There's a vase of artificial flowers in Rachelle Matherne's Metairie kitchen. The blooms look like leather, but get closer: the roses are actually duct tape.
"When I started, I did a lot of duct tape stuff. Everyone starts with making duct tape wallets," says Matherne, standing in her spare bedroom. The walls are lined with SteriLite containers and tackle boxes filled with yarn, string and fabric scraps, but these are not your maw-maw's craft projects, as evidenced by some of the unusual materials: king cake babies, rainbow cupcake sprinkles and the battered ice cube trays she uses as resin molds.
Matherne founded the New Orleans Craft Mafia, a loose consortium of craft workers mostly young and female who have turned hobbies into small side businesses. Matherne's creations include bottle cap magnets, resin pendants and fleur-de-lis jewelry. Each is handmade; nothing is more than $25.
Is it profitable?
"It's a hobby I'd do anyway," says Matherne. "But since the first month I started doing this, I've never lost money."
While old-school craftwork was forged by economic necessity and practi-
cality as much as creativity, today's craft movement is both artsier and slipperier. It carries echoes of both '70s macramé power and '90s grrl power. It has a fierce anti-consumerist message, yet it's based on making and buying things. And it's gender-neutral, although crafters are still almost exclusively women. Its appeal (and its very definition) is hard to pin down, which is why the Craft Mafia movement has been written up in publications as disparate as Tiger Beat and Elle, from the earnest Budget Living to the postmodern feminist mags Bust and Bitch.
"There's an in-your-face aspect to today's D.I.Y. crafting," says Namita Wiggers, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Ore., where she recently curated an exhibit called Not Your Grandmother's Doily. "It's more style-oriented. Your mother may have knitted a toilet-paper cover, but you're knitting a vibrator cover and saying, 'Isn't that funny?'"
"It goes with the whole hipster sense of irony," explains Matherne, 31. "I think a lot of people my age had mothers who crafted a lot, and they thought of it as dorky until they realized how cool it was. But they didn't want to do things with ducks and geese."
Growing up in Norco, La., "everyone in my family made stuff," says Matherne, whose D.I.Y. approach to life led her to four colleges before she finally got a degree in media arts and public relations from Tulane. (WTUL listeners might also remember her four-year, on-air gig as DJ Silver Speakers.)
Now working at home on her own book publicity business, the centerpiece of Matherne's craft room is a painting done by her grandmother; some traditional crochet by her mother is stacked on a file cabinet. She sells her creations on her own Web site, www.greenKangaroo.com named for her favorite childhood Judy Blume novel and at the New Orleans Craft Mafia's monthly Crescent City Craft Market, where members get together to sell their wares and share a bit of fellowship.
The social aspect of today's craft world is nothing new, says Jan Katz, curator of the Center for Southern Craft & Design at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. "At the turn of the 20th century, women got together in sewing circles. Today, we have iPhones and text messaging and email, but we're less connected in other ways. Crafting bridges that gap, and fills a need for creativity and authenticity." Katz sees the modern craft movement as a natural extension of other Southern art movements like Newcomb pottery a way for mostly women to express their creativity, come together and create things both useful and fanciful, be it functional, decorative, or simply absurd.
"Who is to say," Katz asks, "what is and is not valid?"
The first Craft Mafia was formed in Austin, Texas, in 2003,
when nine women joined forces to support one another and peddle their work. Since then, according to founder Jesse Kelly-Landes, 42 other city-specific "familias" have spun off the Texas-based organization in big cities like New York and Los Angeles and in small towns like Lubbock, Texas, Shelby, N.C., and Petaluma, Calif. "I think [the New Orleans Craft Mafia] probably has the most tenacity of any group," says Kelly-Landes.
Matherne founded the New Orleans chapter in the summer of 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina. The fledgling organization was almost immediately scattered during the evacuation, but members kept in touch, drawing support from other crafters. When Matherne's Broadmoor home took on several feet of water and she lost most of her supplies, she put out word that she needed fabric scraps. Donations came from all over the country, including a sewing machine to replace Matherne's flooded model.
That social aspect of crafting is central to the new D.I.Y. movement; crafters even have a group called the Craft Emergency Relief Fund (CERF). Founded in 1985, the group offers financial assistance, art materials and emotional support to craft artists in need. It responded to Katrina with donations that included thousands of pounds of clay for potters on the Gulf Coast. "They have really weathered some tough times," Kelly-Landes says.
Through the Internet, the New Orleans Craft Mafia managed to survive, and most of its members found their way back to town. In 2007, the group began its own craft market, and it's scheduled to double in size this year, says Matherne, as the group adds another half-dozen members.
Until recently, crafters depended on local swap meets and art shows to sell their wares. Then a Web site changed the game and took it global.
