Arts and crafts have been a part of human existence since before recorded times. Paintings on cave walls. Pottery. Cloth-making. Tool-making. Metal-working. Dancing. Singing. Story-telling, in all its various forms.
Different circumstances produce different things. The exact methods for the creation of a piece of work can be as different as the years and places the pieces were created in, and even the people who make the pieces do so in different ways.
As time marches on, so do technology and innovation. These two things are often hailed as enabling the new and improved. But they also leave a whirlwind of destruction in their wake in what (and, tragically, who) they make obsolete.
Crafts have always been hit particularly hard. Before industrial times, things had to be handmade. In the present, if it can be done by a machine, it usually is, as it is both less time-consuming and less expensive to do so. For many people, the hand-made is a luxury.
When anything disappears due to disuse, a piece of culture is lost. When culture is lost, so is experience and understanding. But sometimes, people take something that is dying and bring it back to life in an entirely new form, a little bit like the mythical phoenix. Corvallis, Oregon, is a place where various forms of crafting are alive and well. (More on this in a bit.)
In recent years, crafts have experienced a resurgence of interest. There are many theories for why. Are people rejecting that which is mass-produced in favor of something more personalized? Could crafts feel more meaningful? Do people want to support people and small businesses instead of already-successful large companies? Does the quality go up when an item is hand-made? Is there some mental or emotional benefit to crafting? Do some people just like the aesthetic?
Regardless of the reasons or narratives people inevitably weave, crafting doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Etsy, a well-known site for buying and selling handmade goods, had roughly 1,933,000 active sellers in 2017.1 (I am one of them.2) And Etsy isn’t the only place where it’s possible to get something handcrafted, either. There are always holiday markets and bazaars. There are festivals and Renaissance fairs. You might even be able to talk to your aunt who knits, if you have one.
On the Oregon State University campus, the Student Experience Center stands proudly on the street corner, neatly sandwiched between the Valley Library and the Memorial Union. In its basement is a craft center.
The OSU Craft Center is a place where students can come to learn about various forms of crafting or even simply work on their own things. Shortly after it was created, and before my hours at my day job increased to their current levels, I occasionally had periods of time between classes that were too long to wait outside the room where my next class was but too short to go do much of anything, so if I had enough of my studying done, or simply couldn’t focus on studying, I would go to the Craft Center and knit. I believe I was working on a couple of baby blankets at the time, one in light pink, the other in a denim-like blue. The time I spent in the Craft Center was critical to getting both blankets done in time, and it was the perfect place to work on them while away from home. It was comfortable and quiet enough to focus, but there were other people around, so it wasn’t lonely. Sometimes, someone working in the center would strike up a conversation with me. There were even a couple of times I was given a yarn bowl to keep the (very large) ball of yarn I was working with from rolling everywhere. The people who work there are quite friendly and supportive. I imagine that if I was able to spend time there regularly, I would find a tight-knit community.
According to the OSU Craft Center’s website,3 it offers classes in ceramics, fiber arts, glass, jewelry, paper arts, photography, woodworking, and technology arts (including such things as 3D printing). As of Fall Term 2018, membership is free. I spoke with one of the students working there—an energetic young woman with short, black hair tied up in spunky pigtails. She kindly explained that the Craft Center is running a year-long test to see if students are desiring to use it but simply couldn’t afford the $40 per term fee that there used to be. If utilization of the Craft Center increases significantly, a portion of the fees students pay each term will be directed towards the Craft Center, much like what happens with Dixon Recreation. As it happens, utilization has increased significantly since this test started, so perhaps the people running the Craft Center are onto something very important. As activity has increased, so have the Craft Center’s offerings.
Various events put on by the Craft Center can also be found on the website. The 2018 Holiday Market, which happened in the Memorial Union building, was one of these. I was curious about what I might find, so I went to the ballroom in the basement on Saturday, December 1, around 3 PM or so to see what there was to be seen.
I am 5’3” and on the sensitive side. Arriving in the ballroom was nearly overwhelming, and I briefly wished I could have brought a friend with me. There were tables and booths everywhere, and the event was extremely well attended; I found myself saying “pardon” frequently. Goods being sold included jewelry, foodstuffs (including tuna and jam, though from separate vendors), woodworked items, candles, essential oils, knitted items, colorfully-painted ceramics, and a variety of other desirable trinkets. The atmosphere was lively, and a couple of musicians were adding to the ambiance from the stage.
One of the vendors, Allen Z., who comes from the Oregon coast, spoke to me during a lull in traffic. For his pieces, he salvages wood that would have otherwise quite literally rotted. “I don’t believe in shipping wood all the way from Brazil,” he says. Speaking to him, it is clear that he places high value on sustainability and good stewardship. He learned woodworking from his grandfather. He still has some of his grandfather’s tools, and sometimes, he uses them in his work.
The OSU campus isn’t the only place where crafting is thriving. Amy Decker is one artist local to Corvallis. When asked why she crafts, Amy says, “Because I can’t not. It’s part of me. It’s just what I do.” Amy has an impressive variety of skills, which include knitting, spinning, mixed media, painting, paper arts, and story-telling. “I enjoy using words, silly imagery, bold colors—and this applies to everything I do—and intentional messes that somehow work.” Some of Amy’s creations are available on her Etsy shop.4 More information about what inspires her and what she does is available on her website.5 I highly recommend checking out the links in the references at the end of the article; her work is inspiring.
As for my own crafting story, I think I was bored one summer day between my 2nd and 3rd grade years, and my Mom introduced me to crochet. Fast-forward to about a year later, and I wanted to learn how to knit. I don’t remember why exactly I wanted to learn, but sometimes kids (or humans in general) get an idea in their head and then simply have to make it happen (incidentally, this is a boon to crafters and creativity). That year, I got a Teach Yourself to Knit kit for Christmas. I taught myself how to knit from the book and have since always had a project at any given time. There are other things I want to learn how to do, such as chainmail (likely in a jewelry form) and watercolor, but I haven’t had the time yet. I’d also like to pick up embroidery again. Perhaps someday.
Crafting has more benefits than one might initially suspect. An article published on CNN in 20146 tells the story of a woman who learned how to knit as a way to help her combat PTSD. A cursory Google search will reveal numerous other sites and blogs extoling the mental health benefits of crafting or otherwise doing something with one’s hands. As someone who deals with anxiety, I can agree that the senses of accomplishing something and of being able to see my progress as it happens are particularly soothing when I’m unable to sense such things in any other area of my life. As rates of anxiety and depression increase, people look for an escape, and some have caught onto crafting’s therapeutic potential. Remember the OSU Craft Center and their increase in offerings? Some of these offerings are in partnership with OSU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and aim to improve the mental wellness of students through crafts.
So, what of the future of crafting? Its popularity seems to come and go in cycles, and various techniques go out of vogue or are made obsolete. But as long as there are things to make and stories to tell, and as long as new innovations and discoveries are being made, and as long as there are benefits to be had, perhaps crafting, in whatever forms it takes, will always have its place in the tapestry of human history.