Tag Archives: needlework

Arts and Crafts: What’s the Difference?

Creative things you make with your hands generally get divided into two categories: arts and crafts. But what makes one category different from the other? It’s not always easy to tell, especially if you’re talking definitions. The lines begin to blur and in regard to most kinds of productions, the definition is in the eye of the beholder.

Some separate arts and crafts by type. Paintings and sculpture are art. Crochet and creating chainsaw sculptures are crafts. Baking, which is creative and done with the hands, doesn’t fall into either category unless you’re talking about the cakes you see on Food Network competitions. But food is ephemeral, so let’s focus on the kinds of work that last.

And arts and crafts are work. Make no mistake about that. They can be one’s hobbies, part-time occupations, or livelihood, but both arts and crafts require skill, practice, mindfulness, sensibility, and attention. That’s reflected in the phrase “a work of art.”

But to what efforts do we apply the term “art”? And what is “merely” a craft?

Kits and Patterns. First, the kinds of work that come in kits and with patterns are considered crafts. This includes everything from paint-by-numbers kits to bedazzlers to sewing. But wait a moment. Don’t clothing designers elevate their work from craft to art? In the main, those who design haute couture don’t use patterns. They invent, using only their own imaginations. Knitting and crocheting usually require patterns and are not considered art by most. Most home-made clothing likewise involves patterns. So perhaps one of the criteria for art is that it comes only from the artist’s imagination.

Beauty. This is a tough one since, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But famous paintings that are unquestionably art aren’t always beautiful. Sometimes they’re disturbing or make us uncomfortable. Picasso’s Guernica is an artistic masterpiece. It is also a depiction of the horrors of war. Whatever it is, it’s not classically beautiful.

Nor does beauty by itself make a work of art. The paintings that people hang over their sofas depict beautiful scenes, but professional artists and art critics scorn them. Paintings of sad clowns or large-eyed puppies are classed as kitsch or dreck. They may be technically well done or pleasing to the eye, but they are not Art with a capital A.

Age. Art, perhaps, is something that stands the test of time. But if we limit art to the Old Masters, we deny that young artists create meaningful works. It’s a bit like poetry – no one values it unless you’re dead, preferably by suicide, or best-selling like Helen Steiner Rice.

Age, however, can elevate crafts from the mundane into art. A sampler stitched today is virtually worthless, but one made before, say, 1774 is a precious artifact. With most art, the older the better. The decorations on Egyptian tomb goods or the beading on native clothing are museum-worthy if only because they are old enough.

Location. And while we’re talking about museums, let’s talk about location, location, location. To many the distinction goes like this: Art is what you see in a museum. Crafts are what you find at a local outdoor festival or hanging on the walls of a restaurant. They are created by someone you know or at least could get to know. Distance in both time and location seem to make a difference in whether a piece of work is art or not.

There are gray areas, of course, and these are generally called “artisanal.” If a potter has a shop and sells hand-made vases and dinnerware, if a person who makes jewelry from semi-precious stones instead of diamonds has a shop, the general feeling is that they are more than crafters but less than artists, however lovely their creations.

Price. This is a no-brainer. If it sells for thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars it is art. If you buy it online or spend less than $250 on it, it’s not. There are gorgeous quilts hand-sewn every day that look like works of art, but they do not sell for the same prices as for a Van Gogh. We pay for perceived value.

Rarity/Collectibility. And this is how the perceived value is calculated. If there is only a limited number of an item, like Imperial Fabergé eggs (50 were made), their worth and claim to the title of art skyrocket. Of course, this distinction does not hold true for everything. There are models of Hot Wheels cars, Beanie Babies, and Star Wars figures that are quite rare, but no one considers these art.

Personally, I love art, but in many ways I prefer crafts. Blown glass, stained glass, needlework, carvings, calligraphy, and framed prints decorate our home. When I wear jewelry, it’s going to be amber or malachite or amethyst. I think of them as little pieces of art that anyone can own.

 

The Needlework Gene

My mother used to make me dresses out of flour sacks. No, we weren’t sharecroppers, although one of my great-uncles was. Back in the day, flour sacks were printed with calico patterns just so people could use them for clothing. It may have started back in the Depression, but it lasted well into my childhood. Later in life, when I was a teen, my mother found a bolt of cloth in the fabric store that was printed with a design that looked exactly like a feed sack. Of course, I insisted that she make me a tunic with the company logo featured prominently as a call-back to my childhood garb.

The gene for needlework may have been passed down through my family. My maternal grandmother was a knitter. She made sweaters for everyone in the family and sewed a little tag into each of them saying “Made Especially for You by Grandma Rose.” She could even knit a sweater from a crochet pattern, which if you know anything about needlework, is quite a feat.

My mother, of course, was a seamstress. She made a lot of clothes for me and my sister, including lots of calico shirts when the cosmic cowboy craze was on in the ’70s. She was prone to whimsy, as you probably guessed from the flour sack story. Once when she found some camouflage-print flannel, she made me my favorite floor-length nightgown (I had ones in yellow and blue) from it. One year at Halloween she even made me a nightcap to go with it. I powdered my hair and went to the party as “Rambo’s Granny,” a joke that no one seemed to get. Another time she made me a forest green wool cape and matching Robin Hood hat, which I wore to my college archery class. (The teacher just rolled her eyes and said nothing.) But most of the time she stuck to doll clothes and dresses and the like.

Later in life, my mother took up crocheting. She collected crochet pattern magazines and even acquired some foreign crocheting pen pals from the classified page. They exchanged handmade Christmas ornaments (crocheted snowflakes “starched” with Elmer’s glue were a favorite) and my mother sent needlecraft supplies that her correspondents couldn’t find in India or the Dominican Republic. Of course, we all got homemade Christmas sweaters that I would never dare call ugly, though my husband got one with a large moose on it.

I thought that perhaps the needlepoint gene had skipped a generation. I sewed a skirt and vest when I was forced to in junior high home ec, but my crafty efforts were more usually paint-by-numbers or wood-burning or ceramics. Then I discovered latch-hooked rugs, which involves short strands of yarn and a device that looks like it was designed to be used on high-button shoes. I still have on the sofa a small pillow that I latch-hooked and somewhere there’s a planet-scape rug that I hooked. This may have been a different manifestation of the needlework gene, as my maternal grandfather braided rugs in his time.

Hooked rugs quickly became passé. I’ve noticed that needlework crafts tend to come in waves like that. So next I took up needlepoint, then bargello, and eventually found my métier in counted cross-stitch. This provided the illusion of sewing without the need to actually sew anything. Instead one followed a pattern of wee Xs in different-colored thread (called floss) to make a picture. The cloth was full of tiny, regularly spaced holes to make the Xs in. It took less skill than embroidery and produced works that were easier to give away than hooked rugs. My mother-in-law still has a set of red-and-blue quilt-patterned pillows that I made for her.

Now, however, my eyesight continues to grow poorer and my hands to shake more with each passing year, so I’ve had to give up cross-stitch. Despite the fact that my mother continued to crochet dolls and stuffed animals for her church’s Christmas bazaar while her eyes were failing, I still don’t crochet. I can never get the tension right although there’s lots of it my life. And since I don’t have kids, the needlework gene ends here.

Still, I haven’t lost my interest in the needle arts. Just start doing petit-point or quilting near me and I’ll be looking over your shoulder.