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do-it-herself

Put a (bedazzled) bird on it: Pinterest, Etsy and the rise of the new DIY craft culture

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Austin Photo Set: Closet Pique_Yvonne_August 2011_spools
Photo by Jessica Pages

Days before my wedding, I purchased 150 matchbooks with the intention of emptying them, wrapping them in personalized label paper and filling them with bluebonnet seeds.

“I’m sorry,” I told my sister-in-law during our fourth straight hour of matchbox wrapping the day before the wedding. “I know it’s crazy. Please humor me. I am having some kind of DIY-related seizure.”

After laboriously handcrafting my own invitations, centerpieces and even wedding cake, I woke up in the middle of the night with the panicky need to make wedding favors. Embossing golden birds onto envelopes, gluing candles onto wrought-iron bedsteads and piping hundreds of icing flowers suddenly did not seem like enough.

I can remember a time when I didn’t know that “antique” could be a verb, but weeks after earning my PhD I was antiquing everything in sight, barely pausing to ask myself how I had become this person.

At least I’m not alone. The Craft and Hobby Association (CHA) estimates that the U.S. craft industry is worth $30 billion, and the fastest-growing sector of American crafters looks a lot like me: Well-educated women in their late twenties and early thirties from upper-middle-class backgrounds.

That is certainly the face of crafting that presents itself on Pinterest, 97 percent of whose 10.4 million users are female, according to the latest AppData statistics.

If these women are anything like me, they go to Pinterest for DIY porn: heart-shaped elbow patches, vases crafted from fire extinguishers, tiny pies you bake right in the apple. They are irresistibly drawn to light-drenched photographs of knitted iPod cozies and snow globes made from jelly jars.

The women who make these crafts seem to live in a fulfilling world of vintage aprons and children’s birthday parties, rainbow-themed and miraculously unsticky, far from the grueling demands of the workplace. In this domestic paradise, everything is beautiful, everything is clean, and every detail testifies to a woman’s loving, unpaid labor. 

29-year-old writer Emily Matchar finds the tiny pie aesthetic charming, but warns that the vast majority of women will not be able to make a livable income off of their crafts. This is because the value of crafts lies precisely in the uncounted hours that go into making them unique.

 “DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular,” says Emily Matchar.

“DIY, when it goes beyond a hobby level, is really counting on people undervaluing their labor, and women undervaluing their labor in particular,” Matchar, who has a book on what she terms the "new domesticity" coming out in 2013, points out over the phone. She notes that Etsy’s globalized pricing has driven the price of handmade goods down, further contributing to the problem.

Unpaid domestic labor was the hobgoblin of Betty Friedan’s classic feminist text The Feminine Mystique. Almost 50 years later, it has been rebranded as leisure. As women struggle in hostile workplaces to earn around 85 percent of what men make, hordes of demoralized professionals dream of quitting their jobs and making cupcakes instead.

“Not to knock cupcakes,” Emily Matchar hastens to add. Matchar scrupulously avoids criticizing individual women, and is quick to point out that the reclamation of traditional “women’s work” like baking and knitting began as a radical feminist response to the male-dominated DIY indie music scene in the early 1990s.

However, Matchar is suspicious of the current longings of women our age to quit work and live out candy-colored, Pinterest-fueled fantasies.

“There’s a disillusionment with the workplace, which is something that I write about in my book, and there is this very strong idea that if you make something smaller and simpler, it’s more fulfilling. And the whole idea that a wonderful career for a woman is having a cupcake bakery — I’m not saying it’s not! — but the idea that that would be a cultural ideal. I have so many friends, women who are in really hard careers that are sometimes very stressful, sometimes very disappointing, and who go, ‘God, I wish I could just start an Etsy shop and just knit all day,’ or ‘I just want to start a bakery.’ And I’m like, but you don’t really!”  

Oh, but we do! Or part of us does at least.

Matchar can relate to my matchbox story. She admits: “I had my own ‘WTF am I doing?!’ moment while up at 3 a.m. hand-stamping wedding invitations to save $100 on printing costs, while neglecting a work deadline that would have netted me way more.”

Perhaps my choice of spray-painting candle holders over facing the barren academic job market is not particularly mysterious. I love making things with my hands, and I love the sense of accomplishment that DIY gives me, and I loved, on my wedding day, feeling like I had nailed a quintessentially feminine task: Looking beautiful while surrounded by beautiful things and entertaining beautiful people.

But a woman’s work is never done. Whether it’s baking or writing, my work will always be women’s work, and it’s time for me to figure out what it’s worth, no matter how scary that sounds.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out my Etsy store. I’ve got some great handmade greeting cards going up next week...

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Editor's Note: To read Amy's extended interview with Emily Matchar, check out her blog, The Oeditrix.

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