For most of them, their work — making small-batch, high-quality home goods — is their life’s passion. Inside the Workshop is a new series in which we will introduce Washingtonians pursuing their craft dreams in basements and spare rooms, backyard sheds and rented studios. What makes this batch stand out? Each — a potter, a woodworker and a knitter — is self-taught, and each took a leap of faith one day when they decided this would be their livelihood.
●Where you live: Round Hill
●What is the one piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?: The pottery wheel.
●“When I’m not making stuff, I’m. . . ”: Everything I do goes to the same end. My work and my wood and my garden. My life is my work, and my work is my life.
David Norton remembers the effort and concentration it took to make pottery in the cold, frigid air of an old mop factory in Cleveland — his first studio space, shared with a friend and fellow artist.
“It was as cold as it could be in the winter,” Norton said. “We had one small woodstove, and we would get as close to the stove as we could. When you’re inside, it’s good to concentrate on your work. You can’t really be distracted.”
Thirty-eight years later, Norton is still making pots, but his studio space has improved drastically. Living and working at his Loudoun County studio, Potterosa, Norton fires up a kiln he built himself, mixes his own glazes and, with the help of fellow artists, creates eight tons of clay with his personal cement mixer every two years.
The result? Hundreds of ceramic veggie steamers, mugs, plates and bowls every year, which have put his daughter through college and paid his bills.
“I always want to improve my work,” Norton said of his ability to churn out so many pieces. “I’m always aware that most people only get one of my pieces of work. I make thousands and thousands, but most people only get one. Each piece I make has to be my best effort.”
Norton did not study pottery or art in college — he received a journalism degree from Ohio University. His father, Norton said, was the first in his family to go to college and instilled in him the belief that going to school to study art wasn’t reasonable. He didn’t even consider making a living as an artist.
When he moved to Cleveland for a job at a department store headquartered there, artistic friends and a girlfriend who took pottery classes inspired him try working with clay. It didn’t take long, he said, for him to fall in love with it. His big leap of faith, and turning moment, came after he was fired from his job. It was then that he decided to make his hobby into his career.
“I squeeze mud for a living. Who does that? It’s not easy,” he said. “You have to love what you do. I love to see evidence of my work. If I was a paper shuffler, I couldn’t see anything happening. It’s tangible.”
●Where you live: Alexandria
●What is the one piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?: Lie-Nielsen hand plane [used to shape and smooth wood].
●“When I’m not making stuff, I’m. . . ”: I play guitar. I have been getting into Delta blues guitar. I cook. I cook almost every meal we eat.
Geremy Coy had only a vision of how he wanted his first piece of furniture to turn out. It was a crib, meant for his sister and brother-in-law. Things became tricky from the start, when the wood he wanted was out of stock and the alternative was notoriously difficult to work with.
“I was working uphill,” Coy said. “It was probably way beyond my abilities at the time. I didn’t know that, and I was probably overly ambitious, but I dove right in.”
The crib turned out fine, and Coy has been honing his skills — and learning lessons — ever since.
Coy, who makes custom wooden tables, chairs, boxes and more entirely by hand, has worked uphill since he started his business five years ago; the most common piece of advice he got from other furniture makers was to “marry well.”
But Coy said he feels strongly about crafting with his hands, and the beauty of what he creates really matters. Through his Web site and word of mouth, his work has drawn enough acclaim for him to earn a living.
“Everyone who has made it work has made it work in their own particular way,” Coy said of fellow woodworkers. “Everyone who has made it work has developed a distinctive voice and vision in what they make.”
So what is Coy’s distinctive vision?
“I try to create things that move even though they are still,” he said. “They provide a feeling of wholeness and groundedness, something that feels alive.”
Coy, who grew up in Maryland and attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, said he draws inspiration from lots of sources: his time studying abroad in France, the architecture of Washington, photographs and artwork he sees in museums.
Using handmade tools from blacksmiths and craftspeople across the country, Coy said, helps give his work a distinction and quality that he can be truly proud of.
“Sawing a board by hand requires more physical effort,” he said. “That difficulty, for me, is the point. And the aesthetic possibilities are interesting. It introduces slight variations in spacing of parts and in thickness of pieces. It makes the thing look better.”
●Where you live: Annandale
●What is the one piece of equipment that you couldn’t live without?: A skein winder my husband hand-built for me.
●“When I’m not making stuff, I’m. . . ”: Tending to our three young sons and sneaking in as many trail runs as possible.
When Sandra Miracle got married, her friends were shocked she didn’t make her own wedding dress.
“I did buy a pair of shoes and dye them,” Miracle said.
Long before Pinterest or blogs, Miracle was crafting, recycling and taking on do-it-yourself projects. After years of telling herself she would try knitting, Miracle borrowed a book from the library in 2010 and taught herself the basics. A dishcloth, scarf and sweater later, she was hooked. In 2012, she began hand-dyeing wool in pursuit of the vibrant colors she wanted for her knitting.
Miracle is now the creative force behind Duck Duck Wool, her business featuring hand-dyed wool, alpaca and silk for knitting. Miracle’s yarns can be found on Etsy and at two local stores, the Knot House in Frederick and Looped Yarn Works in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood.
“People look at color and think, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ ” Miracle said. “For me, it’s personal.”
Each set of yarn Miracle hand-dyes in her Annandale basement is colored and named based on a memory. Chocolate-toned Take the Cake, for example, reminds Miracle of the first cake she made with an Easy Bake Oven as a child.
“I consider the knitters to be the stars of the show, and I just want to make really beautiful wool and colors for them to use,” she said. “Customers tell me that even if they don’t like brown, they love Take the Cake.”
Miracle, a mother of three and former judge’s advocate for the Coast Guard, said her family’s support and her former career as a lawyer have helped her small business.
“I can read a contract and negotiate well,” she said. “But really, being a lawyer has given me the confidence and the ‘why-not?’ attitude to try something a little risky.”
Word of mouth and the popularity of online shopping have also played a big role in her success, Miracle said. She is a regular contributor to Ravelry, an active online knitting community, and was a vendor at the annual Homespun Yarn Party in Savage, Md.
“I am so thankful that people purchase my wool,” she said. If they didn’t, “I would have a lot of wool. I would still dye a lot of wool, because it’s truly another crafting addiction.”