Today’s interview is with Danielle Henderson, crafter/writer/student/teacher extraordinaire who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin. I first came across Danielle’s work almost a decade ago when she was living in Alaska and documenting her life and creative projects on her TypePad blog, Knotty Yarn. I was immediately taken with her hilarious writing, modern crafting and no-BS approach to life. Although she has since moved, married and retired her blog, she has continued being a total do-it-all rockstar. In addition to pursuing a master’s degree in feminist phenomenology and intersectional theory (!!), Danielle makes time for knitting, sewing and writing articles for Rookie and New York Magazine. She also happens to be the author of the autobiographical Tales from Fish Camp: A City Girl’s Experience Working in an Alaskan Fishing Village and the wildly successful Feminist Ryan Gosling. We’re so psyched that Danielle was able to take some time from her whirlwind life to answer a few questions about being a crafter. — Max
Above image: Two of Danielle’s books, Tales from Fish Camp: A City Girl’s Experience Working in an Alaskan Fishing Village and Feminist Ryan Gosling.
Why do you knit/craft? How did you learn?
Even though I started crafting when I was really young (five or six), I think it stemmed from my elderly need to be under a blanket at all times. I used to haaaaate going outside to play; I grew up in the ’80s when it was totally normal for your parents to be like, “Go outside and play until the streetlights come on!” I figured out a way to stay indoors and still be out of the way through crafting and reading. I’m sure most people who answer this are like, “I was born with a need to make things with my hands,” but I was just a nerd who was sick of playing kickball. I used to make outfits for my Barbie dolls out of the foil wrappers from candy bars. My grandmother taught me how to crochet when I was seven and how to handsew when I was eight. She used to make blankets; even though I started out by making the World’s Longest Chain, as soon as I realized you could get better and make BIG things, I just wanted to keep learning. I taught myself how to knit from a library book when I was 20, mostly because I am a miser — why would I pay $35 for a scarf I can make for $10? Being poor is a great creative motivator.
What are your can’t-live-without craft-room essentials?
I cannot live without a giant table because I like to have multiple projects happening at the same time. My current table used to be our dining room table; when we moved to Wisconsin (and to a much smaller apartment), I decided to put it in the office. My husband found it at the end of a driveway in Rhode Island with a “free” sign on it and scooped it up. I’m really tall (6’0″) and starting to rock a dowager hump from spending so much of my life trying to hide the fact that I’m really tall, so a good, comfortable chair is crucial. I like a sharp pair of all-purpose scissors. Also, I do not know how I lived for so long without a staple gun.
Above image: Beadwork can be tedious but fun. I helped to make those glass beads when I worked the furnace for a glassblower a few years ago. They are really special to me, since my husband and I both worked there when we were first dating.
How would you describe your style? Are there any crafters/artists/designers that you particularly look up to?
BUSY. Very busy. I think I lean towards classic with a twist of the absurd, so I like any designer who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. I’m actually really bothered by this recent turn towards perfection in design/craft. I overheard someone in a craft store recently say that she didn’t know how to sew but was saving up for a $1300 machine so that she could make the perfect projects when she learned. What in the what? Just buy the $100 machine and learn how to sew, figure out what you like. Stop trying to curate and just develop your own aesthetic. My sewing machine is over 20 years old — I still use the Sears machine I got for my 12th birthday (as evidenced by the Doug “You can do it!” cartoon sticker that is still on it) — it does six stitches; most of those stitches are a variation of a straight line. I like creators who don’t make you feel like you need a fully stocked studio to even start exploring a craft. Ysolda Teague is a knitwear designer who combines classic with whimsical in a great way. In a former life, I studied fashion design, and I still look to that world for cues on color and fit, even though no names are springing to mind right now.
What do you do to make your workspace an enriching and inspiring place to be?
I’m lucky to have a separate space in my home to craft, but no matter where I’m working, I like to have my materials out and surrounding me. I want that pile of fabric RIGHT THERE next to me, or that pile of yarn in an open basket. I’m not a fan of putting things away in closets, even though I have to do that to a degree now based on the space we’re living in. Ideally, I’d have a shelving system with some clear buckets or something. I’m definitely inspired by seeing my materials. I also like to make sure I have music, usually through my laptop, and things that other friends have created for me in view. Since my space doubles as an office, I keep books and patterns out, too. I also keep two photos on my desk — a picture of my grandmother from her debutante days, and a picture of Bill Murray cutting the bike chain in the movie Rushmore. It’s helpful for me to keep things around that make me smile.
