Like in many fields, hobbyist and professional crafters alike are growing increasingly conscious about the effect their artistic practices have on the environment.
Studios, artists and supply stores around Maine have found ways to reduce the environmental toll of their work — and, no matter what their discipline, crafters across the state can take simple steps to follow their lead.
Ellen Wieske, deputy director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, said that one of the most impactful moves in her studios has been to remove as many toxic materials as possible, from toxic acids used for etching in the metal studio to reducing the amount of toxin-heavy oil-based inks in the graphics studio.
“There are a lot of solvents that can be used in lieu of the toxic ones,” Wieske said. “Most folks are using water-based materials, things that don’t have to be neutralized.”
Wieske said to look for water-based as opposed to “solvent-based” materials, which often contain chemicals that are unsafe for the environment and human health.
Sustainability can go beyond just reading a package. Wieske said that her wood carvers have moved toward carving green wood — wood that has been recently cut and not yet seasoned — in order to remove the need for chemically dried wood. Fiber artists have shifted toward creating their own natural dyes instead of using synthetic chemical dyes.
“Doing the research and trying to find the zero- or least-toxic version” before purchasing is the best strategy, according to Chris Battaglia, marketing manager at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.
When it comes to the environment, knowing how to properly dispose of used materials is just as important as selecting them, Wieske said. For example, some dyes need to be neutralized, or brought to a safe pH level, and certain ceramic chemicals should be dried before they are disposed of.
“Look at what you’re using and make sure you do so in the most eco-friendly way you can,” Wieske said.
Using recycled or upcycled materials is another way that crafters can be more sustainable in their work. Chaya Caron, a jewelry maker in Portland, said that she transitioned to using recycled metals after reading about the effect of the gold mining industry on the environment.
Caron said that finding a community of like-minded jewelers and suppliers of recycled materials “took some digging,” but as “the demand for sustainability and ethical business practices has increased over the last decade,” so has the availability of such products and information about them.
Caron recommended speaking to other crafters about where they buy materials and build a community around sustainable crafting. Also, talk to fellow crafters about what they do to be more sustainable.
“Everybody I have met over the years has been very open and willing to help each other,” Caron said. “We all start at the beginning and we all need a little bit of a helping hand.”
Think about where materials are coming from, too. Shipping supplies long distances can be carbon-intensive, so buy local where you can.
“There’s an uptick in shipping and buying things online, which can be challenging to do in an ecofriendly way,” said Sadie Bliss, executive director of the Maine Crafts Association. “You can buy from as close to the source as possible rather than order stuff online depending on how far you have to drive.”
Packaging is another issue in art supplies, though it can often be unavoidable for fragile materials. Wieske suggested buying in bulk when you can to reduce packaging.
Or, consider not purchasing new materials at all. Bliss said that the Maine Crafts Association hosts seconds and supplies sales where artists can purchase used materials and supplies. You can also upcycle what you have from the world around you.
Classes at Haystack School of Crafts will make trips to the dump to get supplies, said Wieske who has even harvested materials from the dining halls to use for papermaking. She also recommended asking local businesses for relevant scraps — coffee grounds from the coffee shop to dye fabric, for example, or rubber scraps from the bike shop to make sculptures.
You don’t have to go to the dump or the compost pile, though — just save scraps of your own material for later.
“Quilting is a great way to use up fabric scraps,” said Abby Gilchrist, owner of Fiddlehead Artisan Supply in Belfast. “That’s probably the most eco-friendly thing to do is to repurpose.”
Consider upcycled alternatives for even simple tools, like plastic cups to mix paints.
“Everybody who works here brings in their yogurt containers and other plastic packaging and we give that to the students to use,” Wieske said.
Researching specific materials and supply chains and connecting with like-minded crafters are important steps to crafting more sustainably. However, as with art itself, finding ways to craft more sustainably is just as much about thinking creatively.