28 August 2011

Creativity in Every Home: What Can the Cultural Sector Learn from Dressmaking Blogs?

I finally finished and submitted my provocation paper the other day. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed their thoughts on the impact that sewing has had on your lives and what sewing blogs mean to you. A few people said they wanted to read the paper when it was finished, so here it is. As a reminder, the brief was to write a short piece to provoke thought and debate on the UK cultural sector and leadership. We were encouraged to write something personal...


Creativity in every home:
What can the cultural sector learn from dressmaking blogs?

"I found this world of sewing bloggers in June. Since that time, I have been happier and more excited about life than I have been in years." - Anna Christina

What does an authentically participatory cultural sector look like? This question has been playing on my mind throughout my Clore Fellowship. Over the past few years, arts organisations have been discussing how to remain relevant in an increasingly participatory society in which users or consumers are becoming producers. Web 2.0 and social media have been providing people with a platform to share their thoughts, interact with each other, and curate and distribute what they think is valuable, including things they have made themselves. Arts organisations, accustomed to being the experts, having expert curators and working with expert artists, are very aware of this shift in the cultural landscape and the implications for the traditional relationship between the arts and audiences. While there has been some outright resistance, many organisations have endeavoured to embrace the opportunity to encourage more active involvement from the public, to explore what a more bottom-up model would look like, testing out participatory performances and workshops, artworks involving public input solicited through online channels, and audience-led programming, for example.

Yet, as bold as these initiatives have been, an element of top-down control has remained. The starting point has still been the arts organisation itself, working within its own structures, with the projects led by curators. Debates persist over how much control can be relinquished to audiences without “lowering standards”. This is an understandable concern for arts organisations whose mission is to encourage excellence, but the issue seems to miss the point of self-led culture, a movement which is already happening independent of arts organisations and one premised on the absence of top-down regulation. How, then, can and should the cultural sector more fully and authentically embrace participatory culture? How can we shift the emphasis away from the artist, curator or organisation and provide the public with genuine agency, in both creating and curating?

Each time this subject arose during Clore seminars and discussions, my mind kept returning to the same example – sewing blogs.

In December 2009, I felt a sudden, overwhelming urge to make something. On a whim, I signed up for a sewing workshop and was soon on cloud nine from having rediscovered a lost sense of creativity. As I didn’t want to have to keep attending classes, and as none of my friends sew, one day I started digging around the internet and unearthed a community of sewing bloggers – hundreds of people across the world, from different cultural, religious and class backgrounds, who had come together to form a virtual sewing circle. I promptly joined and it is this online network that has allowed me to develop my skills and which continues to fuel my interest in and passion for sewing everyday.

Like many people, my day mainly consists of sitting at a computer and my work in essence involves shifting ideas and information around. While enjoyable and rewarding to an extent, after years of doing this I felt a desire for something extra – to set my hands to a use other than typing, to engage a different part of my brain, and to create something tangible. The cultural sector should not underestimate the impact that making things yourself has on people, particularly in the digital age when many of us spend most of our lives staring at a computer screen. While attending cultural events is entertaining, inspiring and challenging, nothing has had such a big effect on me as making my first dress.

This view is shared by many of my fellow sewing bloggers who responded to my blog posts on the subject. The process of designing and constructing a garment provides a creative outlet, a stimulating challenge and a reawakening of a childlike sense of experimentation and discovery:

"My day job is stressful. But when I have the opportunity to immerse myself in a project, it is as if I am walking from the black-and-white scene of my ‘normal’ life into the technicolor world of fabric, imagination and possibility. The experience is tactile, visual, psychological and emotional." - Beth

Making something yourself, witnessing your idea become actualised and externalised in physical form, gives you not only an immense feeling of achievement, but also a feeling of agency. This feeling of agency offers you a stronger sense of connection to the world, making you feel more empowered and in control. For many people, having creative control is vital to their sense of self. In fact, a number of people emailed me to tell stories of how the process of making things got them through particularly difficult periods in their lives – eating disorders, miscarriages, and clinical depression.

