Natural Life Magazine

Crafting for a Greener World
by Robyn Coburn

Craft Kits: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I love the section of the craft store where the kits are displayed – so luscious, so neat, the pictures of the finished products so polished. I tend to fall in love with one item within a kit of supplies, one charm amongst the set, one design on the tablet of fancy papers. Sometimes, further scrutiny reveals lots of packaging used to make an alluring display of relatively few crafting ingredients or materials of dubious quality.

I think it’s important to be as mindful of green issues when we are considering crafting kits as we are with any of our purchases. Commercial crafting kits have pros and cons. As with so many other things, we can DIY craft kits too.

Here are some of the pros:

Good kits provide for learning new skills, with well-illustrated instructions that allow self pacing and broader applications. Sometimes a kit will come with an inspiring ideas book.

Kits can be a less expensive way to try out a new hobby, since they often contain a “starter version” of the tools required. For example, a small hand loom can be an introduction to weaving.

Good kits are a self-contained, coordinated collection of cool items for at least one whole project, with nothing missing. I received a silk kit which includes a couple of different dyes, a resist and a scarf mailed in a single bag. It’s a good trial of this particular brand of dye and has a useful end product. Plus, the little bottles are reusable.

Another sometimes-overlooked positive about some kits is the opportunity to support an artisan. Many individual crafters, such as doll makers, fiber artists or paper crafters and card makers, make the greater part of their living selling kits and patterns based on their designs. These are not usually factory-packaged; instead, each element passes through the hands of the original designer, the results of their own creativity and studio work. Downloadable print-at-home patterns or image sheets have no packaging at all. These are a chance to share the vision of an artist.

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On the other hand, some commercial crafting kits have negatives worth examining. Here are some of my criteria when considering purchasing:

Are the kits limited to a narrow single finished product, rather than serving as an introduction or ideas springboard? Is the packaging excessive or reasonable? Can the container be reused? Is the kit cohesive or merely a collection of supplies that could easily be purchased separately with less packaging and less expense? We pay for convenience with the wastefulness of clamshell bubbles and too much cardboard.

Are the tools reusable and sturdy or limited or flimsy? Are refills available for the tool or must one buy the whole kaboodle again? For example, I’m sure everyone has seen woven pot holders. We were given a potholder kit with a square loom that uses colored elastic bands. The pins on this particular loom have a sloping profile and a frustratingly slippery surface, both of which prevent it from being useful for any other kind of weaving or any other material than the enclosed elastic bands. Nor did the kit include everything needed, requiring me to supply my own crochet hook. The bands must be an exact non-standard size, with refills hard-to-impossible to find. At least pot holders are useful, although the final product from this is a bit small.

That potholder kit is a poorly designed example of the genre. My sad plastic square with the sharp points will eventually find a home in some piece of mixed media art. There exist better, more traditional yarn pot holder kits. Round or bar looms can be adapted to making many different objects and garments, in different materials.

Many kits, especially for children’s crafts, are nothing more than over- guided busywork for creating numerous identical disposable items. I see them in catalogs, biliously colored cut shapes available in sets of fifty or one hundred. It may be useful in a classroom situation to have something relatively simple available to occupy thirty youngsters with something they can show at the end. But I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that these cheap plastic doodads are both promoting a silly consumerism and devaluing craftsmanship without facilitating individual creativity.

As unschoolers, we have the luxury of not needing busywork. Jayn has rarely been interested enough in random instructional kits to want to complete them, instead mining them for source materials for other personally meaningful creative projects. (She made off with most of the elastic bands from the potholder kit almost at once.)

Make a Craft Kit as a Gift

Craft Kit Project

Download instructions and templates for making a village from recycled cardboard cereal boxes.

First, don’t waste the kit on people who have no interest in crafting. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are people who really don’t want to craft! Far from inspiring them, your kit will sit as a dust collecting, possibly irritating, guilt inducing reminder that they don’t like making stuff. If you are lucky they will re-gift the kit to their cousin in another town, but there is a good chance that after a time your precious materials will end up in the recycling bin or thrift store.

Identify the recipient’s area of interest. Home décor, cooking, robots, cars, dolls, jewelry, trains, animals, birds, literature, travel…. I made kits for some of Jayn’s doll playing friends. I sewed the one-size-fits-many tie waist circular skirts from prewashed white poplin. I used a reusable gallon resealable bag to contain the skirt, a selection of markers, a couple of glitter glues (these dry much faster than fabric paints or regular fabric glues) and embellishments: some buttons, flat beads, sequins, felt shapes and short lengths of lace or trim.

Write your instructions, if any are needed, before you purchase or gather materials. Consider what might be bought in bulk or made from recycled materials. Other places than art/craft supply stores for raw materials include: thrift stores (especially for old jewelry), your garden or the garden store, surplus outlets, medical supply places, hardware stores and office supply stores. We have a friend who has an acrylics factory. He is happy to donate small shaped off-cuts. When a local interior decorating store closed, their dumpster was full of perfectly clean wallpaper sample books and piles of ceramic tile samples.

Combine everything in a reusable container. This could be a fabric tote (maybe the kit involves decorating the bag), a cigar box, a shoe box covered with paper or fabric, a “blank” box waiting to become a decorated treasure chest, recycled cardboard such as a painted- over cereal box, a divided food container like a hummus or fruit tray, a kitchen container of some kind (great for recipe type kits) or a recycled jar.

Some kits may not need much packaging. A bunch of different colored duct tape spools and a new X-Acto knife, tied with a ribbon, is a grand gift for someone who likes making duct tape stuff.

You can buy a beautiful crafting book or one of the glossy, high-end “keeper” magazines and put together the materials to make one of the projects. You may end up doing some crafting yourself in the course of putting together the kit. For example, little plump bird silhouettes are popular these days. A selection of bird-shaped stencil templates made from cardstock, some handmade papers, some fabrics and a couple of stamps carved from erasers or Styrofoam containers, along with some ink pads, could allow a person to make bird mobiles, a covered journal, bird images on a t-shirt, little stuffed birds of felt, flags, greeting cards....

For an art journal kit, combine a very simple blank sketchbook with pretty paper, a container of decoupage medium and a brush, a metallic paint pen and a page of translucent address labels printed with meaningful words in pretty fonts. Old buttons with the shanks removed make good flat decorative ephemera.

Someone who likes Artist Trading Cards (ATCs) could enjoy receiving a pile of different blanks already cut to size. A knitter might appreciate some balls of dyed “t-yarn” from old t-shirts.

A holiday decorating kit could include the ingredients for dough, food coloring, cardboard stencils, several appropriately shaped cookie cutters, a couple of straws (to make holes) and narrow ribbon spools.

Younger children might like a pile of thin cardboard recycled from cereal or similar boxes with shapes already drawn on them to cut out and then paint: either 2-D shapes for mobiles and such, or the templates for 3-D shapes to cut and fold into a miniature city, cars, spaceships or doll furniture.

With a little thought, we can all make charming kits tailored to our friends’ interests, for creating personal keepsakes filled with love. What fun!

Learn More

After a long career designing for theater and independent films, Robyn Coburn finds her joy as an unschooling mother who also writes and crafts. She has been a confirmed greenie since working for Greenpeace during her college years in Australia. Robyn is currently working on two crafty books, a fairy tale screenplay and a TV series about doll making and collecting. A past speaker and funshop presenter at Live and Learn Unschooling conferences, she contributes regularly to unschooling e-lists. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband James and ever inspiring daughter Jayn. Contact her by email or visit her website to view her work.


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