Caroline Casey: How Handmade Goods Change the World
Photo by Jennifer Esperanza
For sixteen years, listeners of Caroline Casey’s Visionary Activist radio show have come to depend on this deep-voiced, raucously funny, profoundly reverent “weaver of context” for news and perspectives on social change, politics, and global culture. She has provided commentary for ABC, CNN, CBS, Fox News, and NPR, and been featured in People magazine and the Washington Post, and is a featured speaker at this year’s Bioneers conference, the largest environmental conference in North America. We spoke about culture, beauty, sustainability, and Etsy.
Karen: Hi, Caroline.
Caroline: Greetings, Ally Karen!
Karen: When I was a guest on your show talking about handmade, I received so many calls and emails, even from other countries, that I thought it would be nice to continue the conversation here on Etsy.
Caroline: It was one of our most popular shows.
Karen: No, really?
Caroline: So popular. It was completely tangible and then got big and universal.
Karen: Well, great! So let’s continue… when we make something by hand, of course we are making a beautiful object, but what else could we say we are doing?
Caroline: Well… we can say that the major task before us is restoring intimacy to the world, most especially our intimacy with the Earth. And all art is inherently intimate and collaborative, even when you think you’re working alone. For example, the needle meets the thread and then together they both meet the cloth. It’s a kind of intimacy. When you’re doing it consciously, it’s even more powerful. That’s Venus’s presence. Venus is all about art, beauty, love, and reverence for life.
Karen: This is reminds me of Natalie Chanin, when she talks about loving her thread. She says the fibers in sewing thread are held together with tension and torque, but all that tension is what makes thread tangle. So Natalie threads her needle and strokes her thread over and over before sewing – loving it. And while she loves it, she thinks about how beautiful the garment will be and how beautiful the wearer will look when she wears it and how good she will feel, and that it will be the most beautiful garment ever made. And in the process of getting “loved” the thread relaxes and won’t tangle anymore.
Caroline: Exactly. Everything in the world is literal and everything is metaphoric at the same time. You weave the blessing into the thing. Magic is a willingness to cooperate with everything – even tangled thread. When we cooperate with the universe we needn’t fear because “cooperators are standing by.” And this is how magic and pragmatism are wedded.
Karen: For me, handmade also reminds me that we can accomplish a lot in tiny little steps, even one stitch at a time.
Caroline: You know the old saying: “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, life’s a cinch?” We might think, “Oh I can’t do this big thing, I can’t make real clothes with my own two hands,” or even, “Why vote, my vote doesn’t count,” but that’s just a trick of the reality police to render you non-participatory.
Karen: There are so many lessons in the practice of using your hands. And so many stories.
Caroline: Stories, yes. Handmade things will feed your ancient soul because everything has a story, the story of the maker and then the story of the person who receives the work. By making handmade things, we’re tapping a force that says we’re not destined to accept what fate has assigned us. We want to make things because it’s a way of changing our lives. The marketplace is not meant to be this deadening Walmart thing, but a vibrant cultural exchange, and I think Etsy is changing things as part of a cultural renaissance. In the Middle East, the top blessing, the best thing you can say to someone is, “May the divine bless your hands that have made such beauty.” It’s the impulse to create that invites that divine power in.
Karen: I was reading Anthony Bourdain – yes, chef Anthony Bourdain – and he said that cooking is both very creative and very repetitive and our culture often treats “creative” and “repetitive” as if they were opposites. But it seems to me that most forms of art have elements that are both creative and repetitive because the arts require such profound dedication, whether it’s the intricately knitted sweater, or the musical instrument that must be practiced every day, or all those loved stiches.
Caroline: Well you know, you’re talking about rhythm. Rhythm invites dedication and just like the repetition of weaving, it weaves us back into wholeness in the world. And there is freedom and safety in wholeness. A while back, some social scientists interviewed prisoners – muggers and robbers – and showed them video of people walking down the street. The prisoners told the scientists that anyone with an arhythmic walk would be vulnerable, but anyone with a strong rhythmic walk they would leave alone. So handcrafts are an outward expression of inner wholeness and the rhythms that can sustain and protect us. Anything done rhythmically with dedication helps feed the heart. If we can find our own rhythm, we could heal our personal economy, and take part in healing the economy of the world.
Karen: And have fun while we do it?
Caroline: Do you think fun is optional?
Karen: Interesting, because on Etsy, sometimes an item becomes popular with the community just because it’s fun. It will become a favorite – almost a meme – because it is funny or witty or just insanely original.
Caroline: Humor and wit are like a kind of leadership. We see models of leadership like that in animals. For example, wolf culture is not based on dominance as was once thought. We know now that the alpha wolf is the charismatic one who invites everyone in the pack into creative play. And you can identify an alpha wolf within 10 days of birth because it is the cub in the litter with the lowest resting heart rate. The calmest, coolest wolf turns out to be the most charismatic, the most fun. It’s the opposite of road rage. This says, “No, thank you,” to models of leadership and influence based on authority and empire-building. So it’s not a surprise that the wittiest and coolest things on Etsy are loved by the community. They bring out the creative spirit. It’s the spirit of “Woof, woof, want to play?”
Karen: So it’s serious fun.
Caroline: As my dear friend David Grimes says, “If you’re not having fun, you’re just not serious enough.”
Who should Karen interview next? Leave your suggestions in the comments!
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.