JESS and BIANCA, 30-something professional women, sip drinks at an after-work happy hour.
BIANCA: Jess! You’re crafty, right?! You do all those little arty things on Etsy? Can you make the banner for Eva’s one-year-old birthday party?
JESS: Um, well, I mean... I make original, hand-crafted leather jewelry that...
BIANCA: That’s what I mean: so creative. Ugh, I could never do that, you are amazing.
JESS: Well, um, thank you, leather-working is something I have been studying for five years in my free time. But what you are talking about - I bet you could do it. Just grab some stencils and some glitter at Target...
BIANCA: Um, have you seen those Pinterest fail things? That is me. I just canNOT.
KAYCEE sits down with them, drink in hand.
KAYCEE: What did you Pinterest fail?
BIANCA: Everything! I have an F in Pinterest. I was trying to convince Jess to make Eva’s birthday banner since she’s crafty.
Bianca shows Kaycee the picture on her phone.
KAYCEE: Cuuute! I can totally do that! I made all the deco at my wedding last year! I am all for the DIY.
MARIA joins them.
MARIA: What are you DIY-ing?
BIANCA: Kaycee is going to make the banner for Eva’s birthday party – can you do the cookies? I was thinking unicorns!
MARIA: Oh! Um, I don’t actually know how to do that.
BIANCA: I thought you baked! Didn’t you say you bake?
MARIA: I mean, like, I make artisanal hand pies that I sell to several coffee shop vendors in the area. But I don’t know how to do the royal icing stuff that you see on unicorn cookies.
BIANCA: See, like “royal icing.” I don’t even know what that means. You already know so much more than me.
JESS: I think there’s a class this weekend at a local bakery where we could all go learn how to do royal icing. I was actually thinking about going …
BIANCA: MMM! That reminds me! I have us all booked at Painting with a Twist this Friday!
There is a huge problem with semantics when people talk about the $43.9 billion “craft” industry. What is the difference between an artist, a maker, a crafter, an artisan and a wright? And are the millions of customers visiting Painting with a Twist any of those things?
If someone tells you they are “crafty” like Kaycee, it can mean anything from stenciling “Home Sweet Home” on a wood pallet to hand-embroidering a pillow to making unicorn cookies.
Generally speaking, we like to reserve the term “maker” for people like Jess and Maria. People who have honed a creative skill set and spent time perfecting original works that they make by hand.
Isn’t that an artist?
And Bianca is... an accountant, maybe?
Let’s be literal, though: they are all makers. They are all creating things with their hands either to sell, to express themselves, as a hobby, to be entertained or to use. They are all part of this $44 billion dollar “craft” industry. They are all part of the 63% of households that report taking part in a creative activity in the last year, and 41% of them, like Bianca, Kaycee, Jess and Maria, are Millennials. And so they’re all going to Painting with a Twist this Friday, because we all know Millennials like experiences.
But are the experiences available really worth all of the $44 billion these ladies are spending on it? With storefronts that look like a scene from How to Make an American Quilt and “classes” that add no value beyond entertainment? Imagine if the industry stopped grading itself by the semantics – artists vs. makers vs. crafters vs. Biancas – and truly embraced “maker culture” as the social experience it has become.
Jess just took a sewing class with an embroiderer who makes the dishtowels she’s seen featured at all the local craft shows. They are adorable and hilarious – some have some grown-up words stitched into them, and Jess thinks that kind of thing would be fun to put in a hoop and hang on her wall, now that she knows the basic backstitch. She walks into the store for the first time to get her supplies and...
First she’s confronted with aisles of printed fabric. She’s not making blankets or pajama bottoms for her grandchildren, but she does need something to stick in her hoop, what is thick enough not to be see-through? What will hold the stitches without bunching? She practiced on a scrap in the class, why didn’t she think to pay attention? Also, what does she do when she picks a fabric? How much is she supposed to buy? Is there a minimum? She takes one look at the older, bespectacled woman at the register and doesn’t ask.
Jess skips it and makes her way back to the embroidery aisle. She’s confronted with floral cross-stitch patterns, brightly-colored plastic hoops and weird baby bibs with a plastic grid on the front to make embroidering “Lil’ Slugger” for her grandkids easier. Again, Jess is in her 30s. She doesn’t even have kids, much less grandkids. She hightails it out of there and asks her class teacher to send her Amazon links over Instagram.
According to Forbes:
The problem for sewing and yarn shops, crafting and hobby stores and others that sell the tools and supplies essential to fulfill millennials’ creative drive is how to attract them to their stores or the reverse, how to make their stores attractive to these young crafters who don’t want to shop in grandma’s old-fashioned quilting or craft shop.
But while the older employees, the displays and the “feel” are a big problem for Jess, she might overlook that if she could just find what she needs. At the end of the day, Jess and her grandma both want a lot of the same things from the store: Jess is stitching the words “Damn Fine Coffee” with her black thread while her grandma is stitching a blackbird with it. They both want black thread. They both want a hoop. They both need to know what supplies, specifically, they need for the projects. What if the store was redesigned to be more intuitive for both of them to that end?
What if the hobby store partnered with that embroiderer and created an endcap for those who took her class? What if it hosted her class and asked her to feature their products? What if there were ways to look up projects on Pinterest and locate everything you need in the store? What if there was a space for people to craft together in the store and display or sell their work?
