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Express Yourself : Craft projects can provide a creative outlet as well as a productive way to unwind.

March 17, 1995|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times

Who has time to make a palm-leaf fruit basket or stencil designs on a child's wooden rocker?

More people than you think.

About 90% of all U.S. households have at least one family member involved in a craft, according to studies conducted for the New Jersey-based Hobby Industry Assn. of America. Household participation in crafts and hobbies has increased 41% since 1988, resulting in almost $7 billion in sales last year.

Locally, such retailers as Michaels and House of Fabrics report rising sales and a growing interest in crafts, especially stenciling, rubber stamps, decoupage, flower arranging and needle craft.

Experts say the popularity in crafts reflects the need for simple, creative activities to serve as antidotes to crazed commutes, job troubles and tight schedules. For those stressed by urban ills or recovering from the quake, an evening of needlepoint or afternoon in the garage making a stained-glass window may function as therapy, they say.

For Tammy Tarry, who teaches a flower-arranging course at Everywoman's Village in Van Nuys, crafts are a major source of fulfillment in a lifestyle composed mostly of caring for two preschool boys. "I get the satisfaction of creating something. If somebody compliments something I make, I feel good," she said.

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Tarry says she spends hundreds of dollars a month on crafts, making earrings and decorating T-shirts with ribbon embellishments or airbrushed paint--even using the plastic tops of cold-drink squeeze bottles to make pocket toys for her children.

For Father Lawrence Calhoun, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches solderless jewelry-making at Learning Tree University in Chatsworth and Everywoman's Village, crafts are a meditative outlet. "I get an inner peace by working with my hands. There's a satisfaction in having finished something lovely," he said. "You come up with something--it's a part of you, and it has meaning."

Randy Osherow, fine arts department chairwoman at Learning Tree University, says crafts classes there fill up quickly. In addition to solderless jewelry--which involves twisting wire around gems and stones--the school offers gourd basketry, floral design, fabric marbling, calligraphy and costume jewelry classes.

To Osherow, the increasing interest in crafts is a sign of the times. "We're getting to an era where people realize they're entitled to pursue passions they've had," she said. Many of those who enroll in classes are looking for an opportunity to be involved in a project from start to finish and want the chance to relax and do something with others, she said.

Mary Deaver, vice president of home merchandise buying for House of Fabrics in Sherman Oaks, says the firm has five stores in the Los Angeles area that have converted 40% of their floor space to crafts. "Most of our customers are looking for quick and easy crafts, projects that they can create in a short amount of time," Deaver said.

For those interested in a more slow-going enterprise, there's needlework, nationally the biggest craft. Judith Bober, who owns JB Unique Needlework in Northridge, said the craft draws men and women, of all ages.

"There's a lot of stress going on now in society, and people are finding that staying home doing crafts is relaxing," Bober said. While the newest craze is silk-ribbon embroidery, old standbys such as needlepoint and cross-stitch are still popular, and the average cost of a kit is only about $30, she said.

While some people do needlework as a way to make inexpensive gifts for others, most do it for therapy, Bober said. "I'm usually a very hyper person, so if I need to think things out, I calm down with needlework," she said.

Some craft store owners attribute some of the recent increase in interest in crafts to San Fernando Valley-area residents' gradual recovery from the Northridge earthquake. "People are relearning how to have fun again," said Larry Joers, owner of Dragonfly Stained Glass Studio in Canoga Park.

Dragonfly's six-session, $60 stained-glass course fills up quickly now, he said, and involves men and women, mostly teen-agers through thirtysomethings.

For many, crafts offer a way to recapture the peace of the past or a time for quiet creativity.

Susan Brandt, assistant executive director for the hobby association, said crafts are allowing people who may not be able to exercise much control in their work settings to make choices in their leisure lives. "Many people are working just to survive, and crafts give them a chance to do something more personal, to give a part of themselves," she said.

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Sharing Crafts Ideas in Cyberspace

While crafts may be reminiscent of the past, crafters are increasingly high-tech in how they communicate. The three largest on-line services provide popular craft forums that are actively used, both for dialogue and information exchange.

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