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A Call to Craftsmanship: Self Sufficiency, Creative Community, and Ethical Trade

In the face of an unstable economy, high rates of unemployment, impending globalization, and an ever increasing collective sense of disillusionment in the American Dream, it no wonder that many people are looking back toward simpler times and simpler trades. Many people are experiencing a lack of fulfillment in their current line of work, and are looking for avenues of self-expression and community that have not been found in the typically sterile work habitats of computer screens, cubicles, and copy rooms. Endless expanses of time lost in front of a computer screen; the stolen moments at a tiny water cooler oasis or harried lunches are often the only opportunities a worker has daily human interaction. Thus, the average nine-to-fiver is thirsty for deeper and more tangible gratification than the end product of forty or so hours of life, abstractly represented in a number on a paycheck they may never even see. Like anything, however, the answer lies within the problem; the growing unrest in culture is naturally evolving into different potential economic solutions from a grassroots level, as illustrated in an inspiring trend emerging today. Currently there is a call to return to sustainable, human-scale free enterprise, local trade, and to Arts and Crafts as a social and cultural movement.

Combining the above elements sensibly can provide a simple model to for empowering budding artists and craftspeople in a few simple steps: 1. Find a cost effective medium with which to create the wares to be sold, and source out those materials and tools. 2. Envision, strategize, thoroughly map out and develop all aspects of the fabrication and trade process for any intended product. Articulate that road map into a comprehensive but simple business plan, and be sure to obtain any corresponding permits as well as a tax identification number. 3.Become proficient with the technological tools available to market the endeavor efficiently and cheaply. 4. Follow through with the plan, being ever adaptable and willing to diligently hone the chosen craft, and be prepared to roll with the inevitable ups and downs with resiliency. With time, patience, and optimism organized with a little creativity, anyone can turn a hobby into a lucrative business.

One medium that is excellent for creating a viable product on a shoestring budget is screen-printing, and provides a perfect illustration for how one may go about the aforementioned steps to create human-scale trade with a crafted product. So, after identifying a suitable medium and product, the next step is to plot out the fabrication process.

A screen printing press can be built with a few basic tools and materials that can be purchased at the hardware store for under a hundred dollars. [See Fig. 1] A light-table can also be built by hand simply and cheaply with regular fluorescent bulbs and a plexi-glass sheet. The other tools or materials necessary are affordable and available to everyone via mail order or a local screen printing supply shop. Those tools may include a flash dryer, squeegees, ink, and cleaning solutions, depending on what kinds of ink will be used and which materials to be printed upon. Plastisol inks for fabric need to be cured by intense heat and require solvents for cleaning, and water based inks can air-dry and be washed with water. T-shirts can be purchased wholesale and shipped anywhere, but most flat surfaces can be screen-printed, so there are a variety of options.

Screen-printing is basically pushing ink through a stencil of an image onto a chosen material and cured or dried appropriately for the substrate used. The process begins by making a screen and “burning’ the image onto it to create the stencil. First, a wooden or metal frame is stretched tautly with a fine meshed material (which used to be silk, thus the term silk-screening) adhered strongly to the frame. A photosensitive emulsion is then spread evenly across the screen in a very thin layer by means of a “scoop-coater”, which needs to be done in darkroom lighting. The scoop-coater is a rectangular parallelepiped serving as a reservoir for the emulsion, with one extremely precise straight edge that when laid flush against a clean screen and pulled across very carefully at a 45 degree angle, deposits the emulsion in a very thin smooth layer. The screen air-dries in a darkroom unexposed to any light. When dry, the screen is then placed on a light table with a transparency or film of a very opaque black silhouette of the image intended to print taped carefully onto either the bottom side of screen or the top of the light table. This is done so that the black shape on the film becomes a barrier between the light and the photosensitive emulsified screen. A rectangular weight such as a large book is placed on top of the screen to block the light from the open side, and to press the image flat against the screen with no room to shift. After everything is secure, the light table can be flipped on, and the fluorescent lights go to work hardening the photosensitive emulsion everywhere it touches, so that even water cannot wash it out. The transparent film with the black silhouette successfully blocks the light from affecting the emulsion perfectly in the shape of the image, and therefore remains soft and washable, which is how the stencil is made. After a few minutes, the time depending on the strength of the light and emulsion used, the light is switched off and the screen is taken to a sink or washout booth to be washed out, rinsing away all the areas of the silhouette and leaving a crisp stencil ready to print. Once the new stencil is air dried, it is ready to use. The edges of the screen (where the emulsion ends) are taped off so ink cannot pass through anywhere but the stencil. The prepped screen is then placed on top of the chosen substrate, which can be a t-shirt, pillowcase, canvas, glass, wood, or anything that can lay flat against a platen or table to make the print. Ink is placed evenly at the top of the screen and a rubber edged squeegee is carefully pulled across the screen at a forty-five degree angle with a fair amount of pressure. This deposits the ink through the stencil onto the substrate and creates the design. Multiple screens can print layers on top of each other, but they all must be registered to land in the same place to create a multi-colored design. Although it takes time to learn any craft, with a little persistence one’s own experience can be a wise teacher. Screen-printing can be done by anyone who is willing to endure a bit of mess, follow directions and be willing to make a few mistakes along the way.

