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.

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.



Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock   

Watch them Grow

In the spring of 2007, Pittsburgh hosted the first-ever Craft Congress, funded by a grant from The Sprout Fund. The goal, Baron says, was to “bring together the organizers of events like Handmade Arcade from around the country—50 movers and shakers from the indie craft world—to talk about how we could better connect and share resources.”

Also in 2007, the first I Made It Markets started to pop up in the area. Local crafter Carrie Nardini, who founded this series of nomadic fairs, drew on her experiences working in the nonprofit and corporate sectors to provide opportunities for individual artists to be vendors, she says.

Nardini also partnered with nonprofits and community organizations to raise funds and awareness about their efforts. Last year, she collaborated with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh to bring local crafters to the museum on several consecutive Saturdays for hands-on projects with kids.

By the time the 2007 holiday season began, buyhandmade.org, a website launched by a consortium of crafting and craft-selling groups, drew more than 6,500 people from around the world who pledged to buy only handmade gifts or to give their own handmade creations. (Today, that number has skyrocketed beyond 50,000.)

Crafting was big everywhere. And in this region, shoppers had regular access to handmade goodies, not just at fairs, but also at brick-and-mortar stores like Pavement in Lawrenceville and More than Words Fine Papers in Mt. Lebanon, too.
Then, in 2008, the Pittsburgh Craft Collective was launched. It offers its own annual craft fair—called, in true Pittsburgh style, Crafts ’n At—that raises money for local charities. With a growing membership of more than 60 people, the PCC has become a central hub for crafters of all levels of experience. In recent months, stores called WildCard (in Lawrenceville) and So Me (in Glenshaw) celebrated their first anniversaries, thriving amid a fairly crowded field of stores specializing in locally made creations. And this past summer, designer Rachel Vallozzi unveiled yet another: Pageboy Salon & Boutique, also in Lawrenceville, which showcases her own handmade goodies and the work of others.

Here to Stay?

For so many reasons, handmade goods seem … well, custom-made for this moment in American life.

Crafted pieces offer a refreshing personalization in an increasingly depersonalized world. That personal connection—knowing you’ve bought something made locally by someone who is, in a sense, your neighbor—is very Pittsburgh. Many local crafters are happy to accept custom orders for jewelry or clothing.

Recycling and repurposing are huge because Pittsburghers care about the environment and are a nostalgic bunch (much of the work of local crafters has a kitschy, ’50s- and ’60s-era bent to it). And do-it-yourself culture has continued growing nationwide with cable shows on TV reminding people daily that they really can create gorgeous, retail-worthy items with only the skills that come naturally.

Etsy.com, the hugely popular online clearinghouse, now makes it easy for local crafters to sell nationally; it’s just as easy for local buyers to search for local crafters.

Prices are appealingly low, perhaps even lower than these talented crafters should be charging.

What started as a loosely bound group of creative people has grown into a thriving industry and bustling community. This fall, Nardini left her full-time job to concentrate on crafting (her Kiddy Kapes are pictured) and running her pop-up craft fairs; she also has plans to teach other crafters about the business end of the handmade world.

And this spring, the organizers of Handmade Arcade plan to make a leap to an even larger venue than they’ve used in recent years. Dates and locations are still being confirmed, but they expect to draw more than 9,000 people— a far cry from where the event began six years ago.

A majority of the vendors will still be from around the region, and the sensibility will remain low-tech and closely tied to those childhood days of felt and glitter. Big business and down-home craftiness—a delicate balance, but one the City of Steel is awfully good at.

On these pages, you’ve found just the tip of the iceberg—a selection of goodies by locals that only begins to approximate the range of stuff you can find in Pittsburgh. They make unique, wonderfully affordable gifts. Perhaps knowing a bit about how they came about will make them even sweeter.

Happy shopping!

Melissa Rayworth writes about a mix of cultural issues—from sexual politics and popular culture to home design and parenting—for a variety of national news outlets, including The Associated Press, babble.com and salon.com.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, From the Magazine