On craft, creativity and finding community

GUEST POST BY ANA ISABEL RAMOS

Ana Isabel Ramos is an illustrator, designer and crafter from Lisbon, Portugal. In this guest post, she shares her personal story on how craft and creativity has helped her find connections and community in difficult times.

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As Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots in hindsight; and today I want to tell you a personal story where I connect the dots from difficulty to craft, to collaboration, to creativity, to integration. And finally, from there to making money with content creation. 

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Let’s move back in time: seven years ago, I moved from my hometown of Lisbon, Portugal, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. All I took was a suitcase and the hope that my new life near my then boyfriend would work well for us. 

(Spoiler alert: it did. We are now married and having a lot of fun together. The beginning was rough, though.)

The first week in my new city wasn't very easy. We had an apartment, but no friends or acquaintances. In a ten-million-metropolis, I didn't know one single soul.

On the eighth day I was there, I got sick. At first, my husband and I thought it was just a bad case of food poisoning. We decided to go to the hospital, if only we knew where to go. We looked at a travel guide, saw the hospital recommendations and took a chance. When we got there, I was admitted for the day and discharged with some medicine prescriptions, as doctors believed it was nothing too serious. I didn't get better, though, so we returned a day later, very dehydrated and with an enlarged and painful belly. That was when I was finally diagnosed with a first world disease, one that is easily curable but not preventable: due to a previous surgery, I had grown adhesions inside my abdomen, which then forced my intestines shut. The treatment was surgical: in 48 hours I underwent two open abdomen surgeries followed by three long weeks at the hospital.

The day I was discharged, several pounds lighter, no strength on my limbs, I felt pure joy. Returning home was like finding the El Dorado, but I kid you not: after the initial thrill came the heavy weight of depression.

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Why am I telling you all this? Because my life in my new city did, indeed, get better, and I got to make a lot of new friends through collaboration, craft and creativity. 

Fast forward to a year later, my new life started to get better and I slowly grew roots in Buenos Aires. After attending Spanish classes, where all the students were foreigners who sooner or later left the city, I signed up for German classes, where my fellow students were locals. That is when I finally made local friends. 

I also took up knitting, a craft my grandmother had taught me when I was a child, but I hadn't done in two decades.

In Buenos Aires, knitting kept me sane and energized: through knitting, I was able to burst the expat bubble and meet real porteños, people with as diverse backgrounds as possible, the only thing in common among us being knitting. For some reason, we were all at a crossroads at that point: after meeting, many of us turned craft into successful entrepreneurial ventures, and today there are professional dyers, spinners, knitters, teachers and designers among our group. In my case, I launched a brand of handmade baby wear, abbrigate*, which has been growing to this day. 

But the story goes on: after three years living down south, the time came to uproot our family of two and leave Argentina for Panama. Where, due to its tropical hot and wet climate, there's no need to wear any knitting at all. 

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My knitting strategy was useless on that latitude, so I turned to a new craft, embroidery, for a challenge (and support). Being a passionate illustrator and sketcher, I saw in embroidery a way to somehow reproduce the line drawings I fill my sketchbooks with: instead of pen on paper, I started using needle and thread on fabric. For my baby wear brand, I launched a new product: hand embroidered baby blankets, to protect the little ones from the fierce cold of air conditioning. 

Embroidery soon became a passion, one that was portable and easy to take with me in that incredibly hot weather. 

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Given that knitting wasn't going to help me integrate in Panama, I launched an illustrated monthly zine, which I then printed and left in strategic places. It became the start for many conversations I had during those years. I even spoke at a Pecha Kucha event in Panama about it, and entertained a whole audience in a foreign language. 

In 2013, we relocated again to my original hometown of Lisbon, Portugal. Repatriation may sound easy and smooth, after moving around so much, but it comes with its thorns. Granted, I had a previous social network, I have my family and friends nearby, but it is unwise to think that things are exactly the same as they were when I left seven years ago. Neither am I the same person.

In Lisbon, I pulled my big guns: I knew craft, collaboration and creativity would be the best way to connect with new people, make new friends and maybe even revive old friendships. I launched an Embroidery Club as a way to create a network, to collaborate with different people—I believe each member is a collaborator, specially whenever I see the amazing embroideries they come up with, based on my designs—and to monetize my content creation.

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Craft, collaboration and creativity have been the instruments to keep me grounded wherever I am living at a certain point; they keep me growing with all the stimuli I receive from new friends around the world, with whom I share a passion for craft; they make me appreciate the skills and abilities required to complete a project, and the producers of those materials I use, from the farmers who grow and shear sheep to the dyers and spinners who produce wonderful yarns, to the industries that provide us with new, natural sourced fibres, to the shops who strive to keep themselves open and engaged in their communities, despite the difficult economy.

Through craft, collaboration and creativity I managed to find a community; with the support of my community, I found a way of making a living with content creation. And through all the challenges of living abroad, I grew much more than I could have ever anticipated.