Believe it or not, Joann, which could be the exact store Jess walked into in about 849 locations, has created a Concept Store that ticks most of those boxes, but it’s only in Columbus, Ohio as of yet:
The store is a visually pleasing space worthy of selfies. On the back wall skeins of yarn go from floor to ceiling. The scrapbooking section is decorated with paper masks crafted by a Cleveland artist. Signage in the store has been minimalized and replaced with bright vivid images of project trends that inspire. Essentials like adhesives and scissors are attractively displayed along circular units, rather than long aisles, that are more easily shoppable. In comparisons to a Joann’s of the same size, there’s a decrease in overall selection and inventory with more space devoted to community and more tables to spread out projects.
Community, culture, local displays, intuitive design, experiences – put that on aisle 5 and ditch the Live Laugh Love signs.
Crafting classes have a completely different problem when it comes to meeting their makers. Almost all art/craft/maker classes are already experiences and already social. They’re already popular with Millennials and don’t really market to grandma, even if grandma likes to go. Many of them are local and/or utilize local artists and makers as teachers, and the ones that aren’t have the upside of being super-accessible to the Biancas of the world. Painting with a Twist (PWAT) was made by two moms who say they “couldn’t paint a wall.” According to the New York Times:
Cathy Deano, a founder of Painting With a Twist, which is based in Mandeville, La., said that most participants had not done much painting, if any, before taking a class, and that having a few sips of wine helped tame what she called the “white canvas anxiety” that novice artists can feel when starting a painting. “It just relaxes them,” she said.
“I tell my husband, ‘It’s like going fishing,’” said Susan Jean, the proprietor of Painting With a Twist’s Bentonville location. “You drink a little, talk a lot and bring something home.”
But the thing you bring home, the cheesy paint-by-numbers project you produced in a couple of hours with the cheapest supplies possible, with paint that didn’t fully dry between steps, under the influence of a few glasses of wine, even Bianca knows you don’t hang that over the fireplace. You put it in the fireplace. Or you give it to Grandma. She loves you enough to say it’s adorable.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, “art” classes can feel too specialized (and expensive) for Bianca to even attempt; they might even alienate Kaycee. Maria, with her baking experience, or Jess, with her leatherwork practice, might know what to expect from similar classes and feel up to it. And yet these classes are marketed to novices as though they are anything like PWAT, again often resulting in a product that belongs in the fire, but a much more expensive one.
The sweet spot, then, is more low-pressure classes for Kaycee and Bianca with enough stimulation to keep Maria and Jess engaged. After all, they all want to hang out together, and Maria will literally cut off her own pinky if she never has to paint another succulent in a pot, and Bianca is not about glass blowing, they don’t even allow alcohol in the studio.
That middle ground generally means taking the onus off of the finished product and making the class instead about a learned skill. Craft in Austin, Texas offers classes from perfume-making to flower-arranging to Watercolor 101 – all BYOB and taught at a truly basic level – with the potential to take it further. Everything used in the classes is available during freestyle crafting hours in the space.
From an article about a similar local print-making class in Oklahoma:
“Really, it’s about education,” said Alexa Healey, Artspace education director and OU alumna. “We are wanting to create an environment that stimulates that creative thought and new ideas through contemporary art.”
Alternately, class businesses can develop a model that supports variety for each participant ranging from paint-by-numbers to projects that require a little more skill. Upstairs Circus, for example, offers a “menu” of both cocktails and crafts ranked by the level of craftiness required and the time it generally takes to complete them. From the Collaboration Blog:
When you arrive you will check in with your "ringmaster" and receive an adorable little figurine. Next you will choose a table where you will create your item. When you get to the table you will see a Project Menu. This menu will be broken up by jewelry, art, home and libations. Each section has about 5-10 projects and you must choose one!
The maker community brings everyone to ladies’ night. No Bianca or Maria is left behind.
But wait. You’re making it sound like “maker culture” is about being super-inclusive and accessible when actually it’s about all the specialized, niche craftspeople who get deeply into baking or embroidery or glass blowing or woodworking or rug weaving.
Let’s look back to the original conversation among the four women. All of them are spending money on PWAT so they can spend time together. One of them is offering to pay two others for their artistry. One of them is regularly spending money on her leatherworking hobby. One of them probably spent money on a baking class or cookbook and otherwise purchases mostly food items (that couldn’t be considered craft industry-related even though it is), another buys craft supplies regularly to DIY party decorations (and probably scrapbooks) for herself or her friends. And they are talking about making things for another social engagement: a one-year-old’s birthday party.
None of this spending or making exists in a vacuum. How did Jess get into leatherworking? How many people look at Kaycee’s Pinterest board? Will Maria be curious enough to take the Royal Icing class and expand her skills beyond hand pies? Why doesn’t Bianca just pick up a sheet cake from the grocery store?
Maker culture is absolutely about all the specialized, niche craftspeople who get deeply into baking or embroidery or glass blowing or woodworking or rug weaving, but it is also about the people who take their classes, buy their art or are simply inspired by them. The significance at every level of this community stems from the social, hands-on quality experiences that all four of these women value.
That is the point. Not whether or not they work from a pattern or a Pinterest board or create original works. Not whether they are enthusiasts who go deeply into one skill or like to dabble in many of them. Making is trending: not what you make, but making. And that is something the entire “craft” industry should get behind.