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Sunday, February 6, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Die-hard DIY Divas

Seattle Times staff reporter

Connect — or veg out — with crafts


Stitch 'n Bitch groups can be found at www.stitchnbitch.org. PurlyGirls, one of several groups in the area, has its own Web site: www.purlygirls.org.

The Church of Craft www.churchofcraft.org/doors/seattle

Seattle Knitters' Guild www.scn.org/skg. This group, which is celebrating its 20th year, has a list of local yarn shops on its Web site.

Sewing and Stitchery Expo The largest sewing consumer trade show in the nation will be held March 3-6 at the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup. Visit www.sewexpo.com or call 253-445-4632 for information. Advance tickets are available for $8 at local fabric stores.

"Craft Corner Deathmatch" A new 13-part Ultimate Craft Series described as "Martha Stewart Living meets Iron Chef meets Gladiator" will debut on The Style Network at 10 p.m. March 9. Seattle viewers can see it on Comcast cable channel 183. Comical competition pitting amateur DIYers against each other — homemade handiwork as an extreme sport.

Welcome, fellow crafters!

Today, we're making a quilt about the "explosion of cool" in the crafting and Do-It-Yourself movements, patching together answers to common questions: "Why now?" and "What's knitting got to do with martinis?"

Please squeeze in the back there to make room. As you know, Scarborough Research market data shows that people in Puget Sound are almost twice as likely as the rest of the nation — 27 to 16 percent — to say they've sewn or done crafts in the past year.

Those of you who made it to the "So Much Yarn" sale in Belltown last month will recall the 90-minute wait to check out. Even Jo-Ann Stores, a national craft and fabric retailer, is opening four new superstores here — more than in any other market.

In your sewing baskets, you'll find the threads we'll follow as we explore how this phenomena is tied to cocooning, confidence, and community, not to mention hipness, lack of faith in institutions and a desperate desire to concentrate.

Ready? Let's begin.

How it got hip

For our first patch, let's join a recent night out with the PurlyGirls. Look at all those young, trendy women (and two men) showing off felted furry foot warmers, knitted 1950s trapezoid purses or sharing how friends responded to the handmade gifts: " 'Holy crap! That's awesome!' "

It's cool to be crafty. This generation doesn't worry about being mistaken for their mothers because mama didn't knit, sew or bake: She fought the gender wars, leaving these young women free to be glamorous — or whatever they want.

Welcome to the most confident generation since World War II and what's been called ironic feminism. Home is looking sweeter to us all.

As the crafters go around the room showing off their latest creations, Diana Gates, 27, a frosty lemon-drop cocktail beside her, holds up a striped red hat. Do It Yourself (DIY for short) runs both ways. Her boyfriend took her sewing machine, she says, and added a fleece liner to the cap she knitted for him.

"He's a keeper!" shouts Jessica Rose, 34, who works in "The Fiber Gallery" in Greenwood/Phinney Ridge, one of several new yarn shops to sprout last year.

Rose explains her own passion:

"I'm trying to learn how to spin. My husband asks me, 'Where does all this come from?' This is my 80th craft. I'm a soap maker. I'm a knitter. I'm a terrible seamstress. I just have this urge to get up and make something."

The number of women under 45 who've taken up knitting has doubled in recent years. But knitting swung all the way to hip, these women say, because of Debbie Stoller's "Stitch 'n Bitch, The Knitter's Handbook" (Workman Publishing, 2003, $14), which described traditional women's crafts as feminist and fun.

Stoller — and other writers — wove in funky patterns to match bright new yarns, and taught readers how to knit. Through the offshoot Stitch 'n Bitch groups, Church of Craft, etc., and Internet message boards — "What can I do with an old globe?" — young people created communities around crafting.

The "why now?" is coming up, but first let's hear from Stoller, all the way from New York City, where she's co-founder and editor-in-chief of edgy "Bust" magazine, which shares shelves with titles such as "Real Simple" and "ReadyMade."

Knitting has gone in and out of fashion at least three times in the past 100 years, which appears connected to different waves of the feminist movement, Stoller says. What's going on now is not a backlash but an evolution of feminist thought as "the new generation tries to give what has traditionally been women's work the value it deserves."

Young women are not crafting because they want to make the little man at home happy. They're doing it for themselves.

And along the way they recognize that, jeez, grandma didn't get enough credit. This stuff takes real skill.

Which leads us to another thread — the confidence of these young women.

PurlyGirls' guild?

At the ancient age of 34, Jenna Adorno, a recruiter for Microsoft, has a good view of the craft generation before her in the Seattle Knitters' Guild and the one coming up behind her in PurlyGirls. One sometimes meets in a church basement. The other in a bar or coffeehouse.

