Hand Made in Detroit
Groups of mostly young women are creating an art of crafts, and what they produce is a far cry from kitschy items made from pipe cleaners, paste, and glitter
By Alexa Stanard
Sometime between the 1990s and today, crafts evolved from homely kitsch to quirky cool.
Glazed ceramics and cute shadow boxes have given way to Japanese pirate sock monkeys and aprons hand-embroidered with a skull and crossbones.
The new generation of handmade goods is the handiwork of metro Detroit’s growing subculture of do-it-yourself crafters, a group of mostly 20- and 30-something women with enterprising spirits and a compulsion to make something. Small start-ups — usually with only a Web presence and eccentric names such as Phantom Limb, Trophy Wife Designs, and Make-out Goods — are producing handmade items designed to be useful and a little offbeat.
Carey Gustafson, the 35-year-old owner of Glass Action and creator of the popular David Bowie nightlight, says metro Detroit’s emerging craft network has little to do with crocheted covers for toilet-paper rolls. Gustafson spent 15 years in the stained-glass business before opening a home studio in 2005 and making pieces that reflected her love of pop culture. “I did so many clusters of grapes and birds for so long; now I just do things like UFOs,” she says.
In the past couple of years, dozens of local crafters like Gustafson have found one another and organized, both for business and for socializing.
In 2005, Gustafson hosted a home show with her friend Stephanie Tardy, 29, who owns Phantom Limb. Tardy makes cards and journals from a mix of recycled paper, including Braille, graphing, and construction paper. The show went well and the two, along with fellow crafter Alicia Dorset, began brainstorming about forming a crafting group. They decided to hold an open meeting for anyone who was interested.
That powwow held last winter gave birth to Handmade Detroit, a group of crafters focused on selling their wares. Six months later, the group’s first show, the Detroit Urban Craft Fair, drew 50 vendors and hundreds of shoppers to their exhibition at Detroit’s Majestic Theatre.
“People were just waiting for an opportunity like this to happen,” Gustafson says. “It started as a way to hang out and get crafting out of our systems — we just have to make things. But it’s turned into a steppingstone between being a hobbyist and being a businessperson.”
Around the country, Gen-X and Gen-Y crafters have been making news and setting trends, notably with the knitting and crocheting circles that started popping up in New York and Hollywood in the late ’90s. Forward-looking national women’s magazines like Bust and Venus regularly devote pages to offbeat craft projects. And the new quarterly magazine, Craft, which offers stories such as “Stitch a Robot” and “Hula Hoop Couture,” is quickly becoming the movement’s handbook. Large craft fairs are regular events in Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Texas — and now Detroit. Crafters say the trend here is driven by everything from a slow economy to a desire for community, enjoyment of working with one’s hands, satisfaction in supporting local businesses, and a renewed interest in domestic arts among women who grew up viewing them as an option rather than an expectation.
“I think there’s a certain attraction to the domestic life that women of our generation have,” says Elizabeth Isaacson, 26, whose Trophy Wife Designs sells printed T-shirts, paper goods, and glassware. “A lot of our moms were working. It wasn’t about sewing and making cakes, it was about, ‘How do I get you to practice after work?’ ”
The DIY scene isn’t all women. Mark Maynard, of the Michigan Design Militia, helps organize the Shadow Art Fair in Ypsilanti, and many female crafters say their husbands or boyfriends are hands-on people, too. But men are less likely to sell, Tardy says, and more likely to work on their own rather than join a group.
Indeed, the opportunity to meet new friends draws a lot of crafters to the scene. City Knits, a popular yarn shop in the Fisher Building, hosts Stitch on the People Mover every Tuesday. “We have a knitting circle and watch the sunset,” says City Knits owner Karen Kendrick-Hands. And Loop, formerly the Detroit Craft Mafia, is a crafting group that meets monthly to socialize, swap ideas, and make stuff.
“When you’re not in college and you don’t hang out at bars, it’s hard to meet people,” says Amy Cronkite, Loop founder and Handmade Detroit member whose Make-out Goods sells pillowcases, jewelry, bags, and baby wear. “It’s really helped us meet great, interesting people in the area that all have the same ideas we do. We all support each other, and we’ve created this great network.”
Elizabeth Fritz-Cottle, a 28-year-old member of Knitting Is Dangerous, which meets weekly at Karma Tea and Tonic in Ferndale, says social crafting gives members a sense of connection to the past as well as to one another. “Fiber crafts are very much a social enterprise and always have been,” she says. “When I knit, I’m not just connected to my grandmother, who knitted and crocheted; I’m connected to history.”
For those who take their crafts beyond the social circle and out to the market, there’s a growing network of businesses ready to help. Woodward Avenue Brewers hosts Handmade Detroit’s Sunday Crafternoons, a mini-fair of about six rotating vendors that sets up shop the first Sunday of each month. Kitty Deluxe in St. Clair Shores, Catching Fireflies in Berkley and Rochester, and Flair in Royal Oak all sell local handmade goods.
And then there’s Naka, which has emerged as the retail mother ship for metro Detroit crafters since opening two years ago in Ferndale. The shop sells handcrafted items from numerous local and national crafters.
Owner Kelly Pettibone, who makes jewelry and T-shirts, says the DIY movement is partially a backlash against what she calls mindless consumerism, which she says is alienating. “You’re not having contact with the person making the product, and you’re having all this generic stuff shoved down your throat,” she says. “I think people are becoming accepting of things that are a little quirky and handmade. You trade in that precision for some charm.”
That thinking is allowing some crafters to profit from their hobbies. Julie Faust, 24, began sewing in her senior year of college. The English major went from stitching bags for pals to creating Daisy Sewing with three friends. Their cottage industry creates knit scarves and hats and the Japanese pirate sock monkeys — each named for a real pirate from the past. Now, Faust is preparing to return to school for a business degree.
“I thought when I started I would just like making the stuff, but it’s so interesting, the business aspect,” she says. “This isn’t Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. It’s hip stuff with a really fun edge to it.”
Debra Wilson, whose retro-inspired baby wear and women’s accessories are sold at Naka, started her business by making gifts for friends and watched it morph. A 40-year-old stay-home mother of three, Wilson says she’d like to see her business become a full-time enterprise in the next year or so. “Nobody wants to go out and get a 9-to-5 job right now because you just don’t know. It’s almost better to just start your own business,” she says. “There’s a big surge behind [DIY], and it’s just getting better.”
In fact, the surge is strong enough that Handmade Detroit is contemplating getting its own bricks-and-mortar space, where the group hopes to sell products, offer classes, host fairs, and provide meeting space for social crafters.
For a generation that spends so much of its life on computers, getting away from a screen and into a tangible craft circle is refreshing. And buying from other crafters has the dual benefit of supporting the local economy while acquiring an original. “You know where this thing you bought came from,” Tardy says. “It came from my house. You’re supporting someone in your neighborhood doing what they love.”
Where to buy crafts and supplies:
• Handmade Detroit Holiday Market
4120 Woodward, Detroit
• Shadow Art Fair
Dec. 1, noon-midnight
Corner Brewery, Ypsilanti
• Sunday Crafternoons
First Sunday of each month
Woodward Avenue Brewery
22646 Woodward, Ferndale
171 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
• Kitty Deluxe
St. Clair Shores
• Detroit Comics
23333 Woodward, Ferndale
• City Knits
(classes, groups, supplies)
Fisher Building, Detroit
313 S. Washington,
• Hatch: Hamtramck
• Catching Fireflies
3117 W. 12 Mile Rd., Berkley
203 E. University, Rochester
• Handmade Detroit
• Detroit Area Knitters