What Happens When a 26-Year-Old Buys Herself a Rainbow Loom?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Dec. 19 2013 8:27 AM

Rainbow Loon

What happens when a 26-year-old woman tries out the biggest tween fad of the year?

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Anyway, once you complete your first Rainbow Loom bracelet, you expect some kind of celestial trumpeting to welcome you to the world of tween artisans. (And indeed the toy has been praised for making kids feel accomplished and competent.) But you must resist the urge to self-congratulate. Oh, you have far to go! It is time to put aside the instruction manual and venture into the belly of the whale: Rainbow Loom’s YouTube community.

In an article for Forbes, writer (and father) Jordan Shapiro argues that Rainbow Loom teaches kids to “mediate effectively between virtual and material realities.” That’s because, in order to execute the more complex designs, you need to consult the toy’s Internet oracles—tweens who have posted detailed “how-to” videos online. My personal favorites are “Ashley Steph” and “Parker’s Videos,” but the options are as staggering as the demand is real: Shapiro reports more than 969,500 monthly YouTube searches for “Rainbow Loom” in the U.S., not counting design-specific queries like “Rainbow Loom raindrop” or “Rainbow Loom fishtail,” of which there must be many.

The way the toy incorporates digital learning feels, to me, weirdly reminiscent of my adult life: I often use the Web to look up things like “how to open wine without a bottle opener” or “how to fold a hospital corner.” So I guess Rainbow Loom is “preparing” kids for that. But back to Ashley Steph. In the video I watched, one of the two girls behind the account is actually a terrific tour guide through the pied Rainbow Loom safari (except for occasionally when she needs to sloooow down.) She showed me how to select my colors, carry off my stitches, and fasten the diminutive c-clips that connected the two ends of my fishtail bracelet. Every so often a parent or sibling interrupted her while the iPhone camera rolled and she gave a polite answer before returning to the tutorial. Not once do viewers see Ashley Steph's face—only her hands holding the loom or twirling the hook across the stretchy bands. Her videos aren't vanity projects but acts of service. Soaking it in, I was impressed. Have kids always been so generous with their time and expertise, especially when it came to enlightening perfect strangers?

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The sense of an online community flowering around Rainbow Loom gave me a glimmer of what we less-connected generations missed out on as kids. The Web itself is a pattern of interlaced users, and crafting with these semianonymous tweens made me feel a part of its warp and weft. The idea of digital literacy is really one of communication and collaboration—how do we train young people to use the information washing over them every time they go online? How do we teach them to work together in virtual space and in, you know, actual rooms? Maybe we should start by buying them all Rainbow Looms. (Just kidding, they all have them already.)

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Yet Rainbow Loom is more than just “Internet-social”; it is real-world, face-to-face social, too. Like Tamagotchis or Crazy Bones, the bracelets have become wearable status markers. Kids trade them, make and take requests, and fashion them for their friends and siblings. One Slate colleague relayed a story from her sister-in-law, a math teacher: She’d noticed that all the popular girls in her class were suddenly talking to the nerdy boys. The teacher was flummoxed until she saw a flood of Rainbow Loom jewelry pour out of a shy kid’s backpack: He and his dorkier classmates were buying bracelets off the student royalty.

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Rainbow Loom in a Washington, D.C., bar

Photo by Katy Waldman/Slate

I was not keen to go hawk starburst key chains to sixth graders. But I did want to experience the social side of Rainbow Loom—which is how I found myself at a bar last weekend with two friends, one weaving kit, and no dignity. We decided to start with the fishtail pattern. After selecting our colors—this involved compromise—we took turns with the board (sharing), passing it around every three stitches or so (teamwork). It felt like the ideal context for the toy: Our hands were busy, but our minds were free to rove, and in the meantime, the elegant bracelet spun off the loom, as if chasing its own secret agenda.

This is a version of how I imagine women have done handicrafts for thousands of years. In the half-light of the bar, we discovered our communal rhythm; I glowed with a sense of connection to my fellow loomers. It was the pinnacle of what Rainbow Loom might mean for me, an undexterous female of 26, living in a wash of ephemeral text and screens. It was company. Process. Something solid in my hands.

But then hubris intervened. After we attracted the curiosity of the bartender, who comped us a round of drinks (in anticipation of a Rainbow Loom freebie, probably), we chose to attempt the hexafish. This is the hex-addled Devil Fish of tweencraft—a multipeg proposition that actually requires you to break apart and reconstruct your loom before you start. Once you’re finally working on the pattern, you can try to hold up your end of a conversation while impotently scratching at the briar patch of rubber bands before you, but it won’t go well, even if you aren’t already three sheets to the wind. About 25 minutes into the hexafish, our pegboard was a chromatic war zone of broken elastic, and we were all pretty much over the Rainbow Loom.

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Throughout my week of Incessant Rainbow Looming, I kept expecting to feel addicted. I thought a moment would come where I realized I had to keep weaving or the universe itself would unravel. That didn’t happen. There were a few times—a staff meeting, a coffee date—that I remembered my loom in my bag and felt a bit of an itch. But I never became obsessed.

Of course, I’m not 9 and surrounded by friends and frenemies, siblings and crushes, all Looming around me. If I were, I can see how Rainbow Loom might suck you in and how, as these fads go, it’s got at least some value: a 9-year-old could probably use the ego boost of creation, the practice in carefully following directions. And I can see how a craftier person would delight in inventing new patterns and tweaking old ones. But Rainbow Loom’s most lasting legacy, for me, will have to be the zillions of gaudy rubber bands that have invaded every corner of my life. They’re in my purse, on my desk, between the keys of my keyboard. I found one in my hair this morning and am worried they will choke me in my sleep. I contemplated gathering them up and bringing them in for future loomers on the Slate staff. Finally, though, I just dumped them in the trash. We all have to grow up sometime—plus, if I’m writing about it, Rainbow Loom has only a few short months left before it’s officially uncool.