Common Threads

BY Arts Desk  March 3, 2009 at 10:53 AM EDT

C’mon, break out those knitting needles your grandma gave you. Across the country, resurgent interest in things handmade is redefining craft-making for the 21st century. Quilts are cutting-edge outlets for self-expression, and samplers carry messages of anti-consumerism, environmentalism and feminism. The work is not just beautiful: it’s hip, it’s political and it’s a little punk rock.

“I don’t know how it became cool,” says documentary filmmaker Faythe Levine. “I think that people are looking for a way to become individual and to set themselves apart from the sameness that sort of engulfs our society. I think craft and doing stuff by hand allows one to do just that.”

Levine, a crafter herself and co-owner of a Milwaukee boutique and gallery, has been part of the new wave of crafters. She saw something special about the convergence of commerce, creativity and community when she attended her first craft fair, and that it was worthy of documentation. 'Handmade Nation'“I felt that it was my responsibility on some level to do that before someone came in from the outside and made some kind of expose on, like, ‘cute girls making crafts,’ like reality-show style,” says Levine. Her result is a feature-length film called “Handmade Nation” and an accompanying book co-written with Cortney Heimerl published last year.

Levine profiles artists who she says belong to “a younger generation of makers…who have the common thread of being motivated to do things for themselves.” These artists take “the traditional handiwork methods and techniques and [put] a modern twist on those techniques,” making them more contemporary by, for instance, using new materials like high-quality, environmentally-friendly soy inks. Their approach to quilting, knitting and printmaking are highly personalized reclamations of the crafts, which have been ubiquitous in American culture for centuries.

In “Handmade Nation,” Austin-based needle-worker Jenny Hart says at first she was self-conscious about her imperfect French knot technique, worried that embroidery purists might be critical. But she was pleased to find that the old-school practitioners were just relieved that someone was passing on the tradition, even if her techniques and patterns — Chihuahuas, a portrait of Loretta Lynn — are untraditional.

In addition to artists, Levine also spoke with gallery owners and distributors who sell handmade works. Together they articulate dissatisfaction with consumerism and the mechanical experience of buying things generic and mass-produced — “getting rung up,” as one interviewee puts it.

Stephanie Syjuco, a textile artist in San Francisco, runs Anti-Factory, a line of one-of-a-kind clothing designs made from reconstituted thrift store finds. She describes a “domestic counterfeiting operation,” where knitters around the country helped create handmade knockoffs of luxury brand Burberry scarves for her clothing line.

While the wares might be quirky or cute, for many of these entrepreneurs it’s serious business. In some measurable ways, the financial downturn has produced an opening for crafters. “We actually saw this season a number of small crafters do better than they have ever done in the past, because consumers are becoming more conscious of where they’re spending their money,” says Levine. “People are spending less but they’re spending consciously.”

For “Handmade Nation,” she used one camera, one computer and a crew of two — a source of pride for Levine. They shot it on weekends, travelling city to city to attend craft fairs and interview artists. Without a distributor, the film has been playing at trade shows, craft shows and museums, like at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, where it played to packed audiences.

“It’s really unusual to do a documentary on this scale with the equipment that we had on hand,” she says, adding that it’s important to assure viewers that making your own feature documentary is possible. Or as one crafter says in the movie, “If people tell me they like my stuff, I tell them they can do it, too.”