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( the handmade life )

In the new craft revival, figuring out how to make a lip balm or a laptop cozy or a furry monster plushie is sort of like figuring out who you really are By Gendy Alimurung

November 06, 2005|Gendy Alimurung | Gendy Alimurung is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

The rebels leading the new craft revolution like to crochet bunny skulls. They hand-pour soaps in the shape of raw steak. They stitch fuzzy purple iPod cozies with the faces of monsters. They are young. They are girls. Except when they are boys. Regardless of gender, they are ironic, and punk rock. They are tech savvy, yet nerdy about yarn, fur, fabric, paper and buttons. They feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, then design a bag to express it. They love nature--owls, naked mole rats and deer. They like pretend creatures too. They are masters of invention, reinvention. They reuse, repurpose, recycle. Something happened to traditional arts and crafts in the past few years. Like a gene exposed to the mutating radiation of the 21st century--the hundred-hour workweeks in front of computers, the informational warp speed, the outsourced sweatshops, the super-slick plastic fantastic--craft went weird. "Rock is dead," is the rebel battle cry. "Long live paper and scissors."

The revolution so far has been a quiet one, taking place in basements and cafes and bedrooms. On a hazy, sweltering Saturday in the perfect suburb of Walnut, Vickey Jang, designer, manufacturer, marketer and sole proprietor of BirdInASkirt.com, was in her workroom at her sewing machine, fighting crafter's block. "God!" she said. "I'll kill myself if I have to sew this seam again." But it could have been worse. Not too long ago, before she quit her job and devoted her life to craft, before she broke up with her boyfriend, before she moved back into her old room in her childhood home, she would have been manning a cubicle, staring at a computer screen, slowly going insane. Staring at a sewing machine--a fancy yellow Husqvarna--was infinitely better. "I love this sewing machine," she said. "It has flowers on it."

It had been a slow day. Most days in Walnut are slow. The Jang residence was immaculate--gleaming white tile, living room a sea of pristine blue carpet. The only exceptions were the mess in Vickey's bedroom and the room she had taken over as her workshop, formerly her sister's room. Next to the sewing machine was an empty tofu box repurposed as a pin repository. "Guess who brought that in," Vickey said. Mrs. Jang, who is old-school and Taiwanese, is a clean freak. She uses tofu boxes for everything: to hold sponges, to scoop dog food, to sprout plants. If the tofu people knew how much use the Jangs got out of their plastic boxes, she likes to joke, they would charge a whole lot more. Mrs. Jang had worried that Vickey would step on a stray pin. "Vickeeeeey!" she said. "Be careful! The needle will go into your vein, travel through your bloodstream and pierce your heart."

"Mom," Vickey sighed, "the needle is not going to pierce my heart."

Point your cursor over the picture of the bird on her website, and a skirt appears on the bird. Vickey's real pet, an African gray parrot, does not wear a skirt. The clothes and accessories on her website--all handmade--represent another life. There are fitted dresses in whimsical prints, with bows and ribbons and friendly buttons. There are A-line polka-dot skirts, and clutches in geeky chic, sexy librarian upholstery fabric. Handmade notebooks wrapped in origami paper, and beaded earrings and necklaces. Flowers of felt and pillows stitched with doves. "I don't wear clothes like this," Vickey said. "I suppose they are the clothes I wish I wore. This is the horse dress." She held up a sleeveless dress with a gray satin sash like a cummerbund. The dress was printed with running horses on a field of forest green. Once, Vickey's dad came in while she was sewing. He pawed through the finished clothes hanging in the closet. "Oh, this is nicely made," he said, appraising a small jacket. "Is it for a child?"

Girls from Japan love her style. They order often from her site. A woman from New York ordered several items--a jacket for fall, a blouse, one of the A-line skirts. Vickey often wonders what the people who order her clothes look like. What are their lives like? On the bed were pieces of a mauve satin jacket, waiting to be tailored. You would look nice in the horse dress, I said. She has long, straight black hair that falls in a river down her back. She is willowy slim in jeans and T-shirt. Vickey blushed. "No, no, no. Where would I wear it to? I have nowhere to go."

There is nowhere to go in Walnut if you are 32 years old and living at your parents' house. There are plenty of hills, a few cows, suburban homes as far as the eye can see. There is a grocery store and a 24-hour doughnut shop. Most of her friends from her former life live an hour's drive away, in the city. Instead, Vickey e-mails back and forth with other crafters she has befriended online, with a girl named Tracy--a glassworker--who goes by the handle "HappyOwl." Maybe the best thing about crafting is the sense that you're connected in some loose way to something bigger.

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