Domesticity is boring, right? Not for a new generation of young women who are beginning to embrace the lost skills previous generations of women and use them to transform their homes and their lives. I would have thought it ridiculous a few years ago if you told me that I would soon enjoy learning long forgotten domestic skills - that I would be contemplating sewing my first patchwork quilt, knitting my own hats and scarves. I would have laughed if I had been told that me and my friends, more used to hanging out in sweaty clubs watching noisy guitar bands, would be starting craft circles, making our own clothes and baking bread and cakes by the dozen. I don't know when the idea first struck me that domesticity was cool, that it was fine to care about these things. I don't even think it's about growing up, about getting older; people of all ages are beginning to celebrate the cult of the craft.
Jean Railla was the first of our new craft generation to celebrate the 'New Domesticity', using the phrase to describe a conscious and deliberate form of domesticity. She has described her own route to claiming a domestic life, one which echoed mine and the lives of many other single women in the city. Living on her own at twenty-eight in a rented apartment in New York City with a busy work and social life, she felt that this lifestyle was neither satisfying nor sustainable. She realized that as a self-declared feminist, she had been consciously rejecting anything she at that point reduced to the label of 'women's work'. However, as she became aware of this rejection, her approach altered: 'I began re-evaluating who I was and what I wanted, including many of the things that I had always dismissed because I didn't want to be one of “those” women. Were cooking, crafts and keeping house something that would limit my life? I had always thought so, but living like a slob wasn't very enjoyable. What did I really have to fear from domestic entrapment?' She began to rediscover the crafts she enjoyed in her childhood, knitting, sewing and cooking, realizing that this fun could be transferred to adult life. Jean's discovery was that this not only improved her surroundings but it could also be really enjoyable.
This isn't about settling down and making a cosy little home for yourself. Domestic does not equal dull. Countless young women in their twenties are returning to domesticity with a conscious sense of feminist history. Looking after yourself and your home has long been dismissed as an unsatisfying and thankless task. But why can't taking care of yourself, your surroundings, your family and your friends be rewarding? Such work has long been devalued, with the implication that it causes more frustration than fulfillment. It is not the activities themselves that are limiting but how they are viewed, as 'simple' and somehow stifling. But these perceptions are misleading, when craft and domesticity can be creative, artistic and rewarding - an artistic expression of everyday life. Your hand knitted jumper, as practical as it may be, can be a work of art - and the same goes for your newly decorated one-bedroom flat or your kitchen.
Many women involved in this new wave of domesticity feel that they are reclaiming a lost heritage. Domestic skills have traditionally been passed from generation to generation, but the majority of today's twenty-somethings were never taught to even sew on a button. 'I think this is one of the successes of feminism in fact, that young women feel so strongly about themselves that they can knit and be taken seriously,' claims Railla. 'The new domesticity embraces traditional women's work, yet it is not traditional. That's an important distinction,' she says. 'Just because I knit doesn't mean I do all the housework. It's not conservative.'
This isn't about emulating Martha Stewart or Nigella Lawson or about trying to be a perfect wife or mother, far from it. The movement holds strong ties in punk rock 'Do-It-Yourself' communities, stemming in part from the Riot Grrrl underground movement of early nineties America where women challenged the male dominance of the music scene. It is a distinct part of an independent cultural ethos set apart from the commercial world, a resourceful way to live your life, a way to personalize your own environment. Bust magazine editor and influential craft book, Stitch 'n' Bitch author Debbie Stoller proclaims that 'crafting is the new rock 'n' roll.' And it does feel like a new form of rebellion. It can be a radical move to take out your knitting on the bus. Your actions may be dismissed as a simple form of a passive women's hobby but you are showing that you just don't care about all those old outdated preconceptions. Besides, it is not just women who are embracing the new domesticity; men are also taking an active role, challenging stereotypes of their own. For many people, celebrating the domestic is about forming a sense of wider community. Previously, embracing domesticity would mean embracing a devotion to your home and accepting a certain amount of isolation that this would bring. Contemporary crafters do not follow this stale and limited vision, and instead meet up to discuss their work in groups, at events termed 'Stitch n Bitches', over dinner or drinks at the bar. It is a way to connect with others, to share forgotten skills and of course provides a perfect cover for gossip.
Online forums have sprung up celebrating the new domestic arts. Operating much like virtual sewing circles, there is the opportunity to share your work with others. People are joining in their thousands. For example, the website www.Craftster.org has 55,722 members regularly posting information about their current craft projects and countless more logging on to just take a look and find inspiration. Their motto? 'No Tea Cozies Without Irony.' No one could criticize the creators here for not being creative, for just reliving a nostalgic sense of building a perfect but unimaginative home. Here people are often working on a tight budget, there are students, people experiencing the optimistic excitement and mild sense disappointment of moving into a shabby rented flat, young newly weds and single mothers. All share the common aim of transforming the place they live into their home, and in doing so they recycle old materials, customize a thrift store find and reuse supposed 'junk' they find abandoned in the street, always working to express their creativity across their walls. The unexpected thrives: you often get the best results from the most limited resources. Browsing through Craftster, I am so often amazed by what people are up to - from decorating their living rooms and creating beautiful furniture from ugly shabby finds to making quilts from old t-shirts and customizing old lamps into works of art. (A good place to start looking for ideas and specific designs is the 'home sweet home' section at http://www.craftster.org/forum/index.php).
This new found love for the domestic doesn't need to take over your life, you don't need to strive to become a domestic goddess. It's about being able to make choices and choosing what best suits you. I can't cook but I can bake up a storm, I am not a knitting expert but I love to embroider. Even if you only ever just knit one scarf, sew one baby blanket, decorate one room, you'll feel great - there's a real sense of achievement and empowerment through craft. There are no rules, no expectations, just be yourself, find your crafty side and have fun.
Have I convinced you yet? What better way could there be, to start you on your way to domesticity, than trying out a new craft in a simple kit form. And before you start to panic - imagining frumpy cardigans or dodgy tea-cosies - rest assured you won't find any cheesy crafts in this new domestic movement.