The Women of the Long Beach Craft Mafia Know the Handmade Revolution Will Not Be Televised
DIY Or Die
The women of the Long Beach Craft Mafia know that the handmade revolution will not be televised—it’ll be on Etsy.com
“I used to crochet pasties,” explains a pigtailed Steph Calvert.
The pasties resembled Hostess cupcakes—swirly white icing, chocolate frosting and all.
“Cupcakes for your cupcake,” she smiles. “They were great. People would come up to my table at craft shows, and they’d be totally into them and buy them.
“And when they were walking away, it’s weird because on one side of your brain you’re like”—she pauses for a fist pump—“‘Yeaaaaahh, they love my pasties!’ And then on the other hand, you’re thinking, ‘Wait. They like pasties? Did I want to know that about them?”
Calvert, 31, grins at a table at Hot Java at Junipero Avenue and Broadway in Long Beach. She’s cute, quirky, energetic, creative—the kind of girl you’d meet at your liberal-arts college of choice. The kind of girl who’d design Hello Kitty and Madeline graphic tees and paint robots and woodland creatures for a living. The kind of girl who wears skirts over her jeans, as she does today.
Calvert is one of the five active members of the now-2-year-old Long Beach Craft Mafia. Along with Tamara Dutton, Kelsey “Kelso” Cooper, Liz Abbott and Lexi Lee, Calvert is part of an enterprising new wave of Generation X, Y and Z women (mostly) who take the DIY mentality and make it a way of life. All five produce and construct original, handcrafted items to sell online, at craft shows and elsewhere.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Wednesday, but the dim café is crowded—pods of friends and some loners with laptops and notebooks occupy every seat and spill onto the open patio facing Broadway. The Long Beach Craft Mafia, here for their monthly meeting, occupy the largest corner of the café, but a group of bookish thirtysomething men with rimless glasses, unbuttoned shirts and MacBooks sit across the way.
“Looks like our male Mafia members are here, too,” Liz Abbott jokes.
She wears a hot-pink cheetah-print sheath dress with strategically placed slashes across the chest—her own creation. She’s cinched it at the waist with a wide black-leather belt. Her pulled-back hair matches the dress perfectly, sans a few bleached-blond strands. She fakes a sob when she reveals her age: “I’m 34, damn it!”
This is just one chapter in a 31-city, worldwide network of similar groups with the Craft Mafia name. Nine women in Austin founded the original group in 2003.
“The idea of Craft Mafia as a whole is that everybody who is in it has some kind of DIY, indie-crafty business,” Calvert explains. “It’s about networking, where you share info and ask questions: ‘Hey, I heard about this show coming up,’ ‘I’m having a problem making this,’ or ‘How should I set up my table for a show?’ We have to pay dues to Austin to use the Craft Mafia name, it’s kind of like . . .”
“The Mafia?” suggests Abbott.
“A Mafia,” repeats Calvert, laughing. “We gotta pay our dues. To the big bosses!”
“Or you get whacked,” finishes Abbott.
The women are preparing for their first event as a group: Long Beach Second Saturday Art Walk, where they’ll man their own tent and sell their respective crafty goods—and, in the process, strike a blow against America’s fixation with Wal-Mart, serial production and cheap, shoddy stuff.
When asked if the Long Beach Craft Mafia consider their crafting a hobby or real business venture, Lee replies, “It’s like a really, really serious hobby.”
They come from varying backgrounds: Some went to fashion school in Manhattan, some work cubicle jobs, one even worked as a go-go dancer at Stinky’s in San Francisco, “Home of the large and lovely go-go dancers.” But all of them share a need to create.
THE GLOBAL COTTAGE
The DIY mentality is nothing new. Sci-fi fans wrote and self-published the first zines in the 1930s. Stitch-’n’-bitch circles, a sort of hip social knitting group, have been big for more than a decade now. Whatever you want to call them, artisans and crafters have been essential to our everyday lives—until buying a chair or even a loaf of bread meant not once encountering a single person who helped produce that item. But thanks to a loss of ties to our goods, a negative stigma has been attached to the word “crafter.”
“People want to be known as ‘artists,’” says Cooper, 24, from behind her long bangs. She’s dressed in a loose navy jumper with a hot-air-balloon motif she hand-sewed on. “I feel like a new generation of younger people just aren’t afraid and are bringing [crafting] back.”
