crafting a new culture

In a corner of the City Cafe, the soft click of knitting needles blends with chatter, the hiss of the espresso machine and the clang of silverware. A pair of slippers, two hats and a beaded necklace materialize from the handiwork of four women who have come to the Mount Vernon restaurant in early January for a semi-monthly "craft-on."

Later in the month, during Knit Night at Atomic Books in Hampden, some crafters seek a blissful state of creative flow; others dish on politics, loves lost and found, the travails of daily life.


Knitting fiend and Atomic Books co-owner Rachel Whang, 34, suspends work on a hat with a white skull to guide neophyte Erika Paradine of Baltimore, a 26-year-old mother of two. Paradine discovered the weekly crafting bee by way of Hip Mama, an online magazine.

As they work in City Cafe and Atomic Books' very cool clubroom, a new wave of crafters -- many tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked and wired -- are reinterpreting American ingenuity with saucy irreverence.


Once, they might have spent the night knitting (or trying to knit) in front of the television. But as young women and some men who craft find one another across the country and around the world, they are forming circles in person and online for teaching, friendship and collective immersion in soul-satisfying work.

It doesn't matter what you make, Baltimore craft-on organizer Amy LaPerle says. If it's portable, "do it." At past gatherings, participants have carved pumpkins, illustrated 'zines, tinkered with computers, the 29-year-old legal assistant says.

LaPerle taught her boyfriend, Justin Sabe, 29, how to knit. He has since turned out several scarves and one cat toy. The couple are equally at home wandering the aisles of Michaels arts and crafts store as Home Depot.

LaPerle, Sabe and their coterie are among 70 million crafters in the United States, says Don Meyer, director of marketing and public relations for the Hobby Industry Association. Last year, crafters bought $29 billion worth of materials from 12,000 retailers across the country, he says.

Reveling in the irony

Although scrapbooking with digital technology is the hottest craft craze, the "soft crafts," such as knitting, have "really taken off with a lot of young people in their 20s and their 30s," Meyer says.

These crafting revivalists reject ready-made pleasures for those that are homemade. Theirs remains a material culture, but it is material of their own making. They may keep long lists of "things to make," but sneer at the impossible quest for perfection implicit in craft queen Martha Stewart's approach, and revel in the irony of creating while dirty dishes pile sky high.

Tsia Carson, the 33-year-old editor of Getcrafty, (, an online magazine with the motto "making art out of everyday life," cites a "complex" nexus of reasons for the revival. There is a widespread "yen for independence that comes not just from crafts but all kinds of DIY [do it yourself] activity," says the New York designer.


"There is also a very emotional need to connect with something very tangible for a lot of people who feel sort of overwhelmed [by] post-capitalist consumer shock," says Carson, whose current obsession is making "teeny tiny couture clothes." Something "very simple like crafting with a group of people is immensely rewarding."

When Getcrafty introduced its Glitter discussion boards, online forums where readers can swap tips, ideas and arrange to connect off-line, "that really made the site blossom," Carson says. "There was a huge change in terms of traffic." She estimates that the entire site receives about 250,000 "unique visitors" a month.

The discussion boards' moderately brazen tone reflects crafting's appeal for Gen X and Gen Y. A recent correspondent wrote: "Hot Glue Gun Virgin Seeks Advice!" Another queried, "Has anyone successfully crocheted their own bikini?"

Other impertinent craft Web sites abound. Not Martha, (www.megan.scatter, speaks for itself. Subversive Cross Stitch, (www.subversivecross, sells designs that substitute profane adages for "Home Sweet Home," undermining quaint visions of mild-tempered crafters tenderly stitching their way into the hearts of loved ones.

The crafting renaissance encompasses creative possibilities both glorious (knitted fuzzy mohair shawls) and tacky-but-cute (Pacman wrist cuffs). Crafting, itself, is loosely defined as almost anything made by hand. Fine needlepoint, quilts made from raggedy jeans and lamps fashioned from old blenders all qualify.

'Third wave' feminists


These crafters don't fancy themselves as mad housewives a la 1950s or back-to-the-earth hippies vintage 1960s. Yet, they glean inspiration from both eras, even as they note the ideological chasm between the fastidious dictates of Good Housekeeping and off-the-grid, utopian dreams.

Armed with hot glue guns and a careful reading of women's history, many involved in the current crafting movement call themselves "third wave" feminists. Liberated from traditional gender roles by their predecessors, they can freely choose to stay at home with the kids, work, do needlepoint, ride Harleys or all of the above.

Crafting is also a way to honor ancestors whose creations were undervalued as women's work, their descendants say. As she knits a nubby blue hat for a friend at the City Cafe, Erin Mannion says, "We are all very strong women with a lot of ideas about feminism and how it relates to making work and [our craft] often reflects that." Mannion, a 29-year-old photo lab technician, has visions of one day building a home and its furnishings from scratch.

Today, crafting is not a survival skill, but a middle-class leisure activity that is often a luxury as well. It is not unusual to spend $100 on wool for a sweater, says Lynda DelGenis, a 34-year-old technical writer and accomplished knitter from Baltimore. She and contemporaries have "more time and money to spend on ourselves ... we [craft] more for enjoyment. I personally do it for meditation."

