The pandemic has meant pressure for Denton’s adults.
Workers left their offices and set up shop at their dining room tables. They split their shifts between working for the boss and schooling kids at home.
It might seem counterintuitive, but some of those adults picked up another task: handmade crafts. Quilters dove into their fabric supplies and hauled out the sewing machine (or alternated making cloth masks to finish a block or two of a quilt left on the back burner). Woodworkers dug out their tools and plugged their lathes back in.
“My scrapbooks have never been this polished,” said Anne Kerry, who lives in the Lake Cities area. “It’s like wrangling washi tape has been some kind of therapy. I don’t know if my kids will appreciate me making COVID-19 scrapbooks, but at least I’m using my supplies instead of buying more.”
Kerry’s husband has been eyeing a wood burning kit on Amazon, too. It’s something to consider while his golf clubs gather dust, she said.
University of North Texas professor Jennifer Way, who teaches art history in the College of Visual Arts & Design, said Americans have taken to crafting during hardship before. Way, who is working on a book titled Deploying Craft for War: Making Craft for Coping and Rehabilitation, said handmade crafts played a big part in wartime America.
“During World War I, the reasons for people crafting are not the same as they are now,” Way said. “Right now, with COVID-19, I mention the word ‘wartime’ because COVID-19 is being called a war by our president and other politicians. You hear them talking about it as an unseen enemy. The implication is that everyone is a subject in that war. It’s both national and pervasive. But it’s not like the Army is asking people to make crafts. What’s happening is that the place that people are really feeling this [is] at home.”
Staying at home means people have had to find “the ability to self-soothe and heal during isolation,” she said.
Denton-area residents are grappling with an infectious disease that has killed an estimated 195,000 Americans, with Texas second only to California in the number of deaths. Handcrafts help makers shrink the world down to the size of an embroidery hoop or a block of wood, Way said. You might not be able to control the virus, but you can control that fat quarter of fabric you’re turning into a pillowcase, or that bit of wood you’re turning to create a bowl.
“With a lot of crafts, you have this repetition of process,” Way said. “You’re not having to learn again and again. Craft tends to be very adaptable. You can use craft to fill your house, making all these different items. But you can also just craft to concentrate on craft. You can keep crocheting the same loop over and over. Craft has strong associations with childhood and family or heritage or place. This is very individual. It’s self-focused. You’re managing the self through caretaking.”
The whirlwind of creativity is a national trend. In April, writer Rosa Inocencio Smith described her flight to her couch, where she crocheted until wrists ached, in an essay published in The Atlantic.
“To spend a pandemic making soft and pretty things may seem silly in certain ways — frivolous or impractical, maybe, and certainly a privilege when my life and livelihood aren’t (yet) directly at stake,” Smith wrote. “Handicrafts such as crochet, knitting, and embroidery — traditionally practiced by women and by the elderly — carry passive associations that defy most American notions of bravery. I think of Jo March, the heroine from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, lamenting that she can’t fight for the Union Army in the Civil War but must ‘stay home and knit, like a poky old woman.’ And yet that dismissal belies the quiet strengths embedded in every stitch. Counting the movements of hooks and needles, row after row, over the hours or days it takes to complete a project, requires patience, focus and persistence.”
Craft’s role throughout American wartime history has changed. Women often made keepsakes for fathers, brothers, boyfriends and husbands who were deployed during wars. Way said the American medical and therapeutic circles used crafts to help injured soldiers concentrate and acquire a skill after World War I.
“Hospitals during World War I were using a lot of crafts,” Way said. “And this was happening abroad, overseas in France and Europe. The Red Cross was doing this, and Walter Reed was doing it. They had things like metalsmithing and burnishing, bending, shaping. There was not so much clay at the bedside. But some textile was done.”
On the homefront, craft was softer.
“Knitting was big. Making blankets, uniforms. People in elementary school to college were doing that,” Way said.
Later, craft became a practice to help returning soldiers calm themselves.
“The point of occupational therapy was about rehabilitating soldiers from combat and trauma. This was practiced while the convalescent was still in bed,” Way said. “The output of that was ‘OK, I can learn to use my hands again.’ But it was also occupational as a way for veterans to make a living. There’s a bit of that going on today.”
Since Operation Desert Storm, crafting has morphed yet again. Crafters have used their skills to honor service members. Quilts of Valor makes quilts for veterans, most of them using red, white and blue and patriotic imagery.
“I have a chapter called ‘The Global War on Terror’ — a lot of the activity [includes] quilting, civic groups that develop with churches and families and find a national presence online,” Way said. “There’s this homefront effort that is involved with remembering, grieving.”
Way said the pandemic has forced people to make handicrafts on their own.
“Our idea of time has changed,” she said. “Now when you think of COVID, people aren’t making blankets because they need to get through the winter. They’re trying to process what’s happening inside them. It’s not a quilting bee, it’s really about the self.”