The players in this handmade revolution aren’t just knitting afghans or churning out papier-mâché angels. They’re sewing iPod cozies and laptop cases and making their own jewelry, clothing, paper goods, reusable grocery bags, toys and more.
But they don’t sell most of their creations face-to-face. Founded in 2005, the online marketplace Etsy acts as sort of an eBay for handmade goods—without all that bidding stuff.
“If you’re on eBay, you put in the word ‘necklace,’ and you get thousands of irrelevant results and crap to sift through,” explains Adam Brown, spokesman for Etsy. “People who are coming [to Etsy] are specifically looking for something handmade and are typically willing to pay for something that has a story and meaning,”
“Etsy, to me, was really a deciding factor,” says Cooper, who sells her floral and mixed-patterned purses, totes, cosmetic bags and wallets in her Etsy store, Kelso Doesn’t Dance. “I love the way they operate, and they have so many resources for sellers. It seems they really want us to succeed.”
In a survey conducted by Etsy at the beginning of 2008, the average Etsy buyer is 32 years old—just three years younger than the average Etsy seller. Sixty-three percent of buyers and 58 percent of sellers are college graduates. And the majority of both are from California, New York and Texas.
“It’s a new thing: People want to get away from the image of the grandma and the crocheting,” Brown says. “It’s passé. It’s just the next generation of crafters and I think that image is rapidly changing.”
Calvert even favors her Etsy storefront to her personal website. “In the past year, I’ve sold maybe six or seven things off my personal website, and I’ve sold, like, a hundred on Etsy,” she says, There are so many ways for your stuff to get seen on Etsy that it ends up being a much better option, visibility-wise.”
But even more important to Brown, the Long Beach Craft Mafia and many others is the belief that Etsy and the handmade trend help one to escape the grasp of corporate America, all the while helping out the environment—think of it as a collective giant middle finger to throwaway consumer culture.
“Our numbers are going up every week,” Brown says. “There’s been a resurgence lately of the DIY movement. It’s a backlash to the big-box culture that took over the United States in the ’90s and currently still is. People are tired of it.”
“It’s really a representation of a new way of our economy,” says Delilah Snell, owner of the eco-friendly boutique Road Less Traveled and co-founder of Santa Ana’s Patchwork Indie Arts & Crafts Festival (and who, it must be noted, is dating Weekly staff writer Gustavo Arellano). “Everyone’s talking about how our economy is down—I think it’s showing a shift in what consumers want.”
Maritza Arrua owns Belmont Heights’ the Kids Are Alright. In addition to carrying small-label women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, Arrua also stocks the store with handmade items from artisans—both local and countrywide, including items from Calvert’s line—and is hosting her latest art exhibition.
“It’s really exciting to meet people like Steph,” Arrua says. “That’s the most fun: When you find someone that has an artistic, creative point of view, and they’re making it themselves.
“As a store owner, with everything that’s going on in our economy,” she continues, “I feel it’s important to support the artists and designers who are from this country who are making an effort to have their products made.”
Dutton, 25, maintains two Etsy storefronts. For CrayonFawn, she handcrafts silicon molds of figurines in a weeklong layering process. She then melts down crayons—some donated, some used, some bullied from kids, some plucked from restaurants by waitress friends—in a hot-plate-like device called the Melting Pot, stirring the crayons into a bright puddle. She funnels layers one at a time into the mold using a wide boba straw.
“I used to melt crayons when I was younger in the microwave with wax paper. In my room growing up, I’d have all these candles on my windowsill, melted into wax icicles all the way to the floor,” she recalls.
Her original figurine is the fawn itself, followed by a pair of roller skates inspired by a roller-derby friend named Estrogen. She says a bust of Abraham Lincoln is on its way. She also crafted the infamous cupcake hat—basically a giant felt cupcake secured on the side of your head with ribbon, reminiscent of the Japanese Gothic Lolita style.
Originally from Anaheim, Dutton just married the photo editor for Transworld Ride BMX magazine, Jeff, a few Sundays ago.
