I am hard pressed to find myself in the audience of this book. While, like many of the makers profiled, I have tried to make a living through my sewing and handiwork, my experience has little in common with them. It could be argued that my designs and skills just aren’t good enough, or that I just haven’t been as lucky as Falick’s subjects. However, what I noticed time and time again in their stories is a good amount of privilege that gave them a leg up.
To start, the majority of the makers in the book are white. The only African-American presence is a group of quilters, a club that meets together to quilt and socialize and is not a business venture. That’s not to discount what they do, just to point out that their presence among the rest of the artists here that are making a living from their work underscores the lack of BIPOC crafters in the book. In America, at least, with its institutionalized racism, being white opens up doors and opportunities that aren’t available to minorities.
Secondly, much of the success of these makers was given a boost by already established wealth (or at least financial stability), material and physical support from their family, established government safety nets (in the form of government provided healthcare and education) etc. Some had family who donated land or labor freely with the makers. One had help from her sister in writing the business plan that helped her get a business loan. That kind of support can be critical, especially at the start of an endeavor.
A good portion of the artists interviewed worked at high-paying jobs before they started their maker career. One put aside a year’s worth of living expenses before quitting her job to figure out what she wanted to make. Others live in countries where they don’t have to worry about health insurance or the high price of higher education, freeing up important mental space that is otherwise engaged in worrying about finances.
It is only in the story of Dolores Swift, a Black handbag maker in England, that money is really addressed. “Making isn’t always relaxing,” she says. “I’m always thinking, ‘I need this to sell so I can pay for that leather or because the rent is due.’”
I do not begrudge these makers for having resources and using them to launch their businesses, Ijust don’t see my own struggles, and those of so many makers I know, in their stories.
The makers in Making a Life have art studios and sell their wares at popup shops and boutiques. They seemingly effortlessly juggle child rearing, creating, and business concerns. They travel to, and teach at, retreats. They wax poetic about making something rather than it being manufactured. It is all very picturesque and lovely, a curated look at a specific sort of maker’s life that is aspirational in some ways. But it isn’t a life that I, or I think the makers of the past, would recognize. There are no mentions of the events where nothing sells. There are no discussions on how working from home with children can often meant that you are torn between two duties–on the one hand trying to be an attentive parent and on the other giving time and energy to your craft–and failing at both. Nowhere did I find stories of staying up all night to finish a commission. These are not lives spent counting out change for gas, hittin up food bank for groceries, or dealing with e constant self-doubt that screams at you to just get a job. I am sure that these things probably have happened to more than one of the crafters in the book, but those instances have no place in the Instagram-whiteness of the book’s narrative.
Making, in the book, is more an act of self-expression, of art and identity, than of necessity. People make to find meaning, to gain a spiritual connection, or as an act of filling a void that the computerized and mechanized modern world has left empty. They aren’ making clothes and furniture, dishrags and rugs, because they have to. They aren’t growing vegetables and raising chickens to put food on their tables. They aren’t mending clothes or blankets because they can’ afford to buy new. And that’s fine, I don’t think that a lack of want or suffering makes their craft less or not as real. The book’s focus, though, on those who have succeeded without any examinations of the struggle of making it work means it is hard to connect with the interviewed artists.
In the end, Making a Life, is a beautiful book, presenting an idealized view of making, crafting and artistry.