Crafts in the Time of Coronavirus

Pandemic Domestic Crafting in Finland on Instagram’s Covid-Related Craft Posts

How to Cite

Kouhia, A. (2023). Crafts in the Time of Coronavirus: Pandemic Domestic Crafting in Finland on Instagram’s Covid-Related Craft Posts. M/C Journal, 26(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2932
Vol. 26 No. 6 (2023): thread
Published 2023-11-26
Articles

Introduction

In March 2020, many societal functions came to a standstill due to the worldwide spread of Covid-19. Due to the rules set by public healthcare authorities that aimed at “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus, the emphasis on domesticity was heightened during the pandemic. As people were forced to spend more time in the home environment, more time was allowed for household pursuits and local activities, such as crafts and home repair (Morse, Fine, and Friedlander).

While there has been a rising interest in craft-making as the medium of expression for the past few decades (e.g., Peach), crafts seem to have undergone a serious breakthrough during the global pandemic crisis. In recent studies, crafting has been noted for its usefulness in providing a dimension of comfort and security in a time of instability and isolation (Rixhon), eventually becoming a much-needed conceptual shelter from the threat of the virus (Martin). Sewing seems to have assumed a significant role early in the pandemic, when craft-makers began to mitigate the spread of the virus by using their own sewing machines and material stashes to make masks for their families and friends; some also donated masks to hospital workers and others in need (Martindale, Armstead, and McKinney). While other forms of crafts were also widely practiced (e.g., Jones; Stalp, Covid-19 Global Quilt; Wenzel), face-mask sewing has been at the core of pandemic craft research, highlighting the role of home-based hobby crafting as a means of social survival that contributed to people's agency and feelings of productivity and usefulness during the outbreak of coronavirus (Hahn and Bhaduri; Hustvedt and Liang; Martindale, Armstead, and McKinney; Richards and Perreault; Schnittka). 

This article analyses two craft hashtags on Instagram from March 2020 to December 2021, which offer a perspective on shifts in pandemic crafts in a linguistically localised crafting community. The hashtags crop up in the Finnish-speaking craft culture, defining pandemic crafts as “Covid craft”, #koronakäsityö, and “Covid crafts”, #koronakäsityöt. By definition, the Finnish word “käsityö” (which derives from the words “käsi”, hand, and “työ”, work) is a broad concept for all handiwork: it is not tied to any specific craft technique, but rather affirms work made by hand, or with tools that are held in hands. In addition, the concept of “käsityö” has no intended emphasis in regard of the phase of the project, or craft techniques or materials being used: it translates as an entity including both the idea of the product that is going to be made during the process of crafting, the embodied craft know-how of the making of the product, and the product itself (Kojonkoski-Rännäli 31; also Ihatsu). However, as is also disclosed in this study, the “käsityö” seems to have a connotation of craft work traditionally made by the persons assumed female by society or other people, and thus, findings may build on domesticity related to textile crafting (see Kouhia, Unraveling, 8, 17).

The research questions driving this research are: (1) what kind of crafts were made, and how were these crafts contextualised during the pandemic; and (2) how was domesticity reflected in the pandemic crafting? The analysis explains how hobby crafts appeared as reactive pastimes, and how pandemic crafting set a debate on the implementation of alternative futures, interlinked with postfeminist forms of domesticity. As a result, it is shown that home-based hobby crafting was not only capable of upholding a sense of response and recovery for the makers during the pandemic, but also developing and bringing forth new trends within the maker culture.

Domestic Crafting in the Digital Age

In the Western narrative, crafts have been traditionally considered as generative quotidian activities positioned in the domestic space (Hardy; Thompson). In its history, domestic crafting has been practiced within a range of morals spanning from early conceptions of conspicuous leisure as an “unproductive expenditure of time” (Veblen 45) and 1950s feminine virtues like “thrift, practical creativity, and attention to appearance” (McLean 259) to today’s subversive, expressive Do-It-Yourself (DIY) along with the emergence of Third Wave Feminism that has powers to “resist capitalist materialism tendencies” (Stalp, Girls, 264). Often discussed in relation to femininity and unpaid labour—that include nuanced arguments of female subordination, sexuality, and housewifery (MacDonald 47; Parker 2–3; Turney 9)—contemporary crafting is seen not only to fall in the habitual expectations of domesticity, but also to have the capability to subvert and resist them. 

