The Revival of Cottage Industries

“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?

-Henry David Thoreau in a letter to Harrison Blake

(16 November, 1857)

Welcome to Cottage Corner!

This is a virtual cottage-diary where I, Artemis Folk, artisan crafter and urban homesteader, delve into the trials and travails of learning cottage skills and making a living from them. It will include my projects, reflections, questions, and DIY tools for curious people.

I started seriously crafting last fall (2009) when I was finally able take time off from the usual grind and devote my energy to learning the skills I find intriguing and practical, a kind of self-reeducation. Here are some examples of what I’m doing/learning/practicing/studying in no particular order:

  • Wool felting
  • Carpentry, wood working, and household repairs
  • Sewing, clothing alterations, following a pattern, making a pattern, by hand and machine
  • Food production/gardening/small scale farming
  • Food preservation: storing, canning, dehydrating, freezing, fermenting
  • Seed saving, preserving genetic diversity
  • Cooking and baking
  • Bicycle building and maintenance
  • Silk screening
  • Wild plant identification and gathering
  • Natural medicine and herbalism
  • Metalsmithing and jewelry making
  • Dyeing fabrics with natural dyes
  • Book binding
  • Paper making
  • Ceramic pottery
  • Block printing
  • Just about anything else that I would normally purchase from a corporation

The name Cottage Corner refers to cottage crafts, or cottage industries. When I say cottage crafts, I am talking about small scale, independent, skilled production of goods and services in a home-based environment. Cottage industries preceded factories. It was a way for small scale crafters to contract with a distributor. In the 1400s this distributor was often just a marketplace, a way to centralize trades and sales. Overtime, this changed from contracting to factory labor to the industrial revolution. Now, I’m not here to knock the industrial revolution. But I am here to knock cheap, corporate controlled labor that strips communities of both natural and human resources while stockpiling profits with CEOs and investors.

Cottage crafting goes by many other names. Other terms I’ve heard for what I’m doing include: traditional folk arts, primitive skills, survival skills, and homesteading. I refer to myself as an artisan crafter and urban homesteader. My project, the subject of this blog, involves both learning skills and profiting from my products/services.

What does it have to do with the Bull Moose Movement?

Making my own stuff is a political choice, as well as a spiritual, ethical, economic, and idealistic choice. I would rather make something, learn a skill, nourish my creative mind, conserve resources, and undercut Target at the same time. Efficiency is very important to me because homesteading and hand-crafting are by nature gloriously slow.

Before I buy anything, I ask myself where it came from and how it was made. Unfortunately, the thing in question is often produced in a factory by underpaid labor and distributed by a corporation. Then I ask myself if I there’s something else I could use that I already have, or if I could make the item myself with a reasonable amount of labor and materials, and finally if I will learn a new skill or practice an old one while creating the desired object. If I can’t make the object, I look for an option that was made locally and is being sold by an independent person or business.

After many years of asking the question, “How would I make this?” I decided to devote some time in my life to learning how to be more self-sufficient. I wanted to know how to build, sew, and grow. This move is married to my efforts to defy corporate greed and carnivorous marketing schemes by putting my money where my mouth is and not supporting corporations. Now I am not only buying locally made cottage products, I am a crafter contributing to the cottage market and hoping people will buy my handmade wool mittens instead of the pair from the L.L. Bean catalog.

Enough philosophizing, let’s get to this post’s topic:

Felted Wool Stuff

I love clothes and accessories and I’m not ashamed to say it. (I’m also not ashamed to quote Walden.) But how do I satisfy my desire for cute sweaters and tall boots while maintaining my political integrity and homesteader street cred? Two words: felted wool. Not just any felted wool either. We’re talking wool from sweaters reclaimed from the local thrift store where clothes are sold in bulk for 50 cents per pound.

I buy used, 100% wool, merino, and cashmere sweaters for about 30 cents a sweater. I felt them at home in the washing machine. Then I cut out whatever pattern I want, sew the seams, and voila! We have hand-crafted, felted wool mittens with cashmere lining and quirky embroidery.

This winter I designed wool mittens for my sweetheart who bikes through the winter. I made them double layered to keep out wind. The inside layer is cashmere and the outside is a rougher, thicker, felted wool. Both layers used to be the sleeves of sweaters. I added bike tube palm pads for waterproofing. Bicycle shops throw out used bike tubes and give them away for free. I take the larger ones, slice them down the middle, and wash them inside.

I sew with heavy duty, cotton embroidery thread and a big needle with a large eye. I make colorful, visible stitches that add to the aesthetic and advertise the handmade quality. I want people to see that I made this neat thing and think, “How would I make those?” And if they ask me, I’ll tell them.

Why is wool awesome?

Wool is a natural, renewable fiber from sheep and goats. Animals do not need to be harmed to harvest wool (but beware: industrialized practices sometimes do harm the animals).  Wool is very warm in the cold and stays warm even if it gets wet. It also breaths when you’re hot. It can be thick for sweaters, or woven thin and smooth for undergarments. Wool can be torn apart and felted back together. Wool does not absorb odors like other materials. Wool is very easy to work with and can be dyed with natural, plant dyes. High quality wool is available inexpensively in resale stores and bulk thrift stores. It is adaptable and will form to a mold when felted.

Felting is the process of wool fibers being knitted more closely together. This can be done with small barbed needles (needle felting), or with hot water and soap. When you shrink a wool sweater accidentally in the wash, you’ve felted it. It’s not fun to wear anymore, but it is now a stronger, more durable material with infinite potential futures as mittens, boots, vests, patches, shoes, hats, headbands, wallets, soap pockets, potholders, belts, legwarmers, bags, purses, funky jewelry, tea cozies and more.

That’s all for now folks!

For DIY instructions for wool mittens go to my blog: http://artemisfolk.wordpress.com

5 responses to “The Revival of Cottage Industries

  1. Those mittens are awesome! And the boots are cute too. You’re so talented! ❤

  2. nice work! Love the mittens. Will check out the DIY for how to make them. PK

  3. The Bologna model is something you should look into. Essentially Bologna and the region it is the center of, Emilia-Romagna, runs on cottage industries. There are some larger auto-makers, but essentially Emilia-Romagnans make everything from eyeglass frames to hi-tech battery packs to pottery to clothing in what amount to mini-factories where 1 to 10 people work. I can’t remember the latest stat, but there is a small business for something like every 3 people in the economic region. This is an outgrowth of Bologna’s post WWII communist era, where the means of production really were in the hands of people. A really interesting model. Here’s a primer on what they’re doing: http://www.uwcc.wisc.edu/info/bologna.html

  4. Very inspirational. I hope with leaders such as yourself that frugality and skill-building will become wide-spread practices again!

  5. Very exciting! Have you done any work with soap? Keep it up!

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