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Crafting a Career

Crafting a Career

An Interview with Guardian Craft Columnist Perri Lewis  (2010)

For Perri Lewis, columnist for the Guardian’s craft column, breaking news in the craft world isn’t a regular occurrence. Openly admitting that she is more used to writing about the best handmade gifts for Valentine’s day, as she did last week, or how to make mittens from an old jumper, she is obviously excited to be writing about what she calls ‘real’ news.

The David and Goliath clash between a small independent designer and a large high street stationery retailer, helped a long by the social networking site Twitter, led to a story picked up by most major national newspapers. ‘It was amazing to see a story break that I had seen right from the beginning’.

The story, if you are not familiar with it, was the use by Paperchase of an image that appeared to be copied without permission from the independent designer known as Hidden Eloise. The story originally began late last year, when the designer found that a character she had designed was on Paperchase merchandise. On contacting the well known company, Paperchase denied any copyright infringement and claimed the image was an original one.

This appeared to be the end of it, with the common situation of a small independent designer unable to challenge a much larger company. Fast forward to February, and the community of designers, crafters, and DIYers, helped her fight back through Twitter, turning the issue into one of the most trended topics not just in London or the UK, but worldwide. ‘I saw on Twitter that someone had re-tweeted the link to Hidden Eloise’s blog and I contacted her just to support her and say how awful I thought it was. On Etsy there was a forum about it with 10 pages of posts that also had examples of it happening to other people.’ she explains. ‘The next morning it was trending everywhere and everyone was talking about it. I approached the G2 and Comment is Free sections to see if they would be interested in it. So I ended up writing about it for CiF, and then helped the news section write about it too.’ She is evidently excited to have been involved with a story like this, and to be able to contribute to the CiF section, which includes prominent writers such as Naomi Klein.

Perri is modest about her work at the Guardian, so much so, that she seems to suggest she has simply fallen in to the whole thing by accident. Studying Communications at Cardiff University, she spent a year after graduating as editor of its student paper, winning awards for student journalism. Though I’m surprised to hear, she still wishes she had more ‘proper’ journalism training, as she puts it. However she has been lucky enough to be able to incorporate her love of crafts into a successful career at the Guardian. Starting out doing interview research for the Saturday Guardian, she then became the comic editor for the children’s section. For that, she was asked to make things, such as turtles out of yogurt pots. ‘It was always my ambition to be a Blue Peter presenter, so when I got the job as comic editor it was literally my dream job in print’.‘It was whilst I was doing the crafts for the kids section that I got to know the editor of the Life and Style section. I explained to her that crafts were becoming popular and suggested that it would be good to do something relating to it’. This led to her writing the craft column, along side Sally Griffiths. ‘I had also edited a supplement called the rebel knitters guide, a book of knitting patterns. It helped that I had done that. They knew it wasn’t just going to be for kids about what you can make with old toilet rolls!’

She cites a revamped chandelier as her favourite project. ‘I saw this amazing chandelier in Heals for about £800. My parents had some old and dated wrought iron chandeliers that had been sitting in their garage for about five years. I cleaned them up, painted them bright blue and added droplets from some old jewellery. It was so easy but looks so good’. It’s hard to disagree. Looking at a picture of them both it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between the two.

It’s the sign of a growing trend that the Guardian deems crafts worthy of its own section in Life and Style. In fact, it used a feature about an Obama cross stitch sampler for its front cover on inauguration day last year. The popular knitting sight Ravelry.com, has over 600,000 members, whilst The Stitch and Bitch London has over 8000 subscribers and regularly has hundreds of different people attending their weekly knitting group. This growing community of crafters is not one to be messed with either. Just ask Paperchase. A week later, their Chief Executive issued a groveling statement, apologising for the mistakes it had made, and the offending items were removed from sale.

So why has the trend for knitting, crochet, sewing and all things craft related grown so much? ‘When knitting got big back in 2005 people started groups and were doing it in public places. It became cool and I think a lot of it has followed on from that. Our generation found they really enjoyed doing it.’ Whether the recession has anything to do with it she isn‘t sure, pointing out that making things yourself is not always cheaper. ‘It is expensive to buy materials. You aren’t always saving money. You might buy a hat from Topshop for a tenner, but you might buy the yarn to make one for the same price.’

‘There are many things that I’m sure are fun to make, but you could just buy them. Like a pair of socks. You might not be able to buy the £800 chandelier, but you could make it yourself for £30. But a pair of socks is going to take a lot of time, when you could just buy some nice ones’ adding ‘a lot of people do like making socks though!’ People also want to get away from buying generic things that everyone else has, ‘It’s about making things that you want to wear, or something in a particular colour. For a lot of people it’s about knowing where things are made. If they make it themselves they know where it has come from and that makes them feel good.’

There must also be a certain degree of satisfaction in producing something yourself. Perhaps it shows a change in peoples consumer habits. The recession served to highlight our frivolous ways of spending, and we now want to be thriftier in the way we consume. The effect of our habits on the environment could also be an influence. A lot of craft is based on re-working old things, whether its customising or restyling old clothes, or using the yarn from an old sweater to knit something brand new like a cushion cover. ‘There has also been a lot of media coverage which perpetuates it. People read that it has made a comeback, so they then go and try it themselves.’ Doing crafts, whether knitting, sewing, ceramics or jewellery making, also has a large social side that is appealing too. It isn’t about sitting at home knitting in front of the TV like your Nan. Both online and the real world offer a vast community of like minded people with which to share projects and patterns, as well as their non-craft related lives. ‘I love the knitting groups, you can just go to one and get involved, they are really welcoming. It’s a really good way to meet people.’ Indeed, going down the pub for a natter and a knit sounds much more fun.

Online she has made not just contacts for her job, but friends too. She describes Ravelry as Facebook for knitters, combining pattern archives and social networking. ‘It’s a big database you can search through, as well as forums. There are feminist knitting groups, tattooed knitters groups, all the shops have their own groups, and all the real world knitting groups have groups online.’ I am intrigued by the tattooed knitting group, as Perri explains that they are a dedicated bunch with a love of knitting and tattoos. There are people with tattoos of cats with balls of strings, a Buddha knitting, and one hardcore knitter has the shape of a Singer sewing machine permanently across her chest. I may not be inclined to join that group as I’m not quite that hardcore a knitter, but I later discover a group for sarcastic knitters which could be more my cup of tea. ‘It’s great because they have joined because they like knitting but then they have found all these other things in common.’ She thinks that if she visited other countries where she knew someone online, she wouldn’t hesitate to give them a call and meet up with them, and that they would be happy to do the same. Rather than being separate, it is this combination of online and offline worlds that seem to have created such a large and unique community. ‘I did guerrilla knitting [urban knitting graffiti] with Magda Sayeg, and contacted craft people I knew just from online to join in, who I see regularly and am now good friends with’. ‘I think the Internet really has changed things. It means you can just go online and find out so much information. It makes it much more accessible, seeing pictures, contacting people and being able to find out what its about.’

For Perri, sewing is her craft of choice but says ‘I like the portability of knitting, you can take it on the bus, and I travel a lot so I can do it on the train, although I do prefer crochet to knitting because its quicker and easier.’ On this note I explain that I have had trouble learning how to knit, getting no further than starting to cast on, perhaps I should try crochet first? ‘I did some teaching at a festival last year and the lady who ran it told me you should never teach people to cast on first because it’s the hardest part, even though it’s the first thing you need to learn. They cast on for you, teach you how to knit, then how to cast off, then how to cast on as the very last thing.’ So I’m glad to know I’m not just a bad knitter, and perhaps I just need to go along to the Stitch and Bitch meet to get some help.

She also likes embroidery. ‘I find it fascinating. I think if journalism didn’t work out for me, I would do a degree in it at the Royal School of Needlework based at Hampton Court Palace.’ Meeting so many different people, doing so many different crafts, seems to have made Perri ambitious to try her hand at even more diverse crafts such as pottery, basketry, silversmithing, and shoemaking. ‘We are doing craft videos [for the Guardian website] and I went to a traditional shoemakers. They have to train for three or four years to learn the techniques to make these amazing shoes’. ‘I did a short silver making class, and that was great. The teacher showed me her portfolio of commissions, and it’s amazing. Such beautiful things. I’d really like to do that.’

Perri is inspired by other crafters, such as Jacqueline White who makes strange costumes for TV and events like Comic Relief, as well as her own t-shirt collection and does styling for bands like New Young Pony Club. ‘Jacqueline can realise and make any garment for an occasion whether you be a celebrity, musician, dog, hamster or statue’ it says on her website. ‘How great would it be to be famous and reputable for that, and be that “go to” person for bizarre props and costumes?’ says Perri. She also enjoys a blog called Meet Me at Mikes, written by Pip Lincolne, referred to as the queen of crafters, who runs a shop of the same name in Melbourne, and has published a book of craft projects as well as writing about crafts for her blog and magazines. Faythe Levine, maker of the documentary Handmade Nation about the rise of DIY art, craft and design is also an inspiration. ‘She knows everyone who’s ever done anything and is working on a new film about typography.‘

The blog accompanying the film explains, ‘Today’s crafters are no longer interested in simply cross-stitching samplers or painting floral scrolls on china. Instead, the contemporary craft movement embraces emerging artists, crafters, and designers working in traditional and non-traditional media.’
Although a cross stitch sampler is where it all began for Perri when her Nan bought her kits and taught her how to knit when she was young. These days though it’s more about guerrilla knitting, and encouraging the masses to embrace contemporary crafts, and has more in common with punk culture than with the type of craft magazine you would see on the shelves of your local newsagents, magazines, which Perri admits, are a little weird. ‘The people who buy them are a little bit strange and you can spot them at craft fairs. Some of the magazines are a bit naff, like rubber stamping or scrap booking. There’s not a lot of creativity in it, it’s craft by numbers almost.’ With her craft column t hough she is on a mission to show people what can really be done with crafts with and little creative thinking.

Perri writes her own blog makeanddowithperri.wordpress.com.

Visit the Stitch and Bitch website to find out when their next meeting is, at stitchandbitchlondon.co.uk
Missjacquelinewhite.com has information on Jacqueline’s work
Pip Lincolne’s blog and more can be found at meetmeatmikes.blogspot.com
Handmadenationmovie.com has more information and links to Fayth Levine’s blog.
Find out how Magda Sayeg started guerilla knitting at magdasayeg.com

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