There are those for whom the Los Angeles County Fair signals the sizzle of a deep fat fryer incinerating delicacies such as Twinkies (yawn) or artichoke hearts (yum) or, new this year, a chocolate-dipped, bacon-wrapped Oreo (eek). That is fine, really, historically in keeping with this end-of-summer extravaganza, which has been celebrating the cult and culture of the county since 1922. Ditto for the rides and the horse races, the livestock displays and agriculture exhibits.
But for thousands of visitors to the Fairplex in Pomona, the true heart of the county fair is where the home arts are.
Follow the trajectory of the aerial tram and you'll come to it, the Tapestry Arts Building, a cavernous space with homely block walls and miles of concrete-floor aisles. There, arrayed in case after glass case, you'll find the handiwork of hundreds of artisans who offered up several thousand handcrafted items to be judged.
Quilts and comforters, jewelry and lace, ceramics and photographs and leather goods — they're all there. Knitted sweaters, hooked rugs and tatted hankies too. These are traditional crafts, often executed with a modern twist. In one case, tote bags in a familiar-looking red and white turn out to be woven from recycled grocery bags. In another, a mother-daughter team has completed a quilt from squares the women in their family had been sewing for generations.
Yes, in recent years, indie craft fairs such as Felt Club, Renegade and Unique L.A. have let younger "makers" showcase their monster dolls, silk-screened alt T-shirts and chic letterpress stationery, but if the spike in the number of participants is any indication, the crafts renaissance has circled back to one of its traditional homes here in L.A. County.
"This year, we've seen quite an increase in the number of people entering their work," said Sharon Autry, a spokeswoman for the Fairplex. "Last year, we had more than the year before, but not quite like this."
In 2009, 694 contestants entered 1,940 items in the fair. This year, 750 people made 2,248 items to be judged. Crafts contestants ranged in age from 17 to over 90.
"The competition has always been one of the more popular parts of the fair," Autry said. "But it seems to have really gotten people's attention this year."
Maybe it's the Great Recession that has sent people searching for the comforts of homemade. Perhaps it's a defiant push back at the netherworld of Facebook and Foursquare and Twitter. Whatever the reason, it's exhilarating to see, in this digital age, actual digits at work.
An angora sweater, made from hand-spun wool combed from hand-raised rabbits, is light as a cloud. A jaunty straw bonnet topped with a frizz of faux grass and fake finch is hilarious. A painting of Michael Jackson, an unnerving likeness, signals the devotion of a true fan. It's all carefully, even lovingly, displayed.
"It takes about a month to get everything ready," said Amy Pond-Cirelli, a supervisor at the Tapestry Arts Building. She's part of the crew that turns the deluge of entries into a coherent whole.
Between 35 and 40 judges, all volunteers, spend up to eight hours at a time examining the merits of each piece.
"They get right in there, looking and touching and holding things up to the light," Pond-Cirelli said. "They'll see a single dropped stitch, or a place where something wasn't pulled tight enough. I always learn something when I'm watching."
Entries are judged in the Danish system, in which each piece is evaluated against itself. Unlike the American system, in which only one item can win a ribbon, the Danish system allows for multiple winners. The most coveted award, which goes to only one item in each category, is best of show.
Blanche Tutt was in third grade in the mid-1930s when she first got the knitting bug.
"It was during one recess, and I was watching Theresa, who was always a little lady, sitting and knitting," said Tutt, who is now 84. "I thought right away, 'I want to do that.' "
Unable to afford knitting needles or yarn, Tutt saved the string from the family's daily newspaper and, when she had enough for a small skein, used long nails from her father's toolbox to try and teach herself the craft. It wasn't until she was in her 20s and a graduate of a nursing program that she used one of her first paychecks to buy real wool and an instruction book.
In 1990, Tutt, who lives in Woodland Hills, entered her first afghan in the county fair. In 1992, she won the coveted best of show. She then entered the state competition and took fourth place. Now somewhat hampered by the aftermath of a stroke, she still enters a few items in the fair each year.
"This year, I put in a sweet little sweater and another afghan," Tutt said. "My neighbor is going to drive me to the fair, and I just can't wait to see, how did I do?"