Marilyn Zapf is a writer and curator interested in craft and (de)/industrialization. Zapf is the assistant director at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design, a founding member of the international experimental history of design collective, Fig. 9, and holds an MA in the history of design from the Royal College of Art.
A common complaint of the craftsperson is that the general public will not pay for quality, handmade goods because consumers lack the understanding and therefore appreciation of the time, skill, training, and creativity that go into professional craft. If that is true, then perhaps the overwhelming popularity of the Rainbow Loom offers a glimmer of hope for a new generation of craft-educated consumers. In production since 2010, the kit provides all the tools and materials users eight years old and up need to make things out of shiny, plastic rubber bands in a garish, gender-neutral color spectrum. Children, both girls and boys, are creatively and passionately making and wearing jewelry produced on the loom. This lays a foundation for a bright, consumer-educated future for the field, right?
The success of the Rainbow Loom seems integrally tied to the product’s accessibility. Designed in the format of a kit, the loom offers the promise that anyone can make jewelry so long as he or she can follow directions. The kit combines tools, materials, and instructions all in one portable box, thus allowing the craft to be done anywhere, at any time. Even literacy does not pose a barrier, as the Rainbow Loom has infinite instructional YouTube videos posted by so-called “Loominaries,” young makers defined by their ability to create and share new patterns and designs online.
The kit format links the Rainbow Loom into a much longer history of Do-It-Yourself, updating the how-to book to a contemporary, online format. Since the rise of DIY in the 1950s, kits have worked to democratize skill through the organization and classification of tacit knowledge into digestible formats, making craft know-how available to the masses. But what is the effect of the opening up of skill on the craft field? Can we expect the Rainbow Loom to re-educate consumers about the skill that goes into a piece of art jewelry, or will the popularity of the plastic, rainbow-colored toy undermine the professional crafts?
Indeed, while arguably craft kits teach children hand skills through defined projects, they ultimately operate within the free-market economy. The key to a product’s financial success, then, depends on designers drastically simplifying skill so every consumer can feel a sense of achievement. Teaching children problem-solving, familiarity with tools, material properties, the joy of work, or other applicable craft-based knowledge is a bonus feature or marketing angle at best.
Perhaps rather than making craft more accessible, the kits end up oversimplifying tacit knowledge, sending the message that anyone who can follow the instructions can be a jeweler, weaver, potter, or woodworker. The dumbing-down of skill into a highly constructed, easy-to-follow product experience diminishes the cultural and economic value of the handmade. By shifting craftwork into the realm of craft pretend, the Rainbow Loom and its cohort of third-grade consumers may be destabilizing the fine-craft market one plastic bracelet at a time.