Crafter Interview: Danielle Henderson

by Maxwell Tielman

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: Tools of various trades — my grandmother’s pinking shears and crochet hooks, thread, patterns and one of the 300 measuring tapes you can find stashed all around my house.

Above image: I keep all of my yarn remnants and turn them into crocheted blankets; every blanket has a little piece of another project built in.

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.

Above image: I organize my beads by color and size to save time.

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.

Above image: My 23-year-old sewing machine still gets the job done, Doug stickers and all.

Above image: Keeping my fabric on display takes the guesswork out of what’s in my stash.

Above image: Sewing a skirt.

Above image: Making my own clothes removes the stress of shopping for the right size.

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.

Above image: I like to cross-stitch rap lyrics and movie quotes, almost exclusively.

Above image: After two decades of embroidery, I finally figured out French knots last year. I’m obsessed with practicing whenever I can and turning them into tiny works of art.

Above image: How did I ever live without a staple gun? It comes in handy almost every day.

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.

Above image: I make and wear crocheted earrings; they are light and instantly add giant pops of color.

Above image: Sweaters and scarves are my favorite things to knit.

Above image: Let’s get weird — my husband’s sequined face, inspired by Rick Ross.

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  • More, more, more. I love this interview. Grace, you mentioned this in one of your podcasts: we need to see the diversity in the creator/maker space. Thank you for this and other features like this.

  • LOVE this interview; she cracks me up! And does really neat work.
    I also love this series – I find myself identifying so much with all the crafters. Keep it going! (please!)

  • nice interview. awesome and cool lady!
    made me giggle and i like the ideas about creativity sometimes being “dormant.” i think it good to take a less-pressure approach to creative “blocks.” it ebbs and flows and sometimes the ebbing part is uncomfortable, but that’s okay.
    p.s. what is it about those french knots? so intriguing for such little things. pretty piece, there.

  • Wow–Danielle rocks! Her work ethic, creativity, and passion are amazing! Great interview

  • I really appreciate Danielle’s honest, down-to-earth answers and her overall approach to crafting and the creative process. Makes me wanna make stuff ;)
    Probably my favourite interview on ds ever. Bravo.

  • So surprised (in the best way) to see Danielle Henderson’s face on D*S. I just listened to an interview with her on Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week podcast. She’s so funny, honest, and great!

  • Love that you covered someone other than a cute, crafty, white woman! Of course you have featured lots of talented women and men on this blog – this interview and this series just adds to that inspiration in a deeper way. Now I’m about to go out and make myself a sequined face…Thank you!

  • Danielle is my good friend, and over the years she’s made me a gorgeous scarf, a needlepoint pillow, and a felted brooch, among other things. They are among my most prized possessions, which sounds super old ladyish but is 100% true!

  • She is one funny lady. I loved the interview and appreciate her points on taking ourselves a little less seriously and focusing less on being perfect. Thank you!

    I’m now off to make my own image in sequins.

  • Oh my gosh…she’s crafty, writes for Rookie, and is behind Feminist Ryan Gosling? Can I be best friends with her already?

  • Her attitude is incredibly inspiring; you don’t have to spend a fortune to make amazing pieces, just use your imagination and experiment! Love that she started knitting to not be told to go outside! Hehe. Will have to remember that one!

  • I LOVED this interview. Echoing what other commentors have said, Danielle seems so relatable as a crafter! I especially love the cross-stich rap lyrics. I’ve definitely been inspired by rap in some of my endeavors inside and outside of craftwork.
    Gotta say, it is also nice to see the face of a fellow WOC crafter. Thank you, d*s!

  • As a Madisonian , I love hearing of such talented entertaining people. Danielle is a part of what makes this city fine place to live.

  • This girl rocks, thank you! Here’s a request—can we get a tutorial for her crocheted blankets? I’d love to make one, what a perfect way to use extra yarn!

  • Danielle RULES. I miss KnottyYarn. She was once sweet enough to respond to some questions I had about going to Grad School for Gender Studies. She’s on my list of top 10 fav people ever :)

  • I’ve had the good fortune of being on the receiving end of many Danielle Henderson originals and am perpetually impressed. Everything the girl does is a true reflection of its maker; clever, well-crafted, beautiful, and striped with humor. (And love. And generosity.) I love that one of my favorite websites is featuring one of my favorite faces!

  • Just chiming in with the other comments about the joy of seeing diversity in the craft world. Moar, please. Danielle and I rock the same hair do!

  • This interview pretty much made my day. I also flit around like a hummingbird with my projects, and it’s great to have that validated as a creative act. Thank you!

  • D*S, this is so rad! Thanks for this interview with a very cool lady!

    I wanna be your friend too Danielle, and I even live in Madison!

    As a very busy person myself, I found it really helpful to hear about how you find time for things. Sometimes it’s tempting to let the fun stuff fall through the cracks, but (in my case anyway) being creative and joyful is like fuel to get through the “have-to” stuff.

  • It’s people like Danielle who inspire me. Love her outlook on life. Love her sense of humour. Love her creativity. Thank you for sharing this interview!!!

  • Danielle, you are absolutely inspiring! I live in Madison and hope I run into you in the aisle of a craft store one day. I will say hello and thank you for inspiring me. Craft on!

  • I truly LOVED this interview. Danielle you are awesome! I adore people who don’t take themselves too seriously, but are still ambitious, creative, and get things done. And I can’t stop laughing about the daVinci comment, it’s great!
    How and where can we find your work Danielle?

  • You are now one of my lady heroes! Gorgeous, self-assured and self-posessed, quirky, and smart! What a a combo.

  • Great interview! Definitely packed with inspiration and insight. I would love to watch a TED talk by Danielle… and perhaps do a “stitch and b!tch” potluck gathering. Keep on crafting!

  • Great interview! I love Danielle! I heard her on Julie Klausner’s podcast “how was your week?”

  • Let me chime in on all the love…boy howdy! She is smart, funny, nice, creative, beautiful, and and and… Great feature.

  • Great feature! Danielle is so fantastic. She was brilliant on How Was Your Week too. Hooray for amazing, hilarious, creative ladies!