A new documentary on contemporary cross-stitch exposes the subversive power of needlecraft. 
26 Aug 2010 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

The title of Anna Brownfield's latest documentary, Making It Handmade!, is a perfect metaphor for the film itself. A documentary about the people who undertake craft for both pleasure and politics has been made with the same passion and D.I.Y ethos that the community represents.

The idea for the documentary first emerged when Brownfield, a life-long practitioner of D.I.Y craft, suddenly found herself looking towards knitting for an entirely different purpose. “I chose to make a film about craft because it's something that I'm very passionate about and something that has always been a part of my life,” she says now. “I've continued to do things like making clothes throughout my life but I took up knitting again in my early 30s to stop smoking!” Brownfield started to search online to look for knitting patterns and recognised that a ground swell of interest in craft had led to an “interesting and vibrant new culture of crafters that were injecting craft with modern aesthetics and doing very unusual things with it.” Being as dedicated to filmmaking as the crafters were about their own passions, Brownfield set about documenting the movement over what became a three-year period.

The topic of craft was one that had not gained traction in the media nor in general public's consciousness. “Everyone always associate crafting with nana-dom,” Brownfield says now, admitting that many of those she approached for funding had no idea of the passionate resurgence of craft in the community. “It was a movement that was fuelled online, so a lot of people didn't know about it. I had no luck getting funding but I thought if I waited until it became acknowledged in the mainstream, the time would have passed. It would have changed and lost some of its initial spirit.”

Making It Handmade! is at once a guide to the Melbourne craft community and an entry into a subversive counterculture of (predominantly) women using domestic craft techniques such as cross-stitch, sewing and knitting for thoroughly contemporary political agendas. Brownfield started getting involved with some craft groups in Melbourne including Kaotic Kraft Kuties founder and artist, Gemma Jones, a group that Brownfield describes as “a mutant, urban, C.W.A”. Brownfield then quickly realised that she needed to speak with blogger, crafter, mother and owner of a local craft store, Pip Lincolne, whose “name kept on popping up again and again. I thought I had to meet this woman who is obviously doing so much to promote craft and encouraging other people to craft,” Brownfield enthuses. “She's one of those genuinely lovely people who believes that everyone should have a go at it, even if they make mistakes!” Jones and Lincolne are joined as key narrators and subjects of the film by North-American crafter and director the documentary, Craft Nation, Faythe Levine, who was in Australia attending a craft show.

The documentary begins with a more general overview of the renaissance of crafting, with the crafters joined by founders of the Craft Cartel, Rayna Fahey and Casey Jenkins. Says Brownfield, “I actually put a call-out through a craft forum for people who were doing subversive things. I started finding all of these very interesting people who were doing something a bit different—Rayna, in particular, because of her political leanings. I found it very interesting that here was someone who was creating what looked like a very traditional cross-stitch that had subversive messages in it.”

Rayna Fahey is a mother, creator and 'craftivist' (craft + activist), who uses the domestic craft technique of cross-stitching to, as she says in the documentary, “come up with creative solutions for the crisis we face on this planet.” Rayna uses her craft to “reflect” her politics. Her cross-stitch designs include a feminist “play on the woman's role as crafters” with one work featured in the documentary, 'Don't Bleed on the Carpet' referencing the iconic cross-stitch design 'Home Sweet Home'. Says Rayna, “I quickly realised that by doing political craft I was feeding off generations of creative action and so I wanted to continue to contribute towards it.” In the collaborative ethos the movement, all of Rayna's designs are available online via creative commons licence, although she stresses that they are not to be used for financial gain.

Rayna is not alone in acknowledging that heritage and the interconnection between generations is intrinsic to crafting. All the women also cite craft as an act of empowerment, as espoused by fellow craftivist Casey Jenkins who says in the documentary, “I love the power that crafts gives you,” with Gemma Jones echoing, “that sense of the way craft happens is really very dynamic.” Fahey's cross-stitch “creative actions” through the Melbourne Revolutionary Craft Circle are particularly effective at demonstrating this fact. In some of the most immediate verite style scenes in the documentary, Brownfield observes the collective, in the early hours of the morning, spelling the words “I WANNA LIVE HERE” in wool across the fence of a piece of land left vacant by speculators. For Fahey, this is an abhorrent act given the level of homelessness that abounds locally. She says, “We want to do little actions like this to highlight these issues and get people more aware of this invisible problem.”

Another strong theme that emerges in the documentary is the need for considered environmental awareness to operate in conjunction with crafting. As Gemma Jones says in the film, “While people are often paying tribute to the idea of recycling and making their own things, people are very obsessed about buying craft products. It's a little bit of a sickness.” As an alternative to blindly buying goods, Jones suggests sharing products, using found objects and, wherever possible, buying locally produced materials. “I do think people need to be conscious of that, otherwise it's all for nought.”

None of the women are crafters for money and they each reiterate that craft doesn't pay their bills. Again, not unlike independent documentary filmmaking.

Making It Handmade! is screening this Saturday at RMIT's Kaleide Theatre in Melbourne at 2:30pm and 4pm. For more information visit http://tinyurl.com/makingithandmade

Photo: Rayna Fahey.