"At a time when I felt like I sucked at everything, being able to create was an amazing feeling. It was soothing and stimulating at the same time and it was definitely a factor in my recovery." - Roisin

This sense of control is also reflected in the structure of the sewing blog community. It is a self-led network, with no hierarchy, and no division between “expert” and “amateur”. Everyone has something valuable to contribute no matter how long they have been sewing. Through our blogs we pool together our collective skills, building on each other’s knowledge to create a powerful resource which allows us to learn new techniques and problem solve together. While many cultural organisations struggle to reach new audiences, the fact that the sewing network does not distinguish between people based on their expertise or professional status encourages new people to join all the time – I regularly receive emails from people who have said that reading my blog, which I started writing as soon as I started sewing, inspired them to try out a new craft themselves. As well as sharing knowledge, the sewing network provides momentum for people to keep on creating. We feel like part of a collective endeavour, spurring each other on to work towards our common goal of making things. Through our blogs we have a platform to showcase what would otherwise be a movement hidden behind closed doors, to celebrate creativity which happens at the home.

In addition to providing daily support and motivation, some special projects have been initiated through the blogs, projects with the sort of ambition, reach and impact that well-funded arts institutions strive to organise. There are sewalongs, in which tens or hundreds of stitchers all over the world decide to sew from the same pattern, guided by a blogger who sets the schedule and provides tutorials on construction techniques to enable beginners to follow along. There are “Me-Made” months, when sewists celebrate their creativity by wearing only homemade clothes for a month, sharing photographic evidence of their challenge online. There are projects such as A Common Thread, where a length of vintage lace was divided up between eight women around the world who each used it to embellish a different garment. These initiatives all demonstrate the value of different individuals’ approaches to making, at the same time as connecting up a geographically disparate group of people into an active, tight-knit and – above all – collaborative community.

The success of the online sewing network – as well as other networks of makers – and the impact that it has on people’s lives presents an opportunity for the cultural sector. At the same time it raises questions about the sector’s current criteria and priorities for what it supports. Self-led cultural and creative activity is happening. To genuinely and authentically embrace this movement, the sector – and the funders and policy makers who support it – must reassess their assumptions about the starting point of cultural activity.

The internet provides an opportunity to empower and inspire more and more people to engage in arts, crafts and culture. They are not obliged to buy a ticket or attend a geographically-specific cultural venue or a temporally-specific artistic event. They can engage on their own terms, from home, when they choose, making culture and creativity part of their everyday lives. Could the cultural sector shift some of the emphasis away from trying to bring audiences into venues towards meeting people in their own space – at home, online? Creative Scotland have stated an ambition to foster “creativity in every home” – perhaps this should be an objective of more cultural agencies.

Social media allows a community-led approach to spreading cultural engagement and nurturing creativity. Instead of a one-way transfer of expertise, it empowers non-professionals to play an active role as cultural producers, fostering the deepest level of engagement from participants and enticing new people to join in. The cultural sector should recognise the value of networks of “amateur” makers and consider how it could accommodate and champion them through policy and funding in the same way that it supports centralised professional organisations. Can the cultural sector raise its game from talking about “audience development” to talking about public creative empowerment?

We say that the arts inspire people, challenge people, make them feel good, add value to their lives. There is no question that attending a cultural event – whether a dance performance, an artist talk, or a craft workshop – organised by an arts organisation, at a specific time and location, has a positive impact on people’s lives. But for an even deeper and more lasting impact, the sector could work towards including amateur maker networks, and help make creativity a part of people’s everyday lives.

"I can’t express how much my life has improved as I feel like I have a purpose. Sewing for me is most definitely not a hobby but a way of life and I wouldn’t have it any other way." - Magpie Mimi

- Tilly Walnes
Clore Fellow 2010/11, supported by the Cultural Leadership Programme


  1. *clapping*!!! Well said!

    Experts were amateurs once :)

  2. Excellent post/paper! I'm new to sewing myself and finding this large community of sewing blogs was a great help to me.

