The name Alice Starmore may be unfamiliar to many, yet editions of some of her most sought-after, out-of-print books—filled with complex, distinctive knitting patterns accomplished using specific yarns—routinely fetch $200 to $400 online. Her designs inspire awe, and her reputation for strongly enforcing her design copyrights can also inspire outrage. Regardless, she is a legend among knitters.
If memoirist Adrienne Martini had decided 15 years ago to tackle a famous Starmore sweater pattern—the Mary Tudor—and chronicle the process, the concept might have been a story of one woman working in isolation, holding appeal for a tiny niche audience. But times have changed. Released earlier this year, Martini's Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously (Free Press) instead provides a revealing snapshot of the vibrant online community of knitters and crafters who have revolutionized crafting by bringing it firmly into the mainstream.
"Culturally, it looks like crafting—whether with yarn or bottle caps or whatever—is everywhere," says Martini. "What are Lowe's and Home Depot if not shrines to the DIY aesthetic? The online crafting community normalized what people were already doing."
The continuing migration of a younger generation to crafts like knitting, sewing, and jewelry making is no surprise, viewed in light of the modernizing approach the earliest practitioners of the new DIY brought with them and larger cultural factors such as the recession and growing environmental concerns. The influx has a huge influence on trends within the crafting world, even at times creating new demand for the decidedly traditional. For example, Dover Publications brought one of Starmore's most famous titles, Alice Starmore's Book of Fair Isle Knitting, back into print last year and has an expanded edition of her Aran Knitting due in August.
But perhaps one of the most telling indications of how large and influential the handmade movement has become is that it's now a ripe market for a high-profile, tongue-in-cheek offering from comedienne Amy Sedaris—Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People (Nov.; see sidebar, p. 22). Demonstrating the same off-the-wall kitsch as her bestselling hospitality-focused I Like You, the book features entries on crafts suitable for people with various diseases, instructions on how to make fake candles (some semiobscene), and suggestions for loopy projects involving coconuts.
"It's not your mother's craft book," says Grand Central publisher Jamie Raab. "Amy genuinely loves to craft, but she also has a truly twisted worldview." Raab says that initial interest in the title has been huge, noting that signs of the crafting expansion are visible everywhere. "I live on the Upper West Side and a Michael's just opened up in my neighborhood," she says. "I see who goes in and it's far-ranging—older people, and younger, too."
Crafting has always had the potential to be a social activity—quilting circles and sewing bees leap to mind—but the online world has fostered more opportunities than ever before for connection with other crafters, creating a powerful sense of community. There are official gathering sites like Ravelry.com (which Martini calls the "knitter/crocheter version of Facebook, but better"), Burda-Style.com for sewers, and, of course, sales hub Etsy.com. Started in 2005, Etsy now has around five million members, hosts over 400,000 sellers, and has seen its users rack up more than $108 million in sales during the first half of 2010 alone. Add to those sites a score of extremely popular individual and group blogs, and it becomes clear why many publishers are focusing on tapping into this virtual community.
In fact, Sterling imprint Lark Craft—a major force in the category—undertook a significant initiative this year that didn't directly relate to its newest titles. Lark has been busy building and launching larkcrafts.com, transforming a site that hosted the publisher's catalogue into a blog-based Web site where its entire editorial and art team will "interact with and contribute to the larger craft community on a daily basis," according to editorial director Paige Gilchrist. The site left beta several weeks ago, and Gilchrist says traffic is already building. She believes that publishers have two choices in the current climate: "You can sit back and be fear-based and troubled by it or you can be part of the community, which is what we've always tried to do."
The decision to develop a more elaborate Web presence for Lark made sense for many reasons, not least because online sales are one of its strongest categories. "Without a doubt, readers are looking at reviews and what's on a blogger's nightstand and clicking through to buy," says Gilchrist. She points to the "exceptional online sales" of last year's Blogging for Bliss, which showcased popular craft bloggers—"It's really an example of how important word of mouth can be in this community."
The publisher hopes for similar success with two new titles designed to celebrate the craft community. Craft Hope (Aug.) stems from a popular Web site of the same name that has attracted 30,000–40,000 crafters worldwide to join physical and virtual craft projects to aid those in need. For the book, top online designers have contributed patterns and project instructions that have been paired with charities, and a dollar from each purchase will go to Global Impact. Craft-In (Oct.) is a boxed set of craft zines that brings 12 designers from the blogosphere and indie craft fair scene to readers who want to set up in-person get-togethers like stitch-'n'-bitch groups or craft circles. Each designer provides a signature project and party tips that can be tailored to a specific gathering.
Another major publisher in the category, the STC Craft line from Abrams's Stewart, Tabori & Chang imprint, is featuring several titles this season from well-known craft bloggers. The publisher is seeing strong pre-sales for Wee Wonderfuls (Aug.), collecting doll designs by Hillary Lang, who runs a popular site of the same name. That title will be followed by Erica Domesek's P.S.—I Made This (Sept.), again based on a popular blog of the same name, this one known for the blogger's skill at turning high-end designer trends into more affordable DIY projects. And having already sold 100,000 copies of 2004's Last-Minute Knitted Gifts by Joelle Hoverson, STC has high expectations for More Last-Minute Knitted Gifts (Sept.), which benefits from the author's strong Internet presence at the Purl Bee blog.
Melanie Falick, editorial director for STC Craft, confirms that the number of bloggers hitting book lists is no coincidence: "More and more, we see the ability of a popular blogger to sell books."
Coming in November from Crown's Potter Craft imprint is one of its most anticipated books of the year, The Black Apple's Paper Doll Primer by Emily Martin. Martin's prints, dolls, and other paper goods have developed a significant following, turning her into a crafting celebrity who's been featured on The Martha Stewart Show as one of Etsy's most notable success stories. The Primer contains 32 dolls on cardstock, with hundreds of clothing and accessory options and how-to instructions for custom dolls and clothes.
According to Victoria Craven, Potter Craft and Watson-Guptill's editorial director, "It turns what is normally considered a children's amusement on its head."
Something Old Meets Something New
The distinct sense of playfulness that pervades the online craft community marks a change of attitude that several publishers point to as perhaps the biggest shift in how people think about crafting. Today's crafters focus less on perfection than on individuality and bring a fun, modern sensibility to traditional crafts.
Craven at Potter Craft/Watson-Guptill says, "There's also an insatiable appetite among today's crafters for the cute factor—not duckies and teddies cute, but cute with more than a touch of hip sophistication and wit, and influenced by Japanese style, which crosses all categories."
The enormous popularity of amigurumi—small crocheted animals and dolls—is indisputable, evidenced in part by the plethora of new titles coming this season: Anna Hrachovec's Knitting Mochimochi (Watson-Guptill, June), Christen Haden and Mariarosa Sala's Yummi 'Gurumi (Andrews McMeel, July), and Amy Gaines's Little Knitted Creatures (Leisure Arts, Aug.) are just a sampling; other titles that can be filed under a similar brand of cute include Witch Craft (Quirk, Sept.), compiled by Margaret McGuire and Alicia Kachmar, and several titles from Andrews McMeel, including Sarah Skeate and Nicola Tedman's Zombie Felties (Aug.), Yishan Li and Andrew James's One Million Manga Characters (Oct.), Twinkie Chan's Crochet Goodies for Fashion Foodies (Nov.), and Ed Hardy's Love Kills Slowly Cross-Stitch (Nov.).
This playful emphasis, combined with the focus on the unique quality of handmade items, is still reinvigorating corners of the crafting world. Storey president Pam Art recalls a time when sewers had to be careful that every stitch and seam was finished to an exact specification. She sees a resurgence of interest in sewing as mirroring what she witnessed with knitting when she served on the Craft Yarn Council of America years ago—then it was a confluence of younger people knitting, new and novelty yarns, and new patterns. In recent years, a variety of new fabrics—both vintage and those created by fabric designers—have become available and easily accessible online, as have patterns. It's also easy to find patterns that repurpose other fabrics into garments, quilts, home decor, dolls, and toys. And a decent sewing machine, according to Art, can be had for as little as $69.
"Sewing is the new knitting," she says. "There's a relaxation of what's acceptable in a garment. The fact that you made it and its imperfections add to it. It's cool to save money and not consume."
