Part of the attraction is the act of making something out of nothing: To crochet means to pick up mechanically and perfectly ordered skeins of yarn, unwind them, and remake them into something perfectly ordered in a completely different way. Watching this happen, and knowing it came from the work of my two hands, is the sort of thing that must be experienced to be understood.
Too, there's the neat and ordered way that a crochet project grows. Row by row, a design emerges: Not a miracle, not the product of some barely understood phenomenon, not an aberrance, but a deliberate growth.
Then there's what is, to me, the most important part: At the end, there is a useful product—an afghan, a scarf, a pair of mittens.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins (full disclosure: Henry's my boss) has explored what he sees as contradictory, or at least contrasting, assessments of the value systems that drive our society. We live in what he has termed a convergence culture. By "convergence," he explains,
I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who would go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they wanted. Convergence is a word that manages to describe technological, industrial, cultural, and social changes, depending on who's speaking and what they think they are talking about. In the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms. Right now, convergence culture is getting defined top-down by decisions being made in corporate boardrooms and bottom-up by decisions made in teenagers' bedrooms. It is shaped by the desires of media conglomerates to expand their empires across multiple platforms and by the desires of consumers to have the media they want where they want it, when they want it, and in the format they want....
Given this phenomenon, it makes sense that, as Jenkins argues,
consumers and producers often follow different dictates, not simply because of competing economic interests, but because they have different motives, make different judgments about value, and follow different social obligations; in other words, they operate within separate and parallel economic orders.
He describes these economic orders as "commodity culture" and "the gift economy." In a commodity culture, the emphasis is on the economic value of a good, service or idea. The values of commodity culture align with the value systems of a capitalist society in which products and ideas migrate across media platforms and can consequently be marketed and controlled by producers. The gift economy, however, places an emphasis on the social value of giving: of goods, of services, of time and energy. Borrowing from Lewis Hyde's 1983 book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Jenkins explains that in a gift economy,
[t]he circulation of goods is not simply symbolic of the social relations between participants; it helps to constitute them. Hyde identifies three core obligations which are shared among those who participate in a gift economy: "the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate." (p.xxi) Each of these acts help to break down boundaries between participants, reflecting a commitment to good relations and mutual welfare.
Jenkins takes up Hyde's notion of the difference between "value" and "worth," focusing on Hyde's argument that "a commodity has value... A gift has worth." Value, in this case, means the exchange rate of a good: Cash for the merchandise. Worth, on the other hand, is the extra-economic value of a good: Its emotional meaning to us.
What I like best about crocheting is that at the end, I have a product that has value within a gift economy. I can give an afghan to someone and I do delight in doing so; or, if a particular afghan has come to mean something special to me, I can keep it and stretch it across my bed. This is a case in which value and worth misalign. Typically, to make an afghan I'll buy about $50 worth of yarn, then I'll spend between 40 and 60 hours on the making. Even at minimum wage, that pushes the value of my afghan to somewhere over $350.
Even if I were to sell what I made, I certainly wouldn't sell it for $350. And I wouldn't want to, anyway. For me, a lot of the inherent worth of crocheting is that it results in gifts that have worth, both to me and to others, and are therefore worth giving.
But enough about me. Let's talk about convergence culture. The video below is Henry's keynote address to this year's Futures of Entertainment conference at MIT. It describes his take on commodity culture and the gift economy, and the struggle to reconcile the two. It's almost an hour long but completely worth the time. If you're interested in taking up crochet as a hobby, I've included a few interesting links below.
Free Crochet Patterns
These are the two sites I visit most frequently to find free patterns.
Crochet Pattern Central: A clearinghouse of free patterns available online, divided by type of project. An absolutely invaluable resource.
Lion Brand Pattern Finder: Another good resource for free patterns (though you need to create a free account before you can access pattern instructions)
Learn to Crochet at Lion Brand: Basic tutorial on various types of stitches and patterns.
Crochet Guild of America: Another set of tutorials, from some people who really mean it.