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