Indeed, while crafts such as knitting, sewing, and crocheting claimed their status as recreational leisure activities already in the late twentieth century with the changes related to construction of contemporary femininity (Groeneveld 264; Turney 2), there are still many issues and inequalities related to home-based hobby crafting. Predominantly, contemporary home crafts seem to be somewhat challenged by the lack of alternatives to the gendering of the domestic sphere (see Ceuterick). While home crafts are no longer social or economic domestic necessities and not practised by all or exclusively by women, home crafts still “continue to be perceived as a middle-class activity, a distraction and leisure pursuit for ‘ladies’ with time and means” (Hackney 170). 

While home-based hobby crafts cover many forms of making, ethical and social concerns that offer alternative and countercultural ways of living and consuming have become increasingly visible in contemporary crafting. Today’s hobby crafts operate within structures of everyday life and underpin plurality, complexity, and richness of amateur experience (Knott 124). Contemporary hobby crafting is also boosted by the revitalisation of old skills and the entrenchment of a home culture that utilises "retro cultures" (Hunt and Phillipov), and the increased interest of young adults in DIY culture (Kouhia, Unraveling; Stannard and Sanders). 

Almost a decade ago, Hunt and Phillipov put forward a discussion of the regained popularity of old-fashioned “Nanna Style” home practices. They noticed that young, activist makers praised these grandmotherly practices as “simultaneously nostalgic and politically progressive choices”, calling in countercultural politics of gender and consumption, and confusing the seemingly conservative lines “between imagined utopias of domesticity and the economic and environmental realities of contemporary consumer culture” (Hunt and Phillipov). Paired with ethical consumption, this promoted liberated postfeminist domesticity, a refusal of the capitalist structures of consumption, and a move away from binaries between the masculine and the feminine. Again, a return to domestic activities such as cooking, cleaning, and crafting was witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic, with people inscribing the domestic chores as postfeminist choices rather than oppression (Ceuterick) and participating in the production of meaning as a “redomesticated woman” (Negra 16, cited in Palomeque Recio).

Methodology

Today, social media resources provide a fundamental theoretical lens used by the researchers with powers to function both as an enabler and a driver of innovation (Bhimani, Mention, and Barlatier). Social media channels allow people to derive value from self-generated content, promoting interpersonal connectedness with the sharing of details of the daily lives of the individuals (Nabity-Grover, Cheung, and Thatcher) with social support, referability, and potential correspondence enclosed from around cyberspace (Hajli).

The article is based on qualitative social media research on Instagram, with aims to study the perpetual interest in hobby crafts during the pandemic. The study leans on the research paradigm known as ‘netnography’, which is a qualitative research methodology based on collecting, adapting, reflecting, and interacting with online traces with “a cultural focus on understanding the data derived from social media data” (Kozinets 6). Social media data consisting of 361 posts have been derived from Instagram’s #koronakäsityö and #koronakäsityöt hashtag feeds, and interpreted from the viewpoint of the content of the images and the context of their production (see Yang 17).

The data collection took place from March 2020 to December 2021. I have followed the stream of posts using Instagram’s follow function from the position of a craft researcher and serious hobbyist (see Stebbins; Kouhia, Unraveling) from spring 2020, when the first Covid craft publications were published. Since then, the posts have been visible in the image stream of my own Instagram account, which has given me a preliminary view of the content of the publications. The data collection was ceased in December 2021 due to the decrease of posted content. All posts are connected to the Finnish craft culture through the hashtags used as descriptions of “käsityö”, and they are approached as forms of self-disclosure of Covid-era hobby crafting (see Nabity-Grover, Cheung, and Thatcher). 

The posts were collected at several points during the research period and were manually extracted to Excel tables with the post content data (date and week of publication, account name of the publisher, number of images, captions and hashtags). The data were analysed using qualitative approaches to Instagram data (Yang 19), with main emphasis on the posts’ visual material (Rose) analysed with a qualitative content analysis approach (see Hsieh and Shannon). The data were first charted and thematised by 1) the type and technique of craft presented (e.g., knitting, macramé, yarn balls, etc.), and 2) the display of the craft maker (age, gender, presentation in the post in relation or with the craft), and subsequently, evaluated by 3) looking at the production of domesticity in the posts (presentation and description of the domestic space). I have tried to ensure the validity of research with consistency and trust value (see Noble and Smith), making my research decisions clear and transparent, and viewing the experiences that may have resulted in methodological bias. However, given the multiple realities of qualitative research ontology, research validity needs to be framed within complex social and cultural rationales, and paired with the aim of “maintaining cohesion between the study’s aim, design and methods” (Noble and Smith 35). Considering the ethics of using social media data, all posts considered as the data of this study have been published on public Instagram accounts, and their reporting adheres to anonymous indirect quoting and image manipulation.

