Not Your Mother’s Knitting Circle, The NW Indie Craft Movement

November 2013

Artist Nikki McClure has a following of dreamers and farmers, artists and pragmatists. Her trademark, an annual calendar with 12 paper-cut images (above) and one-word directives like “congregate,” “revive” and “mend,” hangs in the offices of The Progressive and Patagonia.

But she’s no longer looking for the spotlight. In fact, she hardly goes out—spending her time instead with her partner, JT, and their 5-year-old son, Finn, or craned over a drafting table in her Olympia, Wash., studio, where she carves images of nature, labor, community and wonderment from single sheets of black paper with an X-Acto knife.

Until Finn recently entered kindergarten, McClure was following the “two-nap rule.” She had to complete each piece in the time it took for two of his naps. “Motherhood made my work tighter, more focused,” she says.

There was a time when McClure jumped into the spotlight head-on. She was in her 20s and living in Olympia, Wash., the epicenter of the early ’90s punk movement that bred the riot grrrls. “It was a creatively explosive time,” says McClure, who sang at K Records’ first International Pop Underground Convention and shared the stage with Bikini Kill and Kurt Cobain.

“[Performing] taught me I had a voice, and that it was important,” says McClure. She was living the DIY ethic even then, circumventing the requisite collegiate coffee shop gig to make mittens for K Records. “Everyone had T-shirts,” she says. “But who had mittens?”

When she began experimenting with paper cutting in 1996, she joined a growing group of musicians and artists who were building on the independent ethos of punk rock to, among other things, reclaim craft. “As I began to make things visually,” says McClure. “I realized I didn’t need to express myself on stage anymore.”

“One thing that the Pacific Northwest has going for it that some other places didn’t in the past is that DIY and underground music culture was a big part
of it,” says Faythe Levine, director of the recently released documentary film Handmade Nation. “A lot of the people who are involved in the DIY community now came out of that, out of riot grrrl and out of certain underground punk communities.”

Pat Castaldo and Aaron Tuller were the first to connect that burgeoning community with the rest of the nation. In 1999, they created buyolympia.com. What began as a place for fellow Olympians to sell their handmade arts and crafts quickly evolved into a nationwide hub of commerce for Indie crafters. McClure was their first artist, her calendar the first item.

In 2008, buyolympia.com relocated its warehouse to Portland, Ore. Then last fall, they opened Land, a retail shop and gallery adjoining the warehouse on Portland’s trendy Mississippi Avenue. “The great thing about this is that it’s curated,” says Gail O’Hara, former store manager and co-editor of the now- defunct Chick Factor magazine. “Etsy is great, but…it’s like, OK, I want a tote bag, and 300 pop up to choose from.”

Land’s bright second-floor gallery hosts monthly shows from old-guard Buy Olympians as well as occasional new artists. The shows and the hand-made prints, cards, DVDs, jewelry, books, clothes and kitschy, crafty odds and ends that fill the store are primarily the work of female West Coast artists.

“Handcrafts are traditionally woman’s work,” says Levine, who traveled over 19,000 miles documenting the nation’s indie craft community. She saw woman reclaiming roles that were once thrust upon them—on their own time, in their own ways. “When I cook and sew in front of my son, it’s like I’m a magician,” says McClure. “This isn’t feminist-based. It’s about the salvation of humanity.

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