  3. Hi Tilly,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper. I do have a thought to share: I don't know if it's true that there's 'no division between expert and amateur'. I think there is, and I also think that this division is exactly what prevents the 'lowering of standards'. The experts, in my view, are people whose blog is of a high quality. This quality comes forth in the garments they make(design or techniques), the originality of their written text, the quality and setting of their photo's, layout of the blog, etc. The difference is that they are experts because a lot of independent people decided they are: their followers. They are not experts because some institution labeled them as such. You, for instance, I follow (apart from the fact that you make pretty things, ofcourse) because you provoke people to really think about sewing, instead of just writing posts that say 'yay look at what I made'. A blog reflects a personality, and this genuinity adds to the quality of a blog. In sum, I do think that there is a division (may it not be a sharp line) between amateurs and experts, and I think that this is a strength because it is a division made by a community of individuals, and not by an institution.

    - Lisa

  4. Your provocation paper is very thought-provoking! Which is the point, right ;)

    I like thinking about the idea of amateur vs expert (coming from a visual arts point of view). When does the label change-- Is it experience? Is it skill? Is it public view? It constantly changes and evolves, as it has throughout history.

    Very interesting! I enjoyed reading this.

  5. Beautiful post, Tilly! My response to this is a little long, so I shared it on my own blog, but I wanted to thank you for writing this. I really enjoy your blog and I appreciate the time you take to share your thoughts.

  6. Thank you for sharing your paper, it's really nice to see the product of all the questions and answers we've all passed back and forth come together so eloquently.

    I hope you get a good review from your peers and tutors for this.

  7. Excellent paper! You did such a good job of crystalizing what we do and why we do it and the sense of community among sewing bloggers! This is such a supportive and incredible group of people! I hope you get an amazing review!

  8. Well done! *claps* I'm thankful for sewing blogs. I'm mostly self taught and I've learned quite a btt from them!

  9. Great post and paper. Still provoking my thoughts. (-:

  10. that is soo true. I've been involved in the arts for years and it has only been in the last 4-5 years i've really got into my own practice again, and I include all my creative practice in that remit. "Fine Art", crafts, sewing - in all its forms, cooking, making and playing music. I just love the world of blogs - it has allowed me to share what I do with others, glean ideas and learn how to do things I'd never considered. I'd considering developing my own fabric from some of my designs. I'd have never done that without the blog world. I an neither expert or amateur, I am learning constantly - and while I may know more about some things than others do. I definitely know less in other fields.
    Fab paper and I love you blog, it's been one that has taken my interest over the last few months.

  11. Very well done, you have expressed he thoughts of many of us in the sewing world and I hope it inspires many others in whatever endeavor they choose.

  12. Excellent post! Thank you for provoking my own thoughts, and, frankly, opening my mind to some aspects of the arts in a deeper way. *applause* :)

  13. Really provocative, it's got me thinking, as someone who is involved in both worlds in various ways. I had a thought - experts in institutions are there because a larger community, over time, has created a system whereby experts get qualified, then appointed into expert roles. Once upon a time, most of these people would have been amateurs in the true sense of the word - the qualifications, training and requirements for these came later. Evolved.
    Is our blogging world going to evolve in the same way? Will the wisdom of folk turn into something more agreed upon and less organic, just as it has in the longer established establishments of the Arts?
    In short, I guess I am asking, is this difference because of the different points in a continuum of evolution, or is it more fundamental than that? I have a feeling it is, and I wish it wasn't!

  14. Tilly like everyone before thank you for sharing your paper with us. I've really enjoyed how you've used the research you've asked the blogworld to be part of- wonderfully written and it resonates I'm sure with heaps of your readers. Good luck with it!! Keep us posted!

  15. Thank you, everyone for your supportive comments. I'm surprised how many people have bothered to read this!

    Lisa - that's an interesting way of looking at what "amateur" and "expert" means when it comes to blogging. If I had to pick one, I would consider myself an amateur, but I truly believe that the power and joy of the sewing blog network is that we (or most of us, in any case) don't distinguish between them.

    Actually, I think Claire Cooper puts it well - " I am neither expert or amateur, I am learning constantly". Which is what we all should be doing.

    MrsC - that's a really good question. Gertie, for example, has now become a sewing teacher both in IRL classes and online videos. However, she still interacts with other bloggers, asking them questions, plus she admits when she makes mistakes. I wonder whether this will continue, both for Gertie and for other bloggers who go on to teach in more traditional contexts. When you say "will the wisdom of folk turn into something agreed upon", what I really like is the variety of approaches to the same problem, when people recognise that there isn't just one set way of doing things - so I hope not, in that sense!