The Knitters' guild has some of the most accomplished knitters around, Adorno says. They have an appreciation for history, formal training, and exact details. The PurlyGirls are more likely to knit things out of the new techno yarns and even rubber bands. Sometimes they make up their own patterns.

But that doesn't mean they don't also have a lot to teach, says Adorno, who has patterns in the new "Stitch 'n Bitch Nation" (Workman Publishing, 2004, $15) and will be featured in a March 21 episode of "Knitty Gritty" on the cable DIY Network. (DIY Network is seen in the Seattle area via Comcast on Channel 203, and on Millennium Digital on Channel 217.)

"They have this real confidence and exuberance," she says, part of which may come from growing up not questioning who they are as women, and part from youth. "Knit it up and think it's great."

Refuge in retro

OK. Questions, anyone?

Knitting does not a Do It Yourself movement make, and we still have several patches to cover, including the '50s/'60s flavor and corporate backlash. Let's go to Asheville, N.C., where we find a woman in the heart of what was the Fiber Belt before the U.S. shipped industries overseas.

Lisa Shoemaker, 37, has friends who, for more than three generations, salvaged factory mill ends and bought out the great textile houses as they went out of business. Like all good fabric people, they are hoarders, Shoemaker says. But every third Monday for three hours, they let her — and only her — take what she wants from fabric dating back to the 1940s, stacked ceiling high in old chicken factories and warehouses.

She gives some to museums, sells some to be copied for new retro fabrics, and sells the rest through her Web site: Make Me! Vintage Fabrics (www.makemefabrics.com).

Both the DIY movement and fashion reflect an anticorporate mood, Shoemaker says.

Everybody eats at the same restaurants and wears the same clothes. We've seen layoffs, loss of pensions after 35 years with the same company, threats to Social Security and "the cost of health insurance is a joke."

The American Dream isn't there for a lot of people, so let your imagination go in a different direction.

Just as the Industrial Age spawned the Arts & Crafts movement, so the Information Age is begetting the Creative movement, in which individuals take charge of their own lives.

Fashion has gone over the top with a handmade look, Shoemaker says. "It's really big to have your seams showing and things like raw edges and big chunky stitching instead of nice little French seams."

People are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, which has led to an interest in gardening and support for small businesses. They want less, but better.

But how does she explain Internet chat rooms where young people swap crock-pot recipes made with Velveeta and ways for getting Jell-O out of a mold?

That's about 9/11. A refuge from too much chaos, too many options. Climbing under our desks again, we've fallen back on "mid-century" ideals, comforts and style, including fuzzy sweaters.

"The bottom line is, I don't know what happened in the 1950s," says Shoemaker. To reflect a "morphing collective consciousness," retro fashion only needs base images, in this case, post-war prosperity, unity and confidence.

"It was kind of a rigid time but we romanticize it as the time of innocence."

Multitask no more

As we finish our quilt, let's talk about crafts and DIY as an antidote to "cognitive overload," the world in which a deep thought is gunned down by interruptions.

Bill Sykes, vice president of programming for the DIY Network, a cable digital network with 31 million viewers, says their shows don't really talk "why," they talk "how." You don't even have to take notes. They have step-by-step instructions for 15,000 projects on their Web site (www.DIYnetwork.com).

If we're all really too busy, why are an estimated 70 million crafters across the nation adding more to their lives?

Well, take woodworking, as an example, Sykes says. Part of the appeal is working with your hands. But that's quality time freshened by total concentration instead of being dragged every which way by e-mail or phone calls.

"A lot of these people are doctors and lawyers and in very high-pressure jobs," Sykes says. Spend an hour in the woodshop and everything else goes away. "It's a wonderful relief."

The same is true of sewing , says Amy Ellsworth, who worked at Amazon.com before deciding to go it on her own. She opened Stitches, a fabric and yarn store at 711 E. Pike St. (www.stitchesseattle.com) 18 months ago. Like most area stores, it offers classes.

So many people work at jobs that aren't necessarily satisfying, she says. Sewing, crafting or building an Adirondack chair allows people to be openly creative and gain confidence doing it.

"You want a gorilla costume for Halloween?" she asks. "We'll figure out a way."

Some of the PurlyGirls knitters get up at 5 a.m. to get their kids to day care before work. Some nights, they have to attend classes for work.

But Monday nights are their own.

They knit. They listen. They laugh.

Maybe all of the above is why we're getting into crafts, but for most people, Ellsworth says, "it's not that deep" — and Stoller agrees.

It's not about self improvement, she says. It's not about weight loss. It's not about getting better at her job.

"It just adds pleasure to my life."

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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