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Earning a living and peace of mind by handcrafting goods


Earning a living and peace of mind by handcrafting goods
By Mary Thomas
April 30, 2014

What do African-American women who live in traditional rural Alabama and a middle-aged white man who lives in counter-culture San Francisco have in common? Their love of quilting. It’s one of four delightful stories in PBS’s “Craft in America: Industry — Handmade in the Creative Economy,” which airs 10 p.m. Friday on WQED-TV.

Joe Cunningham says that when he began quilting in 1979, he was one of about a dozen “professional quilters” across the country. Now quilting is a $4.5 billion annual industry. He gives talks, teaches workshops and writes books (11 to date) on quilting, but what he likes most is the act of quilting itself. “I enjoy the silence … for four or five or six hours a day.”

He found kindred spirits in the remarkable women of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective (if you don’t know about this creative community, you have double reason to watch this show).

“To me it’s like medicine,” says Mary Ann Pettway, who learned quilting as a child from her mother and who finds relief from her arthritic pains when she stitches.

Graham McKay has a master’s degree in maritime history and archaeology from Harvard, but we meet him crafting a wooden dory in Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Mass., where he is also manager and curator. The national landmark, built in 1793, is the oldest operating boat shop in the U.S. and the last in the once-thriving town. In 1911, Lowell’s produced 2,029 dories. Now there’s “a smaller market, but there is a market,” Mr. McKay says.

When fishing was flourishing in New England, a fully loaded boat comprising two men, equipment and catch would weigh a ton to 3,000 pounds. The dory “would take it without any trouble,” he says with pride.

In Hendersonville, N.C., artist Bethanne Knudson and partner Stephan Michaelson brought textile manufacturing back to the mountains in 2006 after the industry had fled to Asia. The Oriole Mill, which produces heirloom-quality goods on six Jacquard looms, was a leap of faith but one that has succeeded. It was like white-water rafting, Ms. Knudson says of the struggle to establish the mill — you can’t just change your mind when you get to the rapids.

Brooklyn resident Shane Yamane is a jeweler who combines recycled metals and conflict-free diamonds and gemstones with a tradition of craft precision. He also combines the isolation of studio work with the global craft marketing entity Etsy.

“The world is a competitive place,” Mr. Yamane says of the affiliation.

He’s usually asked by potential customers if he has a website (he does) but is shown conversing one-on-one with patrons in his studio as well.

Brooklyn-headquartered Etsy was founded in 2005 by artist Rob Kalin, who couldn’t find a suitable outlet for his work. While the anonymity of the Web seems to be incompatible with the personal identity of craft, Etsy’s numbers are staggering: more than 30 million members in 200 countries with more than 18 million individual items for sale.

The program’s focus is on ways craftspeople have adapted to survive in today’s world, but an added bonus is the look given at the relationship among hand and heart and material shared by these diverse yet fundamentally similar makers as they keep timeless traditions alive.

“We’re in the business of preserving knowledge,” Mr. McKay says.