  16. Wow, Tilly! Fantastic job and far more articulate that I think I could manage. Lisa has hit the nail on the head for me in that there are no experts, other than those the community have chosen as experts. Which makes those people more influential than any person with an official title.
    Blogs for me are friends, community, resource, teachers, inspiration... My sewing would be very different with out them.
    I really hope the paper gets the praise it deserves.

  17. The way you connect sewing, and sewing blogs to the cultural sector as a whole is inspired and to the point. I especially love your conclusion that the sector should focus more on supporting amateur networks, and make art something people participate in, instead of look at.

  18. Congratulations for this article. Very well written, thought-provoking. Certainly culture is anchored to an old-fashioned vision of the world. Physical libraries are one example of that.

  19. What a very cool paper! I hope it'll be well received. :)

  20. "Debates persist over how much control can be relinquished to audiences without 'lowering standards'."

    This concern may be genuine, but I'll bet the unstated fear is that the experts' power (authority, fame, income) will become diluted. So far, social media has been remarkably democratic (this may change as we lose net neutrality), and democracy is scary business. Thank you for sharing this. As part of a pre-Facebook generation, I have been terribly interested to watch how social media is changing ideas of privacy, intimacy, power and authority.

  21. Wow! I've been hearing for years in my professional life about participatory culture in the context of associations. (I work for an association.) But this is the first time I've read anything tying that phenomenon to sewing blogs, to which I'm quite the newcomer. Fantastic post. This one will live with me for awhile.

  22. Excellent paper Tilly, you put into eloquent words what I'm sure many of us are thinking. Thanks for sharing, it certainly is food for thought and I hope you score well on it!

  23. Tilly, your comment about working in front of a computer & pushing ideas/info around rings just as true as the wonderfully put B&W/technicolour analogy made by Beth.
    Regardless of the debates surrounding amateurs/experts & top-down/bottom-up, I'm just so grateful for the opportunity to feel like Dorothy, waking up in a world of Oz-like gorgeousness whenever I enter the Blogosphere.

  24. Thank you so much for posting your paper. It is very well written and thought provoking. I echo many of the previous comments. I would hope that the establishment "experts" are open enough to realize that the "amateurs" are not attempting a coup but clearly using their own abilities to express their art. There is amazing talent in small galleries, art faires, and even church sponsored craft shows. While there are always detractors, the blogs have enabled many people to express their talent, to inspire and to document for themselves their own growth and progress. The simple fact that they choose to share that experience enriches us all.

  25. Oh my!! Well said!!!.......or.... written.

  26. OMG!!! You are SUCH a good writer! Thanks so so much for sharing the outcome of the questions you have been raising on your blog recently. I think that by including everyone in the sewing community in the research for your essay as you have done, you have underlined the very essense of what's so good about the community that you are writing about. The way you approached the research was empowering for those of us who contributed our thoughts on answering your questions. Thanks for including us. I really hope you receive some serious props within your work network for this essay, at the very least a hefty bonus and a few days off to spend on sewing!!!!

    Thanks again for sharing your essay, I'm about to force my boyfriend to read it as you really vocalised how I feel about our community.

    Zoe xxx

  27. This is a lovely article and the inclusiveness of the online sewing world and how nice everyone genuinely is to newbies and experienced crafters/sewers alike is what keeps me going and makes me want to share what I've created again and again on my blog and in communities online.

    I like that at the end of a busy day at work I can come home and from the comfort of my home with a cup of tea and my jammies and slippers on I can start to work on projects. When I become stuck with a project or I'm not sure what to do or want inspiration, I know there is a huge network of like minded and FRIENDLY people who won't be condescending or make me pay for their advice or feel like I should have done more homework before asking for help online. I like that even projects which I think have failed will get comments of encouragement and constructive advice for the future.

    I loved this post as you have helped me to identify why I enjoy sewing, painting, creating so much and why it relaxes me. I found this post to be more insightful than I thought it would be. Thank you for writing. Thank you for sharing. x


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