crafting a new culture

They're young, they're hip, and they're not afraid to knit in public

Family Matters

January 25, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

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, (www.getcrafty.com), 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 brain.org), speaks for itself. Subversive Cross Stitch, (www.subversivecross stitch.com), 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.

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