Craft Wars

“Crafting” is a broad term. It encompasses needle arts, fabric manipulation, woodworking, sticking paper together, and any number of random ways of combining plastic, foam, paint, and glitter. For the purposes of TLC’s new reality competition series Craft Wars, the definition of craft encompasses 

  1. upcycling, the repurposing existing materials into something useful, and 
  2. the inventory of a craft store. 

Yes, crafting is whatever you can make with stuff from a craft store!  It’s the Shangri-La of the retail industry: an entire lifestyle perfectly bounded by the contents of a suburban big-box destination.

And if you think the word “craft” is overused in that first paragraph, you are really going to enjoy how many times host Tori Spelling says it. The contestants are crafters, the judges are craftistas, and every conversation is peppered with surprisingly definitive statements of what crafting is and is not. Crafting is about detail. Crafting is about recreating materials in a new way. Crafting is about style.

There’s a conceptual problem here that does not plague cooking and fashion competitions. Those activities can be hobbies, but they can also be careers that someone will hire and pay you for. Crafting… not so much. At least one of the première episode’s three contestants makes a living from her craftiness, but the show is vague about how this happens. (My guess: Mod Podge + Etsy + Google AdSense.) Yes, one can find folks on the Internet who’ve managed to parlay their popular sewing blog into the chance to work from home, but that doesn’t make crafting into an occupation conducive to televised challenges and countdown clocks.

The format is closer to Rocco’s Dinner Party than Project Runway. Three competitors execute a Pop Craft, explained by Spelling as a popular craft project, in one hour. One is eliminated, and the remaining two go head to head in the Master Craft round, where they have five hours to design and create a large project. Each competitor brings an assistant (in this episode, these were one dad and two husbands), who is supplemented by four more show employees for the Master Craft. And therein lies another problem: To do anything that will read on television in the brief amounts of time typically allowed on these shows, the crafters need lots more hands than God gave them. In the Master Craft round, they become more like team leaders than makers; their role is to direct the folks who are actually executing their concepts. Part of the appeal of reality competitions like Top Chef or Project Runway is that the competitor has to have all the basic execution skills necessary to make their vision a reality.

The Master Craft for this première, for example, is a kids’ playhouse incorporating school supplies in the construction. While the women competitors glue and decoupage and cut fabric, their male assistants head off to the woodworking shop to, y’know, build the thing. The competitors turn out to be in charge of decorating, not making. At the end of the hour we know that they can think up cute ideas (the show’s highest accolade, repeated over and over again, is “so cute!”), sew stuff together (but not necessary with a straight seam) and yes, wield the show’s iconic glue gun (or Mod Podge roller), but that’s not the bulk of what gets made.

Craft Wars does its best to put together a judging panel with some verve. But again, the vague and vast outlines of “crafting” make the whole idea of experts slightly suspect. Erica Domesek of P.S. I Made This represents the new hip domesticity, Jo Pearson of Michaels comes from the old school of in-store classes and free pattern leaflets, and Stephen Brown of Glitterville Studios seems to be there to take jabs at Erica. Presented with the crafters’ Pop Craft projects—duffel bags made out of sporting equipment— they pounce on construction flaws like unfinished sewing and hot-gluing’s lack of durability. But these are only the most obvious problems, already pointed out to us with dramatic camerawork and Spelling’s helpful mentor visits during their work time. Unlike the judging panels of chefs and designers who can help the viewer understand why a particular choice was a good idea or a bad one, and what the competitor ought to have known better than to do, these folks end up making subjective aesthetic judgements (“so cute!”) rather than applying their experience to educate their audience.

In the final analysis, the almost unlimited scope of crafting is the show’s biggest challenge. One might think it allows for endlessly varied challenges, and enables a diverse array of contestants to show their stuff. But just look at that vital element of the reality competition show: the fantasy shopping spree. Top Chef has its massive pantry and high-tech kitchen. Project Runway has Mood Fabrics. Craft Wars has the Michaels wall, which looks really impressive in the beauty shots, but turns out to be far more limited than the Michaels stores that are a couple of freeway interchanges away from your TV. Christy from Idaho, the decoupage fanatic, makes a big deal out of a blue and green chevron fabric she picks in the Pop Craft round as the basis of her duffel bag. Later, when she’s trying to get one side of her school-bus-themed playhouse covered, the camera pans across that same damn fabric stuck on the playhouse wall. And we realize: That wonderful Michaels wall only has a half-dozen bolts of fabric to choose from. Jars of pompoms and racks of specialty scissors aside, Craft Wars is far from crafting paradise.

Stray observations:

  • Spelling’s two tow-headed kids and some of their TV friends go play in the winning playhouse as the credits roll and the victorious crafter exclaims how the $10,000 prize will change her life. I assume the losing playhouse is taken to the backlot and set ablaze.
  • Every reality competition needs a big “wow” moment when the special materials for the challenge are revealed. On Craft Wars, a storage-unit-style garage door opens, and Spelling’s minions roll out a bunch of shopping carts.
  • Surprisingly, the war theme is criminally underused. Spelling announces the winner by saying “The champion of this Craft War is… ” Since when do wars have champions?
  • “In the end, the judges felt un-sewn corners were bad, but not as bad as a lack of durability.”

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