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Making it: A crafting revolution takes the Triad

by Amy Kingsley

Crafting is making a comeback. Women (and men) are no longer putting off until their dotage learning the lost arts of sewing, dyeing, crochet, knitting, macramé, silk screening and woodworking.

The craft renaissance began almost a decade ago, but really began to get rolling in 2004, when Debbie Stoller, publisher of BUST magazine, released the first of her Stitch-‘n-Bitch knitting guides. In her books, Stoller, a paragon of third-wave feminism, encouraged her readers to think of knitting as a revolutionary act. By elevating sewing, knitting and crocheting to the same level as fine art or independent music, Stoller placed women’s work in the highest creative pantheon.

All of a sudden, crochet gained cachet beyond the senior center walls. Handmade goods have graduated from church fairs and flea markets to boutiques and art galleries. And the new generation of crafters has stamped the old arts with its own punk rock sensibility.

Crafting nights proliferated, particularly in cities with large concentrations of young people. Hard-core knitters erected Churches of Craft in Athens, Ga.; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Brooklyn, NY; Seattle; Los Angeles and Kansas City.

O’Reilly Media, which is best known for its series of software manuals, jumped into the crafting fray with the introduction of two magazines, Craft and its high-tech cousin Make. The magazines, which are released quarterly, include dozens of profiles and projects with step-by-step instructions.

The movement really took off when Etsy.com launched in 2005. The site, founded by Rob Kalin, Chris Maguire and Haim Schoppik, is an online marketplace for handmade goods.

More than 100,000 Etsyians, as they call themselves, currently inhabit the crafty online universe. They hail from all corners of the globe, and peddle everything from paper goods to clothes and sculpture. And all of it is one of a kind.

Etsy.com has grown to employ 45 people, and the founders set up Etsy Labs in Brooklyn, stocked with donated fabric, sewing machines, sergers and dye vats. The site sold its millionth item earlier this year.

What are people in the Triad making? According to Etsy’s Geolocator, this area boasts a high concentration of jewelers, seamstresses, artists and a handful of potters.

For this story, I interviewed three local people who fall somewhere along the crafting continuum. One of them considers herself a fashion designer, and makes her clothes with an eye toward environmental impact. Another leveraged her punk-rock knitting projects into weekly Stitch-n-Bitch events, informal gatherings celebrating the do-it-yourself ethic. The last doesn’t regard herself as a proper crafter, even though she makes hats by hand, and considers her millinery part of a larger, interactive art project.

Tamis

It’s difficult to spot the knitter in the late afternoon crowd at Krankie’s Coffee Bar. There are none of the telltale signs, no bag overflowing with yarn and needles and nothing frantic about her hands, one of which curls around a paper cup.

Still, if you look closely, you can gather the evidence of Tamis Brewer’s crafting habit. An embellished bottle cap hangs like a pendant around her neck. Knitted warmers cover her forearms. On both feet – one of which is crossed over the other and kicking like a piston – she wears hand-detailed cowboy boots shaded turquoise.

Brewer took up knitting for the first time four years ago. A group of older women from a nearby church visited the rehab facility where Brewer was staying and conducted a knitting seminar, proving, perhaps, that the old theory about idle hands still has traction in the recovery community.

Before the church ladies’ fateful visit, Brewer only knew as much as her great-grandmother – an avid crocheter – had taught her.

“She never taught me anything beyond the chain stitch,” Brewer said.

Brewer took to the knit stitch and turned out a rainbow scarf from variegated yarn that she gave to her son, Madison. For her next project, she knitted a skull and crossbones on a sweater.

Brewer was sufficiently handy with needles and yarn by then to offer knitting lessons to her friends. On Monday nights at around 7 p.m., a small crowd would gather at Krankie’s for weekly Stitch-‘n-Bitch sessions.

Tamis Brewer’s husband, also named Madison, adopted the hobby long enough to make a Yoo-hoo scarf.

“[Knitting] changed my life,” Brewer says. “It came around during a pretty heavy time in my life.”

When we spoke, Brewer was building her stock for a crafts fair being held at the Gateway Gallery in a week and a half. She and her aunt would be sharing a table.

Brewer, who embraces a punk-rock aesthetic in her knitted work, describes how the younger generation approaches crafts that had, until recently, been relegated to the realm of Metamucil and Lawrence Welk.

