From trendy Georgetown shops to suburban department stores, buyers and sellers are cashing in on the demand for American country crafts.
There was a time when one had to raid Great Grandma's attic trunk or travel to places like Appalachia to discover such rural artifacts as patchwork quilts, rag rugs, stenciled pieces, hand-crafted toys and weathervanes. Now these down-home delights are crammed into department store sections labeled "Americana," "The American General Store" and "Country Classics." It looks like the "country craze" is going to stay in the big city for a while.
Those wanting to add country flair to urban decor with the newest (make that oldest) in home decorating -- whether with a hand-carved duck decoy or hand-woven straw basket -- are discovering that getting back to basics can be expensive. Grandma would be shocked to know what one of her family patchwork quilts costs in a metropolitan retail store. Some recent department-store prices: large patchwork pillow, $75; reproduction of a child's painted sled, $160; painted wooden angel with a trumpet on a stick (reminiscent of an old weathervane), $32.
There is hope, however, for all of you wanting to add rustic charm to your home without spending a fortune: craft fairs, and there are still a number left this fall.
Because most of these fairs are "juried" (the artisan's work must be judged good enough by a special committee in order to participate), quality of the work is often top-notch.
Often unknown to many city buyers, area artisans have been selling their handiwork at crafts fairs for years. Now retail stores are grabbing up their products and often selling them for at least twice the fair price.
Nancy Walz, for example, who lives on a family farm in Middletown, Md., specializes in old-fashioned -- and authentic -- 18th-century dried flower bouquets, herb wreaths and traditional baskets. A number of her baskets are on display at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. Hand-woven of reed, the baskets are dyed with natural dyes like madder root, logwood, onion skins, herbs and wildflowers in various earthy tones. They are priced from $12 to $75 at a crafts fair; some of the same baskets are three times that at area department stores. Herb wreaths, for which she uses only her home-grown herbs and wildflowers, sell for $28 and $40 at fairs; similar ones in department stores are priced at $75.
Although she sells to a number of local stores and to shops as far away as New England, Walz enjoys working the crafts shows and selling directly to her customers. "More and more craft buyers," she says, "are seeking the individual craftsperson out."
Another country craft well represented at local crafts festivals is quilting, which vividly captures America's spirit of individualism and reflects a specific time period, way of life or geographic area. Whether the modern-day quilter reaches back to the past with its wealth of patterns or creates new, personal designs, the quilting is no longer made just to keep warm on a cold winter night, but shows up in pillows, wall hangings, table cloths and clothes.
Carol Kosciw of Fairfax, Va., one of many quilters selling at local fairs, feels she is preserving a "dying craft" by doing her entire project by hand.
She uses only traditional patterns for her specialty, patchwork pillows in basic colors like blues and browns. The $18 price tag is a "steal," considering that it takes her about five hours to make one pillow.
David Garlich, Germantown, Md., a woodworker most of his life, says his biggest craft-show sellers are jewel boxes ($20 to $48) and music boxes ($28 to $42), prices depending on the intricacy of inlay work. Some of the woods he works with include walnut, cherry, ash, African mokore' and African benin. His country stools ($18-$20) are made with standard pine bottoms and Douglas fir tops.
Although he knows there is easier and more profitable work, "Everytime someone comes to a show and appreciates or buys my work," he says, "I am gratified."
Woodworker Regis Sholtis, Olney, Md., is another regular at craft fairs with his pine, sassafras, walnut and cherry boxes, often with a hand-carved lid. They sell for $10.50 to $25 at fairs, and double that price at area specialty shops. Sholtis also makes wooden toys and models of old cars. Two favorites are models of a 1922 Chevy pickup truck with six loose logs ($9) and a 1909 Buick race car ($6). His large, five-car train of walnut and pine sells for $45.
Influenced by her country's contribution to American folk art, Dutch-born Aleida Snell of Darnestown, Md., offers a wide variety of primitive folk art pieces for sale at area craft festivals. Snell uses traditional pieces as a source of ideas -- "To make something look old," she says, "is very hard" -- and also creates original designs.
Snell's wooden weathervane plaques in the shapes of horses, pigs, cows, chickens are especially big sellers. The $15 price tag at fairs is reasonable when compared with smaller versions in department stores selling for $23 to $25. Snell's New England whaler is available in a small size (about 17 inches) for $15; and a large size (about 28 inches), $35. (The large version sells for $70 in a Georgetown Foundry Mall shop.)
For buyer or browser, fall festivals offer not only a cornucopia of now-chic country crafts at a bargain, they're fun. Authentic celebrations of Americana.