Crafting Useful Things – Part One

Materials Based Crafting

Practical crafting is a combination of flourishing creative thinking and design, and skilled manufacturing or making. A few years ago I wrote about my process for designing craft projects for my then column in Natural Life MagazineOver the next couple of weeks I’m going to break down my project and object design process as weekly themes, and hopefully illuminate my philosophy for making those intentional design choices in the cause of making useful things.

Buttons and paper Wall Decor

By way of an overview, here’s the relevant part of the article, which was in part about my challenges in upcycling plastic bottles and packaging items.

“I do not want to design a goofy crafting project just for the sake of “cleverly” using the recycled material in some contrived way. The end product must be genuinely artful or pretty or useful – and sensible. I’m pragmatic too. Costly tools or extra materials for making it from a recycled source can doom a design idea. The project design should take advantage of the qualities of the source material as a good way to achieve the final result, rather than displaying an uncomfortable union of wishful thinking and imposed manipulation.

But most of all, especially in light of what I have learned about the recycling industry, I don’t want my crafting project to be a less green use for the plastic item than placing it intact into the collection bin. So multiple use is important.

Here is an insight into my intentional design process:

    1. I examine the material and list the qualities.                                                                                                For plastics: Generally unbreakable. Somewhat flexible, yet largely rigid – the shape is inherent to the object. Often soft enough to cut with ordinary scissors or X-Acto blades – but still retains shape. Impermeable – at room temperature – to water but may be susceptible to some solvents or dyes. Often transparent or translucent. Reactive to heat in a variety of ways and temperatures (caution required). Slick or shiny surfaces – may or may not accept paint, markers. Usually very lightweight for the size. Sometimes can be folded and retain fold. Lasts and lasts.
    2. I will often sketch ideas and, usually with recycled things, I’ll cut up a couple for experiments.
    3. I make a prototype or examples.
    4. If necessary, I test the instructions, patterns, and fun quotient by inviting friends – child or adult – to try out the project with my supplies. If need be, I make changes based on the success of the lab.”

Step 1 is unique to what I call “Materials Based crafting”. It can be great fun and a great creativity jump starter. It’s the imaginative equivalent of wandering around the arts and crafts store and asking yourself “What can I make with that?” For anyone interested in upcycling and creative reuse, it’s an essential step.

Understanding the physical qualities of the material, whether it is new or upcycled, whether it is man-made or natural, is important if you want to make something useful, lasting and beautiful, out of the material.

A similar mental process is taking inspiration from fabrics for your fashion design, rather than going in looking for a specific color or cloth.

Button Headband

People who enjoy this are often great at extemporizing with assemblage and collage. They see the potential in a stack of stuff. They are also great at using familiar materials or objects in different ways. One example is taking buttons and twisting wire to make them into brads for scrapbook layouts (my favorite). I love these found object art dolls (robots) by ckudja on Etsy.

On the other hand people who are meticulous planners, engineers at heart, also can appreciate the process of examining and categorizing material.

Some crafting materials to consider: plastic bottles (as I did), corrugated cardboard, junk mail, padded mailing envelopes, old fencing or pallets, polymer clay, air dry clay, regular clay, sticks, pebbles, concrete blocks, metal pipe fixtures, felt sheets, sandpaper, acrylic scraps, wire, rusty nails, melamine plates, ceramic pots, balsa wood, leather, raffia, canvas, chiffon, old pencils, empty jars.

It’s not a finished list by any means.

Now an idea that seems to be the opposite: Wabi-Sabi

There’s a Japanese aesthetic principle called Wabi-Sabi. The Wikipedia entry has a nice summary, including:

“beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”….materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time .”

It has a lot in common spiritually with Shabby Chic and Prim aesthetics, which also embrace wear, age, distressed surfaces and rough edges. But it differs from them to embody spacious simplicity with one tiny, asymmetrical flaw, and man made structures with a random seeming intrusion from the natural world.

A big part of creating Wabi-Sabi art pieces is embracing randomness (which will be an upcoming theme on its own) and improvising with imperfect or found materials.

Worn Calligraphy

Worn with age

But Wabi-Sabi is still founded on understanding and appreciating the qualities inherent in the materials along with the outward visual appearance.

Examining the material is like actors improvising a scene to play and warm up before working on the script. Next week I’ll be talking about the more structured next steps, including how the approach to materials is different when the focus in on an intended/desired outcome.

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