“There’s more recycled material,” she says, “Different types of stuff. Maybe a little crazier.”

For example, her winter collection includes a collection of arm warmers, purses crafted from old wool sweaters and a custom knit bikini crafted for a dancer friend.

“The things I do are more modern and young,” she says, “like putting a skull and crossbones on a sweater. It’s taking it outside of the senior citizen realm.”

There’s another reason crafting has worked its way into the zeitgeist.

“With our generation being so earth-conscious,” she says, “so much of crafting today is recycled. It’s all about what you can do with trash.”

Brewer pulls out her necklace for closer inspection. It’s a beer cap. Schlitz.

“My friend Joanna made this,” she says. “It’s just old magazines and bottle caps that she’s made pretty to look at.”

When women retired their knitting needles, they also discarded a communal tradition. The crafting community in Winston-Salem and elsewhere is resurrecting the old practices of skill-sharing and bartering that come along with crafting.

Brewer gestures toward the coffee shop. One of the tables consists of a refitted wheel. Outside, several old bikes have been welded into a kind of aluminum hybrid. A case could even be made for classifying the entire Werehouse – the building that houses Krankie’s and a number of other projects – as a gigantic crafts project. After all, the venue’s founders did take an abandoned smoked-meat factory and transform it into an elaborate living space, nightclub, coffee bar, art gallery and recording studio.

Brewer’s craftiness encompasses more than just the sweaters she occasionally peddles at fairs. For years she has made Halloween costumes for her two children (she also has a daughter named Chloe).

This year Madison is going as a caveman, and Chloe as the Corpse Bride, the leading lady from Tim Burton’s 2005 follow-up to Nightmare Before Christmas. Last year, the family took home first-place honors at a school costume contest. Brewer twined fake sunflowers in her hair, decorated a cotton nightgown and went as Mother Nature. Her daughter dressed as a princess, and her son was a ninja robot samurai, an outfit crafted out of furniture foam.

“We were the only ones wearing homemade costumes,” Brewer says.

Andrea

Jaime Coggins, the owner of the Space, keeps a rolling rack at the back of her store stocked with flowing tunics and drawstring pants. Each is dyed a solid color – anything from umber to periwinkle – and cut from a bolt of natural fabric.

The designer is Andrea Crouse, a willowy brunette who piles her dreads on top of her head. Crouse just returned from an eight month trip to India, an experience that inspired her newest line.

“Sometimes you need to just stuff something in a suitcase and go,” Crouse says. “And when you take it out, it will still look good. It’s function meets fashion.”

That’s an honorable ambition, for sure. But not nearly as high-minded as the values that underscore every part of Crouse’s small-scale operation.

“I’m interested in the challenge of creating clothes that actually feed the environment,” she says.

This challenge starts at the very beginning of Crouse’s process. She makes all of her clothes out of organic cotton, hemp or raw silk. The cotton and hemp have a similar, soft feel that slips across the fingers. The raw silk is heavier, almost like linen.

Crouse evaluates the sustainability of all her fabrics, dyes and other materials. Currently she is seeking either a replacement for raw silk, or a more sustainable source for the fabric.

She uses low-impact and natural dyes.

The mason jars filled with osage orange, alkanet, logwood, cutch and henna give her fashion studio the feel of a witch doctor’s den.

“I’m thinking about where everything I’m using is going to end up from the very beginning of the process,” Crouse says.

Crouse came by her craftiness genetically. All of her family members crafted, including her grandmother, mother and aunt. She received her first Singer sewing machine when she was just 10 years old. Back then she used the machine to make doll clothes.

“As I grew older and more awkwardly tall,” she says, “I had to manipulate things so they fit me.”

She enrolled at Appalachian State University, studying fashion, and soon transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design. By the time her funding for private school ran out, she found herself in Greensboro, where she transferred once again and changed her major to sculpture.

Crouse sells her clothes on Etsy.com, and works a festival circuit that includes LEAF, Shakori Hills, Tate Street and sometimes Merlefest. She does particularly well in Asheville where she capitalizes on a combination of disposable income and environmental awareness.

“I feel like in Greensboro people are very aware of the problems,” she says. “But they may not have a hundred dollars to spend on a dress.”

Her environmentalism also came at a young age. Ten years ago, Crouse’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that some people believe may be caused by exposure to pollutants. Her dad swam in High Rock Lake during his childhood, at a time when the reservoir was a dumping ground for nearby industry.

