Saturday, January 21, 2006

You can call me Long-winded Stitcher today

I’ve had some interesting reading over at Anna’s blog, where she references an article about the popularity of scrapbooking that unfortunately takes a poke at cross-stitching. If you haven’t bopped over there yet, here is the text from the Pioneer Press:

"I believe that scrapbooking is not going to die out like, let's say, cross-stitch, because everybody continues to take photos," she said. "The industry's going to change and evolve along with technology. Scrapbooking will always be around." Chris Dunrud, president of the Midwest Scrapbook Association

I’ve been stitching since 1982, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Regardless, I’ve always watched what was happening in the cross-stitch world and over the years it has always remained my favorite pastime. I’ve taken side trips into quilting, knitting, brazilian embroidery, wreath making, flower arranging, and rubber-stamping, to name a few. Some of those I’ve kept a hand in. Others I’ve put away, saying, “What was I thinking??” Yet I’ve always come back to cross-stitch. My guess is that most of us (stitching bloggers) have done the same.

Now, I don’t want to get into comparing which is “better”, scrapbooking or cross-stitch. Hey, whatever craft/art floats your boat. Find it, do it, love it. I think that Ms. Dunrud just made an off the cuff comment. Either that, or she just isn’t very observant. So here are my observations, and keep in mind that they are just that. My observations. I’m not an industry insider. I don’t get or read any crafting trade publications. I don’t own a store in that particular industry. But I do shop…and these are my opinions.

Of course scrapbooking looks like it’s thriving. Go into any big box craft store and you’ll see the hottest stuff, front and center, taking up huge amounts of space. Right now that’s scrapbooking (and jewelry making, but let’s not muddy the waters with that today). Obviously, scrapbooking is selling well, because in retail, SPACE=MONEY. Cross-stitch supplies are usually found towards the back of the store, with maybe 15 feet of shelf space for fabrics, threads, and supplies, and another 6 feet for Leisure Arts books.

Here’s the thing, though. Hasn’t it always been like that?

In the past almost-25 years, these big box stores have grown in size and multiplied in number like crazy. I’d say that the today’s average Michael’s is at least three times bigger than the stores of 10 years ago. Yet cross-stitch is still occupying the same space. Does that mean that it died? I don’t think so. The big boxes carry art supplies, too, in a small space in the back, and I don’t think that drawing and painting have died, either. And let’s not forget quilting supplies. They get even less space in the big craft retailers, but it would be ludicrous to say that quilting has died. These three examples just don’t thrive in big craft stores. And I think this is why:

Some crafts, like scrapbooking, are perfect for big box stores. It looks simple enough, so anyone will be tempted to try it. The supplies are fantastic for big-box retailing. It’s pre-cut, pre-packaged, colorful, with lots of variety, and offers instant gratification. A perfect impulse item! A beginner could take her stuff home and zip together pages with pre-cut shapes and stickers and your photos and create a lovely scrapbook page in under an hour. Add to that my opinion that women and girls are drawn to all things paper (ok, maybe it’s just me), and you have a very hot retail item, and if it’s profitable, let me tell you, it will get tons of the shelf space. So, for the sake of all of the folks employed by these huge stores, we wish scrapbooking a long and happy life. (How long its life will be is debatable though, because I think that my kids’ generation prefers digital images to photographs, but only time will tell.)

Needlecraft just isn’t suited to mega-store retailing. It’s not a “grab-go-finish” item. In the case of cross-stitch, the customer/crafter must be able to visualize the finished project, starting with a black and white paper with little marks on it, a blank piece of fabric, and a bag full of embroidery thread. A beginning quilter must be able to visualize her project from template measurements to bolts of fabric, to a finished quilt. The beginner needs a little reassurance maybe. Or a little guidance. That’s not happening in these huge stores. They carry some of our supplies, probably just to service us minimally. So we look to small, specialty stores.

And I’ll repeat, hasn’t it always been like that?

To be sure, the number of brick and mortar specialty cross-stitch shops has dwindled over the years. However, the number of small, specialty shops for any type of retail enterprise has dwindled. Where I live in typical small-town America, we’ve lost our small paint stores, yarn shops, quilt shops, art supply stores, hardware stores, corner grocery stores, dress shops, camera shops, hobby shops, and bakeries, and several more that I just can’t think of right now. (Maybe the current exception is the knitting supply industry, but let’s see what happens with those shops in the next 5-10 years.) So I believe that losing brick and mortar cross-stitch shops is part of that trend. On the other hand, look at the proliferation of online shops. While we needle artists prefer to handle and see our supplies in person, if we don’t have a local shop, the online store fills a need that is still there, and in fact creates more need because we see so much more online than a real-life store can possibly carry in its square footage. The variety and the volume of new designs for cross stitchers is mind-boggling, as well as the new fibers, embellishments and fabrics. So smart shop-owners have augmented in-store sales with online sales, newsletters, and expedient special orders. I see only good things ahead, and I think it’s a very exciting time now for needleworkers.

Which brings me to the next question – needlework for the future. I think that as long as needlework continues to evolve, it will always be around. Certainly its face will change, just as our tastes and fashions change. Some stuff that I swooned over 20 years ago leaves me cold now. I can also see how designs, motifs, and styles have re-emerged. No doubt we’ll be surprised at what designers are publishing in 10 years…and then we’ll find that it’s pretty cool and yes, we’ll buy it!

And let’s not forget the power of the stitching community, in particular the online stitching community. For the first 20 years of my stitching, really, I felt like I was the only one out there. If I wanted to find friends to quilt with, it was no problem. There were hundreds of them. Church groups, guilds, etc. If I wanted to find friends to do flower arranging, heck, there were tons of garden clubs. But cross-stitchers? Well, not around here, anyway. When the kids were little, I answered pen-pal ads in JCS magazine (remember when they had those?), and found a couple of stitching pen pals. WELL, in the late 90’s we got a computer and the internet and WOW, have I found a stitching community! Although face to face is the best type of community, we are thrilled with our ability to communicate with each other with words…and pictures! Blogs, online groups like Yahoo and Ezboard, and our own personal webpages absolutely draw us together as a community. It’s really fabulous.

Ok, that addresses the future of the art with existing stitchers, but the fact is we won’t be around forever. What about the next generation? I’ve read so many stories saying that needlearts seemed to skip a generation in their family…I figure it must be true. Is it part of a kid’s desire to separate from her parents? I don’t know…I know that in my own family my grandmothers were always doing some kind of handwork, like embroidery, crochet, or knitting, and it made my mother crazy. She said it made her nervous to sit with them because it seemed like they couldn’t sit still. My mom was a reader. She always had a book going. And I’m a stitcher. My own daughter cringes at the thought of picking up a needle, yet her sketchbook is full and she’ll spend hours and hours on a sketch. What’s the answer? I don’t know. If you are happy with your art, then that’s all that matters. Keep at it. One day someone younger than you will look at what you are doing and think it’s cool and ask you about it. And then needleart will continue from there. It’ll just happen, so why worry about it?

OK, I’m off to stitch something that I wouldn’t have dreamed of stitching 20 years ago….now you should go, too!

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