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Handicrafters Are Getting With the Program : Computers: Those who enjoy home crafts are finding special PC programs helpful, particularly in designing and making holiday gifts.


This holiday season, crafty gift givers will be stringing beads, arranging silk flowers, painting shirts, sewing ornaments--and importing their favorite fonts and icons into their multimegabyte art programs.

There's nothing wrong with this homey picture. The age-old tradition of crafting is taking a more high-tech approach with software for the creative person who also owns a personal computer.

There are computer-generated greeting cards, gift wrapping paper, calendars, address labels and decoupage flowers to be made. One program even lets the home artisan concoct almost any kind of design for gift items that can be ordered within seconds.

Are artisans worried about mixing silk screens with PC screens? Hardly.

"I see it as helping, not replacing many crafts," said Susan Brandt, assistant executive director of the Hobby Industry Assn. in Elmwood Park, N.J. "Ironically, a great many crafters are not really very talented. This can just make the things you make more professional looking."

Talent notwithstanding, Americans do love to create--whether they do it to relax, save money or make money--and they're doing so in increasing numbers.

Ninety percent of all U.S. households now have at least one person engaged in craft work, up from 82% two years ago and 64% in 1988, a recent HIA survey found. The trade group says 79% of home crafters gave their projects as gifts, while 49% used them for holiday decorating.

That can create some healthy revenue for sellers of raw materials and kits, considering that the average crafter makes 11 to 23 purchases a year.

Michaels Stores Inc., the nation's largest craft store chain, says sales jumped 50% from 1991 to 1993. For the whole industry, sales totaled $9.63 billion in 1993, up from $6.82 billion in 1991, according to HIA.

The popularity of home crafting has hardly gone unnoticed by software makers. They're rushing out programs to make creativity a little easier with advanced tools that manipulate text, photos, graphics, even sound.

"The computer gives you a new outlet for creativity," said David Tremblay, research director for the Software Publishers Assn.

The SPA reports that sales on the wholesale level in the home creativity category, including art and craft programs, jumped 106% during the first half of the year.

While some programs are designed to help with a specific craft--like creating stencils and needlework patterns or computing dimensions for woodworking--others act like mini-craft shops themselves when working with a printer (preferably color) and specialized paper.

For instance, Print Artist by Maxis lets you make personalized stationery and calendars, among other things. Print Shop Deluxe by Broderbund makes posters and decoupage flowers, MECC's Tessel Mania! has fancy patterns for gift-wrapping, and Microsoft's Special Occasions DesignPack has dozens of special occasion greeting card designs.

Any good word processing or art program can also produce things like address labels, gift tags, business cards, place mats, coloring books or personalized storybooks. Each has its own fancy borders, picture "icons" or letter fonts that can be "imported," or shared with one another.

Family PC magazine, which calls the computer "a craft maker's dream," suggests using a simple drawing program to make redeemable home coupons. "Favors can range from bed-making chores to treating the recipient like a king or queen for a day," it says.

Maxis Corp., publisher of Print Artist, takes a more sophisticated approach. Its just-released Gift Maker program lets users put personalized designs, even photographs, on an assortment of merchandise, from $9.95 Christmas ornaments to $68.95 Windbreaker jackets, using hundreds of design templates, canned graphics and special fonts.

The items, made by Artistic Greetings of Elmira, N.Y., can be ordered in seconds via computer modem or by mailing a floppy disk.

Teaming low-tech crafting with the latest in high technology may seem like an unlikely mix, but even some of the more traditional artisans are crossing the line.

"I came to it kicking and screaming," said Kenn Oberrecht, an avid woodworker from North Bend, Ore., and author of "How to Open and Operate a Home-Based Craft Business."

"Now I wonder why I didn't use it three or four years ago."

Oberrecht says the $100 woodworking program he recently purchased cuts by 25% the time it takes to make his beloved wooden mug trees, planters, bookcases and tables--items often given as gifts during the holidays. After plugging in dimensions for a desired project, the computer tells him where to cut on a block of wood and even what to do with leftover wood pieces.

"The work isn't always fun. This takes away a lot of the tedium involved," he said, noting the availability of similar time-saving programs for other crafts often advertised in specialized publications.

For all its advantages, though, Oberrecht doesn't think the tools of the computer will ever match the human skill or the thrill of dreaming up creations and assembling them with your hands.

"It's like wondering if electronic newspapers will replace hard print," he said. "I still think people like to sit down with a newspaper. As far as crafts are concerned, it's the same thing."

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