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Homemade Crafts No Longer Have to Look, Well, Homemade

High-quality, goof-proof projects offer sophisticated results even for beginners.

March 09, 2000|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Crafters, start your glue guns.

There are enough new creative projects, innovative ideas and unusual materials to keep the crafts community inspired for months. Even neophytes who haven't so much as inked up a stamp or knitted a stitch may find reasons to start making things during March--National Craft Month.

Crafts are reaching a new height of sophistication. From scrapbooking to knitting, rubber stamping, mosaics and candles, finished projects can look just as good as what's found in better stores. Yet the results don't require an art degree.

Every year a few specific crafts make it to the hot list. At the recent annual convention of the Hobby Industry Assn. in Anaheim, this year's list includes:

* Colored wire: Bendable wire in colors from grape to lime is being used in everything from jewelry to home decor to polymer clay. Wire can be used to make beads, napkin rings, and to embellish candleholders, tablecloths and polymer clay projects.

Jack O'Brien, president of Artistic Wire in Illinois, said he made plain copper wire for industry for years until students from the Art Institute of Chicago began asking for specific colors.

"They would braid with it, weave, make jewelry--I knew there was a market out there," O'Brien said.

* Soap: This used to be a laborious, time-consuming process that often involved the use of lye. Now manufacturers have made it easier, offering soap bases that can be melted over the stove and mixed with fragrance, color, natural ingredients such as oatmeal, and even little toys and charms.

* Handmade paper: Various handmade papers have been available for years, but companies are introducing more exotic, varied kinds in interesting textures and colors. Solum, a Palo Alto-based company, offers embossed paper that resembles fabric, plus basket weave and pebble textures.

"The economy is so good," said a spokeswoman for Black Ink, a Colorado company that imports and distributes decorative papers. "People are buying pashmina shawls; they want luxury items."

* Fashion in crafting: It used to be that if you wanted to imitate a trendy fashion look, you had to wait a few months before similar fabrics and embellishments hit the stores. There's more immediacy, says Carol Scheffler, author, "Today" show contributor and spokeswoman for National Craft Month.

"At the Offray ribbon booth, they did a great job of producing ribbons that can be appliqued to the bottom of jeans," Scheffler said. "We're used to seeing the home decor world connecting to crafting, but now fashion is coming around."

* Knitting: It's big, especially with the 20-something and younger crowd who are discovering they can knit their own designer-looking sweaters for a fraction of what they'd pay in stores. Yarns look expensive but cost little--a few dollars a skein.

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This more sophisticated style of crafting has been brewing for a few years, evolving from a country-ish, ultra-cute look. It's helped to bring in a new base of women and men whose tastes are being met.

The key is in the materials. Handmade papers, essential oils for candles and soaps, and specially formulated paints, glazes and texture mediums are higher quality than that of their predecessors and more readily available; there's less scrambling from store to store looking for supplies. With manufacturers meeting consumers halfway with products and kits, projects are easier, quicker and have a more professional look.

"I see that in the entire industry," Scheffler said. "When you say the words 'arts and crafts,' a lot of people still think of crocheted toilet paper covers. Those things have a place in the world, but there are more choices now. When you flip through beautiful catalogs like Ballard Designs or Pottery Barn, half those things you can make at a fraction of the cost. Even in remote towns, people have access to television and the Internet, and they're aware of what's out there.

"Manufacturers also realize that women's time is limited," she added, "so they're making it easier, providing the materials so we can do the last half ourselves and feel very successful."

Scrapbooking is a case in point. This craft, in which album pages are decorated with stickers, stamps and cutouts to showcase photographs, has grown into an enormous industry in the last few years. But the kid-friendly, primary-color look that's been the craft's mainstay is growing up. Albums are sleeker, stickers are more elegant, and papers range from textured, handmade styles to feathery mulberries to colored and printed vellum.

"It's simple elegance," said Lisa Bearnson, editor of Creating Keepsakes magazine. "People want their scrapbooks to look handmade, but they also want them to be fast and easy."

Photo albums with a clean, spare look are being offered by Kolo, a 2-year-old Connecticut-based company. Paper, leather and cloth-covered archival albums come in colors such as terra cotta, periwinkle, olive, pear and cherry and have a simple window frame on the cover. Prices range from about $7 to $50.

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