After getting laid off from designing provocative Halloween costumes (all of which were some variation of a “scary, slutty Snow White”), Dutton threw herself full-force into planning her wedding—designing and making her own wedding dress, her bridesmaids’ dresses, the decorations and everything else involved.
The two had a local wedding, have been together for about three years and live in a back house in Long Beach where they collect giraffes: Both were teased and dubbed “giraffe” when they were younger. Their cake topper featured bride and groom giraffes.
“We’re having an issue deciding where to draw the line between cute and scary,” she says of their collection, which includes a large stuffed toy giraffe head.
Dutton is all legs, red hair, long neck (of course) and cheekbones. She enjoyed a brief stint as a hair model for Rusk, traveling around the country and doing hair shows that had such themes as Electronic Tribal, which showed Ziggy Stardust-type mullet haircuts at varying lengths.
Her second Etsy store is CarnivoreCockatiel (after the couple’s gray-and-white pet cockatiel, Rocket), for which she hunts down vintage goods at estate sales and thrift shops, repairs them, and flips them.
“I definitely buy vintage clothing where the price is very comparable to the price of a new dress. But I also don’t have to worry about someone else wearing that dress,” she says. “Whatever wear and tear the vintage item has is not a mystery—it’s already been around for 20-plus years, whereas a new dress from Forever 21 or H&M may fall apart after the first wash because they have to keep their prices low, and in turn, the construction is really shoddy.”
The waste-less factor comes into play here, too. “The clothing is here and already made. Manufacturing clothing has many processes, many of which are harmful for the environment. It’s like investing toward a working wardrobe instead of buying disposable clothing,” Dutton says. “Personally, I like the feeling of being a naughty American consumer, not buying new things all the time.”
THE ONE WHO DOESN’T DANCE
“I really don’t dance,” Kelsey Cooper explains. “I end up in the corner watching everyone’s bags.”
When asked, she admits that she does dance in the car—but she thinks it doesn’t officially count.
“Actually, I think it does,” Abbott interjects. “Your name is a lie.”
Cooper spends her weekdays as a sales analyst building order forms.
“I’m basically on Excel all day. It’s odd, but I have so much fun with it. We even have Craft-a-Cube, where we decorate our cubicles,” she says with a laugh.
Cooper’s trademark is the tiered ruffle purse, in which she sews layers of ruffled, patterned fabric atop one another, resulting in some sort of adorable-bloomers effect. Her choice of fabrics is key—always matching but never matching. Her new line of vinyl newsprint wallets are especially eye-catching, finished with lime-green stitching.
“I’ve been crafting for a really long time. My mom was my Girl Scout leader.” She pauses for a chorus of awwwws. “And we had these filing cabinets filled with craft supplies. There was always a ton of stuff for me to make things with, so it got me at a young age and carried on.”
Cooper admits that she thinks the DIY movement is partially a trend. “I don’t think you can really argue with the fact that it’s a trend. Look at my bags, and look at how many people are now interested in using reusable grocery bags, rather than paper and plastic. And that becomes a market for me right there. It’s the green thing affecting people in a way.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have a cute bag.
THE QUIET ONE
Lexi Lee has curly, mousy brown hair, and she’s wearing a sensible white V-neck the night of the meeting. A spool of thread and a needle are tattooed on her forearm—in a few weeks, she’ll have “DIY or Die!” done in curly script on the other side. When the Craft Mafia discuss the especially young demographic flooding into Long Beach as of late, Lee says, “I think there are a lot of kids—yeah, uh, young people. I have that habit,” she explains. “I call everyone a kid.”
Dutton asks when they become adults.
Lee smiles and responds, “I guess when I become an adult?”
Her Etsy storefront is just getting started, but will eventually be home to those loose-knit caps all the cool girls are wearing these days; chubby, stuffed, felt stegosauruses and brontosauruses (she’s thinking about a triceratops); prints; homemade candles; and blank journals.
In her spare time, Lee enjoys gardening on her balcony and also plays in Family Tree, a Long Beach-based indie-folk and children’s-music band that has performed in local venues such as Koo’s, Que Sera and the Prospector and just returned from a cross-country tour.
A Cal State Long Beach graduate, Lee laments that one of the most difficult things about crafting is pricing. As Abbott refers to her own efforts as slave labor, Lee explains, “I make a profit because I don’t really take into account what I should get paid for my time, but I pretty much just take into account how much something would be worth to someone else and what the materials cost.”
