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Holiday Guide Feature

Craft Work

Local Crafters Prepare For The Holiday Buying Season

Phu Pham works as a book conservator by day and spends nights and weekends making books and selling them as part of the Charm City Craft Mafia.

Holiday Guide 2008

Present Tense City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

Craft Work Local Crafters Prepare For The Holiday Buying Season | By Martin L. Johnson

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Sweet Success A Local Baker Proves That Vegan Doesn't Necessarily Mean Bland | By Anna Ditkoff

Oy to The World Decorating a Chanukah Bush Is Prickly Business | By Charles Cohen

Mix Master Making a Music Mix in The Digital Age | By Michael Byrne

Ms. Flake's Guide to Last Minute Holiday Preparations | By Emily Flake

Nice Package City Paper's Annual Gift Guide

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 11/19/2008

Started just two years ago, the Charm City Craft Mafia, a 15-member collective of entrepreneurial artists, is Baltimore's anchor in what has become a sea of craft artists. Gathering online on the storefront site Etsy, and in craft fairs across the country, this new generation of screen printers, knitters, potters, bookmakers, and jewelers have turned their pastimes into profit centers, one stitch at a time.

But the transition from hobbyist to professional can be a rough one. Craft artists, who begin as low-production art school graduates, or amateurs making work for themselves and their families, can eventually find themselves struggling to keep up with the demand for their wares. They keep an eye on trends in the craft scenes in other cities, and try, often futilely, to predict what will sell.

Although the craft revival is young--Etsy only started in 2005, the inaugural Austin Craft Mafia started in 2003--its rapid rise has been stunning. In Baltimore, artists start making work in the summer for the holiday season, where up to three-quarters of their yearly output will sell. Unlike traditional craft fairs, which might have been held in cavernous mid-size city civic centers or VFW halls, these new craft fairs are often small-scale affairs, taking place in hip neighborhoods and attracting young and old alike.

Michael Bracco, a screen printer and illustrator, and his wife, Shawna Pincus, a potter, live in Hampden, and both teach in Howard County. But starting in late October, and running until just before Christmas, they spend almost every weekend at craft fairs in the region, working 10-hour days in hopes of selling enough to pay the costs of materials and travel. Pincus says that she starts producing items to sell for the holidays in the summer, if not earlier.

"You make as much as you possibly can before show season starts, because then you'll have no time," she says, estimating that she and Bracco make 80 percent of their annual sales in the holiday season. "We spend the first few months just making stuff. Because we have day jobs, there's just no time. You work during the week, and then you go to shows on the weekends."

Rachel Bone, who jokingly describes her business, Red Prairie Press, as a "one-woman sweatshop," says that she travels to many shows during the holiday season, while sending work to markets that are further away in order to make up for the slow season in the first months of the new year.

"I love it," she says, noting that she quit her job several years ago to sell shirts, many of which feature designs influenced by fabric patterns, full-time. "I love being busy, and having too much work to do. It feels like all the work leading up the holidays is worth it. January through March I don't have any work to do, and I worry that maybe something has gone wrong, and that no one will ever buy T-shirts again. It's never gotten to the point where it's so stressful that I can't do it."

Although craft shows celebrate the handmade and the unique object, they also give artists an opportunity to see what sells. Unlike the market testing that goes into every American Apparel fashion accessory, crafters tend to produce work first, and then see if it sells, adding another complication to the compressed selling season.

"I never know what people are going to be buying," Bone says. "I add in a few designs every season. When you first make them, it's like whatever you like the most, will sell the least. That's always been the case, maybe because I'm not very fashionable. You definitely see trends in what people want. Those I always print more of."

Heather von Marko, a knitter, started making work for her children several years ago, then friends and even strangers started asking her to make pieces for them. Unlike most members of the Mafia, she doesn't travel out of town to shows, but does a healthy business online. She said finding one's style is difficult, but it's often the mark of a successful craft artist.

"It is about narrowing down in some ways what your line is going to represent," she says. "But you can take that core idea and create different expressions of it. The people that I've found to be really successful, you recognize their work. It doesn't matter if it's a painting, or a screen-printed bag, or whatever they might have in their line. It's an aesthetic that you can identify immediately. It can really generate buzz about your work."

Bracco, the screen printer, said that when he designs a shirt that sells well, he feels pressure to produce other best-selling designs. "You don't feel that pressure of creating a brand until you finally stumble on it," Bracco says. "I remember the first time I made a T-shirt that I couldn't nail down, that would sell and sell, which was an awesome feeling because I didn't ever think I would sell something that would do that well. Now every time I design a new one, I think, 'I've got to one-up that, I've got to keep that same aesthetic and pass it.'"

Von Marko said that she occasionally feels pressure to continually produce pieces that sell well, but resists it in order to ensure that she continues to enjoy her work. "You get a lot of pressure from the outside world," she says. "I'm thinking of my mother right now: 'Why don't you make these? They're so cute, they're really fast, they sell well, and they don't cost that much.' That's when you run into trouble, when you feel all the pressure."

And there is more than enough pressure in just trying to get ready for show season. Although some crafters use the slow months of January through March to make work to be sold in the spring, summer, and even next holiday season, others rush to get work done just in time for it to sell. Phu Pham, who makes books and recently graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, joined the Mafia collective in June. Like almost all the other members of the collective, Pham has a day job--in her case as a book conservator at the Smithsonian. She developed a production process to help her get through the rush. "I work with an assembly line," she says. "I do 10 at a time. I get lazy, so if I set a number for myself, I'll achieve my goal."

Crafters also wrestle with the question of whether they can turn their profitable secondary source of income into their primary one. Pincus says she has considered going on her own, but is hesitant to take the leap. On the other hand, Bone started working for herself three years ago, and says she hasn't regretted it. But admits it took some faith.

"It was definitely scary to lose my health care," she says. "You don't get a set paycheck every couple of weeks. I end up making more per year, which is really great, but it took a while to get to that."

The Charm City Craft Mafia provides a support network for local artists who use craft shows, their Etsy store, and even some wholesale orders to make significant income from selling their wares, sponsoring local craft shows and sharing business ideas and advertising costs. "We get a lot of support," says von Marko, one of the Mafia's founding members. Like several of the collective's members, von Marko was already selling work before she joined up, but it was harder going it alone. The collective's ballooning membership is proof that it filled a void in the arts community. "People would ask, 'Why hasn't there been a community like this? Why hasn't someone done this already?,'" von Marko says. "There was a flock of interest."

After adding several businesses in June, the collective decided to cap membership at 15, as the members feel that adding any more businesses--most Craft Mafias have only five or six members--would make managing the group too burdensome. At the same time, many of the group's shows include other artists from the area, so they have the opportunity to sell their work under the Mafia banner.

The Charm City Craft Mafia is part of the latest wave of crafters to emerge, but its members acknowledge that what they're doing isn't really new. Pincus, who says she visited craft shows as a child, sees them as simply part of a long tradition of handmade art. "There's always been craft shows and art shows," she says. "I think it's not something that's not been [around], it's something that's being revisited by a new generation."

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

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The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

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The Wish List (11/18/2009)
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