Express Yourself : Craft projects can provide a creative outlet as well as a productive way to unwind.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times

Who has time to make a palm-leaf fruit basket or stencil designs on a child's wooden rocker?

More people than you think.

About 90% of all U.S. households have at least one family member involved in a craft, according to studies conducted for the New Jersey-based Hobby Industry Assn. of America. Household participation in crafts and hobbies has increased 41% since 1988, resulting in almost $7 billion in sales last year.

Locally, such retailers as Michaels and House of Fabrics report rising sales and a growing interest in crafts, especially stenciling, rubber stamps, decoupage, flower arranging and needle craft.

Experts say the popularity in crafts reflects the need for simple, creative activities to serve as antidotes to crazed commutes, job troubles and tight schedules. For those stressed by urban ills or recovering from the quake, an evening of needlepoint or afternoon in the garage making a stained-glass window may function as therapy, they say.

For Tammy Tarry, who teaches a flower-arranging course at Everywoman's Village in Van Nuys, crafts are a major source of fulfillment in a lifestyle composed mostly of caring for two preschool boys. "I get the satisfaction of creating something. If somebody compliments something I make, I feel good," she said.

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Tarry says she spends hundreds of dollars a month on crafts, making earrings and decorating T-shirts with ribbon embellishments or airbrushed paint--even using the plastic tops of cold-drink squeeze bottles to make pocket toys for her children.

For Father Lawrence Calhoun, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches solderless jewelry-making at Learning Tree University in Chatsworth and Everywoman's Village, crafts are a meditative outlet. "I get an inner peace by working with my hands. There's a satisfaction in having finished something lovely," he said. "You come up with something--it's a part of you, and it has meaning."

Randy Osherow, fine arts department chairwoman at Learning Tree University, says crafts classes there fill up quickly. In addition to solderless jewelry--which involves twisting wire around gems and stones--the school offers gourd basketry, floral design, fabric marbling, calligraphy and costume jewelry classes.

To Osherow, the increasing interest in crafts is a sign of the times. "We're getting to an era where people realize they're entitled to pursue passions they've had," she said. Many of those who enroll in classes are looking for an opportunity to be involved in a project from start to finish and want the chance to relax and do something with others, she said.

Mary Deaver, vice president of home merchandise buying for House of Fabrics in Sherman Oaks, says the firm has five stores in the Los Angeles area that have converted 40% of their floor space to crafts. "Most of our customers are looking for quick and easy crafts, projects that they can create in a short amount of time," Deaver said.

For those interested in a more slow-going enterprise, there's needlework, nationally the biggest craft. Judith Bober, who owns JB Unique Needlework in Northridge, said the craft draws men and women, of all ages.

"There's a lot of stress going on now in society, and people are finding that staying home doing crafts is relaxing," Bober said. While the newest craze is silk-ribbon embroidery, old standbys such as needlepoint and cross-stitch are still popular, and the average cost of a kit is only about $30, she said.

While some people do needlework as a way to make inexpensive gifts for others, most do it for therapy, Bober said. "I'm usually a very hyper person, so if I need to think things out, I calm down with needlework," she said.

Some craft store owners attribute some of the recent increase in interest in crafts to San Fernando Valley-area residents' gradual recovery from the Northridge earthquake. "People are relearning how to have fun again," said Larry Joers, owner of Dragonfly Stained Glass Studio in Canoga Park.

Dragonfly's six-session, $60 stained-glass course fills up quickly now, he said, and involves men and women, mostly teen-agers through thirtysomethings.

For many, crafts offer a way to recapture the peace of the past or a time for quiet creativity.

Susan Brandt, assistant executive director for the hobby association, said crafts are allowing people who may not be able to exercise much control in their work settings to make choices in their leisure lives. "Many people are working just to survive, and crafts give them a chance to do something more personal, to give a part of themselves," she said.

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Sharing Crafts Ideas in Cyberspace

While crafts may be reminiscent of the past, crafters are increasingly high-tech in how they communicate. The three largest on-line services provide popular craft forums that are actively used, both for dialogue and information exchange.

Some craftspeople use the on-line services to get the latest information on new techniques, fresh ideas or money-saving tips. Others access the forums to chat with those interested in the same niche, swapping knitting patterns, sharing seasonal craft ideas or just enjoying the friendships they can make on line.

America Online started its crafts department about a year ago and provides separate message boards for those interested in needle crafts, jewelry, paper, pottery, stained glass and woodworking. The service also offers on-line magazines, which feature crafts information, and a family computing section that offers such computer crafts as creating your own greeting cards.

CompuServe has a crafts forum--GO CRAFTS--with dozens of separate files. For those interested in rubber stamping, for instance, there are sections on everything from carving your own erasers into stamps to layering images to create a customized look. There is also a new section on wearable art, titled "Jewelry/Metal/Beads."

Prodigy provides a crafts bulletin board, led by San Diego County knitter Jan Metzger, who oversees the communications and writes a regular introduction to the section. In one month alone, Metzger counted more than 12,000 different entries on cross-stitching, she said, and she sees people discussing everything from the benefit of knitting with silks or cross-stitching on linens to woodworking tips and hints for successful bead-working.

"I have an absolute rush from this crafts board," said Metzger. "I spend three hours a day on it. It's like a small town."

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From Stencils to Decoupage

Like styles of clothing or home design, specific crafts wax and wane in popularity, sometimes in concert with other societal trends, but often because a new application or technique is found for an old favorite. Some of today's most popular crafts, according to experts:

* WEARABLE ART: From airbrushed T-shirts to pins made by gluing odds and ends together, these crafts can be worn and put to practical use.

* PAINTED FURNITURE, STENCILING, MARBLING: A wide range of kits are available that make painting everything from a wall border to a new piece of furniture quicker and easier.

* PAPER CASTING: Using recycled paper in a kit and simple terra-cotta molds, three-dimensional paper designs can be used to adorn cards or to create frameable art.

* SILK EMBROIDERY: An old French art, in which skinny ribbons are sewn to make bright, three-dimensional designs.

* POLYMERS: Clays come in preformed, multicolored logs that can be transformed easily into beautiful beads and shapes.

* DRIED FLOWER WREATHS: Simple and quick to do, they add a natural, colorful touch to home decorating.

* DECOUPAGE: A throwback to the '60s, in which bottles of paste-like varnish are used to make collages on wood, plastic or paper.

* RUBBER STAMPS: Used to create art, cards, wrapping paper and, recently, combined with embossing powders and layers of different papers and other materials.

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WHERE TO GO

What: America Online.

Call: (800) 827-6364.

What: CompuServe.

Call: (800) 848-8199.

What: Prodigy.

Call: (800) 776-3449.

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