You can't talk contemporary craft without talking about www.Etsy.com. Crafters refer to it simply as "Etsy," like Amazon or Google. It's an analog of sorts to eBay, a bazaar of the handmade, a virtual community for crafters and one of the Web's big startup success stories of recent years. In less than three years, the site has fostered more than 2 million transactions. Listing prices are miniscule, and most items are cheap, making it attractive to both vendors and buyers.
Since the New York-based site launched in 2005, it has enrolled some 100,000 crafters, giving each a virtual shop, a place to sell everything from homemade soap to hand-stitched diaper bags and the New Orleans Craft Mafia's own "skull-de-lis" clocks. (A search for "New Orleans" on Etsy reveals nearly 1,000 items, from fleur-de-lis everything to a miniskirt made from a Saints T-shirt.) Among the few rules Matherne set down for the New Orleans Craft Mafia: members are required to have their own Etsy shop, as well as their own Web site.
"Etsy is fantastic. It provides a really open venue for everyone from hobbyists to trained artists," says Wiggers, the museum curator.
Last year, New Orleans artist and Craft Mafia member Mallory Whitfield placed third in an Etsy competition requiring the use of "up-cycled" materials. Her entry? The "Recycled FEMA Blue Tarp Bustier and Skirt."
"I get most of my stuff through discards," she says. "Vintage and remnant fabrics. I like to buy as little as possible." ("We all scrounge thrift stores," agrees Matherne.)
Whitfield got into crafts the "dorky" way sewing costumes for her high school theater productions in Gulfport with her mother. But she enjoyed spending time with her mom and discovered she had an aptitude for turning remnant fabric into something unexpectedly cool. Now she makes barrettes, neck warmers and chokers out of old jeans, as well as colorful denim pins in fleur-de-lis shapes. Whitfield sells her creations on her Web site, www.missmalaprop.com ("indie finds for your uncommon life"), where she also blogs about eco-friendliness and sustainability. Her Etsy store has more than 50 items for sale none more than $50.
Besides her regular table at the Craft Mafia's monthly market, Whitfield has sold her work at alternative festivals and has traveled to national crafting events such as San Francisco's mega-fair, the Craft Congress, and the Bazaar Bizarre in Richmond, Va.
It's Sunday afternoon and the Mafia has convened its monthly Crescent City Craft Market at The Big Top, a gallery and performance space at 1638 Clio St., near Lee Circle. The bar in the back is serving up Abita and New Orleans Rum, and the sound system is blasting oldies from Joy Division and the Sugarcubes. The Mafia rents tables to outside vendors, including Jane Brewster, a traditional watercolor artist who sells her New Orleans street scenes at many local art events. "This is my favorite market, though," she says. "I love its originality."
Though the New Orleans Craft Mafia doesn't have a no boys allowed policy, all the vendors at the market are women. "It's not a huge male thing," says Matherne, grabbing a quick smoke on the patio. "Guys tend to do T-shirts and screen printing. But we have no gender requirements."
Whitfield is there, too, along with Heather Macfarlane, a founding member of the New Orleans Craft Mafia who also owns the Magazine Street shop UP/Unique Products with partner Mark Kirk. "I come from a Scots farming family," she explains in a soft burr. "If you didn't make your own Christmas presents, you didn't have them. That's how thrifty Scottish people are."
Like other Magazine Street merchants, Macfarlane and Kirk are struggling in the post-Katrina economy. "If there's one bright spot to Katrina, it's that it put more of a light on New Orleans products in general," Macfarlane says. "People elsewhere are trying to help businesses here stay afloat. But we're still suffering." She's the most diversified of the New Orleans Craft Mafiosi, selling her artwork from her boutique, from her own online site (www.letsgetup.com), from Etsy and at various crafts fairs.
"I could see this whole movement really beginning to take off a few years ago," Macfarlane says, sitting at a table surrounded by her messenger bags made of recycled FEMA tarps, light fixtures made of melted Mardi Gras beads, and old LP records warped into fruit bowls.
"But, really, it's what I've been doing since I was 14 years old."
Kevin Allman is a New Orleans writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Details. His Web site is www.kevinallman.com.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Rachelle Matherne magnets Rachelle Matherne makes magnets out of pop bottle tops and found objects she embeds in resin.
- ug sculptures by Pandra Williams
- Mallory Whitfield skirt Mallory Whitfield uses old jeans and fabric patches to make a new, kitschy mini-skirt.
- Rachelle Matherne (right) founded New Orleans Craft Mafia as a way to help women turn their craft hobbies into side businesses. Here she is shown with Mallory Whitfield, whose main medium is fabric. Whitfield placed third in a national Etsy competition last year for her entry of a recycled FEMA blue tarp bustier and skirt.
- Natasha Sanchez (far right) sits with her Betty the Bullhorn photography display.
- Cheryl Gerber
- New Orleans Craft Mafia holds monthly art fairs at The Big Top 3 Ring Circus art center the second Sunday of each month.