The economy may be rocky, but the future looks surprisingly plush for Kern and other members of Los Angeles' Felt Club, a tight-knit community of artisans creating handmade decorative objects. The group's annual holiday sale last Sunday drew about 4,500 shoppers who swarmed 144 booths, snapping up cute crocheted critters, stuffed felt cupcakes and notably less cuddly fare, such as handmade soaps shaped like pistols. Most vendors cleared $1,000 with ease.
Some credit goes to the world of high-end interiors, where top contemporary designers such as Marcel Wanders have reinvigorated quaint traditions, creating eye-catching macramé-style chairs and tables that look like crocheted doilies. Other decorative objects employ these methods, along with beading, studding and embroidery.
But clearly consumers' belt-tightening and environmental consciousness also have set the stage for a new form of home economics. As young, cash-strapped shoppers get turned off by overconsumption and disenchanted with homogenized, mass-marketed retail, more are shopping for one-of-a-kind pieces -- or are crafting their own.
"They may not make an afghan like their grandmothers did," said Tina Barseghian, editor of Craft magazine, "but they will take the technique and apply it to their own home."
At Felt Club, that notion applied to Angie Diersman's Devil and Zombie oven mitts, sold for $18 a pop, and her Day of the Dead aprons, $30 each.
Event organizer Jenny Ryan, who crafts under the name Sew Darn Jenny, said her vendor list had doubled since the last Felt Club show in 2007. Applications for the juried show hit 400 this year, and attendance rose 50%.
Jane Morris, a Marina del Rey embroiderer who decorates linens with pre-World War II patterns, recalled the show two years ago when "Felt Club was 12 vendors in the blazing sun," their tables set up in a parking lot behind a comic book store on Hollywood Boulevard. "Take a look at us now," she said Sunday, surveying the bustle inside L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium Expo Center.
"Felt Club is certainly the biggest craft fair in Los Angeles and one of the most important in the U.S.," Craft editor Barseghian said. The proliferation of such festivals showing "artful individual pieces you'll never be able to find in any mall in America" is hardly a fringe movement, she added. "It's being woven into the mainstream and affecting the way people think about what they buy."
That's particularly true in L.A., said Faythe Levine, co-author of "Handmade Nation" and director of a companion documentary film in production. "It's a positive, empowering movement that is gaining momentum," she said, "and a real antidote to the stereotype of L.A. being the capital of plastic surgery."
Part of the popularity of craft fairs like Felt Club stems from the person, the story and the inspiration behind every sale. "You're not feeding a faceless corporation, "Ryan said. "You're supporting an artisan."
The 21st century craft renaissance follows a long tradition of do-it-yourself creative expression. "Handmade culture has gone through many permutations," Ryan said, "from hippie homesteaders in the 1960s to punk rockers who made their own clothes in the 1970s and people who published zines and graphic novels in the '80s and '90s."
As the digital equivalent of old-fashioned quilting bees, craft websites have fostered a global network based on cooperation rather than competition. Consequently, the new generation of crafters has absorbed a world of cultural influences. Japanese toys and animation, vintage Americana, nature-inspired Scandinavian design, Mexican folk art and the sculptures of Pop artist Claes Oldenburg are threads running through much of the work. So is an undeniable sense of whimsy.
"There's a lot of cuteness and humor," says bowler-hat devotee Wilhelm Staehle, 28, who with wife T.D. Rio, 29, form the Bazaarium. Their darkly witty neo-Victorian wares include the aforementioned pistol-shaped soaps as well as playfully macabre artwork, including one framed piece with two images: the first showing storybook silhouettes of a child and a bear, and the second showing the silhouette of the child in the bear's belly.
Staehle and Rio, both veterans of comic book conventions, see Felt Club as part of the hip-hunting continuum.
"Whether it's cool videos on YouTube or handmade gifts, people like being able to find new things for the first time," Staehle said. "It makes them pioneers and trendsetters amongst their friends."
The viral effect of the Internet has created a more viable marketplace for these young crafters. Etsy, the indie-craft e-commerce destination with 200,000 registered sellers, currently lists 2.6 million handmade items. Founded in 2005, it expects to broker $100 million in sales this year. Southern California is its largest market.