Being a handy person, I never feel right about buying a gift I could make myself. Especially when the item is so basic that no one would make it at home anyway, and the only reason anyone would buy it at all is that it’s on a cool rack with hundreds of others looking all trendy. As I stood by the bookstore checkout waiting for the clerk to finish entering my order of David Adams Richards’s River of the Brokenhearted, I scanned a nearby display of colorful magnets announcing, “Yay! Chocolate!” “Yay, compost!” “Yay! Mom!” “Yay! Gay!” And all I could think was, this is weird. Not the words or the meanings, which were merely conversational and affirming, but that someone could make a living selling these things. They don’t really qualify as a craft or art, because what crafty person would say, What a good idea–I think I’ll make some myself as gifts. They’re definitely a step own from the “Life is good” T-shirts that have made a killing in the last few years, which at least are wearable, good quality, and have cute little stick figures doing stuff on them. But they too have been elevated in status by mass production which gives them that aura of homey pop culture. Did you know the phrase “Life is Good”on clothing is copyright protected?
As I walked up the stairs to park myself in a booth with my laptop and a cup of coffee, I tried to think of a crafted item that could work in reverse, as in be useful, attractive, good quality, but not susceptible to low quality mass production copying. Here it is: a shopping/tote bag designed to sling over the shoulder and last many years of carrying heavy things, end embroidered or hand painted with, “Down with Mass Produced Junk. Up with Quality”. I’ve been thinking about this theme for years, most intensely when I step too far into a bargain department store and see the crap that we ship here from the sweatshops of the world to pawn off on our poor or tightwad rich: plastic toys, cellophane gift bags, figurines, housewares, cleaning supplies, poorly made clothing, reusable, recycled shopping bags that can’t handle anything heavier than a few bags of chips, and food that will keep months without microorganisms ever being interested in taking a toxic nibble. I often feel physically nauseated at such an experience–not only the reminder of that awful appetite for consumption, but that ordinary human beings in my own community support such a system, as even I do in my quest to appease a child who “has to” have a certain item for a team gift exchange. I’m under no illusion that just because buying the same gift bag at the “nicer” store costs eight times as much, that anyone at the bottom of the economic ladder is benefiting from the extra cash.
Do we really need to keep the economy running on such poor fuel? Now that we’re starting to count the costs of our throw away culture, what alternatives will we come up with? Homemade takes so much time, and who has that? There are always kits, complete with instructions–for cement garden stepping stones, E-Z sew Disney theme fleece pillows, pre-designed memory albums. And to save money there are or cheap, imported, plastic craft supplies–sparkly beads, styrofoam flower arrangement bases, prefab paintable birdhouses, synthetic yarn, and squeezable puff paint, all priced subject to economy of scale. No need to source alpaca wool, wood knitting needles and quality crafting tools. And anyway (quote from Brave New World)
Buying good quality homemade items at the local artisans’ fair is another option, but prices there are pretty hard to swallow after years of comparison shopping online. And in my experience, artisans cater to a limited range of esthetics, and items truly useful over the long term are rare. One can use only so many landscape paintings, earrings, Christmas tree decorations, scented soaps and candles, found item collages, hand bags, ceramic hors d’oeuvres dishes, and funky fleece hats. The products available through developing world fair trade artisan coops are gorgeous, but also not always very practical, and/or they fit best within the culture in which they are made, with all their bright colors and cultural symbolism.
I’ve been working on an idea about this—I’ve heard there’s at least some appetite for it—to teach kids to make things with their hands. In the name not only of training them in useful skills such as woodworking, sewing, and equipping a life, but also as a counter the present dearth of opportunities to practice creativity, depth of concentration, problem solving in real time and space, and a priority on quality. I picture teaching some good basic skills with the materials, whatever they be, and encouraging students to take it from there and express something of their personality and values, working some special esthetic into their pieces. Engaging in an artful productivity, a beautiful practicality. With conversations about the hidden costs of economies of scale, outsourcing, and making it big.