Pandemic Domestic Crafting on Instagram

Pandemic crafting consisted of many kinds of crafts. During the long review period, Covid crafts centred strikingly around textile-making: the most outstanding crafting techniques were knitting, crocheting, and sewing (table 1). Other kinds of textile crafts, like macramé, weaving, fabric printing and painting, embroidery, and clothing repair, were also displayed, yet with minor emphasis in comparison to yarn craft techniques and sewing. Some images presented textile handicraft tools, materials and machines, such as balls of yarn, beads, needles, and sewing machines. Only a few images contained artisanship with hard materials, with these few photos including multimaterial jewellery, boat carving, repairing a terrace, and building a wooden wall behind an outdoor mailbox. 

Table 1. The kinds of crafts posted on Instagram during the pandemic: a summary based on #koronakäsityö and #koronakäsityöt.

Regarding the phase of the crafting project, most images concentrated on depicting completed, finished craft products. In addition to woollen socks, knitwear, macrame works, and clothes, everyday handicrafts endemic to the period, such as sewn masks and crocheted mask holders, were also portrayed as Corona crafts. 

Besides the kinds of crafts made, it is also important to look at the shifts in Covid-related craft content. Indeed, mask sewing posts and links to news on the positive role of crafting in times of crisis started to crop up in social media platforms already in the early phase of the pandemic (Kouhia, Online); in parallel, related social media hashtags emerged to identify the content. The first images of Covid crafts were posted on Instagram in late March 2020. These images were captioned with momentary descriptions of the disruption the habituated everyday routines, but also granted more time to crafts. As social-distancing weeks passed, Covid crafting quickly evolved in accordance with the first wave of the virus infection, eventually rising to its peak in April 2020. In parallel to the easing of the Covid outbreak in the summer of 2020, Covid crafting and posts diminished. As the situation became worse again in the autumn with the rise of the second wave of the virus, Covid crafting increased, and recurred until the spring of 2021. Towards the end of 2021, spontaneous Corona craft publications became irregular. 

Pandemic crafts seemed to be recurrently contextualised with the continual transformation of materiality within the domestic space. Craft-makers described having drawn inspiration from their old craft material stashes and returned to projects that had been left untouched and unfinished for one reason or another for months, years, and sometimes even decades. Makers—most of them likely falling, based on popularity of textile hobby crafts in Finland (see Pöllänen) and the interviews conducted among the publishers of the Covid craft-related posts, in the social categories of white, middle-aged, mostly urban able-bodied anticipated women—described having felt there was more time for crafting, and due to the restricted domestic space, an embodied and infinite push of being ecological and using the resources that they had at hand. In this sense, craft-makers not only showed abilities and resilience to react to the changing situation, but also unfolded crafting as an expression and a form of self-disclosure, with powers to make visible the value of care of the environment as a contribution to societal wellbeing. All in all, experiences of crafting as a self-chosen, self-maintained privilege seemed to afford a sense of flexibility. Further, this facilitated the reframing of the increased domestic activities as postfeminist choices and crafting as care for the home and family, as discussed in the following data excerpt:

Thanks to Covid, I’ve had an excuse to take up the sewing machine and play with fabrics. I had completely forgotten how fun it is to design clothes, the process has really taken me out. Especially, if one wants more special children’s clothes, they will cost you like several bags of toilet paper = which is as much as hell, if you don’t make the clothes yourself. Also works as a pretty good motivator though 😂💪
(#koronakäsityöt Instagram post from April 2020)

As the posts mainly cover textile crafting, feminine domesticity with the symbolised oppressive feminine social ideals of good mothering and housewifery are embedded in the narrative through at-home managerialism, like taking care of the household and maintaining children’s clothing. Indeed, the care of the family was repeatedly addressed in craft posts, with descriptions of mothers making clothes for their children—sometimes at the request of the kids, and but most often as daily chores of wearing and caring. For some craft-makers, textile crafting seemed to offer a passage to continue the mundane, domesticated policies that were already established at home; in other words, those who had been already keen on textile hobby crafting were suddenly offered more time for their beloved leisure practice. In addition, there were also new makers entering the field of crafting, who started practicing leisure crafts for the first time, or those who returned to their once-lost hobby. However, argumentation that framed Covid crafting tended to embrace craft-making as a conscious decision to live up to the images of femininity it may entail, and not particularly having the resources to transform the entrenched roles and figures it might provoke.

