Last spring, I walked into a needlepointing shop in my neighborhood and asked how long it would take to turn my newly finished canvas into a belt. The woman behind the counter laughed apologetically. “There’s a bit of a wait,” she said. “Ever since COVID, we’ve been swamped.”
Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had picked up a craft in the last few years. Engaging in pioneer-style activities such as knitting, needlepointing, and sewing during the early days of the pandemic was almost as cliché as learning to bake bread. But unlike the sourdough starters, the crafts seem to have stuck around.
The fashion stylist and writer Michelle Li is one such craft convert. In the interest of staving off the temptation to scroll on her phone, she decided to pick up knitting—an activity that blissfully occupies both hands at all times. “I love being able to just really dive into something for hours,” she says. “There have been many nights where I’ll sit out on my couch and turn on a podcast and knit.” Li’s creations range from rainbow-striped scarves to bubblegum pink balaclavas, a testament to how crafts like knitting that were once seen as “old lady” activities are now experiencing a renaissance among younger people—and adapting to their tastes in kind.
Some millennials and Gen Z-ers are even using crafting as a medium for socializing. “I think the craft night is the dinner party 2.0,” the writer and brand marketer Megan O’Sullivan tells me. For the last one she hosted, O’Sullivan covered a table in kraft paper and bought boxes of crayons, markers, and pipe cleaners for her friends to play with.
A deepening appreciation for the process of making things, slowly and by hand, has extended into O’Sullivan’s shopping habits as well. “It’s weird to think about, but I can’t remember the last time I walked into a true commercial store and bought something full price,” O’Sullivan says.
Instead, she tends to shop from small businesses and makers, a shift she attributes to the desire to own more unique items that are special and hard to replicate, and the access Instagram readily provides to them. The challenge of hunting for things in unexpected corners of the Internet is part of the thrill: “Anyone can spend a lot of money on something that looks good. It takes a lot more time and research to find something special that has a story behind it.”
I’ve experienced a similar trajectory. While I once defaulted to shopping at large commercial stores (online or off-), I now prefer secondhand retailers, like The RealReal and Etsy, or buying directly from the handful of small brands I’ve discovered on Instagram that make things in limited or one-of-a-kind quantities. It’s a choice I can feel better about from a sustainability perspective, and, at the same time, it results in a more interesting wardrobe—one that feels particular to me as an individual.
It’s no coincidence that a new class of handcraft-driven brands has emerged alongside this growing consumer desire. Many of them, like By Liv Handmade—a 100 percent zero-waste sustainable-clothing line run by Liv Reinertson—gained traction during the pandemic, and have successfully sustained it since.
For Reinertson, what started as a goal-driven hobby (creating clothes that were appropriate to wear to her job as a pre-school teacher but still allowed for self-expression within a limited budget) is now a business with its own brick-and-mortar location, in Williamsburg. Her pieces have been worn by the model Adwoa Aboah and the actress Diana Silvers, and she uses her Instagram account—which currently has more than 16,000 followers—to connect with her customer base.
When she first started making billowy, peasant-style dresses using $5 top sheets from her local Salvation Army, Reinertson had no intention of entering the official “world of fashion,” an industry notorious for textile waste and other environmentally unfriendly practices. But the opportunity to carve out a different kind of space in it, where handwork and sustainability are not an afterthought but rather the main event, has become more available in recent years.
Many other small brands that have developed cult followings of late —Dauphinette, Bode, Éliou, Don’t Let Disco, Juliet Johnstone, Tessa Fay, Farewell Frances, and La Réunion, to name a few—are also centered around the concept of making things slowly and by hand, pushing back against the conflation of ubiquity with success.
Mikaela Clark, the artist behind Hansel, a hand-painted-and-upcycled-clothing studio, cited the relaxation of dress codes that has occurred over the last few years—a side effect of work-from-home culture—as another factor contributing to the rise in craft-girl style: “There’s much less societal pressure to conform to a nine-to-five wardrobe, so people are free to wear their favorite funky pants and wacky shirts without feeling self-conscious about it. The stakes are lower, in a really fun way.”
Hansel started out as just a hobby, with Clark using a flattened Keurig box and the hardwood floor of her apartment as an easel for her hand-painted designs. Now it’s sold in retailers and worn on HBO Max’s Gossip Girl. “There’s something really special about knowing how something you’re buying is made, and who made it,” Clark says, reflecting on the organic growth of her business.
“I think that’s what appeals to people. It makes them feel like they’re a part of the journey.”
Harling Ross Anton is a writer and brand consultant based in New York City. She mostly writes about style, with the occasional detour into breakfast cereal, home decor, or existential crises