Storey's sewing releases for the season are The Sewing Answer Book by Barbara Weiland Talbert (July) and Sewing School by Amie Plumley and Andria Lisle (Nov.). Other sewing-related titles on the way include Robert Merrett's Sew It, Stuff It (CICO, Aug.) and Boo Davis's Dare to Be Square Quilting (Potter Craft, Aug.), Tina Sparkles's Little Green Dresses (Taunton, Sept.), Amy Butler's Style Stitches (Chronicle, Oct.), and Illustrated Guide to Sewing Home Furnishings, edited by Peg Couch (Fox Chapel, Dec.).
But while the market is definitely booming for titles appealing to the younger, hipper set, Leisure Arts editor-in-chief Susan Sullivan cautions against forgetting the legions of other crafters. "The inclination to think that every crafter wants a young, trendy, cutting-edge design is unwise," she says. "The baby boomers are out there in force, with dollars to spend on creative pursuits, but most of them are left shaking their heads when presented with patterns for knitted lingerie or a hot pink crocheted bustier."
There are plenty of titles that reflect publishers' desire to appeal to the more traditional crafter and to those who wish to learn advanced techniques. Leisure Arts's own charity-focused Knit Prayer Shawls and Crochet Prayer Shawls are both out this month. And this year will also see releases like Debbie Bliss's The Knitter's Year (Trafalgar Square, Oct.), Linda Jones's Making Beautiful Bead and Wire Jewelry (CICO, Sept.), Pat and Kim Novak's Knitting Board Basics (St. Martin's, Aug.), and Tina Barseghian's A Homemade Christmas (Harlequin, Sept.).
Allison Korleski, former crafts buyer for Barnes & Noble and now book acquisition editor at Interweave, says that with more people crafting than ever she's focusing on providing books for the more experienced and specialized crafters—people who want to "grow, become better, more polished in one's traditional arena while still exploring new ones." Titles such as Around the World in Knitted Socks by Stephanie van der Linden (Sept.), The Jewelry Architect with DVD by Kate McKinnon (Nov.), and The Artful Bird by Abigail Patner Glassenberg (Jan.) reflect the shift.
Korleski doesn't see the surge in popularity for crafting fading anytime soon. "I think crafting continues to appeal to people because of its emphasis on expression and individuality," she says. "Even if one makes a sweater currently being knitted by 5,000 other people, it's still made by oneself—and hence unique and special."n
Three Questions with Amy Sedaris
Simple Times Crafts for Poor People by actress, author and comedienne Amy Sedaris will be published by Grand Central in November.
Is it true that anyone can join the world of crafters?
Unfortunately, yes—anyone can roll a toothpick through some glitter and insert into a marshmallow.
Do handmade crafts make good gifts or is that a myth?
The idea is good. I know three people I like getting homemade crafts from and two are family members. Usually you don't need it. Craft stores now produce ready-made crafts—all you have to do is assemble it or paint it or just glue something to it and those crafts are horrible and really have nothing to do with crafting—I think it's a waste of money. People would rather get a pound of butter or a sack of peanuts.
What's the most dangerous craft project you've ever attempted?
A tuna-can-lid wind chime. I bought cheap tuna and the tin was flimsy and razor sharp. I was bleeding, and I reeked of cheap tuna and blood.
Back to Basics
The handmade aesthetic isn't limited to knitting, sewing, and jewelry making. The recession, coupled with the attraction of "green" living, has the trappings of a simpler lifestyle looking pretty good—creating a boom in interest for woodworking, raising chickens, farming, brewing beer, candle making, and anything else that might have taken place in a little house on the prairie.
"We're seeing crafts and hobbies move from being a distraction or simply a money-saving activity to a ‘quality of life' and ‘creative living' movement," says Paul McGahren, sales and marketing v-p for Fox Chapel, which focuses primarily on woodworking titles. "Greener living, better eating, improved living environments, and more old-fashioned, creative fun."