What sorts of things are inspiring you right now? Where do you look for inspiration?
This has always seemed like a strange question to me because if you’re a creative person aren’t you just always open to and inspired by everything in your life? Maybe that’s weird. I’m like downed electrical wire in that way, always jumping around to something that catches my eye or makes me think a little deeply about how I want my life to take shape. I like things that make me laugh. When I first saw rapper Rick Ross and his giant pendant made of jewels in the shape of his own face, I never laughed harder in my whole life. It was absurd and so wonderful! I re-created it immediately with some sequins, a glue gun and a piece of Bristol board, except I made it look like my husband. I’m inspired by people who aren’t afraid to be preposterous. Wisconsin is pretty bleak at this time of year, and I’m rarely inspired by the outdoors (again, I am a shut-in at heart). The most inspiring things are the things that make me think deeply. I was really inspired by car engines for a while, for example, because I just do not understand how all of those parts result in movement, so I took apart a carburetor a decade ago and tried to put it back together. I made a lot of gray things during that time. I’m inspired by people who are transparent about their creative process — there are a bunch of comic book artists and graphic novelists who post their sketchbooks online, and I like to see that, see how an idea makes it to the page from someone’s brain.
When do you feel the most creative?
Usually when I have massive projects due. I always want to escape through crafting. I’ll complain about a paper I have due, and then spend five hours knitting and watching a marathon TV show on Netflix. It may seem like I’m avoiding my work, but I’m actually thinking about what I’m going to write most of that time. I’m most creative when it can be a sort of distraction, or a gateway to completing another project.
With graduate school, teaching, multiple writing gigs and crafting, you’ve got a lot on your plate. What do you do to keep yourself, your space and your time organized?
I start every day with a good hour of heavy sobbing. Kidding! I’m kidding. I’m actually incredibly well organized, and my life would be a shambles if I didn’t dedicate time to reviewing and revising my schedule on a regular basis. During the school year, I allow myself one to three hours online per day, total — an hour to check email, and one to two hours for everything else. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for aimless clicking about on the Internet, but I just decided that I’d rather spend that time doing other things. My day is structured — with so much going on, I can rarely wing it — but I give myself built-in downtime. I am a consummate list maker; I have a to-do app that syncs with my phone and computer that I update and prioritize daily, and I carry a notebook. I try to be done with my day at 7pm so that I can always spend time with my husband, Seth. I’m not willing to let my relationships suffer just because I’ve taken on so much work. I’m also really neat — I have a couple of organized piles, but for the most part, everything gets put away when I use it. I keep my spaces free of clutter, and I always hang up my clothes and do my laundry. I wouldn’t get anything done if I lived in chaos.
How to you combat creative blocks?
You just have to roll with it and not pressure yourself to produce. I rarely experience total creative blocks because I like to do so many different types of things. If I’m not really feeling a knitting project, I’ll just sew something or break out the watercolors or start beading or work on some crochet squares for that blanket I’m making. It helps to have your hands in different things, literally and figuratively. Also, I feel like we need to take it a little easier on ourselves with regards to creative blocks. Maybe you need that time to chill out. Sit on the couch and watch 4,000 episodes of House Hunters once in a while — your creative world will not end if you decide to be a little dormant sometimes.
We live in such a mass-produced, buy-it-now society where everything is either a click or a short drive away. Why should people continue to make things by hand?
Crafting facilitates comfort. When you make something by hand, you’re forced to slow down — to learn the craft, to find inspiration or to take it to another level. It also helps maintain some level of individuality; there is nothing appealing about the cookie-cutter life to me, and I love being able to create things to look how I’d like, in the colors that I like, knowing that no one else may look the same. Making things by hand is also an easy way to feel like an invincible LEGEND — like, I thought of this dress, I made it and now I’m wearing it? Move out of the way, daVinci.