Beyond macrame Crafts: Today's 'handmade' projects come cleverly pre-packaged so that consumers get snazzy effects with a minimum of effort and skill.


Forget macrame and hand-thrown pottery. In the '90s, the word "craft" has taken on a whole new meaning. Today's crafts are ingenious, satisfying, take no real skill and provide ' relatively speaking ' instant gratification.

"People want projects that don't require effort and produce great results," says Carol Schalla, interior design director for Country Sampler, which publishes six different crafts magazines. "If a project is simple enough and gives enough value, then people are willing to do it."

The kits to make garden stepping stones are a perfect example. Crafters mix up the cement per instructions and add seashells, bits of colored glass or other decoration. They can even write important words like "believe" or "happiness" in the cement like those expensive garden rocks. They end up with an unusual yard ornament or a great gift.

One could argue that there's not much creativity involved in such projects. But they are certainly making a lot of people happy. Consumer spending on crafts has grown to $10 billion annually in just two years, a jump of 37 percent, according to a survey by the Hobby Industry Association. HIA estimates that there is at least one crafter in 84 percent of American households.

Those figures include, of course, the "serious" crafter. Sales of elite materials are doing very well, after what Jody Spencer of the Association of Crafts and Creative Industries calls "the generation gap in the '80s." This was a period when young women weren't interested in learning traditional techniques from their mothers and grandmothers. But it was also the period when the mass merchandising of crafts began - and just kept growing and growing.

One result of this renewed interest was the emergence of craft megastores, chains like A.C. Moore in White Marsh and Jo-Ann etc (recently opened in Bel Air and Columbia). Here you can get everything from a large selection of doll eyes to birdhouses waiting to be painted.

Customers often look a little dazed at the endless rows of kits, art supplies, artificial flowers, seasonal supplies and so much more. But not an old hand like Dot Newman of Harford County, who's in A.C. Moore on Memorial Day weekend. She's helping a friend buy silk flowers for a grapevine wreath.

"I've got so many unfinished projects," says Newman with a laugh, "that one of these days I'm going to have to hold a yard sale."

Blame it on the need to relieve stress, or on the computers and other impersonal things that fill our lives.

"Our research shows that people are doing crafts for personal satisfaction," says Barbara Semen, vice-president of marketing for Fabri-Centers of America Inc., which owns Jo-Ann fabric and craft stores. "They enjoy them. It's not about saving money."

Or credit the comeback of crafts to the boom in home decorating, the influence of Martha Stewart or the decade's focus on family.

"These are often family activities," says Lou Greico of A.C. Moore. "People do them for their self-esteem."

He points out that there's more awareness of crafts these days because of the increase in crafts shows and flea markets where handicrafts are sold.

"People have come to realize they aren't as hard to do as they thought," he says.

Like anything else, the crafts industry has its trends. Here's what's hot:

* "Scrapbooking." They used to just hold photographs. Now the scrapbooks themselves are decorated with ribbons, cutouts and stamps to enhance the memories.

* Painting glassware. The new paints are dishwasher-safe without firing.

* Rubber stamps. People are making their own cards and invitations. They emboss velvet. Larger stamps can be used with glazes to decorate walls.

* Unfinished wood. Frames. Rocking chairs. Birdhouses. People are enjoying faux finishing or hand painting wood items; the new kits make it easy to do.

* Decoupage. The art of applying cutout paper to a surface and bTC varnishing it isn't new, but the latest look in decoupage is quite contemporary. It's being used in creative ways, such as decorating lamp shades.

* Decorative florals. Dried and silk flowers are big sellers, often used to create grapevine, wicker and foam-based wreaths.

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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