Pretty Crafty

7 minute read
TIME

One brutal Winter’s day in New York City, Lisa Bradley, 43, found herself admiring a very bright chartreuse fake-fur coat in the junior department of Saks Fifth Avenue. “It cost $700, and I thought that was insane,” says Bradley, a professor at the Tyler School of Art near Philadelphia. “So I decided to make my own.” She bought a $100 sewing machine and a hundred dollars’ worth of fake orange fur, and when she was done, she had a full-length shawl collar coat with fold-up cuffs. More important, she had taught herself to sew. “I knew if I could make this coat, I would gain a lifetime ability to make things I love.”

That was nine years ago. Since then, Bradley has discarded the orange coat as a victim of ’90s color schemes, but she continues to craft her own fashions. She has recently taken to purchasing vintage skirts from thrift stores and embellishing them with images she has either photographed or created on her computer. She prints them on transfer paper and, with a household iron, customizes the skirts by applying the images to the fabric. “I love the creativity without the pressure of worrying about what’s in style,” she marvels. “I’m my own arbiter of what’s fashionable.”

Just when you thought it was all about knitting, a much broader craft-it-yourself movement has emerged that’s altering modern views about the domestic arts and enabling anyone with the will, the imagination and a sewing machine to create one-of-a-kind fashions. The movement is driven by style-conscious women who are bored by the cookie-cutter apparel sold at stores like Gap and Banana Republic. It’s spread by websites like craftster.org and getcrafty.com which serve as latter-day sewing circles–places to trade ideas, share patterns and post pictures of your best work. And it’s made possible in part by innovative hardware: a new generation of easy-to-use sewing machines equipped with LCD screens that allow you to view and manipulate stitches even before they hit the fabric. Some even connect with your personal computer–no home-ec experience required.

This is not a nostalgia movement. While plenty of women still cut clothes from Simplicity patterns, there is a distinctly hip subset of fashionable crafters who are more interested in sewing as an expression of individuality than as a tradition. “This isn’t your grandmother’s craft,” observes Bostonian Leah Kramer, 30, who likes to take old boxy rock-concert T shirts and transform them into baby-doll fashion statements. “One way to express your creativity is your clothing. If you make a cool dress out of some sheets that you bought at a thrift store, that says a lot about who you are.”

That creative urge has found expression all over the Internet, where hundreds of websites and blogs allow crafty gals and even some guys to find comrades and get tips on how to turn a pillowcase into a skirt or how to sew felt on a blouse. Craftster org which Kramer founded a year ago, has more than 20,000 registered members and attracts 250,000 visitors a month. It has a sensibility that’s not exactly homespun. “There are no craft hearts, bunnies or toilet-paper cozies without irony on Craftster,” Kramer explains by telephone from her Somerville, Mass., store called Magpie on Huron, which specializes in vintage kitsch and quirky goods made by crafters like herself.

Craftster.org is not a commercial enterprise. There are no fees, and the little advertising from craft suppliers and crafty individuals provides just enough revenue to cover operating costs. Rather, it’s about Kramer’s winning effort to use her skills as a computer programmer and craft enthusiast to create a sense of community. “People don’t use Craftster to sell things. They use it to share ideas and techniques,” she says. One of the most popular threads on the site is a how-to-sew-a-handbag tutorial uploaded last fall by a Craftster member named Jordynn (Jordy) Lucier. Since then, hundreds of people have made the Jordy bag, no two exactly alike. That’s the beauty, according to Kramer: “By using their own fabrics and appliqués, people made individual versions that expressed their ingenuity.” Call it open-source crafting. “People even posted suggestions on how to alter the handle, change the shape and add a zipper,” she says.

Other members of this fashion movement have made the leap to selling their creations. Melissa Dettloff, 26, who lives in rural Brooklyn, Mich., likes to take on improbable projects like deconstructing four pairs of thrift-store jeans and using their parts to construct a new pair. But her specialty, which can be seen on her website, lekkner. com, is turning old T shirts into minidresses, halter tops or zippered hoodie sweatshirts. Dettloff sells her wares online and will make customized versions for customers who send her their favorite, outdated Ts. “I’m not into labels or name-brand clothing,” says Dettloff of her craft. “I’m more interested in remaking something old into something new.”

Much of the appeal of such clothing is that each item reflects the caring hand of its creator and has a unique story to tell. Professional designers understand that. Both Marc Jacobs and Prada have added handwrought cachet to their spring collections by embellishing them with crocheted elements. The Wrangler jeans company recently hired Wendy Mullin to design a new line called Wrangler 47. Mullin made her name as a downtown–New York City designer who created custom guitar straps for rock stars and then took her flair for making clothing and filled a whole store with hipster wear. Her creations for Wrangler gave the classic brand a modern update with ’70s rock-‘n’-roll roots. But no one has taken the allure of the handmade further than Natalie Chanin, designer of the chic, individualistic and pricey Project Alabama line (see box).

For some, craft consciousness has a political aspect. “There is a glut of cheap sweatshop-produced clothing out there, and it’s so easy to go overboard and buy too much of it,” says Shoshana Berger, founder and editor of ReadyMade magazine, a bimonthly based in Berkeley, Calif., that provides 100,000 readers mainly in their 20s and 30s with a slate of fashion, home and garden projects. “Not only are people recognizing that this mass-produced stuff is unimaginative, they’re also feeling guilty about supporting unfair labor practices.”

Crafting your own clothes isn’t going to solve the problems of Third World workers, but there’s something rewarding about being resource minded in your own community, says Jean Railla, author of Get Crafty, a guide to do-it-yourself style, and creator of the website getcrafty.com “The idea is that we consume consciously,” says Railla, 34. “That might mean you wear jeans from Old Navy, a T shirt you deconstructed from a thrift store, a vintage blazer and a hand-knit scarf.”

That combination of recycling and innovation has special appeal to a generation that has come of age in a world of global mass marketing. Railla calls it “Generation DIY” (for do it yourself). “It’s so much better than showing off a Prada label,” she says. “When I get dressed, I want to tell the world that I’m creative, complicated and colorful.”

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