Instagram and crochet star, ChiliPhilly. Image supplied.
Ten years ago, the making landscape looked very different. Instagram wouldn’t be around for a couple of years and it was still early days for online marketplace Etsy, which had started to grow rapidly after its launch in 2005.
In retrospect, craft was entering a period of growth that we can now recognise. But locally, here in Australia, this evolution wasn’t reflected in policy, and the nation’s peak crafts organisation Craft Australia was defunded in 2011. But despite current low infrastructure funding, the sector has proved itself a resilient one.
Today, the craft sector’s future and how it can be best supported has made this a national issue. Still, we have to wonder, how do the individual makers and craftspeople make this career choice work for them?
Frankie Press recently shone a light on the resilience and strength of the individuals working in this sector in a new book, Look What We Made, featuring interviews with 38 local makers. Pockets of career advice and personal reflection provide what the book’s editor, Jo Walker, calls the ‘nitty-gritty’ of working in the industry. It’s these insights that capture what takes place behind the idealised, high-gloss image of making that we so often see.
‘When we were putting the book together it was really important for us to be realistic about the people that we were covering. We wanted to celebrate the beauty and the amazing things that get made and the creativity of these people, but we also wanted to be honest in reflecting the fact that this is hard. This is a time of work,’ said Walker.
‘It is almost like a lifestyle you choose and which these makers have chosen. And there are certain trade-offs. We explore that. How do you economically make this work? How do you price your stuff? How do you motivate yourself when it is only you in the work room, you don’t have a boss, and you’re not working nine to five?’
It’s a set of questions many freelancers and creatives ask themselves. And the answers in Look What We Made not only provide practical advice, they also suggest emerging trends that are shaping the sector.
ChiliPhilly on how to get something worthwhile out of social media
Social media has obviously opened up new opportunities for makers, particularly the visual platform Instagram. ‘Making and craft is catnip for that. A load of the makers we featured have a healthy Instagram account,’ said Walker.
Among them is Phil Ferguson, aka ChiliPhilly, who crochets hats and costumes that resemble food. He offers the following advice in Look What We Made:
‘First up: know what your point of difference is. There are plenty of people crocheting hats, but there’s not many crocheting hats that look like food. There’s no point in utilising social media if you’re going to do things that are exactly the same as everybody else.’
Walker pointed to ChiliPhilly as an example of someone who is a successful self-advocate.
‘It is the eternal curse of the creative that a lot of people feel very uncomfortable with blowing their own trumpets,’ she said.
‘That is kind of the point of his making. Getting people to look at him wearing this stuff. He isn’t even trying to sell his hats. The act of photographing and uploading them as this kind of photographic drag is the end result, and he is very strategic about how he uses social media because obviously he has to get people looking.’
look what we made: phil ferguson aka chili philly from frankie magazine on Vimeo.
Education opportunities have changed
Another creative featured is Shoemaker Beccy Bromilow, who launched her business BB Shoemaker in 2014.
Bromilow, who lives and works in Adelaide, trialed a few potential career paths before enrolling in a shoemaking course at TAFE SA. Unfortunately the TAFE cancelled the course a few years later, but, somewhat fortuitously, Bromilow was able to purchase the equipment she needed to grow her business.
The closure of this course is an example of changing education opportunities in the craft sector. As more manufacturing has moved offshore, the demand for these courses has also dropped. Today Melbourne is the only city in Australia that offers a course in shoemaking.
As these types of traditional crafts become less accessible, more people are self-learning.
‘It was interesting how many people have taught themselves from YouTube videos, or who initially taught themselves from YouTube videos, got up to a level of skill and then sought out tutors to give them a bit of extra polish,’ said Walker.
‘Some people have done postgraduate courses in whatever they are doing, but across them there’s this ability to learn online in a cheaper and less formal way than you had to in the past.’
Beccy Bromilow of BB Shoemaker in her Adelaide studio. Image supplied.
Making cash from creativity
How makers view commercial work has also changed. ‘People experiment a bit more now, there is a bit more of an openness to commercial work and acknowledging that, sure, we do have to talk about money,’ said Walker.
‘The idea of getting paid by brands for different work used to come with this image that you were selling out, that you were corrupted somehow. Whereas I think that now, definitely with the younger generation of makers, they are more realistic in a way and definitely more open to collaboration with commercial enterprises, or at least they are not going to turn their noses up at it. You can still do cool stuff.’
Sydney based artist and designer Gemma O’Brien specialises in lettering and type and regularly shifts between creating personal work and commercial work.
‘It can be hard to juggle commercial stuff with personal creativity at times,’ O’Brien said. ‘I like having a balance of both. Making time for experimentation facilitates more personal work, and commercial work can teach you how to have more structure and discipline when working on your own project.’
Her advice to other creatives who similarly work commercially is to say ‘no’ to commissions that aren’t the right fit.
‘That will burn you out if you take on too much. Now it’s about 50/50 yes and no.’
Discover more advice in Look What We Made, out now through Frankie Press and retailing for $26.95. Read the first 20 pages here.
Look What We Made from frankie magazine on Vimeo.