Crafting an identity
By: Jessica Moy
“No, No, No!” my mother used to say as she took the fabric paint away from my hand.
Banned from her arts and crafts bin as an unruly seven year old, I continued to rummage and grab as many fabric paints as I could. I used to embellish colourful hearts and flowers all over my wardrobe – getting more paint on the floor and walls than anywhere else.
She would storm my room with boxes of Arm and Hammer, and swear under her breath as she scrubbed the myriad of paint stains off the floor.
Years later, she blames me for her current back problems. Yet, as a mother, she understood my creativity was more important than the pristine nature of my clothing.
Even though I was grounded every weekend, she knew art carved my identity – made me stand out.
Crafts and identity go back thousands of years to the history of aboriginal art in Canada. Any handmade practical product, such as pottery, blankets, and tools were an integral part of who they were.
Fast forward to today, practicality is set aside to make way for creativity.
Take a bar of soap.
Practical product used to cleanse oneself or occasionally wash foul mouths of children.
Jennifer Lovegrove, a Toronto based crafter and creator of Soap Scum, takes this simple cleaning product and turns it into a dirty work of art.
Working full time in the offices of Hart House at the University of Toronto, she makes the soaps from scratch in her kitchen. She takes 100 per cent vegetable-based ingredients and molds the clear square soaps, placing plastic toy animals posed in intercourse style positions.
“Ninety per cent of the time, [people] kind of look, take a second look, and then they giggle. Very rarely has anyone been offended,” Lovegrove says.
Initially crafted to amuse her friends, she saw how popular her soaps were and started selling them to the general public.
“About five years ago, it was something I did to amuse my friends and I saw how much they liked it and thought well maybe I can sell them – it became a lot more popular then I ever expected,” Lovegrove said.
The most popular choice is her Canadian themed beaver over moose soap – especially when they come in scents like apple, maple sugar, and lavender.
The square soaps are $8 each or three for $20.
Better yet, take a bath with Sylvia Plath and have quotes written on your soaps ($7). A quote from Plath such as, “naked in the merely actual room, the stranger in the lavatory mirror puts on a public grin.”
During craft shows, Lovegrove admits everyone knows each other, not by names, but by their products.
Pantry Press owners Christian Morrison and Julie Gibb take pride in identifying themselves with their paper press creations. They’ve been making letterpress stationary for nearly 20 years.
“We put in all our heart and soul, which is evident in our products,” Morrison said, as we sat in the middle of their workplace, which is a quaint, yet comfortable shed that resides in the backyard of their Toronto home.
In the cozy space – letterpress machines, paints and tools are the primary objects you see. Turn to the right and a small office where they organize their business is neatly put together with past stationary and posters plastered over their walls.
“We had a busy practice designing books for Museums and art galleries called Greenstreet Design,” Morrison said.
Pantry Press branded themselves after purchasing and installing their first letterpress in their pantry, a Vandercook SP-15 they bought from Peterborough for $300 in 1993.
In 1995, their daughter Annie, who recently got married, presented them with two books. She knew these books were letterpress and thought her parents would really like them.
“It was really sweet and we went though the books together,” Morrison said.
Morrison noticed something in one book “Dick Ennis The Village Schoolboy.” It was printed by Morrison and Gibb, strangely, publishers with the same name in Edinburgh.
A sign, Morrison admits that, him and Gibb were destined to letterpress.
“We design everything…the making of things is the greater part, there’s a lot of labour and handwork in every piece of paper,” Gibb admits. “If we counted how many times we’ve touched the piece of paper before it’s in the clients hands, sometimes 20 times before they’ve touched it.”
Pantry Press mixes every colour by hand using their Pantone book, which is a recipe book for colours. Morrison is a trained water colourist and pays close attention to detail, trying to make sure the vision of the client comes to life. Whether it be business identities, birth announcements, or personal stationary – they consider what the clients like in terms of colour, paper, paper weight, shape, typefaces if they want illustration, initials or a special dye-cut.
“When we design,” Gibb said, “that design process goes back and forth by PDF [to the client], once it’s approved we print it and make it.”
Pantry Press are crafters who design by means of what their clients want. Crywolf designers, Stephanie Drabik and Rose Chang, are crafters who design by means of who they are as artists.
As creators of hand-printed T-shirts and quirky jewelry, Chang says, “we could basically do whatever we wanted and whether it made sense to anyone else didn’t matter.”
Known for their Hipster Wereworlf T-shirts and Ninja Panda Necklaces, Crywolf attracts stylish women and men ages 18-34 who have a keen sense of art and design.
Drabik puts it, it’s “a labour of love.”
First meeting in high school, Drabik and Chang came up with the idea of printing designs onto shirts in 2005. They created P0isson, which started out as a hobby since finishing their post-secondary education.
Many independent artists who sell their products at craft shows start off by crafting for leisure. If lucky enough, they can make their crafts into a career.
Those who make crafting their full-time job can be considered lucky, such as Pantry Press and Crywolf. Often, crafters struggle to stay afloat in the business.
“People think, ‘oh they have been doing this for so long they must make a lot of money’, it’s not true,” Gibb admits. “It’s 100 per cent risk, we don’t know what work we are going to have for the coming year.”
Drabik and Chang made the decision to quit their part-time jobs and make Crywolf a full time venture in 2008.
“We realized how much time and work running your own business requires and in order to improve we decided to just go full force and dedicate all of our time into it,” Drabik admits.
Katherine Skene of the blog Carolyn-and-Me, wouldn’t hazard a guess on the number of full-time crafters in Toronto.
“It feels an impossible estimate, especially when one considers that there are so many different types of crafters: knitters, garment makers, sewers, quilters, felters, embroiderers, people who work with paper, etc,” Skene said.
As a sewer and quilter herself, Skene believes the popularity of crafting attracts those who are in their 20s to mid-30s.
“But there are, of course, exceptions to that,” Skene says. “I think that as people become more involved with their communities and are more aware of their own desire to support a local economy, they are more interested in making things.”
For Lovegrove, Soap Scum is only a little side project. She writes poetry and fiction and also some freelance non-fiction.
“[Soap Scum] has allowed to support me as a writer by having a more independent freelance income so I don’t need a full-time job which dominates most of my time,” Lovegrove says.
Anyone who has ever made a craft knows the amount of dedication, time and, energy it takes to make a single item. Even now, with increasing creative technology such as Photoshop and InDesign, the art of craft is going nowhere. There is actually a demand for homemade products.
“People’s standards of quality and expectations of craftsmanship have been altered for quite a long time,” Drabik says. “I think the more prominent technology becomes, the more people will seek out quality, local products that have a story.”
The art of making handmade products is a valuable part of who crafters are. It not only fabricates an identity for them to create, imagine, and inspire – but the ability to share their identity through their products with the world.