Also, Covid crafting managed to also disclose a view of the intimate, framing the at-home private space and decorating it with the feminised imperatives of thriftiness, laboriousness, and austerity (see Bramall). Indeed, crafts seemed to be confined to the household space, which itself has been inherently political during the pandemic (e.g., Martin), and framed as distinctively individual choices to demonstrate the morale of staying at home and taking active ownership of the domestic space. Sometimes crafts were lined up in a space of their usage, like hanging macramé baskets and shawls placed on a sofa (fig. 1), though occupying the domestic space conveniently and adaptively, but without a deep questioning or consideration of the traditional binary oppositions between private and public spaces or home labour subscribing to anticipated masculinity or femininity. Rather, crafts seemed to be taken up as individual affirmative choices—not as household necessities, but as activities promoting the self-worth and personage of the makers and nurturing a sense of purpose and care in the lockdown homes.

Fig. 1. Square crochet blanket occupying the domestic space. The image is manipulated by the author for the purposes of publication.

Although crafts were purposefully placed on display in the posts, the main point was not in aesthetics based on strong image manipulation or the use of heavy filters, but rather showing off the permeability of the domestic space with the experiences of craft-makers living with a strong sense of satisfaction gained from crafting. Indeed, crafting itself can be interpreted as a resource contributing to the sense of perseverance and tenacity, giving a purpose for social survival in times of crisis: crafting was not cancelled, while almost everything else was paused.

Discussion

The pandemic had profound implications for the lives of millions of people, not only by compromising healthcare and economies, but also by reframing and revolutionising the meanings and values of moment-to-moment lifestyle choices and activities taking place at home. People were forced to re-engage in the practices of home and household during the pandemic, which changed their daily rhythm and transformed practices of the domestic space, further offering to revolutionise notions of domestic labour and care (Ceuterick). During the pandemic, domestic hobby crafting seemed to emerge as a phenomenon to influence social and cultural change, also providing makers with the experiences of usefulness to mitigate the changing circumstances.

In line with the previous studies, this study implied that when contextualised within the frame of postmodern freedom, hobby crafts result in unique expressions that can sustain reflexivity, self-maintenance, and resilience (Kenning; Pöllänen), and reclaim a status as a public and social activity (Turney; Mayne). Within a study of 27 older adults practicing mask-sewing during the pandemic, Schnittka identified crafting to help other people to manage chaotic times, also contributing to makers' feelings of value, worthiness and purpose and their sense of control (225). Hahn and Bhaduri recognise similar habits in their study of mask-making behaviour, detailing that self-fulfilment and wellbeing as the most important reason for making masks, and financial motivation leaving behind other morals (307). Similar results can be also drawn based on this study; most importantly, the value of crafting as a flexible, self-sustained performance in the boundaries between the intimate and the shared.

In this study, attention was drawn to hobby crafting intended for sharing online and situated in a linguistically localised cultural niche in a particular time frame. Thus, the study witnessed the rise and fall of “Covid-crafts” on Instagram through the analysis of two coronavirus-related craft hashtags that emerged in the Finnish-speaking crafting community. Although using linguistically and culturally situated data may limit the study, it also offers a view of crafting as a social and cultural phenomenon. In the future, more research needs to be undertaken on crafting regarding various geographic, political, cultural, and socio-economic venues, so that the nuanced and complex negotiations of domesticity could be examined and understood more thoroughly. 

Nevertheless, like the study by Martindale, Armstead, and McKinney, which reviewed publicly displayed face-mask sewing posts hashtagged with #sewingmasks and #sewingfacemask posted on Instagram in March 2020 (205), this study revealed that craft-makers were keen to share and exchange ideas and information online. In this study, Covid crafting seemed to be undertaken far from a complex choice—it was rather taken as a self-sustained, satisfactory leisure activity that aimed to maintain a sense of purpose rather than critique. Still, even the seemingly uncritical craft practice set to operate an inherently political act that made use of the changed resources in the family and household. Indeed, it can be concluded that in this time of crisis, crafting offered to raise a sense of wellbeing and individual identity of the maker, providing people with a means of reacting and being responsive to the changes of the world. The subversive potential of home-based hobby crafting seems to lie within the powers that may offer different ways for the makers to harness the mundane practice to different purposes to mitigate change, from resistance and revolution to the unravelling of societal and cultural prejudice and familial household care policies, to create better conditions for sustainable, humane, non-binary futures.

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Author Biography

Anna Kouhia, University of Helsinki

Anna Kouhia is an Adjunct Professor (docent) in Craft Science at the University of Helsinki Finland, where she teaches courses in yarns crafts, pedagogy, and textile materials. Her research covers DIY crafting, digital materiality, feminist pedagogy, and practice-based learning of skills, with a particular emphasis on education towards future sustainability. She is currently involved in several collaborative research projects that concentrate on developing better understanding for practicing, studying and materializing crafts.