Thursday, June 10, 2010

The New Domestics!

My cover story for this week's WE!

Lili Nedved and Henry Sinha in their Spool of Thread Sewing Lounge.

Lili Nedved and Henry Sinha in their Spool of Thread Sewing Lounge.

Credit: Doug Shanks

Homemaker? Hipster? Both?

In eighth-grade Home Ec, I faced the wrath of an uncomprehending teacher who couldn’t fathom why I’d sewn a hem on the wrong side of my apron for the third time. Weeks later, she was equally bewildered as to why I couldn’t master making a simple pasta or baking a batch of cookies. Her eyes said everything when she regarded my failures: “But you’re a girl!”

Well, yes, and damned if I was going to be good at cooking and baking and sewing simply because of my lady parts.

That defiance served me well enough — until a few years ago, that is, when I noticed that a new, differently inclined generation of feminists had blossomed while I was looking elsewhere. Let’s call them the Hipster Homemakers, a league of extraordinary women (and a few good men) who have repurposed the trappings of old-fashioned “wifely” duties, and in the process have created business opportunities, fostered community, and made art.

Lili Nedved, co-owner of Spool of Thread Sewing Lounge, Vancouver’s first and only social sewing facility, which opened its doors June 5, believes this new wave of craft-friendly feminism is responsible for helping women make peace with past social norms and expectations. “What’s more feminist than choice?” she asks. “The greatest thing about now is we can choose to do whatever we want to do, and whether that’s sewing or baking or archery, the most feminist thing you can do is just carve your own path.”

Nedved and partner Henry Sinha have set up Spool of Thread in a renovated warehouse space, where they offer six digital sewing machines and a cutting table for visitors to rent by the hour. They oversee numerous sewing classes themselves, in addition to others led by outside instructors, with June’s options ranging from Sewing 101 to vintage-blouse making. Another component of the space operates as a retail store, offering a brilliantly vivid pallet of coloured fabrics and patterns for sale. It’s a quaint idea that’s deceptively business-savvy: Over 500 people had signed up to the store’s e-mail list before the doors even opened.

The city’s embracing of this movement has evolved steadily over the last five years or so, and the resulting success of predominately women-driven marketplaces like Portobello West, Got Craft?, and Make It, has shown just how chic DIY can be.

And the trend has moved beyond making things to baking things. Coco Cake, a home-based cupcake business started by Lyndsay Sung, has played a starring role at the monthly Blim Community Market in Mount Pleasant, while Connie Mar started the seasonal Baker’s Market, devoted entirely to edible treats.

Coco Cake is rooted in decidedly nouveau-domestic origins. Sung and her husband received a Kitchen-Aid mixer as a wedding present from Sung’s grandmother, which inspired her to begin experimenting, literally from scratch. “I got obsessed with learning to bake, which in turn led to an obsession with learning to decorate with buttercream, and piping tips like I’d seen in old vintage cake books or wedding magazines,” says Sung. “I’ve never had any professional training. Apart from a basic cake-decorating class, I learned everything from books, lots of experimenting, and lots of practice.”

Sung’s cupcakes and full-sized cakes are marvels of cuteness and retro cool, and are made solely by her. Though she still teaches art to kids twice a week, the bulk of her work and income is derived from Coco, which remains a one-woman operation. She’s a fierce proponent of acquiring know-how, and dismisses the notion that homemaking skills aren’t feminist. “I think everyone should know how to sew or bake, just because they’re great skills,” she says. “It’s very attractive when you meet someone with a great set of varied skills. Skills are underrated these days.”

Connie Mar agrees. Her own love of baking, coupled with an artisan’s approach to enterprise, inspired her to begin the Baker’s Market over a year ago. “There are a lot of ‘closet’ bakers in the Lower Mainland — the ones who love to bake, taste just a bit, then give the rest to hungry co-workers, friends, and family,” she says. “But, after a while, they get tired of eating your goodies, and the bakers have nowhere else to take them, so I wanted to create a fun environment where bakers and foodies could unite.”

Foodies liked what they tasted, and the market evolved from a four-week trial into a full-scale weekly operation from fall through spring. Mar estimates that while at least 20 per cent of the vendors already have established culinary businesses, a further 20 per cent are testing the waters to see if they too can make the leap into commerce.

Martha Stewart, the uncontested maven of domesticity, created an empire by branding and marketing homemakers’ skills; thus, she was arguably the first of this new breed of feminists, making money from skills it was taken for granted she innately knew. But while Stewart’s crafty-ness tends to emphasize an individualist approach, Spool of Thread hopes to foster a supportive atmosphere emphasizing the social aspect of sewing.

Spool of Thread may have already changed the future of quilting for Holly Broadland, founder of the Vancouver chapter of the Modern Quilt Guild, a movement focusing on bright colours and non-traditional patterns that started in Los Angeles in October 2009, gaining such momentum that it became an international phenomenon with guilds all over the world. Vancouver’s first meeting will be held at Spool of Thread on June 17, and membership is already over 50 people. A self-professed “math geek,” Broadland has used the internet to establish a decidedly global quilting community (she’s in a “virtual quilting bee”), but she’s looking forward to using the sewing lounge space to connect with people face-to-face.

Spool of Thread will likely come to mean different things to different people. Even co-owners Nedved and Sinha have slightly varying hopes: Nedved wants to reinvent traditional sewing circles, while Sinha promises a place where “creative dreams come true.”

For people like me, it’s also a place to demystify the process, and Sinha, who was raised by a single mother, is happy to help. He’s thrilled that people are rebuilding their relationships to domestic arts. “As a child, I just had strong women in my life who were great role models,” he says. “It was always strange to me to see any rejection of what I think of as just basic creativity and art. It’s wonderful to see women — and men — come back to it.”

No comments: