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DIY Madness 

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Horrific Blessing: Making something yourself is hella cool, especially if that thing can be worn.

DIY Madness

Craft on, you crazy diamonds

By Sara Bir

There she was, flickering across the computer screen--a woman wearing a yellow cap with a fried egg and a strip of bacon on top, reaching into a purse splotched with another fried egg and a scattering of chips. "Knit Your Own Fry-Up" the banner read.

It came from one of those e-mail forwards, the kind that travel with demonic speed across states and seas and offices. Someone somewhere had discovered this sunny-yolk wool catastrophe in a 1979 book of knitting patterns, presumably British--who here in the states would knit their own fry-up? For that matter, who anywhere would knit their own fry-up? The idea was completely absurd and therefore utterly delightful, as was the resulting scanned photo of the young model's fashionably late-'70s madeup face beaming under her knitted, wearable food art.

At some point, an anonymous avid knitter and lover of fry-ups decided to combine the two into one perfect entity, inedible and everlasting. And now, decades later, this person's handiwork has discovered a new life via the Internet. It's touching, really. Everyone at my office was cracking up over the website. That night, a co-worker dreamed that I had knitted the fry-up myself, but it turned out to be a cursed pattern; once you began knitting your own fry-up, you were doomed never to stop--and once you donned your own fry-up, you were destined always to wear it.

I must admit, all in all, my role in the nightmare scenario is painfully close to the truth. In reality, I don't knit. I do, however, paint, sew, glue, frame, matte, string, recover, refinish, refurbish or re-outfit any useless item known to man. I am what you would call a "crafty" person, and if craftiness is a blessing, it is a horrific one.

Until recently thought of as dowdy, craftiness--knitting, in particular--has been injected with trendy glamour over the past few years. Making something yourself is hella cool, especially if that thing can be worn. Witness the surge in chunky hand-knitted scarves encircling the necks of boyfriends worldwide. A subscription to the stylishly scrappy ReadyMade magazine carries huge hipster cachet, and Martha Stewart's imminent stint in the slammer threatens to stop none of it.

How? Why? Who's doing all of this stuff? I, for one, but it's hardly a hobby. As any true DIY-er knows, craftiness is not a pastime but a compulsion. A crafty gal's precious few days off are consumed with trimming vintage fabrics, decoding cryptic instructions from a 1963 McCall's bathing-suit patterns, unknotting tangled wads of silk and polyester threads, fretting over malfunctioning sewing-machine settings, skipping midday meals and pricking needlepoint fingers. Everything gets done but nothing is finished.

Bills languish unpaid, bathrooms linger in filth, articles (like this one) exceed their deadlines. And for what? All to piece a badly fitted duvet cover together from old prom dresses in 27 hours when a better one could be obtained from Ikea for a mere $29.95. And it would probably have a cute name, too, like "Stümper."

But that's the catch: for the crafty, if something can be done, then you must do it yourself. It's a strange modern-day perversion of the homesteading tradition, an embodiment of the American pioneer spirit led astray. I've been using the same ratty old TWA carry-on bag as a satchel for two years, because that's how long it's taken me to try and replicate it myself out of red canvas that I bought at a yard sale in Santa Cruz. There's been a small matter of edging with bias tape that's thrown me off, and I occasionally drag the half-finished wad of canvas out of the closet to fuss over it in confusion before deciding that now's not the time, that maybe some other day I'll triumph over bias tape. So it will continue for a few more years. Purchasing a professionally made satchel from a store, you see, would be a sign of defeat.

Then there are the curtains. I removed the old mildewy vinyl ones from the windows of our apartment because they looked like props leftover from Gummo. But the afternoon sun pours in through the unblocked windows and creates a glare across my computer screen, making it impossible to see the "Knit Your Own Fry-Up" girl I set to my desktop. After a flurry of inspiration, I went to the urban recycling outlet and picked up 17 sheets of gilded '80s wallpaper samples, which I have been patching together into one big window shade with my sewing machine. I am convinced that when it's all said and done, I will have created the ugliest window treatments know to man--and yet still I must carry on and finish.

Finishing will take a long time, because there are other semicompleted projects I absolutely must finish first. That is because they are blocking the path to the sewing machine, having piled up like a train wreck of flea-market detritus. There are stuffed felt animals and brocade placemats and plastic wallets on top of pillow shams, all with loose threads sticking out willy-nilly.

There's an end table whose lacquer is only halfway sanded off, a CD rack awaiting a kiss of wood stain, a toilet paper tube that's only partially transformed into a mountain goat and a stack of blurry photographs yearning to be arranged into a faux art installation. But the latter will never be a real art installation, because it will be the result of craftiness, which is less . . . intellectual? Crafts are at the same time frivolous and functional, but by nature they cannot be deep or conceptual.

Therein lies the conflict. Behaving craftily makes me feel like a stud, but it also seems like a colossal waste of time. I like to justify it all by telling myself that doing is better than thinking, and that it's better to be proactive and dynamic than overly reticent. I have yet to complete chapter three of my novel-in-progress, but I've got an adorable little cap-sleeve shirt that I made from this wacky Americana-print polyester knit fabric.

And isn't that more noble in the long run: to provide for oneself? Craftin' it up is as close as a city-dwelling hipster can come to getting her hands soiled by sewing the ground. Few modern lassies know how to fry up their own damn egg in the kitchen, but possessing the potential to knit one somehow justifies things.

That's a comforting thought. Instead of embroidery being the vapid drawing-room time-killer of Jane Austin novels, it's now a way to personalize a pillow with gothic font reading "Bitch, Sweet Bitch," or some such nonconformist sentiment. If modern existence is about sitting on your butt and lapping up whatever super-sized crud corporate America happens to be flinging at us, taking matters into your own hands--even if by epoxying scrap aluminum molding into a pencil holder--is a way to stick it to the Man: Your pencil holders are not good enough for me! I will make my own!

So craft on, you crazy diamonds. An hour spent in the creation of something utterly worthless and tacky is an hour spent creating, and therefore never wasted. I'll sew you a scrap wallpaper window shade if you knit me a fry-up.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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