Handmade Gifts for the Holidays

There’s been a resurgence of crafting in the Pittsburgh region, so if you want to make someone happy this holiday, consider gifts made by hand.

Set of 12 adorable magnets packaged in a tin, $7, at WildCard.

Photos by Becky Thurner Braddock

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Crafting comes from the basic, almost-primal desire to make something with your own hands. It’s a love affair that starts early and keeps on growing. Ask a member of Pittsburgh’s crafting community how he or she began creating handmade goods, and you’ll probably hear about a childhood passion for glitter, safety scissors and colorful scraps of felt.

Many local crafters learned to sew or knit from their parents and grandparents. As adults, they’ve continued making things by hand because it brings as much joy now as it did back then. Turning a profit is probably not their top priority.

And, yet, a funny thing has happened during the past half-dozen years: Crafting is booming in western Pennsylvania—not just as a hobby, but as a business, too. With a growing roster of local stores and craft fairs of all sizes showcasing their wares year-round, local crafters are finding a hungry audience eager to pay for their creations.

For some, crafting has become a full-time job. For others, it’s a healthy side business. A cohesive community has blossomed, spearheaded mainly by the Pittsburgh Craft Collective and organizers of the Handmade Arcade fairs. Beyond opportunities to sell, there are skill workshops, which are small-group gatherings (some dubbed “crafternoons”) that mix creativity with socializing and plenty of opportunities for networking.

Veteran crafters or total newbies are all welcome. And holiday shoppers in search of distinctive gifts may be the luckiest ones of all. Pittsburghers have access to a huge array of gorgeous and inventive creations to give or to keep as their own personal treats. One example among many: the dreamy wind chimes made by Stacey Magda, of Pittsburgh’s River Rats Designs, from objects found while keeping the three rivers clean.

What’s out there, where can you find it, and how did this whole thing come about?

Planting Seeds

The recent explosion of crafting in this region doesn’t surprise the artists who set up tables at Construction Junction for Pittsburgh’s first Handmade Arcade in 2004. But it certainly delights them.

A group of 32 crafters sold goods at that inaugural sale. One crafter was Jennifer Baron, a native Pittsburgher who creates T-shirts, fashion accessories and greeting cards under the label Fresh Popcorn Productions. She remembers how happy she was when an estimated 1,000 shoppers turned out to browse and buy during the one-day event.

Baron had just returned to Pittsburgh after living in Brooklyn for several years, where she had helped launch an online crafting collective called Polka Dot Life. Things were beginning to bubble around the country: Craftster.com launched the year before and was becoming a popular virtual gathering spot. The annual Bazaar Bizarre, which began in Boston in 2001, spread to Los Angeles and Cleveland, and was getting national attention. Ditto for Renegade Craft Fair, which began in Chicago in 2003 before spreading to New York and elsewhere.

Like many others, Baron sought a flesh-and-blood community of crafters. She was delighted to find the seeds of such a community growing in her hometown.

“I was moving back here, but it was like moving to a new city,” says Baron, who eventually became a co-organizer of Handmade Arcade. “I felt this energy and this new community forming. People were blurring the lines between production and consumerism. … It goes hand in hand with the indie rock scene, with bands putting out their own music online. People were [thinking]: Why can’t it be the same way with housewares or clothing?”

Crafting has always been part of the Pittsburgh landscape through events like the Three Rivers Arts Festival. The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, originally named the Arts and Crafts Center of Pittsburgh, dates back to 1945. And the Society for Contemporary Craft, which began as the wonderfully titled Store for Arts and Crafts and People-Made Things, has been in existence since 1971.

But the interest in crafting in Pittsburgh—from the perspective of creators and buyers—has grown tremendously during the past decade: Five years after the first Handmade Arcade event, the group’s 2009 event boasted 90 vendors (still mostly local), culled from more than 350 applicants from around the world. In a single day, this sale at the Hunt Armory in Shadyside drew an estimated 9,000 shoppers who snapped up everything from jewelry and clothing to glassware and ceramics.

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