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We’re heading into the last full weekend of holiday shopping. For some of us, iPads and e-readers are the hottest gifts. For others, though, nothing beats handmade.
As it turns out, making, selling and buying crafts is more popular — and profitable — than ever.
It's not a stretch to say crafting is cooler these days, too. Knitting, embroidery, silk-screening, making terrariums — all of these pursuits, and many more, are being embraced by hipsters, fine artists and consumers.
To explore this trend I headed to Craftboston’s Holiday Show at the Cyclorama in Boston’s South End this past weekend. It’s held by the Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1897, making it the oldest craft society in the nation. For longtime executive director Beth Ann Gerstein crafting has always been cool — but she has observed a shift.
"You know, we live in an Ikea world, for lack of a better word, and I think that the nice thing about the craft community is the stories behind it," Gerstein said. "Who’s the maker? What’s their inspiration? Why did you as a customer buy it? Why did you connect with it?"
The wares at Craftboston are high-end — not necessarily what you’d encounter at a church or school fair. You can find fine wooden purses, quilted messenger bags and expressive robots made of vintage cans and boxes.
Artist Deb Kracht describes her creations.
“These particular things are a combination of my love of going to antique shows and flea markets," she said, then packed a little "bot" in bubble wrap.
This Palmer-based "tinkerer," as she calls herself, started early, peddling homemade greeting cards on her block as a kid. Business is brisk for her this holiday season, both at this fair and online.
The Internet has played a major role in raising the craft scene’s profile and marketability.
"You can immediately show off what you do within five minutes instead of five months," claimed Maine artist Mike Libby. He makes intricate insect sculptures using real bugs. Words cannot do them justice. He usually sells them, and his other works, in fine art galleries, but crafting’s new "cred" has blurred the lines.
Like everyone interviewed for this story, Libby credits one particular website for boosting awareness — Etsy.com — a popular online marketplace with 800,000 virtual stores.
"I don’t think this is anything new, I think people are just finding out about it, you know?" said career crafter Jenn Bell.
Bell traveled here from Pennsylvania and admits, quite proudly, that she grew up in the "old lady section of McCrory’s." Now she makes decorative pieces by fusing crushed glass to sheets of copper in a kiln. While Bell admitted she's thrilled about crafting "going viral," she also said, "You know as much as we know Etsy and (I) think it’s coming to the forefront and everybody’s doing this and stuff, the Internet is sort of killing this, you know?"
Then she continued, "You can’t buy my stuff online — and I do that on purpose because I sell to stores, and I’m trying to support brick and mortar stores because I want that to survive. Seeing stuff and touching stuff is really important."
Alison Gordon agrees, and it's one of the reason why she thinks the store she manages is doing well.
"You can’t tell the quality of a purse until you have it in your hands," she explained.
Magpie is a funky, brick and mortar gift shop in Somerville’s Davis Square.
"We have a big sale the first Thursday of December every year, and I checked our numbers over the past few years. We’re up 25 percent over last year, 60 percent over 2009, which is crazy! We didn’t realize it had gone up that much," Gordon said.
Gordon isn’t worried about internet competition. She says Etsy and the Internet in general help her find new artists and track trends. For instance, terrariums are flying off the shelves this year.
Gordon is also one of six artists who organize Bazaar Bizarre Boston, a low-brow, D-I-Y craft fair held in early December. It also had a banner year.
And then there are those of us who make stuff without ever intending to sell it. According to the Craft & Hobby Association, 63 million American households contribute to the $28 billion industry.
Kelly Wilkinson is included in that number.
"I certainly should say I still feel like a dork working on all of my craft projects," Wilkinson said with a laugh, "but it is a kind of a nice bonus that it seems to be considered kind of cool these days."
Wilkinson’s day job is public radio reporter at KQED in San Francisco, but she’s also author of the new book, “Weekend Handmade.” She's making leather necklaces as gifts this year, and a hand-sewn fort for her nieces.
"The hand of someone making it is just so meaningful to me, that’s why I spend all this time and turn my dining room into a crafting war zone this time of year," she said.
And she’s not alone. Full disclosure: I’m a crafter, too. This weekend I will be silk-screening towels and making magnets instead of heading to the mall.
This program aired on December 16, 2011.
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