I remember it well. My sludge-coloured hand-knitted jumper with the too short sleeves in scratchy wool that marked me out as different from my classmates. Changing for school sports was a nightmare because it had no high-status label inside. I coveted one of the flawless silver grey numbers from John Lewis, worn by my peers and which looked as if they had come off an assembly line. I didn’t care that my mother, Florence, had masochistically slaved over her knitting machine late into the night or that my homespun garments meant there was money spare for other necessities. I just wanted to fit in—and look good.
So it was with some trepidation that I went along to meet some of the creatives at the helm of the contemporary arts and crafts movement currently sweeping the city. Would this be a Proustian moment when I was reduced once again to the girl with braces and a wonky fringe (the result of another ill-advised, cost-cutting idea of my mother’s)?
These astute individuals, with their flourishing craft stores and packed-out workshops, have pulled off a rare feat. They have managed to capture the spirit of the age and buck the recession. Bad timing, Florence.
I am also reassured to learn that nowadays handicrafts encapsulate everything right on; they are no longer about keeping unhappy women chained to hot sewing machines.
Aviv Kruglanski, whose background is in fine arts, runs the Centro de Cultivos Contemporaneos del Barrio, a neighbourhood centre in Poble Sec. His courses run the gamut from the more conventional—crochet, sewing and Indian embroidery—to the offbeat, such as tempeh (fermented soybeans) workshops and ‘Make Your Own Boxer Shorts’.
“Some people confuse what people are doing now with what people did in the Fifties and Sixties,” Kruglanski explains. “Back then, crafts were part of a conservative social and economic system which was repressive to women. Today, things are more about creative expression and experimentation. The idea of things having to be perfect and pristine creates a psychological barrier for people wanting to learn textile crafts.”
Alícia Roselló, a former design and graphics student, tapped into the craft phenomenon some seven years ago when she saw what was happening in the States and realised Barcelona had nothing similar. Over there, craft enthusiasts were busy preserving semi-forgotten traditions, like crocheting, but doing so in a progressive and dynamic way. Here, it was a different story. “I called my aunt and asked her to teach me how to crochet,” she explains. “Back then, young people [in Barcelona] were not doing it.”
She now runs Duduá, a popular shop and workshop space in Gràcia, where you can buy locally-sourced craft-related items or attend a course. Her aim is to get away from the old-fashioned ‘lace doily’ connotations often associated with handicrafts and to put a new twist on traditional crafts. A student might be taught to crochet with XXL needles (which look as if they have been made for a giant) to create a rug or basket. In times past, people used regular-sized crochet needles to produce a smaller range of products both in terms of size and scope.
“When I started offering crochet classes, people freaked out and said, ‘but they’re for grandmothers!’ Now I advertise a crochet class on my blog and by the next day, it’s full.”
Miquel Saurina and Jen Callahan (a former advertising man and translator, respectively) set up natural yarn store/workshop venue All You Knit is Love in 2006. The idea was to offer natural merchandise, not the acrylic, ‘old lady’ type wools of yore. But they had a hard time convincing their bank manager.
“When we went to the bank to ask for a loan,” says Saurina, “the bank manager needed to understand our proposal and said, ‘Oh, yes, I remember when I was young, old ladies used to sit on the street and knit. Are you sure you can make this work?’”
Even this tradition of benign old widows clicking their knitting needles on the carrers of Barceloneta has been given a fresh spin by Aviv and his students. His ‘documentary project’ has nothing to do with TV. Rather, they go to a neighbourhood, sit themselves down and start to do some embroidery. The purpose is to get the community interacting and Kruglanski says it doesn’t take long before this happens. “People stop and get involved. You connect with those who are usually not so empowered.”
I am interested to know what workshop participants derive from their endeavours, given that crafts sound painstakingly slow and that mass-produced products in the shops are often so cheap.
Alícia Roselló says that as well as the social aspect with like-minded folk, handicrafts are therapeutic. (Try telling Florence.) “This may be the only time in someone’s day that they can be creative,” she says. “They can escape from routine, relax and not think about everyday problems. When I crochet, I’m in another galaxy.”
Aviv Kruglanski believes that the lack of experience most people have of making anything for themselves these days creates “an alienation, maybe even a depression.” In contrast, “it’s an empowering moment when something 2-D suddenly becomes 3-D,” he claims.
And while it might be fun to own an Imelda Marcos-style walk-in closet full of shoes and dresses, it is clearly not environmentally friendly. “When you do something with your hands,” says Roselló, “you realise how difficult it is and you start to think about how you consume and where things are made. Maybe I don’t need 25 skirts—perhaps three good ones will do.”
The saga about my homespun jersey has a happy ending. At least for me. One day, exhausted by a woman’s work, my mother accidentally turned the washing machine up high. My jumper came out toddler-sized—and thus unwearable.
Centro de Cultivos Contemporaneos del Barrio: Purissima Concepció 28 (Poble Sec). http://bbva.irational.org
All You Knit is Love: Barra de Ferro 8 (Born), www.allyouknitislove.com
Duduá: Diluvi 5 (Gràcia), www.duduadudua.com
Nido de Abeja (see below): www.nidoabeja.com
I chatted to some students taking advantage of the wide range of craft workshops now available in Barcelona. Many of the teachers speak English, while participants tend to be young, professional, female trendsetters.
Carme Clua Raso (32) became a part-time vintage clothing designer (L’Armoire de Meliette) after a spell of unemployment and completing several workshops at Duduá.
“My mother never sewed and we weren’t taught at school. These skills skipped a generation. Maybe they were seen as sexist in the past but now women are trying to reclaim them. Being out of work isn’t always negative—it can mean you reinvent yourself.”
Tonya Gates (40) works for a Barcelona-based literary agency. Tonya is also a Duduá student. She wanted to relearn skills acquired as a child.
“Going out on the town is no longer an option for everyone [because of the crisis]. More people are hanging out at home or in parks but instead of TV or drinking, they are getting inspired. It’s good to see the resurgence of a community from arts and crafts. People with a design background are also realising that practising old traditions can be avant-garde.”
Marga Gonzalez-Rothvoss (39) is a former events organiser. After doing some workshops at Nido de Abeja in Gràcia, she was addicted.
“I worked in an office as an executive but I came to realise that this wasn’t the right environment for me. In workshops, you meet people with a different philosophy—DIY and slow living. I wanted to sign up! I still don’t know where this will lead, whether I’ll earn my living from it or it will be a hobby, but right now I’m enjoying the journey.”