Making things can "be as valuable as a religious experience," says LaPerle, 29, as she knits a jewel-toned slipper at the City Cafe. To that end, LaPerle hopes to open the Baltimore chapter of the Church of Craft, an organization for passionate crafters where members attend fiber study instead of Bible study. New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Toronto already boast chapters for creative communion.

Founded in 2000, the ecumenical group "aims to create an environment where any and all acts of making have value to our humanness," according to its mission statement.


"Acts of making" acquire added value among crafters who find challenge in recycled materials. Getcrafty articles, such as Top Ten Crafty Things to Buy at a Thrift Store and Make Your Own Pillowcase Skirt, demonstrate a sense of economy worthy of any grandma who braved the Depression.

No matter how exquisite her work, DelGenis refuses to create anything that doesn't have a function. "It's got to have a purpose or else it's a waste of time," she says.

A recent scarf drive organized by the Getcrafty community illustrates craf-ters' new-found identity as an online constituency with clout. The effort yielded 340 homemade scarves for victims of domestic abuse.

Patterns that sell

The crafting craze has spawned new avenues of commerce, as well. Jenny Hart of Austin, Texas has a giddy following for her Sublime Stitching embroidery designs ( "Due to an overabundance of bunnies and smiling Holsteins, this simple hand-craft was being passed over by the newly enthusiastic needleworker. No more! Your search for cool craft patterns ends here," Hart's Web site proclaims.

Her campy martini glasses, tiki gods and cowgirls have been featured in nearly two dozen magazines. "I'm designing for people who have a different aesthetic sensibility," says Hart, whose book, The Stitch-It Kit: Simple Instructions and Tools for 30 Chic to Cheeky Embroidery Projects, will be published by Chronicle Books later this year.


Like her peers, Hart attributes crafting's popularity to the burgeoning "DIY" movement, which favors homemade everything over pre-fab anything. "That's such a punk ethic, to do it yourself," Hart, 31, says. "It doesn't have to be expensive, and you can bring something new to it."

The current craft craze is also distinguished by a born-again acceptance of "girly culture" that invites women to revel in feminine arts once considered emblems of oppression.

Within the greater feminist community, though, crafting has been criticized as a regressive throwback. Queens of the Iron Age, a 2003 article by Justine Sharrock in a magazine dedicated to examining popular culture from a feminist point of view, caused a flap within the crafting community.

Although she focuses on the politics of housekeeping, Sharrock also questions the ultimate consequences of so many women on pins and needles. "The fun-lovin' lipstick feminist of the mid-90s has become the home-obsessed, Brillo-pad chick of the '00s," she writes.

LaPerle says crafting doesn't consign women to secondary status. "I know my mom was ill in the fall and I knitted while sitting in the hospital," she says. "Some people craft their way through depression."

In some ways, the crafting trend is not so much a thorny question for feminists, but evidence of a "humanist movement," in which LaPerle says she and all DIY believers are "working to get out of a Westernized view of life."


In the crafter's universal tool box

It's against Callie Janoff's religion to dictate what crafting materials to use, but the co-founder of the Church of Craft, a nondenominational group devoted to handicrafts, recommends several items handy for all kinds of projects:

* Hot glue guns. "Hot glue is the universal binder, and duct tape," Janoff says. "Attaching one thing to another is kind of the most basic precept of crafting."

* Dritz Stitch Witchery Fusible Adhesive and other iron-on adhesives that "bind any piece of fabric to another."

* Cotton or synthetic batting. "Because it's flexible and you can make things and stuff stuff with it," Janoff says. Batting, which comes in rolls and bags, can also be used as clouds, spider webs or as quilting material.

* Used nylon stockings. They are "super flexible and good for stuffing dolls or puppets or anything like that," she says.


* Yarn. "Yarn is the hot commodity," Janoff says. "It's a super craft material" that can be used for collages, wrapping presents and many other uses beyond needlecrafts.

* Gimp. Janoff uses that familiar camp craft material, also known as lanyard, to knit sacks, make necklaces and for crocheting.

-- Stephanie Shapiro

Crafty suggestions for learning more

* The Knitting Experience Book 1: The Knit Stitch, by Sally Melville (Xrx, $19.95, 2002)

* D.I.Y. Girl: The Real Girl's Guide to Making Everything from Lip Gloss to Lamps, by Jennifer Bonnell (Puffin, $12.99, 2003) (This is for young adults.)


* Wild with a Glue Gun: Getting Together with Crafty Friends, by Kitty Harmon and Christine Stickler (North Light, $19.99, 2004)

* La Casa Loca: Latino Style Comes Home, 45 Funky Craft Projects for Decorating & Entertaining, by Kathy Cano-Murillo (Rockport, $22.99, 2003)

Web sites








Crafting circles

* Knit Night meets 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays at Atomic Books, 1100 W 36th St., Baltimore. Call 410 662-4444.

* Craft-ons take place from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. the first Monday of every month at City Cafe, 1001 Cathedral St. They also take place on the second Sunday of every month. For time and location, subscribe to Honcraft, a Baltimore craft information list: http: / / / mailman / listinfo / honcraft.


* The Saturday Morning Group, a knitting circle, meets from 10 a.m. until noon. Saturdays at A Good Yarn, 1738 Aliceanna St. A $5 donation for charity is optional. Call 410-327-3884.