten years, and it has swept libraries across the country. There are Maker programs, Makerspaces, circulating Maker items. A lot of times there is a pressure, conscious or unconscious, to be involved in the movement regardless of staff expertise or time/budget limitations. There are many neat things about the Maker movement, but it’s often talked about as if it’s the salvation of libraries. (Others have said smart things about the devaluation of Children’s & Youth Services, which has often done similar programs for years with less funding and recognition.)

What is maker culture? According to Wikipedia, it represents:

a technology-based extension of DIY culture that intersects with hacker culture which is less concerned with physical objects (as opposed to software) and the creation of new devices (as opposed to tinkering with existing ones). Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and, mainly, its predecessor, the traditional arts and crafts. The subculture stresses a cut-and-paste approach to standardized hobbyist technologies, and encourages cookbook re-use of designs published on websites and maker-oriented publications.

There’s a really telling word in there: predecessor. On the one hand, reading too much into a word choice on Wikipedia is perhaps a mistake. On the other hand–I’m going to make that mistake, because as I see it one of the major flaws of the maker culture/movement is its ignoring of the already existing and active history and culture of different crafts and arts. These things are not dead, as “predecessor” implies, and when maker culture doesn’t acknowledge and respect the other cultures of creation which are already present, it falls short.

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My first memories of creation are pretty clear. I remember my mom teaching me to knit. I remember my mom teaching me to bake bread in my own little loaf pan. I remember my mom teaching me to cross-stitch on a piece of gingham so I could see the squares. In all of these activities, there’s one constant which is: my mom was teaching me and I was listening and learning.

But also: I was learning that all of these skills she taught me required work and time. There are many crafts I don’t do, either through lack of particular interest or through lack of knowledge/time. However, when someone else makes a gorgeous felted toy, or hand-painted bureau, I have some small sense of the skill and work involved and I respect it. There’s a sense of appreciation, of collaboration and support rather than competing to be on the cutting edge. As my friend Marie said:

—–

There are certainly individuals who include arts and crafts within Makerspaces and culture–I’ve heard of libraries with spinning wheels, for instance. And yet, as a general usage, maker culture tends to be STEM-dominated and with a male-oriented ethos to it. I don’t have problem with STEM, except that it’s often assumed to be better than arts and crafts, and naturally on the way to replacing them. And more, even when arts and crafts are included within maker culture, they tend to be subsumed and reinvented, not recognized on their own.

For instance, knitting is not generally considered part of maker culture–unless it’s done with a 3-D printer. Why is it that a sweater knit on a machine is awe-inspiring and innovative, but a sweater knit by a girl is a symbol of “a domestic art from before the freedoms of feminism”? Why is it that what women have created, learned, and taught for years and even centuries suddenly becomes worthy when a male-led and dominated movement discovers it?

I have an answer to these questions.

—–

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m anti-technology, or even tech programs in libraries. For one thing, the internet has made learning crafts more open, by providing people across the world to learn from (helpful diagrams and YouTube videos have saved me more than once). Many of the tech-based programs are really neat in and of themselves (as far as I’m concerned, Makey Makey is wizardry).Nor am I anti-innovation when it comes to crafts. However, there’s a saying I’ve heard in regard to writing which I think applies here: you have to know the rules before you can break them. You should know the history and culture of a craft before you change it.

This is where I see maker culture as an issue. Rather than pausing to learn the history of a craft or what shaped it, maker culture wants to recreate it so it can be produced (as long as you do it exactly right). It creates an expectation of production rather than listening, replacing the relationships between people with a pressure to stay on top of flashy technology which often doesn’t last very long.

—–

I don’t want to say that crafting is some kind of utopian ideal; there are definitely issues of class and race that can’t be ignored. But if that’s true, it’s true of the maker movement as well, which posits a kind of surface egalitarianism while ignoring the work on which it is predicated. (Who exactly is making these 3-D printers, for example, and are they being lauded as makers?) For me, the value of crafting as I’ve experienced it is not only in gaining skills and the confidence to try new things, but in gaining respect for what other people do, in listening to and learning from their expertise and in passing it along whenever I can. It’s in respecting all the many ways we create, not just the ones that are popular at the moment.

