Crafts With an Edge
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Oct. 2, 2009
You can trace its roots to the Great Knitting Craze of 2001.
That's when hip 20-somethings began to dust off Grandma's knitting needles -- then her sewing machine, her embroidery thread and kitschy ceramics -- and marched forward (or some might say backward) into a new movement that celebrates the handmade and the one-of-a-kind.
But make no mistake: This ain't your Grandma's craft.
This generation of do-it-yourselfers -- who call themselves alt-crafters or indie crafters -- cranks out cheeky mittens; clever T-shirts; cute, plush breakfast toast.
Washington has one of the most prolific alt-craft communities in the country, and if the crafters had a mecca, it would be Crafty Bastards. Every year, hundreds of applicants vie for a spot to sell their weird wares in the juried art and crafts fair, set for Saturday in Adams Morgan. Expect 150 vendors, concessions and an all-day break-dance competition.
"When you buy something from a fair, you get to talk to an artist, and then . . . you have a great story about something you bought," says director Kim Dorn, explaining the success of the fair, which is in its sixth year.
So we at Weekend are giving you a preview: On the pages that follow, we profile four local artists you can meet tomorrow. And if their stories motivate you to get crafty, they're also sharing some of their favorite crafting-community events, blogs and even craft-supply shops.
"Our generation is taking the meaning of the word craft and just redefining it," explains Faythe Levine, 31, a documentarian who chronicled the phenomenon in her film "Handmade Nation" (which will be screened free at the Renwick Gallery on Nov. 21). "It's not just about starting your own business . ... It's very empowering. When people complete something they've made by hand, they feel very good about it."
Specialty: Illustrated moleskin notebooks and multimedia "knit paintings"
Price range: Notebooks, $12 to $22. Neoprene lunch bags, $20. Paintings range from $320 to $600.
When you imagine a "crafter," maybe you envision a frizzy-haired marm in a den of glue, ribbons and tacky buttons. A cat lady.
What you don't expect is Rania Hassan, a warm and open-faced 30-something graphic designer -- who practically apologizes for being an "older" indie crafter -- showing you around her meticulously organized dining room/workspace in the District's Bloomingdale neighborhood. The walls are a vibrant chartreuse, the curtains covetable; it's all so artistic and bohemian, like her work.
Hassan studied art in college in Lebanon and moved to Washington in 2000 to work for the White House creating posters and exhibits. But it was her work designing the White House coloring books during the Bush administration that seems to have had the most impact on her notebooks, some of which bear little stories and doodly, pen-and-ink drawings.
More recently, Hassan has been getting attention for her "knit paintings," small oil-based works of laboring hands from which weblike knit pieces are draped. "What I'm really showing is how knitting connects us to the generations that came before us," she says of the works. In May, she received a craft award for her paintings from the James Renwick Alliance, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, and from Oct. 17 to Nov. 14, she'll feature them in a show at Gallery Neptune in Bethesda.
Hassan has kept her day job working for the government through it all but finds herself devoting every spare moment to her craft.
"What people don't realize [is] it's fun, but it's also a lot of work," she says. "The making of it is maybe 25 percent. Just the other day, I was talking with my husband [glass artist Sean Hennessey] . . . and we were talking about
'If I went back to school right now, what would I want to study?'
"And I said I would probably want to study business. Or public relations."
Hassan's Go-To Resources:
Sit 'n' Knit at the Renwick
"Meet some amazing local knitters, while surrounding yourself with art at the Smithsonian Renwick Gallery," Hassan says. Sit 'n' Knit continues through November on the first and third Tuesday of the month from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and the second and fourth Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. 202-633-1000. Free.
Online handmade marketplace Etsy "The handmade movement would be nothing without Etsy and the awesome support business network that comes with it. If you're interested in this movement, this site is vital."
Jon Wye, http://www.jonwye.com
Specialties: Printed leather belts, dog collars and wrist cuffs; also designs T-shirts
Price range: Belts, $65; cuffs, $20; dog collars, $28-$35; T-shirts, $20-$36
Ask Jon Wye whether he's part of the alt-craft movement, and he'll demur: He has been too busy building his leather-belt business to run in the craft circles.
More than any other maker here, Wye seems almost post-craft. His ambitions are to build his brand and expand his line beyond the belts, cuffs and T-shirts that he currently makes; next up are guitar straps. He shyly mentions dreams of wide recognition for his work (an accessories and T-shirt brand like Ed Hardy comes to mind).
Evidence of his growing empire: Wye, 30, hires other artists to collaborate on the "intellectual pop" designs that adorn his belts. Outside artists also help design and print the T-shirts. And his workshop -- the back of his parents' Capitol Hill home -- is full of massive machinery that hints at imminent industrialization: an industrial sewing machine; a hulking thing whose only job is to punch out perfect little belt holes; another noisy device plugs in his signature rivets (which bear a little explosive poof that he had custom-made in an ambitious batch of 25,000.) He has given up his job, moved back in with his parents and taken out loans to completely focus on his goals.
For now, however, you can still find Wye's fingerprints all over his wares. He's the one in the workshop, thinning the leather and printing it with the designs; the method involves printing the leather like a tattoo artist might tattoo skin, getting the dyes beneath the surface.
Having pinned down his process ("We're very industrial about things this year," he concedes), he's focusing on the business side. Says Wye: "My dad sat me down at one point, and he said, 'You love making this stuff. You hate selling it.' So I had to learn to love to sell it."
These days, he's got his approach down to a science. "All of it matters. Every little piece," he says, ticking off his market-day rules. "I will always stay late at an event. I will never pack up early no matter how bad the show is. I will always stand and be in an attentive position; never any sunglasses, always wearing my own product."
