A few weeks ago, I experienced a forgotten feeling. I was attending my weekly virtual craft night scribbling blind-contour drawings when it happened: a belly laugh. I had not noticed the absence of full-bodied laughter in these charged months of pandemic and upheaval until I felt the joyful tears at the corners of my eyes and the welcome warmth of their unexpected return.
At that particular craft night, my friends and I kept our drawing tools whirling in continuous lines across our papers with our eyes glued to a screen-shared photo for exactly two minutes. When time was up, we held our wonky scribbles to our respective webcams and burst into laughter seeing how much we had mangled our sketched representations of each other’s faces, pets, and wedding days (based on photos that one friend had mined from our Instagram accounts ahead of time). That night of drawing together was silly and playful and loose. In a time spent largely indoors with little of the serendipity of moving through the outside world, it was spontaneous and freeing — a good kind of chaos.
Four friends and I started having these craft-based get-togethers over Zoom in early May, after helping our friend Jessica Marquez do a practice run of her first online embroidery class. It was so refreshing to just chat and make stuff together that we decided to make it a regular thing. We had met each other more than a decade ago at Craft Night, a program I founded in 2007 at Etsy’s HQ in Brooklyn and led for several years. So, a craft night was not only how we started our friendship, but has also become a way to support each other long-distance during a pandemic. These times together apart — to borrow the name of the podcast that The Art of Gathering author Priya Parker started during the pandemic — has been a lifeline for me and a source of joy to anticipate each week.
Since this craft night has been a buoy for me, I got to wondering what crafting together has meant for others during this time of, shall we say, challenges. I talked to the founders of five other craft-centered gatherings to find out.
Connecting and Uplifting Spirits
At its heart, getting together fulfills a human need for community and connection. And, with the scarcity of physical human contact — hugs, handshakes, grazing hands at a cash register or coffee counter — crafting offers a tactile and sensory experience, a different type of touch and connection.
For Kathy Cano-Murrillo, the glitter-loving artist, author, and founder of Crafty Chica, starting Corazón Craft Night during lockdown in March was a way to infuse positive energy into a worrying time, while also highlighting Latinx makers in honor of National Craft Month. Hosted on Instagram Live, 10 makers each have a 15-minute time slot to demo a DIY project, often highlighting resourcefully repurposed household materials. The first three-hour-long night was such a hit that Cano-Murrillo organized 14 more Corazón Craft Nights through late August, keeping people connected and entertained. Next, she plans to host other Corazón Craft Nights centered around holidays.
“I learned how much of a benefit it is to push yourself beyond your routine and break out of your bubble of creating by yourself,” Cano-Murillo said. “I know people are like, ‘Put down your phone and connect with the people next to you.’ Well, sometimes the people next to you in real life don’t want to craft with you. But there’s people online who do, and they’re your soul sisters or your soul brothers.”
Improving Mental Health and Well-being
Crafting, like laughter, crackles with a certain full-body power. The repetitive motions of knitting, for example, are known to have health benefits: lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and reducing levels of the cortisol. In turn, the meditative act of making soothes the mind and eases stress.
Supporting mental health through creativity is key for Candida Bradley, a London-based wellbeing coach, bookbinder, and founder of Make n’ Craft, an intimate monthly social gathering that she hosted in local pubs in 2019 but has shifted online since May. She finds crafting helpful for coping with her own depression, and she blends craft with other well-being techniques for her client sessions and creative workshops. “The act of crafting puts you into a mindfulness state,” Bradley noted. “Using your hands and getting a bit lost in something gives you space to process emotion and think things through, which we don’t really give ourselves time for in Western culture.”
The therapeutic benefits of craft also resonate with Jessica Kausen, an avid maker and marketing professional. She and her neighbor in Astoria, Queens, Danielle Vogl, started their Virtual Craft Hang in March by inviting people in their networks to get together for an informal 90-minute hangout each Saturday morning, as respite from tumultuous times. A rotating cast of about 11 or 12 people show up each week with projects and tools, from mini-pottery wheels to embroidery needles. Their Virtual Craft Hang is a place for expression, and not only the creative variety. “It’s become a space where we hold emotions for each other,” Kausen said. “There’s been tears and celebration.”
For some artists and designers, in-person workshops were an important source of income and personal connection before the pandemic hit. Now that such gatherings aren’t safe or possible, shifting these events online is one way to keep business going and stay connected. For Kitiya Palaskas, a designer in Melbourne, who specializes in colorful craft-based work, the need to pivot her business and diversify her income became clear when much of the design work and in-person craft workshops she had lined up disappeared when lockdown started.
Due to local restrictions, she says she hasn’t seen the horizon or left the five-block radius from her house since March, and jokingly refers to her home studio as her “craft dungeon” on Instagram. For a sociable soul — she even wrote a book devoted to festive get-togethers, Piñata Party — the isolation is tough. In addition to getting creative with her finances, she also needed a way to stay connected with a friendly community. Thus, her Craft Club was born.
For each session, Palaskas sells a craft supply kit and a dedicated workshop that’s capped at 22 participants, so she can create a dynamic space where everyone feels comfortable to chat. “Having a craft club like this is so intimate,” Palaskas said. “You’re basically in everybody else’s living room or office or studio. I’m really getting to know the people that support my brand on a personal level, to the point where we become peers and friends.”
Crafting for a Cause
Craft has activist potential, too. From my observations, wherever there’s a social cause, there’s a group of crafters ready to pitch in and help make a difference, whether it’s sewing masks to donate to people and organizations in need, for example, or tapping into creative skills to raise money and awareness.
Knitting and watching movies together was initially a way for four friends from the same New York theatre group to stay in contact during the pandemic, a get-together they dubbed Club KnitFlix. But the concept quickly transformed into something bigger than themselves. The friends — Carley Santori, Rachel Bass, Margaret Leisenheimer, and Emily Williams — wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and they decided to tap into knitting as a means to fundraise. The idea grew into the epic 12-hour KnitFlix Knitathon that brought together 56 crafters and 500 donors to raise a total of $20,175 to support four social justice organizations: the Loveland Foundation, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, G.L.I.T.S., and Disabled But Not Really.
The knitathon, hosted on Saturday, August 22, from 10am to 10pm, was packed with activities, including knitting demos, games, artist talks, a raffle, fiber history lessons, shared resources, a sip-and-stitch with live music and custom cocktail list, and discussion forums that delved into accessibility and reckoning with racism in the knitting community. “A lot of people believe that crafting is an apolitical hobby. But when we look back at history, that’s actually incorrect,” said Leisenheimer. “For example, women were discussing abolitionist readings and talking about anti-slavery in Civil War-era knitting groups. Knitting has always been political. Crafting provides a platform for people to talk — about politics, activism, and human rights.”
By carving out time to craft together, we have the opportunity to not only take care of ourselves, but also to make a difference in each others’ lives and our communities.