EXTRACT: THE GRAPHIC ART OF THE UNDERGROUND

The following extract by Suzy Prince appears in the chapter ‘Something Old, Something New: Designer Toys and Indie Crafting’, in the book ‘The Graphic Art of the Underground’ (Bloomsbury/2014) 

Once derided by feminists as being little more than a set of skills born out of ‘second sex servitude’ crafting is currently enjoying a remarkable renaissance. For many post-punk individuals, crafting perfectly encapsulates the homespun DIY ethos of indie culture as well as representing the reclamation and positive reassessment of what have been termed ‘the domestic arts’.

Crafting itself has never gone away of course, with skills being handed down through generations and taught in schools and apprenticeships. But it’s safe to say that in recent years, the notion of ‘craft’ has been largely associated with either the hippy movement or with an older, and more stuffy, women’s institute and village hall crowd. The indie crafting movement, which grew throughout the first decade of the twenty first century and is thriving right now, is coming from a very different place. The focus is firmly on the do-it-yourself, punk ethos and indie culture. Today’s indie crafters, or makers (there is much disagreement about what this scene should be called), have a modern, hip aesthetic and are more likely to be influenced by Patti Smith or Sonic Youth than Martha Stewart. This new craft generation eschews the cosy homespun qualities traditionally associated with crafting in favour of creating work with a distinctly contemporary urban edge. This can be seen, for example, in the work of Erin M. Riley, with her embroidered depictions of booze-addled young adult life (such as a woman, splayed out drunk and unconscious in the back of a car, with the title Fun); Naomi Ryder, who has produced embroidered portraits of the indie musician Thurston Moore; or Jenny Hart, who has created depictions of Iggy Pop and Dolly Parton.

The practitioners of the new craft movement use a vast array of traditional skills, including cross-stitching, knitting, embroidery, quilting, paper-cutting, rug-making, screen printing and weaving. Indie crafting is a vast and sometimes unpredictable visual culture, and the fact that it is so disparate can make it difficult to pin down; just as with lowbrow art, this is a catch-all term to describe many different visual styles. So Nikki McWilliams’ Tunnock’s Teacake cushions are somehow connected to Rob Ryan’s exquisite paper-cuttings, as are the increasing amount of ‘yarnbombers’ who adorn the streets illicitly with knitted decorations. The main connecting factor is that the individuals (the vast majority of whom are women, although men aren’t consciously excluded from the scene) who sell their handcrafted wares at fairs, and increasingly on the internet, both through their own sites and targeted sites such as Etsy, as well as the buyers or consumers of such, have a distinctly contemporary urban edge. Although it’s not always immediately obvious, the work that they produce, as well as the wider scene that surrounds it, is steeped in the lessons handed down by punk, pop culture and the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s.

So, how exactly has a knitted cactus, a crocheted hairband or a screen-printed tote bag become a countercultural object? Take an article from the feminist, alternative Mookychick website, which at first glance looks to be about old-fashioned flower arranging. It’s difficult to think of much that’s less obviously countercultural than flower arranging. However, Mookychick explains that in this case the subject of the article is ‘taking a DIY punk ethic to alternative flower arranging. Basic flower arranging that’s high on creativity and low on budget’. Suddenly an old-fashioned art has been brought bang up to date. Debbie Stoller, editor or feminist magazine Bust, and the author of a series of knitting books called Stitch ‘n’ Bitch, is quoted as saying that ‘knitting is part of the same do-it-yourself ethos that spawned zines and mixtapes’, and which also of course spawned punk bands, fashion designers, artists and a huge creative explosion which is still rippling underneath the world of corporate homogeneity today. Likewise, founder of the Get Crafty website Jean Railla has stated that ‘I really came to it from more of an indie-rock, do-it-yourself kind of political place. Sort of married with making peace with feminism.’ Get Crafty was arguably the website which started to pull indie crafting together as a movement: its forums provided one of the first structured ‘meeting points’ specifically dedicated to crafts where individuals could exchange ideas and contacts, show off their skills and encourage other wannabe crafters to join in. the site was shortly joined by others such as Craftster, and these websites, along with the growing number of physical fairs which were springing up, created a genuine global community…