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.
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.
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.