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The Big Gilt Trip : It's that time of year again--to haul out the gift-making tools and create. Who are we turning to for words of wisdom and moral support? Why, Martha Stewart, above left, and Aleene Jackson, but of course.


Plunging an arm inside 22 pounds of cold poultry flesh isn't very pleasant, but it sure beats an electric glue-gun burn.

Scary as it seems, for many, these may be the primary sensory options of the day. Because after the sacrificial burning of the bird and the orgy of eating, the gilt trips will begin.

Gilt trips, as in driving to Michaels for gold leaf, schlepping to House of Fabrics for gold ribbon, descending on HomeBase for gold spray-paint.

It's loving hands of home time. Time to make decorations, presents, wrapping paper, cards and wreaths. Time to fill the coffers of the multibillion-dollar crafts industry, which not only supports a slew of magazines, specialty stores and celebrity gurus but also nurtures our desire for bigger and more dangerous tools.

The Hobby Industry Assn., an Elmwood, N.J.-based trade group, reports that at least one person in 90% of all U.S. households dabbles in crafts. And three-fourths of them are now busy making holiday gifts. Of course, the association uses a rather liberal definition of crafts: "If you can take two parts and do something, we're going to call it a craft," spokeswoman Susan Brandt says.

So if you've tied a wedding bow on a pew, made a wreath or sacked up some potpourri, you're a craftsperson. And this is your moment. The fourth quarter is a big one for the business that has grown 41% since 1988, Brandt says.

"Five years ago, the average newsstand had no more than six or eight craft magazines. Now there are 40 or 50, and at this time of year the number goes up to several hundred," she says.

In a recent survey conducted by the hobby association, craft enthusiasts said that more than half of their project ideas came from magazines with such titles as Ceramic Arts & Craft Projects and Folk Art Christmas.

But lately, TV has become the place to turn. In growing numbers, the craft population is tuning in to how-to television for inspiration. That's where I found my two spiritual guides, Martha Stewart and Aleene Jackson, two women on opposite ends of a parallel universe. Other than empires built on television shows, magazines, books and Type-A personalities, they have virtually nothing in common.

Stewart, 53, lives her life as if it were a coffee-table book. Hers is a hand-wrought, picture-perfect lifestyle known in magazine and television form (Sunday mornings at 10 on KCBS, Channel 2) as "Martha Stewart Living." From her command post in Westport, Conn., she demonstrates the arts of cooking, cleaning, gardening and decorating. She makes topiary Easter baskets out of living succulents, Christmas wreaths from prickly-pear pads and gift baskets for pets.

Jackson, 70, was broadcasting "Aleene's Creative Living With Crafts" from her Solvang, Calif., ranch long before Stewart signed the mortgage on her Colonial farmhouse. (And when her show got its 9 a.m. weekdays time slot on the Nashville Network two years ago, Jackson built her own television studio.) In the late '50s, Jackson was arranging flowers on local TV. In the '60s, she took her how-to shows on the road, booking her "Caravan of Crafts" into 20,000-seat convention centers.

Stewart has made her fortune off her domestic skills.

Jackson has made hers off sales of more than 15 million bottles of Aleene's Tacky Glue, an adhesive sold in craft stores and via her show and magazine.


Stewart leads me on, Jackson keeps me going.

If I had the time, the money, the patience, a full-time nanny and bigger, faster tools, I'd try more of Stewart's projects. Lacking all of those, I flip through her magazine (10 issues a year for $24) and mutter: "Yeah, right, Martha."

(I haven't forgotten her suggestion to put the dishwashing liquid, so unsightly in its tacky plastic bottle, in a cut glass wine bottle with a special spout. Two hours later, the kitchen floor was the cleanest it had ever been, not counting the shards of decorative glass I'm still finding.)

Jackson's magazine (12 issues for $24.95), on the other hand, moves me to utter, "Not on your life, Aleene."

(I could do her projects with one hand tied behind my back if I wanted to, which usually I don't. Even my Brownie troop refused to make angel ornaments out of recycled shoulder pads, as Aleene suggested. Judging by a recent issue of Aleene's Creative Living, angels are big this year. Always the recycler, she also proposes making them out of dried-- thankfully--manicotti and wallpaper scraps.)

This business of being a domestic goddess may seem glamorous, but Stewart, who manages to look good even as she spreads manure around her garden, knows that for every disciple there is a detractor. Several years of Martha-bashing peaked last year when Oprah Winfrey pitted Stewart and her fan-club president against a couple of vociferous Martha-haters.

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