Crafting Our Way Out of Loneliness

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)


My partner recently became consumed with finding a VCR. It started with discovering their childhood box of gaming systems in their parents’ attic. Our living room table quickly transformed into a repair shop covered in Game Boy parts, tweezers, tools, and cleaning supplies, with the consistent thrum of YouTube tutorials in the background. Decades-old dust floated in the sunlight. 

The gaming systems were soon followed by two CRT (cathode-ray tube) televisions. One is a small silver Memorex MVT2135B 13’’ with a built-in VCR. The second is a much more substantial General Electric 20GT360 with a separate Panasonic AG-1000B VHS cassette player. Once again, Eli pored over manuals to slowly and carefully restore the long-forgotten devices. These machines, a significant part of my partner’s childhood, changed the whole timbre of the room. Eli lay on the floor transported to a pre-internet state of calm, when all our pastimes sat physically in front of us, finite, instead of behind a screen, infinite. 

The old televisions filled us both with a deep nostalgia for the VHS tapes that captivated us as kids. Aside from The Lion King, which I watched every day after school in fourth grade, and Keeping the Promise, a made-for-TV adaption of one of my favorite childhood books, The Brave Little Toaster was my most-rewatched film. My grandma would rent it from the library at the base of the hill near her house and show it all summer long. 

The story thrilled and terrified me: five outdated appliances—a two-slice toaster, an electric blanket, a vacuum, an AM radio, and a desk lamp—undertake a long and harrowing journey from the family summer cabin where they’ve been left behind to the city apartment where their “Master” now resides. Propelled by love of Master and a fear of being forgotten, they endure many trials on the dangerous road to the city. 

Whether because of the repeat viewings or my own wild imagination, as a kid, I deeply believed (and feared) that my belongings were alive. When my mom replaced my ancient and stained mattress in elementary school, I apologized to it through tears, absolutely wracked with guilt for abandoning it. For many years, every night before I went to sleep, I tucked all my stuffed animals around my body. I knew that if any were left out, my betrayal was justifiable reason enough for them to kill me in my sleep. The imagined emotional life of my belongings has always been a burden. I feel constant guilt and responsibility for these possessions, for the life and people they represent. Even if I donated items to a thrift store, The Brave Little Toaster had taught me that they would find their way back to me at absolutely any cost—or, if they couldn’t, that they’d spend the remainder of their days in utter despair and heartache. How could I possibly cause so much pain to things that had brought me joy? 

While The Brave Little Toaster’s Master doesn’t appear to possess my childhood anxiety about emotional attachment, he is adamant about the machines’ intrinsic value. Unbeknownst to the five appliances, as they journey towards the city Master travels to the cabin to collect them for his college dorm room. Upon finding the seemingly ransacked cabin, he is distraught over the loss of his items and returns home in despair, refusing offers to quickly replace them with something new. As an adult, the loss and longing between Master and the appliances was startling in its depth and poignancy. Both parties feel a sharp grief that drives them to heroic actions. Their mutual love is based entirely around caretaking and repair. 

In a moment in the woods, while the other appliances sleep, Lampy tells Toaster a story of the first time his bulb burnt out when Master was a child. “I thought, ‘That’s it! It’s over! I’m burnt out! 86’d…But then the Master put in a brand new bulb. And I just glowed,” he remembers. Rather than tossing him out at the first sign of age, Master granted him new life. This relationship is juxtaposed with the AC unit in the cabin who blows a fuse in the midst of an angry and dejected monologue about how they have all been left for scraps. Before the adult Master leaves the cabin, he repairs the AC. He turns the unit on, closing his eyes and smiling into the cool air, joyous at this success, despite his loss of the items he came for. The AC unit looks after Master in shock, tears in his eyes, finally experiencing the love and tenderness the other five appliances know so well. 

I can’t help but think that this often-revisited message of loving repair, paired with my dad’s passion for car restoration, fashioned me into a maker and mender—a person who sees things for their potential rather than their immediate consumption and disposal. At any given time growing up, our yard was covered in two to four cars in various states of refurbishment. In high school, I journeyed more than a few times to the local U-Pick scrap yard with my dad to find a replacement part for the car we had purchased for $400 and carefully rebuilt. We scrounged the lot for similar makes and models and detached the parts ourselves. Inevitably, he’d pick up finds for other projects as well. “So much good stuff here,” he would say. 

The isolation of COVID-19 found many folks turning to craft to combat loneliness and cabin fever. Even before pandemic lockdown encouraged some to finally dust off that sewing machine in the closet, craft surged among Millennials and our younger Gen Z siblings: my partner and their electronics repair, a dear friend from college who refurbishes games and gaming systems, urban farming and gardening, home brewing, the slow fashion movement. I am part of an ever-growing online community of makers, sewists, knitters, and weavers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have become disenchanted with the rise of consumerism and fast fashion in particular. Both with the aid of open education available through social media and in direct opposition to a digital future, we have sought out tactile activity to connect us. 

