GO
Loading...

Hipster hobbies: Cashing in on ancient skills

Taxidermist Margot Magpie runs The Last Tuesday Society workshops
Dafydd Owen
Taxidermist Margot Magpie runs The Last Tuesday Society workshops

At a time when it appears that everyone is addicted to technology, a growing number of trendy city-dwellers are going to the other extreme and taking lessons in archaic – and sometimes weird – skills to stand out from the crowd.

Urban beekeeping, taxidermy, and printing and bookbinding classes, among others, are springing up in cities across the world in response to an increasing interest in these ancient skills. And demand shows no sign of slowing down.

What's interesting about the people attending these classes, though, is their demographic. These are not bored retirees. These are urban youngsters, sometimes dubbed "hipsters."

(Slideshow: Profit-making passions: Hobbies as alternative investments)

This burgeoning interest from urban trendies in the arcane and quirky is translating into new revenue sources for the hobbies industry, which the Craft and Hobby Association estimated was worth a whopping $30.2 billion to the U.S. in the 12 months to July 2011, according to the most recent data.

"People come from all over the country to take part in our taxidermy classes," said LA-born Suzette Field, who runs an literary and artistic organization called The Last Tuesday Society in London. "We thought it was going to be a six-month pop-up project, but it's been so popular that four years on the shop is still open."

The Last Tuesday Society first launched a series of taxidermy classes – which cost between £60 for a mouse to £150 for a rabbit - after it hosted a live workshop of artist Lee Paton stuffing a mouse.

"People came to us and said they wanted to do it themselves. Our first taxidermy series completely sold out," Field said.

Grai Rice, co-founder of HoneybeesLives, also reported a recent pick up in interest for her company's urban beekeeping classes in Brooklyn, New York.

"It's absolutely a growing trend. Ever since beekeeping was legalized in the city in 2010 there has been a steady increase in demand for beekeeping classes," she told CNBC. "Now there are more, local classes opening up to cope with the interest."

"I've been to honey tastings at bars in New York which are full of hip people bragging about the honey they've produced."

On trend?

Simon Goode, who launched London Centre for Book Arts at the start of 2013, agreed that although lots of different types of people attend his book-binding and type-setting classes, there was a growing interest among the "hipster hobby" crowd.

(Read more: Onlineclasses teach crafts and hobbies)

"In some circles, it is seen as the trendy thing to do," he told CNBC.

Betsie Garner, a sociology academic at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in media and popular culture, said urban middle- and upper-middle-class hipsters use "folksy hobbies" as a way of distinguishing themselves socially.

"Making one's lavender soap from scratch instead of buying a 99 cent bar of soap from a convenience store is a way of saying: 'I'm morally superior to you because I appreciate the craft of soap-making and embrace alternatives to the capitalist modes of production,'" she told CNBC.

"If most people around you are buying mass-produced consumer goods from retail stores, then producing goods at home is a good strategy for constructing your self-identity as unique and counter-cultural."

Cashing in

But if hipsters are looking to cash in on their newly acquired skills, there's some hard work ahead. All of the above skills require significant amounts of time, space, materials – and money.

"It's certainly not an inexpensive hobby," HoneybeesLives' Rice said. Her beekeeping classes cost $100 for a one-day class, and $190 for a two-day course.

"They're not for people who are focused producing honey. They're for people who love bees and beekeeping."

Urban beekeeping
Sean Gallup | Getty Images
Urban beekeeping

London Centre for Book Arts' Goode agreed that it was tough to monetize the skills he teaches. His two-day letterpress courses cost £140, while his one-day bookbinding class sets a student back £75.

"Crafts like bookbinding and typesetting are difficult," he said. "Most people who come to our classes are more interested in understanding the process. I wouldn't say there's no commercialization in it, but it's hard work."

And even if the students do make the plunge, Garner was quick to stress that the end-results were quite different than those produced in a rural environment.

"Some hipsters do turn their hobbies into profitable urban businesses, but in the process they inject their products with various cultural symbols and narratives that evoke a sense of artistic expression, authentic craftsmanship, and cultural sophistication," she said.

(Read more: Pinterest's $4 billion valuation makes deals look cheap)

"They're selling the idea that they are buying something better than a mass-produced, widely-distributed product."

A workshop participant at the London Centre for Book Arts
Ira Yonemura | London Centre for Book Arts
A workshop participant at the London Centre for Book Arts

Nothing new?

The Last Tuesday Society's Field said there was a different reason behind her group's popularity – it also hosts workshops on the articulation of animal skeletons, butterfly mounting and other anthropomorphic skills.

"I think it's people rebelling against the digital age," she said. "Fifteen people sat in a workshop, using their hands; sitting and talking to each without having to look at a screen."

But these skills are not inherently hipster – indeed, outside of an urban environment some take on a very different meaning.

"These same arts and crafts are related to social class differently. There's nothing hipster about my grandmother who lives on a farm canning her own vegetables," Garner said. "In the South (of the U.S.) you will find stuffed animal skins in grand, antebellum homes and in trailer parks."

These talents are only classed as "hipster hobbies" because they are done for pleasure, entertainment, or self-expression -- rather than out of necessity, she said, adding: "In rural settings, farmers keep bees not as a hobby but as an industrious enterprise aimed at generating income."

By CNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop and Google

Contact Art & Culture

  • CNBC NEWSLETTERS

    Get the best of CNBC in your inbox

    To learn more about how we use your information,
    please read our Privacy Policy.
    › Learn More