There are many other forms of craft that one can develop from a hobby into a sustainable trade, but screen-printing is an example of one of the most affordable, accessible, production friendly and cost effective ways to build a marketable product base. However, the ideas for small-scale creative business can be applied to just about any personal passion: making jewelry, accessories, beadwork, ceramics, furniture or lamps, body scrubs or lotions, candles, baby bonnets, you name it. The point is to find something enjoyable and creative that can be started on a limited budget and grow incrementally and cohesively as one’s experience and marketability increases.

The second part of the strategizing and planning phase is the business plan. Powerfully envisioning and thinking through all aspects of a potential trade takes critical thinking, self-reflection and honesty. A business plan is a very effective tool to take an eager entrepreneur through the course of actions and questioning that is necessary to be prepared. This step is crucial for the structuring of any operation, and can lead into locating the funding necessary to springboard a possible endeavor straight into success. Using the template of a business plan model, one can avoid the pitfalls associated with poor planning or legal entanglements. Templates are readily available in books, over the Internet, and in any small business development office, so there is no excuse to skip this process. A solid plan can be the difference between making it and breaking it. If craft is to be any kind of answer to human scale development and economic empowerment, artistic minds must embrace the practical side of business and be familiarized with all the legal and financial technicalities that are intrinsically a part of any kind of trade in the modern era.

Another arena to master is the Internet, and its amazing free marketing tools. Marketing is absolutely key to business, and with the technological advancements at our fingertips, it has become increasingly efficient and easy to do in the form of social networking, self-publishing, and creative communities for commerce. Marshall Mc Luhen , a philosopher of communications theory who died in 1980, well before the era of new media told us, “As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of "do it yourself” ” and his statement still rings true. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wordpress, and endless other forums for marketing or networking, all it takes it an effort and willingness to get in the game and play. There are many wonderful groups of people who are working with progressive concepts for new ways of doing business, creating flourishing human eco-systems, and developing communities who will support craft merchants of every kind. Kickstarter and other entities are revolutionizing the ways of human investment and are allowing for dreams to be manifested into reality every day. Making intelligent use of these tools, with articulate conversation in community forums or blogs, along with savvy graphics can be the most powerful investment any creative entrepreneur can put forth.

The call to return to craft as a means for individual and community empowerment is not new. The Design Museum states:

“THE ARTS AND CRAFTS MOVEMENT (ACM) aimed to promote a return to

hand-craftsmanship and to assert the creative independence of individual craftspeople.

It was a reaction against the industrialised society that had boomed in Britain in

the Victorian period, and aimed for social as well as artistic reform. Its example

was followed in other countries, particularly the U.S.A… The ACM was always as

much about ideology as about decorative art objects themselves...”

We would do well to look to history to find simple solutions and inspiration in the fulfilling lifestyles that were afforded with a little slower daily pace, and the ability to create a physical tangible product of one’s own labor and time, not just in a paycheck that instantly dissolves into maintaining a consumer-based existence. Being able to make things with one’s own two hands is quite literally true manifestation, the experience of which does wonders for the human psyche and well being, and the trade of such crafts can create flourishing communities as well as economic opportunities. If one should ever want living proof of this statement, look to the single block of land where all of jazz music was born, Congo Square in New Orleans: Every Sunday people would gather to trade crafts and play drums and music. The enslaved Africans had one day off from their forced labors, and formed a drum circle that was joined by the native Americans, Creoles, French, Spanish and other Europeans. The merging of all of these influences created what is now known as jazz music, and the cultural significance is hardly disputed. However, the little known side to this was the economic empowerment of those who sold their crafts. There are documented cases of slaves who found the time to weave baskets or textiles, make clay pottery or any craft, and were able to literally buy themselves out of slavery and become free, all due to the trade done in Congo Square. Now, if they managed to do all of that, and create jazz music in the process, the modern disgruntled worker has no excuses not to find something to create, and liberate themselves and others in the process.

My art tag Chicasso came from a t-shirt company I started years ago when I was single momming and had to work for myself

Works Cited:

“The Art and Craft Movement” The Design Museum, n.d. Web.

29 September 2012

Fressner, Scott et al. How to Print T-shirts for Fun and Profit. ST Media Group International

Inc., 1 May 2008. Print

McLuhan, Eric et al. Essential McLuhan. Basic Books, 12 July 1996. Print.

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