Maybe it's the gloomy economy, but a lot of people seem to be returning to the crafts that got their mothers and grandmothers through the long winter months. Besides helping to pass the time productively, knitting a sweater or cross-stitching a sampler can lend a much-needed personal touch in an impersonal world.
"A lot of people say they stitch to relax," says Barbara Knauf, owner of the Stitching Post in Catonsville. "It's also a way to spend time with a spouse or children and do something with your hands."
Renewed interest in crafts is evident in the wide range of classes offered at stores around the state. In fact, competition to get into a class can be fierce.
Craft Corral in Bel Air will be offering evening Christmas craft classes this month. Janice Slaysman, one of the shop's instructors, said demand for classes was so great in December the store couldn't begin to accommodate everyone -- despite three classes a day in some cases.
The sluggish economy hasn't hurt business at the Stitching Post, Mrs. Knauf says. Her store offers threads, books and other supplies, plus a wide range of classes, for cross-stitch, needlework and other projects and demand for classes is so great the store had to establish a starting date for registration to give everyone the same chance to get into a class. Class size is typically limited to 12.
Skills learned in craft classes allow students to make their own gifts and keepsakes, save money and also express their creativity, Mrs. Knauf says.
Many people can teach themselves a craft -- or learn it from a friend or relative. But Mrs. Knauf says there's less frustration and fewer wasted materials when an instructor shows you the correct way the first time. Professional teachers can also point out tricks of the trade, Mrs. Knauf says, adding that, unlike your Aunt Becky, they won't get annoyed or hurt if it turns out you do have 10 thumbs after all.
Taking a craft class is a great way to learn a new skill, but many students use the classes to brush up on existing knowledge. Terry Newhouse, owner of the Weaver's Place in Catonsville, says experienced knitters enjoy taking advanced classes such as Make that Dream Sweater Yours. In that class, students learn how to take a standard commercial pattern and customize it for a perfect fit.
Mrs. Newhouse says customers sometimes get the "craft class bug" when they see a lovely sweater with a hefty price tag at a store or craft show. "People think, 'Hey, I can do that,' and so they sign up for a class," she says.
Classes can also give a student the courage to try something different, according to Brenda McNeal of Columbia. She took a class to improve her weaving skills about four years ago and now she's hooked. Every year she weaves tea towels to include in themed Christmas baskets.
"Classes are a real confidence builder," she says. "You know right away if you're doing it correctly or if you need some help."
Jo Anne Williams of Baltimore says she takes classes because she enjoys sharing ideas and inspiration with others.
"Only another crafter can understand why you absolutely, positively have to buy another yard of fabric when your house is already full," she says. A passionate "crafter," Ms. Williams wears a sweat shirt adorned with the slogan, "She who dies with the most fabric wins." She gave bumper stickers with the same slogan to all her friends this Christmas.
The time necessary to complete a craft class -- and a project -- varies greatly. You can learn to make a beautiful basket in one day or take more than a year to complete a bed-size quilt. The dream sweater class at the Weaver's Place, for example, meets four times for three hours each class.
Barbara Worthington, who operates Basket Works in Catonsville, believes classes are popular because they are economical. "It's an affordable way to spend a day," she says.
Basket Works has finished baskets for sale as well as kits and raw materials. Once a student learns to make one basket, he or she is usually willing to try other styles, Ms. Worthington says.
Typically, classes require a registration fee plus the purchase of materials. A novice can pay $25 -- materials included -- at the Basket Works and walk out four hours later with a finished basket. An experienced quilter could spend 14 months learning to piece together an intricate Baltimore Album quilt, and the $150 registration fee does not include materials that could easily run into hundreds of dollars.
(The quilting classes meet one day a month at the Seminole Sampler in Catonsville and students are expected to do a lot of homework to keep pace with the class.)
Basket Works, the Seminole Sampler, the Weaver's Place and the Stitching Post make up what is informally known as the "craft center" on Mellor Avenue in Catonsville. The Stitching Post was the first shop to move to this shopping strip about three years ago.