McGahren says the publisher has seen consistent growth despite the recession, as well as demand from a new audience working with wood—especially women and younger crafters. To meet that demand, the publisher has added books like Simply Wood by Roshaan Ganief (Nov.), a designer and artist who uses wood as her primary medium. The title features easy projects for making modern wall art and chic home decor. And those coming to woodwork because of the recession may be interested in Chris Lubkemann's Tree Craft (Aug.), which offers ideas for creating "redefined rustic décor" from twigs and branches, and Ernie Conover's The Frugal Woodturner (Aug.), which guides newcomers to getting started on the hobby at the right budget.
Following up on the popularity of How to Sew a Button by Erin Bried—now in its fifth printing—Ballantine has How to Start a Fire (Dec.). The first book collected the wisdom of grandmothers who lived through the Great Depression, and for the new title Bried interviewed grandfathers—many veterans of WWII—about everything from building a birdhouse to stripping and repainting furniture. And for those who want to embrace the hardworking simple life wholeheartedly, the subtitle of a November Skyhorse title by Abigail Gehring may hold the ultimate appeal—Self-Sufficiency: A Complete Guide to Baking, Carpentry, Crafts, Organic Gardening, Preserving Your Harvest, Raising Animals, and More! The book even includes tips on making butter and cheese, notes associate publisher Bill Wolfsthal.
Readers more interested in learning about the current back-to-basics trend than participating in it may be drawn to Kurt Reighley's United States of Americana (Aug.). Harper pegs this release as appealing to readers of books such as Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma, with its mix of history, trivia about subjects including Prohibition-era cocktails and country music, and pages stuffed with colorful characters who've embraced the principles of a nostalgic past.
Says the book's editor, Rob Crawford, "Kurt's book is the first look at this new Americana movement as a whole, and at how rediscovered traditions are inspiring creativity today."
While Reighley's book may be the only comprehensive look at the movement available, there are plenty of other reference books that may appeal to those interested in a specific historical period. Osprey imprint Shire has several such books, including Life in the Victorian Country House (Sept.) and The Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain (Nov.).
For the Birds
Putting together a new comprehensive field guide for birders isn't a quick undertaking. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Little, Brown, Oct.) has been 30 years in the making by Don and Lillian Stokes, called "birding's first family" by Birding Business Magazine. The Stokeses' previous bestselling guidebooks are well known, but this latest is their magnum opus.
Little, Brown executive editor Tracy Behar says that the timing is good, given that birding is a relatively cheap hobby for people during these lean times. "The Stokeses have drawn on decades of research, observation, and study for this landmark work, the most comprehensive photographic guide to North American birds ever published," Behar says. "It's the be-all and end-all of field guides, and we're thrilled to be bringing it into the marketplace."
The guide features 853 North American bird species, more than 3,400 color photos, and will be packaged with a CD of more than 660 sounds from the most common birds.
Attracting Younger Crafters
Established quilting, fabric arts, and papercraft publisher C&T decided the way to connect with the expanding handmade movement was to launch an imprint aimed at the younger generation currently embracing crafts and the DIY lifestyle in such large numbers. The new imprint, Stash, debuted its first list in spring 2010, with another crop of books due this fall. According to publisher Amy Marson, "The first four titles in the imprint have met expectations and sold more books than we would have with the other line."
Rather than doing more books each year, the publisher decided to shift 25% of the C&T list to the new imprint, after researching what buyers in this demographic are looking for in terms of design and content. Among the launch titles were Cherri House's City Quilts (June), featuring city-inspired designs, and Kate Haxell's Me and My Sewing Machine (May). The list also included Little Birds (June), the first in the imprint's Design Collective series, which will showcase the work of designers found via Etsy and other parts of the online craft world. The imprint's standout so far has been Socks Appeal (June), from Washington Post graphics editor Brenna Maloney. Says Marson, "The Barnes & Noble buyer—now at Interweave—told us we hit a home run with that one."
The publisher's fall list includes the next title in the Design Collective series, Lunch Bags (Aug.), as well as titles from popular bloggers—Samantha Cotterill's Fanciful Felties from mummysam (Sept.) and Simplify with Camille Roskelley (Oct.).
Marson confirms that influence in the online crafting world is a big draw for Stash. "One criterion we have is that if an author has a strong social media presence, we're more likely to publish their books," she says. "It's key now."