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Craft, Elevated

Heather Ross38 Comments

I claimed not long ago during an interview that most of my color inspiration comes from one place: stolen shamelessly from the mind of Joelle Hoverson. Just last month I was chatting with Joelle, all the while trying not to be too obvious about the fact that I was mentally memorizing the inspired combination and exact shades of the electric pink tank top and rosy taupe blouse that she had on, planning my new throw cushions while we dicussed.... oh I don't remember what. But I remember that pink very well. Honestly, if I didn't think it would strain our friendship I would call her regularly from the nail salon and make her pick toenail polish for me via Skype.

Last summer my husband and I were staying with Joelle at her weekend house upstate (which, yes, is exactly as ridiculously beautiful as you imagine it would be) and she showed me some early photos from her newest book, More Last Minute Knitted Gifts. I sort of lost it. I kept trying to pull the laptop out of her hands and onto my lap, twisting my neck around to maximize the computer screen's angle. I should point out that I'm not much of a knitter, and as lovely as the projects in this book are, they are only part of what was struck me about this book. It sort of hit me, at that moment, what Joelle had accomplished, both with this book and in this massive marketplace of craft and design that she has had a heavy hand in helping to build. She has, effectively, upped the ante.

But wait, let me back up to one of my most favorite other relevatory moments. My friend and photographer John Gruen and I were driving around the Berkshires looking for a location for the elusive cover photo for Weekend Sewing a few years ago. He knew of a lovely house, so we tracked down the owner at his business and explained our project to him. He was a middle aged, long-haired gentleman, in Birkenstocks. "Sewing? he said, "A book about sewing?" and then the expected "My mother sewed all of my own clothes." I thought it was over there, but it wasn't even getting started. "That was," the man continued, "of course, before women decided that they should all put on shoulder pads and walk around on their toes and go back to work, because they wanted to feel important."  John has watched me put my foot in my mouth several times, which is probably why his head snapped around to face me and his mouth opened a little bit and his eyebrows went up in anticipation of what I was going to say, which was too bad for him because he missed the very beginning of what I was now seeing, which was this ass of a man in front of us standing on his toes and walking back and forth, swishing his hips and scrunching up his shoulders and declaring in a small, feminine voice, "Look at me! I'm very important! I have very important work to do!". The fact that he was in Birkenstocks made this especially horrifying, they dragged behind his raised feet in a way that made him look like he was sliding around in his mother shoes. he did this for much longer than you might imagine, back and forth and back and forth. I opted for a nervous laugh rather than a well deserved "F*** You." (I had just promised TC that I would stop using that word before dark). When we were back in the car waiting for the engine to warm up and, in my case, silently calculating what it would cost to replace every pair of shoes in this man's closet with a pair of six inch heels, John looked at me and very calmly (thats John's style) said: 'I don't think men should ever make fun of women by walking around on pretend high heels and making voices." Ditto John.

But Mr. Ass was wrong about something else, at least by my calculations. Women didn't stop knitting and sewing because they just decided, about one and one half generations ago, that they didn't want to do it anymore, or because they could not resist the allure of shoulder pads. Women decided to stop knitting and sewing (and, arguably, cooking) because it was suddenly (and for the first time in american history) no longer economically advantageous to make your family's clothing by hand. It was cheaper to buy it. That had never before been the case, but suddenly it was the indisputable truth.

The American housewife has always been a small business manager of sorts, you design a way of life around a budget and try to apply as much thrift and ingenuity as possible, you develop skills and proficiency where they are needed, you select your suppliers and materials carefully, and you try to finish the month with something left over, and if we get lucky the whole thing operates with at least some opportunity for creative expression. If its less expensive to buy something than it is to make it then the only proper decision, from a business manager's persepctive, is to buy it. That's just simple Home Economics. And buy it we did. Buy it we do. That's another topic altogether. But you can see how this very important shift has had such an impact on all of us, because in some sense it began a dependency on the companies that now make everything for us. I have taken part (or compulsively dominated is probably a better description) many discussions about why making things by hand feels so good. Is it such a mystery? If consumerism has become about our physical dependence on others to make things for us, then making things for ourselves is one of the most empowering - if not downright rebellious -  things that we can do.

Oh dear, this was going to be about Joelle and I haven't mentioned her in a very long time.

So, back to the beginning.... When I got back from visiting Joelle, I called Melanie Falick, who is both mine and Joelles editor and also a good friend. I told her that what I saw in Joelles book was exactly what I wanted to be able to do with my next book. I told her that Joelle's was the first craft book that I had seen that would guarantee the reader / maker, through the guided selection of materials, exceptional grasp of the laws and temperments of color, and versatile, timeless design, a finished project that would be more valuable (I'm talking street value here) than anything that could be purchased for the price of its materials. "Everything looks like something you would have seen for hundreds of dollars at Takashamaya, but simple to make!" I said, dropping the name of every handmade-obsessed New Yorker's favorite now-closed department store. "I feel completely inspired by what she's doing, and I want to do EXACTLY the same thing with More Weekend Sewing!" Melanie was quiet for a minute, and then told me basically to calm down and try to think of a premise for my next book that was actually my own.* Melanie is quite good at keeping me in line.

What Joelle (and Denyse Schmidt, and Natalie Chanin, and some other very talented people, some of whom I feel very luck to call friends) has done is to elevate craft to the place that it needs to be in order to take hold in our society as anything more than a hobby. Her books, her business, and her being are about quality and art and making things by hand that are functional and beautiful, things which will hold, indefinitely, an intrinsic and real value.

More Last Minute Knitted Gifts is actually sitting on my desk today, which is what prompted me to post this in the first place. I need to swing by Purl, maybe tomorrow, and pick up some crazy beautiful yarn. I only knit one Christmas gift a year (and admittedly half the people on my list will be getting a box of Trader Joes Chocolate Covered Peppermint JoJo's, which I have not yet learned to make by hand) and this year I've decided that Denyse would look excellent in the beret on page 70 with those cute short little bangs of hers poking out. I doubt that I will make it out the door before spending an hour choosing and buying yarn for this blanket, which is almost sensory over-load. I hope Joelle is there so that I can rope her into helping me pick colors.

*I am indeed working on a new book with Melanie Falick, but its not More Weekend Sewing. I'll keep you posted!