Katherine Curtin grew up watching her father work at The Jewelry Box, a shop on Granby Street in Norfolk. He spent his days repairing watches and necklaces, wearing goggles to protect his eyes from the sparks produced when his tools met metal. He also designed and created one-of-a-kind pieces for customers. Although the shop and her father are both gone, Katherine’s memories, and her love of handcrafted jewelry, live on.
Even in an age of mass-produced goods, unique, handmade items are in high demand. Etsy, a global online marketplace for crafts of every kind, has 1.6 million crafters selling more than 35 million items. The seemingly infinite selection on the site, from exquisite watercolors to eye-catching accessories, is a breathtaking display of human creativity. In 2015 the site grossed $2.39 billion in sales, proof that crafting is big business.
The craft scene here in Tidewater is thriving and expanding. Local craft shows large and small dot the landscape and are the perfect place to meet and chat with local artisans. Independent shops are also popping up in the region to offer shoppers the chance to discover even more handmade treasures. Let’s meet three women who are part of the craft movement taking place in Tidewater.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
When Katherine Curtin was 16 years old, she made 3-D Christmas cards for her mom using wood scraps. At first she had to rely on someone else to cut the wooden pieces for her, but she eventually learned how to do that task herself. As her confidence grew, so did her crafting abilities, resulting in increasingly intricate designs. Partly because of her dad’s influence, Katherine’s focus shifted to jewelry, and today she creates necklaces and earrings from wood and metal.
“I am attracted to wood and metal because they are different,” Katherine explained. “There are so many bits and pieces laying around and no one thinks to use them.”
Katherine loves repurposing discarded items for her jewelry. Her boyfriend, Eric, is an avid shooter, and she was shocked when she saw all of the bullet casings going to waste. She gathered them up in a sack and later incorporated them into designs for pendants, squishing the casing with a vise and flattening the metal with a hammer.
Inspiration is everywhere for Katherine. She searches yard sales for deals and often stops to pick up things others have dumped alongside the road, including siding from houses that have been torn down. The siding is treated with chemicals, so she soaks and washes it prior to use. The cleaning process creates a driftwood effect that is perfect for the jewelry she creates.
Once she is inspired, Katherine’s crafting process kicks in. Many of her designs feature geometric shapes like triangles, so she practices making that shape until it is perfect. “You can’t have one crooked earring,” she joked. Once she is satisfied with the design, she tests it by wearing it herself. “I have to make sure it’s durable,” she said. “Lots of people have children who like to tug on their jewelry, and I want to make sure everything I make can withstand daily living.” When Katherine is convinced the piece can handle whatever life can dish out, it’s time to start crafting.
Since wood plays a role in so many of Katherine’s designs, she is often covered in dust and the little shavings get tangled in her long dark hair. The mess is worth it, though, when she sees people wearing her jewelry. She sells her jewelry through her online Etsy store, as well as several local boutiques. “I love to be out and about and seeing someone wearing one of my pieces,” she said. “It’s fun to talk with people who have purchased my jewelry from a local shop.”
Katherine’s father passed away last fall, but she still thinks about him when she is designing and creating her jewelry. She has necklaces and rings he designed and made, but she doesn’t wear them out in public for fear of losing or damaging them. She also still has many of the sketches he did for jewelry he wanted to create. “One day I am going to combine my ideas with his to create new pieces,” she said.
SPACE TO CREATE
Claire Martin turned to crafting to keep herself sane during one of the most difficult times in her life. In 2003 she was working on her doctorate in marine biology at Old Dominion University when she began experiencing fainting episodes. At least half of her work mapping the sea floor was conducted in the Florida Keys, and she spent five to six hours every day in the water. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was causing the fainting, so Claire left her underwater research behind to teach high school science in Virginia Beach.
The fainting episodes continued, and eventually Claire was diagnosed with POTS, which stands for Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a condition that causes a person’s heart rate to increase upon standing, leading to fainting. Claire left teaching in 2006 and started working for a florist in the Hilltop section of Virginia Beach. She thrived in that creative environment and started her own shop, Bella Flora. When she got pregnant with her daughter a few years later, she ended up in the hospital for almost the entire pregnancy. Her daughter was born healthy, but Claire was bedridden.
“I hated just lying there and feeling sick,” Claire explained. “So I did the one thing I could do laying on my side—crochet.”
Claire learned how to crochet by watching YouTube videos. “The first scarves I made were terrible,” she recalled. “Finally, a month into it, everything clicked and I understood the stitches.”
Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, Claire decided to create her own crochet patterns. She reclaimed her entrepreneurial dreams put on hold by her illness and started an online Etsy shop with the tongue-in-cheek name “Horizontal Designs.”
Crochet was just the tip of Claire’s crafting iceberg. She also learned how to make jewelry. And then came fairy gardens: wee, whimsical habitats meant to lure fairies and the good luck they represent.
Claire sold fairy garden kits through her Etsy store. Each kit contained miniature items she made by hand, including benches, tree bark, moss, fairy doors, doorknobs, and even little hinges. “Physically I could only do so much,” Claire said. “But I had to find ways to have fun outside of my illness. I love gardens and fairies, and I was able to sit in my bed with a tray and my tools and work a little every day.” Claire sold her completed fairy garden kits to customers in 22 countries around the globe.
Claire’s long illness took its toll on her marriage to her first husband. When the couple divorced, she looked for another craft to start off a new phase in her life. Claire had sensitivities to many chemicals and additives used in store-bought soaps, so she turned her new garage into a studio and started making organic personal care products. “Soap is science and art combined,” Claire said. “It’s such a lovely alchemy.”
In addition to POTS, Claire was also diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2014. Through all of her darkest moments, Claire relied on creativity to maintain her sanity. Now that she is no longer bound to her bed and doesn’t have to use her power wheelchair on a daily basis, she wants to bring the healing power of crafting to others.
In June Claire opened Studio Create, a craft store in the Hilltop area of Virginia Beach. “Because of my illness, I was isolated against my will,” Claire said. “I want to be around others who craft and share the sense of pride and accomplishment of crafting.”
Studio Create sells a wide assortment of crafting items, including yarn, scrapbook supplies, Claire’s handmade soaps, and sewing notions. “Crafting is primal and part of being human,” Claire said. “I want my shop to help others experience the joy crafting brings.”
A CRAFTING REVOLUTION
Michelle Odom felt she didn’t have a crafting bone in her body until her third daughter, Hannah, was born. The two spent hours on the floor, painting and making collages. Hannah grew out of it, but Michelle didn’t. Michelle sought out others in Hampton Roads who shared her passion for crafting and also joined several local groups. “But there was no one place for all of us to get together,” Michelle said. “So I asked myself, ‘Why not make one?’”
In 2007 Michelle started All Things Craft, which turned into Handmade Hampton Roads (HHR). “I wanted an environment where everyone could embrace their creative sides,” Michelle said. “A way for them to connect and build each other up.” The group, which has an active Facebook page, updates members about upcoming craft shows and classes and gives them a forum for exchanging ideas and sharing their work.
With the connections she made through HHR, in 2012 Michelle teamed up with five fellow female crafters and opened a shop called Kitsch. Located in Ghent, the store sells the wares of more than 100 Hampton Roads crafters. “At the time there were no other local shops where crafters could sell their handmade items,” Michelle explained. Michelle has since sold her portion of the store, but she continues to contribute her homemade candles to the Kitsch inventory.
The Hampton Roads crafting movement was well underway when Michelle organized Crafted, the region’s biggest indie craft fair. The very first event was held at the O’Connor Brewing Company in Norfolk in the fall of 2014.
“I had been trying to get Crafted up and running since 2009,” Michelle said. “I was looking for a place to hold a massive indie craft fair, and when O’Connor’s opened up, it was like, Bam! Craft beer and crafts.”
The response to the first Crafted event was tremendous, so Michelle organized another event the following year that was even bigger. This year she has added a summer pop-up craft show to the lineup that will be held on August 13 at Esoteric, a craft brewery and restaurant in the ViBe district at the Oceanfront. The fall event will once again take place at O’Connor Brewing Company on October 8.
“I have had tremendous support from the crafting community,” Michelle said. “People have come out of the woodwork to help me put the events together.”
Michelle reviews all of the vendor applications for Crafted herself. “I don’t want it to be the same event every year,” she said. “I look for funky, original, and obscure craft items that people won’t be able to find anywhere else. I want people to get their minds blown from stuff they have never seen before.”
Michelle thinks about crafting from the moment she wakes up until she goes back to sleep. The craft room in her home in Chesapeake is packed to the ceiling with items she purchased at craft shows and from her friends. “I am surrounded by a little bit of everybody I know,” she said. “I have met so many people through my crafting and learned about so many crafts I wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
Michelle predicts the crafting movement will continue to grow. “Crafting is an outlet, almost like therapy,” she said. “There will always be people who want to create things with their hands and learn something new.”
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Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. Visit www.mcallisterwe.com.