Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 25, 2013

Annual ‘Woolen Workshop’ puts new spin on traditional arts

By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer

— Beth Notaro said there’s a new swear word among fans of traditional arts like knitting, crocheting and weaving.

“Craft is the new ‘c-word.’ We don’t say craft,” she said. “It’s a bad word. We call it handwork.”

Why? Notaro said it’s a change that’s meant to move handmade quilts, rugs and hangings from the museum into the modern age, and demonstrate that “it’s not just your grandma’s craft anymore.”

That was the main goal of the seventh-annual Winter Woolen Workshop held this weekend inside the Seiberling Mansion and Elliott House. Over 350 participants gathered to pick up tips and swap advice on techniques involved in sewing, embroidery, needle felting and all kinds of other traditional arts.

“The whole point of this event is to convince people not to wait until you’re 65 to get a hobby,” she said. “Handworking isn’t just an art for people 12 or under or 65 or older.”

Inside the buildings, people browsed through homemade crafts sold by 22 vendors, and sat in on demonstrations by expert artisans to learn the ins and outs of creating their own pieces.

As participants chatted, perused the rooms and took up their quilting or knitting projects, the sound of hammered dulcimers played by live musicians drifted through the hallways.

Notaro said the event has nearly doubled since it first started seven years ago. The first year she said the workshop was a one-day event, with just around 150 people attending. It’s grown every year, and this year she said the workshop drew in participants from over seven states.

Mary Lingren, who’s held a rug-hooking workshop every year at the event, said one of her goals is to attract new people to the kinds of crafts some might consider out-of-date. And she said it’s working.

 “I think this is slowly becoming very popular,” she said. “Look at the people coming here. They’re not on walkers.”

One of those not on a walker was Nicki Winkles, a 31-year-old vendor from Zionsville. She contributed the expansion of the annual workshop in part to the growing popularity of traditional arts among young people.

“I think handworking is making a massive, massive comeback with the younger generation,” she said, noting she saw kids as young as 14 coming in who wanted to spend their allowance money on handmade crafts. “People are really wanting to do their own thing now. They don’t want the mass-produced junk. They want pieces that are going to last a lifetime and that you can pass down to your family.”

Notaro said that was another aim of the Winter Woolen Workshop — to bring back the love, care and purpose that comes with making your own things and not depending on big box stores.

“This is something we don’t celebrate anymore as a culture,” she said. “Everything now is done by machine. If people saw where there $5 sweater came from and who’s making it, you’d really think twice about it. We need to put quality back into our lives.”

But it’s not just about trying to keep the traditional arts alive, Notaro said. It’s about people putting their own modern spin on their crafts, too.

“I think of this event kind of like a modern quilt circle,” she said. “It’s not just your grandma’s craft. We marry fine art and fiber, and people are stepping out-of-the-box all the time.”

Winkles was one of those stepping out of the box. At her booth, she was selling old frames, clothing and other disregarded antiques that she salvaged and turned into new, unique pieces. She called it “re-purposing.”

But for Winkles, the workshop wasn’t just about quilting and weaving. It was about the fellowship of kindred people making art.

“I could come here and not make any money and still have a great time all day, just because the women here are amazing,” she said. “Everyone has their own different genre they work in, and it’s just great.”

In the end, Lingren said the real appeal of turning fabrics, woolens, yarn and threads into beautiful things is simple: It’s fun.

“It’s a lot of fun because you can’t make a mistake, and it keeps your fingers out of the cookie jobs,” she said with a laugh. “It’s creative, it’s art, and when you get done you have something to look at that you made. It’s satisfying.”

Participants paid $10 to attend the workshop, and all the money went to the Howard County Historical Society.

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.