Finally, I want to say that I certainly use the terminology of making, both at work where many of my craft programs are under the umbrella of “Make It,” and here where I call my monthly roundup of crafts & food “Made & Making.” It’s not that I want to claim I am somehow better and purer, and that anyone who’s involved in the maker movement is wrong and bad–indeed I don’t think there’s any inherent opposition. Rather, maker culture and the way we talk about it tends to erase the history and importance of traditionally female creation while promoting male-driven tech-oriented creation. When I want is not the dismissal of the maker movement, but a recognition both of the importance and validity of listening and learning–not from experts, but from each other–and of the long history and strength of what is too often dismissed as women’s work.

 

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7 Comments

Filed under crafts, Library

7 responses to “Making without context

  1. I am finding myself bemused at the “cut-and-paste approach” idea. Isn’t that pretty much the exact opposite of what creating is about? You can input some basic commands into a computer program and have it spit out a story – the Rainbow Magic books have proven that. But you will never get a Narnia out of that, or Middle Earth, or Prydain, or Hogwarts, or, or, or …

    To create is to put a little of yourself into something, to say: “I value this enough to give it my time and attention.” And there are many aspects of STEM that DO emphasize that – but a cut-and-paste approach to “standardized hobbyist technologies” (whatever that even means) seems to me to value cleverness over creating.

    And that’s not even touching on the other aspects which you brought out so well in this post, the sense of losing our connectedness with those who have gone before when we devalue the traditions they have formed.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts on this! I don’t do much of any flavor of “making” at my library programs because both traditional crafting and programming are out of my skillset. But some of the way maker spaces are implemented/discussed reminds me of similar conversations about gentrification and foodways, how hipsters taking interest in traditionally low-income foods and activities can end up pricing low-income people out of their food. It seems like there’s an overall tendency for some middle/upper-class people to pick and choose out of cultural history. I suppose to some extent everyone does that, but in certain contexts the effects can really be magnified.

    • Maureen Eichner

      Oh wow, that’s a really interesting & relevant article and great point. Yeah, because of cultural clout, the effects of individual choices are definitely magnified.

  3. Patti

    I used to work for Make magazine and Craft, and I applaud your insight here.

  4. Is this the post you were nervous about?

    * standing applause *

    I have such a love/hate relationship with Maker culture.

    I love how much more welcoming Maker culture feels, how less likely I am to be challenged when I join in, and how open the culture is to creativity. Yet it’s still a lot less welcoming than people act like it is. There’s still assumptions, when I join in, that I’m there to learn and try not demonstrate and share. And there’s definitely a hierarchy, in terms of which kinds of ‘making’ count.

    When it comes to using Maker ideas in library programming, I feel so very grateful that I don’t have to fight to convince people that STEM programs in libraries make sense. And I have to admit that I’ve often used the Maker trend to help revamp library STEM programs so that they are more about letting kids explore and play and discover rather than recreate. specific. science. experiments. just. so. Or to build. a specific. thing. just. so. For younger kids in large group settings, I tend to be biased in favor of process art over craft, and Maker culture feels a lot like process art but with tech to me, at times.

    But I also feel like, when it comes to science, a lot of the importance of observation and discovery and contemplation is lost in the push to make everything STEM also Maker. It feels like there’s often a lot of pressure to create a final product, rather than to explore and test and learn.

    And I definitely feel like people outside of the library treat the kids programs I’m creating as nothing more than part of a trend, and assume that I’m just getting all this out of a box. The truth is that I actually use my physics degree a lot when creating these programs – thinking out which scientific principles and ideas I want kids to get out of each program, making series of programs which build on each other so that kids get an understanding of each of the parts and how they relate to the whole. Like, I get the impression sometimes people look at my programs and think my thought process was “oh, cool. Little Bits looks so easy even I a girl like me could so it, let’s do that!” When in reality I’m sitting there going “ok, so I want to do paper circuits the first week so the kids get an understanding of the rules of building circuits, then the second week we’ll do squishy circuits to reinforce that and explore conductivity, then the next week we’ll use Little Bits to work on more complicated circuit logic,…” etc.

    I also wonder where art and story and culture fit into Maker culture. Which is related to what you were saying about admiring others work even when it’s not your own hobby or craft. Part of the way that Maker culture tries to be welcoming is to say that anyone can do it, but if anyone can do it where is the perspective and voice that individuals bring to their art? Is the idea that anyone can put the tinker toys together, but everyone will put them together slightly differently? I feel like that’s what Maker culture is saying that’s what art is, and I’m not sure I agree.

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