DIY and Crafting: Can They Be Anti-Oppression if They’re Not Accessible to Everyone?
by Sian Ferguson
Protest comes in many different forms, and my favorite is crafting and DIY.
I’ve written before about how crafting can be a great way to practice self-care: it can distract us from overwhelming anxiety, and it can remind us of our personal power to create something beautiful even when we feel awful.
As someone with an array of mental illnesses, I craft to keep myself busy — to ensure that I keep my mind focused on something useful, instead of allowing my negative thoughts to marinate.
Much has been written about how crafting can be feminist. Sewing, handiwork and knitting — all thought to be traditionally feminine activities — are often seen as unimportant, despite the fact that they’re useful skills. While second-wave feminism often focused on denouncing the activities (white, middle-class, cishet, abled) women were expected to perform in the home, later waves of feminism worked to reclaim traditionally feminine activities. Degrading traditionally feminine work is a part of how patriarchy operates: think about how those who do teaching, nursing and childcare are often undervalued and under-compensated.
As feminist crafter Gertie wrote:
“With the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the evolution of first-wave feminism, women began to detach themselves from domestic work and hence, home sewing became a less popular – perhaps even ridiculed – activity […] This idea has, thankfully, largely been criticized by third wave feminists, who, for the most part, rejected the idea that to gain power women must inject themselves into traditionally male activities and give up any aspirations of domestic bliss. As these feminists saw it, disowning any activity that was traditionally feminine further compounded the cultural notion that women’s work is meaningless – that to do work of importance, we must take on traditionally male roles.”
Then, there’s the anti-capitalist power of handiwork. There’s something amazing about turning your own hands into the means of production, and there’s something empowering about swapping dependence on large businesses for reliance on your own skills and trade with other crafters.
Of course, that’s not to say the crafting industry is free from the ills of capitalism.
While growing your own vegetables, repairing broken clothes instead of chucking them out and making your own furniture and gifts sound like money-saving strategies, crafting is far from accessible to everyone. Crafting has strange class politics because it sounds like a cheaper alternative to buying ready-made goods. But unfortunately, overpriced crafting supplies can make DIY an expensive hobby only available to the middle class. This — and the fact that working class and poor people don’t often have time to craft — means DIY is far from accessible. For this reason, I sometimes wonder whether crafting is just as consumerist a practice as buying ready-made items.
As Amy Juschka writes,
“One of the third-wave’s greatest accomplishments was its success in challenging second-wave feminism’s overemphasis on the experiences of middle-class white women. In second-wave feminism, the ground for challenging women’s oppression was to argue that the personal is the political; but that personal tended to be that of affluent white women.
Third-wave feminism challenged this middle-class white ground and proposed the necessity to think about the multiple locations of women, poor, indigenous, black, lesbian or immigrant. Keeping this in mind, one can then ask about feminist crafting and the assumptions therein. For example, knitting, in a sense, is a middle-class hobby. It, along with much crafting, is a luxury that many women cannot afford.”
We’re living in the age of Pinterest and Etsy, which — despite their possibly feminist nature — promote a certain kind of over-priced, picture-perfect attitude to crafting. When looking through popular crafting sites, it’s hard not to feel like crafts are a upper-middle-class activity, documented on beautifully designed blogs with high-quality pictures of picturesque crafting rooms and homes. “Upcycling,” refurbishing and thrifting are cheaper alternatives to buying expensive store-bought materials, but these crafts require a great deal of time — time very few of us actually have.
I think about my working-class single mother, who raised me and my three older siblings while working nonstop. When she wasn’t working at a job where she was underpaid and under-appreciated, she was cooking, cleaning and managing a household on her own. Her leisure time was limited, and she usually spent that with her family or watching television. Although she’s a creative person who’s brilliant with her hands, it’s almost absurd to think of her crafting for utility or pleasure.
As my personal financial situation improves, I’m able to spend more time crafting than what my mother could. Perhaps ironically, my reliance on businesses has decreased as my financial freedom has increased. Capitalism does that; it forces us to rely on the system even more by removing our ability to rely on ourselves.
Crafting can be an incredibly useful practice, steeped in social justice, revolutionary in nature. But, as with all forms of protest, it still isn’t accessible to everyone.
Sian Ferguson is a queer freelance writer based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing deals with social justice, mental health, witchcraft, activism and more, and her work has been featured on various sites, including Everyday Feminism, Greatist, Matador Network, Ravishly and more. She’s also an editorial team member of the new literary journal, Type/Cast. You can follow her on Twitter and find all her work here.