Her sculpture also deals with environmental themes. When Coggins first opened the space, Crouse filled it with oxygen tents and leafy plants.

Her house isn’t far from the space. It’s one among a neat row of bungalows on a campus-area side street. She lives there with her boyfriend of seven years, a cat and a dog. Her workspace occupies what would otherwise be a dining room.

Clothes on hangers cover the walls. Old Butterick patterns fill several plastic bins next to the sewing machine and near a serger given to Crouse by her grandmother.

“I roll out the fabric in that room,” she points to the living room. “I make the patterns myself by cutting up and altering other patterns. Then I take everything in here.”

Crouse’s crafts are more vocation than hobby. She makes some money selling at festivals and plans to eventually hire an expert in natural dyes. As it stands her endeavor is a solo effort, and one that requires constant vigilance.

“I just wanted to have a business that is constantly doing what is necessary to be more eco-friendly,” Crouse says. “Bamboo fabric, for instance, is always advertised as environmentally friendly. And if you hear it – bamboo fabric – it sounds so eco-friendly. But it is definitely not eco-friendly. I just really want to do what I say I’m doing.”

Sarah

If you saw the snart perched on top of a mannequin head at the Space, you might be inclined to think it’s a hat.

But to snart creator Sarah Witt, the hat is really more like a prop in a real-time, real-world performance piece.

“This is my personal project while I’m here at Elsewhere,” Witt says.

Witt first visited Greensboro last spring after she won a residency at Elsewhere Artist Collaborative. The Elsewhere directors asked her to return this fall to help them with a video of a performance called “The City,” that they will be presenting at Cambridge University in early December.

Witt, you see, is really more a video and performance artist than a crafter. She attended Syracuse University, received a degree in film and moved to Brooklyn three years ago.

It was in Brooklyn that Witt decided she needed a hat unlike anyone else’s. One Friday night she sat down with her fabric and an outline appeared, almost by magic. She cut and stitched the fabric and lined it with sherpa from an old jacket.

“Everywhere I went people asked me where I got it,” she says. “So last winter I decided to make a business.”

Witt made 70 snarts and had professional tags made. But she didn’t know how to advertise or promote her business, and she sold only 30 of the hats. The experience discouraged the artist, and she decided to abandon the business.

Then this summer Witt traveled to Iceland for a couple of months and worked on a farm. She met a woman, and the conversation turned to the abandoned snart.

“She said, ‘This is something you cannot let go,'” Witt recalls.

As it turns out, the woman had had her own headgear vision decades earlier when she conceived a children’s hat that resembled a SCUBA hood with flaps that turned into a national fad.

Witt makes many of her own clothes. Always has.

“I don’t really have any formal sewing training,” she says. “But I sewed my own college graduation dress.”

When she was in middle school, she convinced her mother to tutor her through a sewing project. The duo produced pajamas – top, bottom and cap – out of plaid flannel.

Witt already launched a website for the snart to facilitate ordering. But she wants to add more and turn hat ownership into a kind of game. Ideally, snart owners could visit the website every time they saw another one of the hats on the street, turning it into a giant game of hide-and-seek.

“When you wear the hat,” Witt says. “It really does transform you. You put it on and you can’t help but have a spunky, lively personality.”

When she lived in Brooklyn, Witt regularly attended local craft nights, where she worked on postcards amongst the knitting needles and crochet hooks. Knitting was popular amongst her New York friends, who were particularly fond of monsters and other beasts. Friends of hers have even turned their hobbies into legitimate occupations thanks to Etsy.com.

“I have some friends who do so well on Etsy they could basically live off it,” she says.

Knitting has never appealed to Witt, mostly because of its popularity.

“I don’t even really like sewing that much,” she says. “It’s so tedious and boring.”

Witt works in a dark corner on the first floor of Elsewhere. She’s parked a snart cart – a converted shopping cart loaded with the hats – near a wall of leather-bound books. During the next couple of weekends, she’ll wheel the cart around downtown hocking her wares to Greensboro’s young professionals.

“I don’t care if I make any money,” she says. “I just want people to be happy.”

If the business takes off this year, she’d like to hand it off to someone else and turn her attentions to her video and performance work. Whatever she does, it’s unlikely Witt will ever leave the world of crafting fully behind.

“There is just something very therapeutic about making stuff,” she says.

To comment on the story, email Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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