Wye's Go-To Resources:
Printer Tony Tribby of Dead Bat Designs
"He's literally your local T-shirt printer you can talk to you," Wye says. Visit http://www.scheduledshirts.com or call 703-373-3740.
Weaver Leather in Mount Hope, Ohio
Wye buys his leather from this company in Ohio's Amish country. "If you talk to them on the phone, they are the freaking nicest people in the world," he says. "And basically their catalogue was my 101 class." Visit http://www.weaverleather.com.
Kristina Bilonick, http://www.kristinabilonick.com
Specialty: Hand-printed T-shirts, vintage ties and scarves
Price range: T-shirts, $20; ties, $12
You could liken Kristina Bilonick's career to a pie chart.
She has been, in no particular order: a gallerista (at Govinda, the longstanding Georgetown gallery); an artist (she recently had work in a show at Honfleur Gallery); an outside-the-box party planner (she helped put synchronized swimmers in the Capitol Skyline pool for the Washington Project for the Arts).
Then there was her very first job out of art school, the year she spent as a screen printer at a T-shirt shop in Connecticut. It was tedious. Awful.
But here she is, still printing almost 10 years later, though now for her eponymous business that she runs out of a hip artist studio in Chinatown, on her terms.
Bilonick, a bubbly child of the '80s, dreams up designs that bear the same pop quality as her art. There is a Michelle Obama T-shirt; vintage ties with phrases such as "Let's Get Famous," drawn from pop music and movies; and lately, lots of buffalo and deer.
"It feels like something I can't stop doing," she says. "The shirts are kind of one-offs -- an art project that doesn't require an artist statement.
"The biggest kick I get out of it is, like, being on a bus and seeing someone wearing a shirt you made," she says. "I don't even really care about the money." Which may explain why she sells her wares for a good bit less than other T-shirt makers who frequent craft fairs.
Bilonick, 32, imagines a future in which maybe she's a Spike Jonze type, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But she's a little worried about the future of indie craft and her place in it.
"I have this scary feeling that the craft movement is not necessarily dying, but . . . like it reached its peak a couple of years ago," she says. "All of a sudden, the masses all decided they want to make their own stuff.
"Maybe three or four years ago, if I was at a craft fair, people would be like. 'Oh, my God, you made this yourself? That's so awesome, how do you do it?' And my insecurity is now, people see a T-shirt and they're like, 'Anyone can do this.' "
Bilonick's Go-To Resources:
Clothing and accessories retailer Fred Flare, http://www.fredflare.com
"I'm constantly checking this site, which is chock-full of fun and trendy clothing, accessories and housewares," Bilonick says. "It's all super poppy and cheeky. . . . They hold an annual craft/design contest called the Next Big Thing that is so fun to watch and vote on."
Art suppliers Dick Blick and Utrecht
Dick Blick has "great prices, and my orders always arrive in a couple days even if I choose the cheapest shipping,"
Bilonick says. "I stock up on mesh and fabric inks from their screen-printing section."
Utrecht is where she goes when she needs supplies in a pinch. "They're like family after shopping there, and I feel like a rock star when I walk in and they all know me and what I'm looking for." Visit Dick Blick at
http://www.dickblick.com; Utrecht is at 1250 I St. NW. 202-898-0555.
Cotton Monster, www.cottonmonster.com
Specialty: Plush sculptures made of recycled fabrics
Price range: Baseball-size pieces are $25; other toys run $35 to $100.
Jennifer Strunge spends about eight hours a day in one apricot-colored room in her Baltimore home, snipping up old shirts and blankets and burning up her Bernina.
But the room looks more like a chimerical toy store than a crafting sweatshop. Everywhere you look, there is plush: sea creatures with striped bellies and droopy, bottom-feeder eyes; gummy snaggletooth monsters with polka-dot foreheads; baseball-size eyeball sculptures. In one corner, in fact, there's a pink plush mountain made entirely of eyeballs (that one is not so much a monster as an art piece, Strunge explains).
"I definitely grew up on 'Sesame Street' and 'Where the Wild Things Are,'" says Strunge, 27, who studied fiber at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where her thesis project was a big bed with monsters coming out from under it. "I had a really good response from that," she recalls. "I got the sense that people wanted them, but couldn't necessarily afford to buy a big, giant one, so I came up with ways to scale them down smaller and smaller."
By 2005, she had started her line of monsters. The colors and prints of the recycled fabrics she uses -- stripes and polka dots, bright pinks and greens and oranges -- reinforce her hope that the monsters are embraced as cute (or at least quirky), rather than creepy. And they are definitely all about the details: Every monster has handmade eyes. There are no patterns. Maybe it takes a little longer, Strunge says, but her buyers appreciate it.
"I think I caught it right at the verge, when people started to be really interested in buying handmade. People want to have something unique and individual," she says.
"I don't have a line of yellow monsters -- there's just one. Each one is one-of-a-kind."
Strunge's Go-To Resources:
Plush you!, http://plushyou.blogspot.com
Plush You! is "a great blog and book for those into buying or making plush," Strunge says. "This blog is written by
Kristen Rask, who runs Schmancy, a shop in Seattle. She posts new plush work she has discovered, insightful interviews with other plush makers, as well as great resources for workshops and upcoming shows to apply for. I read it every day!"
Thrifting is in keeping with the green spirit of indie craft -- and it helps keep costs down. Strunge heads to Value Village and similar thrift stores in Baltimore for shirts and other items to cut up for fabric. "Find colors you like and feel them, stretch them, get inspired and be sure to go on half-price days, " she says.
Crafty Bastards Arts and Crafts Fair Marie Reed Learning Center, 18th Street and Wyoming Avenue NW. (Metro: Woodley Park or Dupont Circle). Free. For a full list of vendors, visit http://www.washington citypaper.com/craftybastards.