With so many aspects of our lives having moved from the tangible to the digital, it seems like crafting is a relic of the past. Many a scrapbook is collecting dust on basement shelves as we post our photos on Instagram. Target and Home Goods, meanwhile, provide us with vintage-looking quilts and knitted throws, minus the labor.
Some would argue that, in this transition, we haven’t lost all that much. Those cutesy scrapbook pages and felted sewing projects were hardly artisan material. The massive digitalization of our era, coupled with the ease of factory-produced goods, have left our homes with more room to breathe and less “stuff” gathering in corners and garages.
But maybe we’ve lost something, too. In many ways, that’s the argument behind NBC’s “Making It,” a fun and glittery show modeled after the BBC’s beloved (and irreplaceable) “Great British Baking Show.” Hosted by actors Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman (of Parks and Recreation fame), the show follows a team of “makers” through a series of challenges, slowly narrowing down the competition until one is awarded $100,000 and the title of “Master Maker.”
Offerman is himself a talented craftsman: he grew up on a farm in Illinois where his father taught him woodworking, and he owns a wood shop in Los Angeles. Offerman’s admiration of Wendell Berry and old-world furniture joinery suggests that he cares less about kitschy craft projects than he does about old-fashioned “craeft,” the sorts of skills that require true artisanship and virtuosity.
But this isn’t what “Making It” is about. There’s a reason the show refers to its contestants as “makers” and not “craftsmen”: while it offers some lovely creations, it’s less about artisanship than fun expression. That’s fine, to some extent, but it did lead to some cringeworthy moments in the show’s first episode—like when an interior designer’s paper-and-glue-gun creation beats out a woodworker’s intricate Japanese-style quilt motif. Time will reveal whether, as the competition heats up, the judges lean more towards craftsmanship or Etsy-inspired arts and crafts.
Craftsmanship, historically defined, refers to a degree of power and excellence on the part of the creator. In learning a trade such as woodworking or baking, a craftsman did not just gain mastery over his respective medium; he gained a degree of mastery over his own life. The craftsman who can build a table, sew a quilt, or make a loaf of bread no longer relies on the market to do those things for them—and thus transcends the oft-enslaving nature of our consumptive society.
But the contestants on “Making It” are not interested in this sort of craftsmanship. For them, stencils and glue guns provide opportunity for creative expression. This is craft in the modern era: we no longer need it to survive—and so it has become a rather bourgeois pleasure, one that offers its aficionados tactile therapy and enjoyment.
While that may be a limitation of craft historically understood, it is not necessarily a bad thing. One contestant on the show’s first episode admits that his parents disowned him after learning he was gay and he has no ties to his family. For him, the episode’s final competition—which requires the makers to create art reminiscent of family heirlooms—is painful and emotional. Despite that, he manages to create a lovely paper quilt from his experience. This may not be what historical craft was about, but it is still good.
Perhaps just as importantly, the show lauds and celebrates a return to the tactile and present over the digital and disconnected. At one point, Offerman notes, “Using tools, knowing how to make stuff with your hands, involves a part of your brain that so many of us have lost. My dad taught me to carry a handkerchief, and I’m 47, and I still think about him every time. It makes me mind my manners.”
The tactile ties us to the past and the present. It offers us the opportunity to share our bounty in good times, and gives us something to hold onto when grief or adversity hit. “Making It” reminds us why we used to do things like scrapbooking or quilting: not because the finished project was always stellar, but because it offered comfort to our souls, minds, and bodies.
“Society has changed,” says contestant Jemma Olson. “People spend too much time on their phones. Why not take all that energy and put it into real, live memories?”
If I’m honest, I’d rather watch a Nick Offerman-hosted show on woodworking—perhaps something in the “This Old House” vein—than “Making It.” The kitschy cuteness of the show’s projects just aren’t interesting or exciting enough (at least thus far) to warrant further viewing.
That said, the show’s friendly, laid-back vibe makes it enjoyable and relaxing, especially in contrast to the more cutthroat nature of most television competitions. We will never get another “Great British Baking Show,” but this one offers similar pleasures. And for a lot of Americans who are sick and tired of digital debates and television pundits, that just might be enough. If it inspires even a few of us to get off our phones and pull one of those dusty photo albums out of the basement, “Making It” will have succeeded.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.