Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Exactly is "Indie" about "Indie Craft?"

This is a question I've been wondering about for a while now, as I've watched a movement of knitters, cross-stitchers, and seamstresses grow out of the culture of zinesters, scenesters, and lo-fi singer song-writers I've long thought of as my people. "Indie," of course, is short for "independent," but what does it mean to tack the term onto craft? Isn't craft, i.e, the skilled forging of items by hand, already independent, in the sense it implies handmade over mass produced, sold at fairs and boutiques over stocked at Ikea and Home Goods? Ever since John Ruskin and William Morris launched the Arts and Crafts Movement in 19th Century England as an antidote to the anomie and alienation implicit in mass manufacture, craft has been instilled with at least a latent political ideology. It emphasizes self-expression over capitalization, labor for its own sake over working for money, and autonomy over corporate servitude. These, no doubt, are the very attributes that drew indie kids to craft in the first place. It was like a last refuge of indie authenticity once "indie rock" was drafted onto Top-40 Radio and Subaru commercials, indie films starting winning Oscars, and scrappy DIY zines gave way to glossy, mass-readership blogs. Craft is the indie scene's own back to the land movement.

But what distinguishes indie craft from any other variety of craft, say the pottery sold by velvet-vested beirdos at the Chico farmers markets of my youth, the crystal necklaces bedecking the counters of Northern California New Age supply shops? Why are these crafts not "indie?"

There are three answers I can think of and the first two are essentially aesthetic. First, indie craft is indie because it is produced by people who themselves are recognizably "indie." Here I mean something like "twee," though without the diminutive connotations. Indie craft is craft made by women in thrift store flower dresses and hand-me-down sweaters, men in Weezer glasses and Converse All Stars. Indie craft is craft with the National playing in the background.

Second, indie craft is craft that itself displays an indie aesthetic, an aesthetic, which, as anthropologist Wendy Fonarow describes it, is rooted in childhood nostalgia and a low-grade Anglophilia filtered through the lumberjack utilitarianism of the Pacific Northwest. Indie craft is cutesy and self-consciously nerdy. Indie craft is homespun but ironic. Indie craft is owls and quaint rustic homes, unscary monsters and bold graphic print.

Third, and perhaps most flattering to indie crafters themselves, indie craft is craft that makes its own independence a critical component of its practice. Indie craft is craft that is self-consciously — but unthreateningly — political. It uses recycled materials. It reuses. It upcycles. And it is sold only on a small scale through self-managed media like Etsy, craft fairs, and blogs.

There is only, however, one way to really recognize craft as indie, and that's to go to a fair like Art Star Craft Bazaar, going on right now in Philadelphia, and see for yourself. Indie is not always easy to describe, but it's certainly recognizable.

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