In Sofi Thanhauser’s stunning 2022 book, Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, she states: “The resurgence of craft is a profoundly collective phenomenon. Although it can take overtly political forms…craft is also inherently political because it is collective, and because it is slow. Scholars have argued that the communal nature of ‘craftivism’ makes it an antidote to alienation within an information society.” For many contemporary crafters—for me, in particular—the slowness of it is the crux of the joy. It is the practice itself that captivates us. When I draw yarn through my loom or stitch up a hole in a pair of pants, I feel the millennia of weavers drawing threads along with me. There is a profound grounding in craft and an unbelievable joy in mending. It is a remedy for anxiety, a companion through grief, and a reminder to stay open to possibility. It is a quiet but hardly insignificant method of resistance in the face of consumerism. 

In 1986, the year before the release of The Brave Little Toaster, a cargo ship called the Khian Sea roamed the ocean for 16 months looking for a place to dump 14,000 tons of incinerated garbage from the US. The crew illegally dumped 4,000 tons of the waste near Haiti. They changed the name and registration of the ship three times in efforts to conceal the remaining 10,000 tons dumped directly into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Millennials came of age in a society where things are made to be replaced quickly. Electronics and clothes pile up at thrift stores, and then in cities and villages in the Global South where they poison the water and the soil. We are meant to think of our purchases as temporary—as something to be replaced at the slightest hint of overuse, or simply because there’s something new available. 

After the five appliances arrive in the city, the advanced machines in Master’s apartment taunt them with their superiority, both in skill and in providing for Master. “More, more, more!” they sing, not recognizing that they, too, will eventually be replaced. In the quickening pace of technological advancement and devastating damage to the natural world, just like the outdated appliances, humans face our own obsolescence. We worry about our jobs, our purpose, our current way of life in the wake of technology’s rapid progression. The fear of a technological future manifests in shows and films like Westworld, Devs, and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. We fear the fates to which we subject our belongings. We fear our creations will feel as much as we do. Technology has a sinister way of confronting us with our potential and our mortality simultaneously. The solution, we are told, is self-care in the form of capitalism. To buy another and another and another. Landfills overflow with our attempts to cure our loneliness.

The junkyard scene that terrified me as a child is even more striking as an adult. The five appliances, having been quite literally thrown out of Master’s apartment and into a dumpster by the modern machines living there, find themselves in a wrecking yard. Surrounding them are haphazard mounds of broken-down appliances and cars, eyes full of hopelessness as they await the inevitable: being pounded by a compactor into a tiny block of metal. “Worthless,” they sing over and over. The junkyard offers up the dismal realization of their abandonment. In an earlier scene, Toaster dreams of a young Master who is ripped away by a fiery clown that destroys Toaster with electrocution in a bathtub—a visceral and terrifying image for a young person. Here in the junkyard, Toaster’s dream seemingly becoming reality, the five appliances finally succumb to their grief, allowing themselves to be brought to their destruction. 

Rewatching The Brave Little Toaster brought to the forefront not only my childhood fears of sentient objects, but also a question: what is trash and what simply needs mending? Master exists at odds with the world around him. Rather than immediately replacing his objects with something new, as both his mother and girlfriend repeatedly encourage him to do, he travels to the junkyard to seek out other forgotten and discarded items that he could restore. The five appliances catch a glimpse of Master as they are lifted to their demise at the same time as Master discovers the childhood photo of himself that Blanky has been carrying through the journey. He nearly dies in an attempt to collect them from the murderous magnet machine charged with dropping items onto the conveyor belt, saved only by Toaster throwing himself into the gears of the compactor. Master, in the penultimate scene of the film, hunches over his beloved and battered toaster, with tools in hand. His girlfriend, baffled by what she deems a pointless task, asks him, “Really now, why don’t you just go out and find a new one?” He turns, smiling, and says, “Are you kidding? Where could I find another toaster like this?” Despite its imperfections, its needs, Toaster is his. Once mended, they are bound together, a toaster shaped by Master. Master’s joy at restoring this device is reflected in Toaster’s joy at being restored. 

In September 2020, my grandmother died. I didn’t answer the phone when my dad called because I was working on a braided rug from fabric scraps just like the ones in my grandma’s house. Three months later, three days before Christmas, my mom called me to tell me that my dad had died. I was hand-sewing ornaments when the phone rang. For a while after, hand-sewing was all I could muster. Each stitch felt deliberate. It moved me through time that grief had made endless. It was something I could do without moving much, without leaving my bed. I like to think that Master, in his time of drastic change of becoming an adult, leaving home, moving to college—the anxiety, excitement, and grief that transition brings—turns to repair as a form of steadiness, a through-line in the upheaval of his life. He goes to such great lengths to save these items because he needs the consistency they bring, the familiarity, the knowledge that at least this one simple thing is in his control. It is love that drives him and craft that thrills him. As my slow, methodical hand stitches ground me to the present, he restores the past to bring it with him into the future. 

Mending is slow. It is tedious. It is often frustrating. It is not the easy choice. It forces us to sit with ourselves and examine closely exactly what is broken and exactly where. But, if we let it, mending can be a meditation, an active reminder of what it is to be discarded and then to be renewed. As I watch Master repair Toaster, I see my partner and their Game Boys and TV/VCRs, both humans and devices remembering the joy they brought each other. I see my dad, absolutely ecstatic at the end of a greasy day under a once-abandoned car. These long-ago adored objects cleaned, restored, loved, used. I also can’t help but see myself and the life around me. After all, mending is just another way to say “I love you”—to slow down, to stitch each other up, to allow joy, to dig through the pile in front of us and say, “So much good stuff here.”