Woman knitting
Photo: Thinkstock/Emma Innocenti
Just because you live a high-tech life doesn't mean you can't go low-tech with great results. Technology expert Alexandra Samuel shares her ideas and inspirations for going online to get crafty.
In the fall of 1997, I dressed as the Internet for Halloween. I captured screenshots from a representative assortment of websites and found a color printer—then an exotic piece of hardware—to print a few dozen 4x6 images. I glued them onto pieces of cardboard and strung them together using telephone cords onto a dress and wove double-ended phone jacks down the back. Then, I threw the dress over a black catsuit and headed out for a night of party-hopping. My Web-inspired craft project got an overwhelming reaction—in those early days of the Web, a girl dressed like the Internet was catnip for the geeks of the Cambridge party scene.

That may be the geekiest craft project I've ever undertaken, but technology has supported many other art and craft projects over the years. Many of my friends are surprised that a tech junkie like me can happily spend a weekend sewing a dress, decoupaging a table or stenciling tile. The truth is that these kinds of hands-on, visceral projects make a great counterweight to all the time I spend online and in my head. I'm never happier than when my hands are caked with glue or my living room floor is strewn with fabric scraps.

More than 75 percent of American households include at least one person like me: the sometimes crafter. For those many crafters in the United States and around the world, crafting provides an outlet for creativity that offers a different type of creative expression. And social media can support all that crafting in ways that make it even more satisfying. Here's how.

Make Your Own Studio
My husband was out of town for an election campaign, so I went to the movies and caught a collection of animated shorts. Inspired by some wicked Claymation, I went out the next day and picked up a supply of plasticine. I created a little model of our dog and a tiny election sign, which I stuck in the dog's mouth. Then, I spent the afternoon snapping shot after shot with our digital camera, which I stitched together with a simple video editor. I threw the movie up on our website and sent the link to Rob as a mid-election greeting. It was the kind of project that used to require specialized studio equipment; today, you can outfit your computer with all the free software you need to turn a simple mic and camera into a studio that can handle most photo, print, video or audio projects.

Go Low-Tech
I was sewing curtains when a friend walked in to find me working away with my grandmother's sewing machine. "You know they have machines that go backward now," she joked. But until that moment, it had never occurred to me to update my equipment. My grandmother's machine might be 80 years old, but it's a durable classic, and all the better for knowing that she sewed my mum's baby clothes on the same machine I'm using to sew for daughter and son. I've since acquired a second machine that not only has the ability to go backward (which, in truth, is quite handy) but has 25 different stitch patterns and a USB connector for downloading more. Yet even I can see that in crafting, less is often more: Unless your equipment is inhibiting your creativity, don't waste time or money on upgrades.

Where to go online to learn how to personalize your arts and crafts
Learn How
When my husband and I got married, I decided to make him a wedding present: a wooden chest covered with images from our courtship. I built a simple wood box, then went online to explore my options for transferring images onto wood. After visiting a number of photography and art sites, I was able to identify not just the preferred technique (tape a photocopy to glass, then brush with several layers of acrylic medium; when it dries, peel off the image and glue onto the wood) but also the relative merits of different brands of acrylic. No matter what art, craft or home improvement project you want to undertake, I can just about guarantee that you'll find step-by-step instructions somewhere on the Web, and if you focus your search on social websites, you'll be able to read user discussions and tips and post your own questions. The one thing the Web can't do for you is ensure you actually finish your project—the box, photocopies and acrylic are still sitting in our garage, so I'm now aiming for this to be Rob's 10th-anniversary present.

Personalize Your Home
Our volume of household clutter requires an ever-greater quantity of storage. A few years ago, I was forced to admit that while four floor-to-ceiling bookcases were sufficient to contain the amount of junk we accumulated in our living room, they weren't enough to make it look tidy instead of cluttered. The solution was to head back to Ikea for doors that would cover the bookcases and hide the crap. The doors I chose had glass fronts lined with particle board that was designed to be covered with wallpaper or fabric for an elegant, clean look. But clutter isn't just a habit, it's an aesthetic. So I covered our doors with a massive family photo collage. I selected our favorite photos and collaged them into interesting shapes in iPhoto, which I then printed, cut out and glued to the particle board. Our living room cabinets aren't just customized, they're personalized with images that reflect our family story. Use your digital assets—photos, text or even music—to customize your craft projects in a way that makes them distinctly yours.

Get Production Help
Many years ago, I was browsing antique stores for a living room chair when I found something even better: an antique oak pulpit. Its carvings and provenance—it came from a Vancouver church—made it irresistible. Sure, it was designed as a lectern, but its C shape could be adapted into a chair. All I had to was build a platform into the middle of the pulpit, then upholster the sides and make some matching cushions. I soon realized that while my cushion-making skills were well-suited to throw pillows, I needed something better to actually sit upon. So I went online to learn about upholstery and to find a local furniture-maker who could create a cushion to my specs. My cushion-maker did a great job; it wasn't her fault that a 4-by-3-by-3-foot pulpit turned out to be a bit more furniture than our townhouse living room could gracefully accommodate. When you go online to search for the craft or construction expertise that can take your project to a higher level of execution, don't forget to consult your expert on the wisdom of your undertaking.

Know Your Limits
I retired my Mac Performa at the beginning of the MP3 era, before the invention of the iPod and long before the advent of in-car MP3 players (at least, outside of a BMW showroom). No problem: I'd use the Performa to create my own in-car MP3 player by rack-mounting the computer in our trunk. I had an old first-generation Powerbook that could supply a screen for our dashboard, if I could just figure out how to connect the screen via cable to the computer in our trunk. I dismantled the Powerbook to have a look at the screen connection and went online to read up on Mac hardware components. I was able to figure out the model number of my particular screen and determined the necessary cable to convert the Powerbook screen into a free-standing monitor. I headed to my local computer parts shop to see if they had what I needed and explained my project to the salesperson who was looking for my cable. "Oh!" he responded enthusiastically. "Are you an electrical engineer?" At that moment, I realized how thoroughly my ambitions outpaced my skill level; the Powerbook was stripped for parts that I turned into a lantern. Don't let the availability of online information warp your expectations—sometimes a project requires expertise beyond what you find on eHow.

Whether you're a knitter or a seamstress, a carpenter or a stenciler, there are abundant online resources to take your crafting to the next level. And thanks to social media, you can access the best support of all—the enthusiastic encouragement of your fellow crafters.

Do you have some ideas about how to use the Web to find arts and crafts ideas? Share your thoughts below!

Alexandra Samuel, PhD, is the director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University and the principal of Social Signal, a social media agency that has launched more than 30 online communities. The mother of two young kids, Samuel blogs about how to make technology a meaningful part of your life, work and world. Follow her on Twitter @awsamuel.


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