7 May 2011

Are Sewing Bloggers Cultural Leaders?

Readers, I’m calling on your input once more. Not with a sewing project this time, but with a paper I’m writing.

I usually keep my work life and sewing blog separate, but there’s an overlap here, so I should give you a bit of background. In my normal life I work for a support agency for independent cinemas and film festivals. For the past few months I’ve been on sabbatical as a Fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme, a development scheme for emerging leaders working in arts and culture.

We have been asked to write a provocation paper – a paper to provoke thought - about cultural leadership.

So I’ve decided to write about you. About the world of sewing blogs.

What am I talking about?

As we well know, there has been a recent resurgence of DIY culture. People are increasingly turning their back on consumerism – whether for ethical, environmental or economic reasons – and are reengaging with the process of making things themselves, whether that’s editing a mash-up video or knitting a scarf.

At the same time, for the past few years web 2.0 or social media has been providing people with a platform to share their thoughts, interact with each other, and “curate” and distribute what they think is valuable.

For online networks of makers, social media provides a platform to showcase what they’ve made, but also to create in a collaborative way - to pool knowledge, share ideas and inspire each other.

Arts organisations, accustomed to being the experts and to curating “professional” artists, have been thinking about how to respond to this cultural shift. What can they do to remain relevant in an increasingly participatory culture where people expect to be involved in both creating and curating? If they are to continue to engage with the public, how should they adapt their traditional models of programming, marketing and audience development? There has been excitement and resistance, experimentation and debate, action and confusion.

What’s this got to do with sewing blogs?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot, and have attended and participated in various conferences, workshops and, okay, arguments about it. And while there is some brilliant work going on in the arts, the examples I kept returning to in my head are from the online sewing network.

Think about the structure of the sewing blogosphere for a moment. Thousands of people from all over the world, who’ve never met in person, come together to form a virtual sewing circle, to encourage each other with their projects, teach them new techniques, and form a self-led community to celebrate their passion for the craft. (Don’t you just love looking at your world map report in Google Analytics? Holler to my readers in Namibia!)

Think about the sew-alongs, where a geographically disparate collective of individuals agree to work on the same sewing project. The leader sets the schedule and offers tutorials on the construction techniques, wanting nothing in return but to know they’ve provided a support network and have empowered people to make something.

And then there are initiatives like A Common Thread, where a piece of vintage lace was divided up between eight women around the world, who each made a unique garment embellished with the same trimming. Or Me-Made-March, which celebrates the achievement and excellence of home stitchers’ work by challenging them to wear the fruit of their labours every day for a month.

The online sewing network epitomizes the spirit of collaboration and partnership. It is self-governed, communally organized, without a profit motive. It fosters dialogue, innovation and creativity in regular people, not professional artists. And it has a big impact on people’s lives, empowering them to become makers, to consume less, to feel connected to the world and to become part of a community.

In my paper I want to present a case study of the online sewing network as a microcosm of the user-led world and as a collaborative model of leadership. If arts organisations want to embrace participatory culture, what can they learn from sewing blogs?

“Online sewing circles – a leadership pattern to follow?”

How can you contribute?

Just as I write about a sewing project on my blog, I’m planning to post updates on how my paper is going, the questions, the obstacles, the lightbulb moments and (hopefully!) the progress. More crucially, I’d love to get your input.

  • What does the online sewing community mean to you? Why do you participate?
  • What are your favourite examples of projects initiated by sewing bloggers that capture this spirit of collaboration, creativity and innovation?
  • Who are the “leaders” in the sewing blogosphere? Is everyone / can anyone be a leader?
  • Are you involved in any other network of makers, whether online or offline? What makes sewing blogs unique?

If you’d like to offer your thoughts on any of these questions (yay!), you can leave a comment below, drop me an email or, even better, write a post on your own blog. Thank you!