She feels that if she raises her prices—her stuffed dinos go for $20—people will no longer purchase her goods. “It’s only because I know I’m so cheap,” Lee says. “I’ll love something and I won’t buy it because it’s expensive.”
THE KID AT HEART
The pricing dilemma is a common one for crafters. Steph Calvert’s store is the most successful of the entire Mafia’s. She’s been doing it the longest and was able to quit her day job in March, relying only on her Etsy store, her website, her items in boutiques and a freelance graphic-design job doing those cutesy tees you see in mail-order catalogs such as Delia’s. (Her favorite is one of Grover teaching us, once again, the concept of near and far.)
Calvert’s especially known for her robot designs, a character that has been showing up in her doodles for years: “I was robot-y before robot-y was cool!”
Among Calvert’s best-sellers are melamine plates with her colorful original designs, ranging from a robot to a very assertive carton of milk. “One of the hard parts about being a small, independent designer is that you don’t necessarily have the resources to get better pricing,” she explains. “My melamine plates are really cute, but I hate they’re priced so high. And they have to be because I can’t order a thousand of each design from China. I’m hoping I can keep doing them, but it’s kind of an uphill battle with that sort of stuff.”
A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Calvert has had experience doing art for websites and even for Osh Kosh B’Gosh—in, yes, Osh Kosh, Wisconsin, which she insists wasn’t really all that bad.
Calvert makes an assortment of items, including handmade aprons, archival prints, and graphic and slogan T-shirts, most of which are just inside jokes with her husband. “One of the shirts I do has a trolley on the front and ‘Ding, ding!’ on the back of it. The joke behind it is what I call it when the thong underwear hangs over the waistband of the pants and you just wanna go up and go ‘ding, ding!’ and pull on it! It signals your stop.”
Calvert will actually not be in attendance with the rest of the Mafia at Second Saturday—she’ll instead be attending the opening reception of her art show, “Coming Clean: Secrets and Stories From Catholic School” at the Kids Are Alright boutique in Belmont Shore; it runs through the end of the month.
She was inspired to paint her series of woodland creatures in compromising situations by from her days as a student at St. Bonaventure School in Huntington Beach. A bird flying upside-down as others look on was about the time she got in trouble for flipping the bird at the eighth-grade retreat. A bunny in a tartan school jumper whispering something to an adult bunny sitting on a tree stump? About how she used to make up horrible things she’d done to tell the priest at confession just to make things interesting. A smiling badger holding a tree branch atop its forehead tells the story of how she wanted to be a unicorn when she was 6.
THE FUNNY ONE
Liz Abbott sits in the living room of her Belmont Shore apartment in a black skirt and a TSOL shirt she has modified into a tank top with safety pins. She calls the room her personal sweatshop, and it does kind of look like one: Along the walls, there are two sewing tables she’s carted back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, both draped in scraps of bold fabric. An old metal ’50s x cabinet with countless drawers and a large table is just around the corner, along with more cloth and supplies. Among the chaos are a few midcentury-modern pieces and kitschy gems: a pink plastic Hello Kitty camera, a Twiggy storage box, a baby-blue Barbie jumbo jet covered in pink daisies. She’s nursing a cold as she frantically prepares for Saturday.
“I don’t really have any surplus,” Abbott says between sniffles. “I shoot one thing for Etsy, and if someone buys it from me, I make it for them on the spot. And so now I have to get all this gear together. I make everything to order, so if someone has weird measurements, they can give them to me, and I can make it for them. Which, you know, would never happen at the Gap.”
Her clothing on her Etsy store ranges from unique silk-screened items (favorites prints include: the leather daddy, the Michael Jackson mugshot and the evolution of Britney print, titled The Good, the Bad and the Britney) to “rock & roll capris” with black chains sewn on, link by link, lining the outseam and the gifted halter dress, her flattering best-seller with a ruffled collar and a keyhole opening. She says being a part of the Long Beach Craft Mafia has helped motivate her to do more. “Coming to these meetings, I’m like, God, I have to get off my ass,” Abbott says. “These girls are doing stuff all the time; I got to do something.”
Abbott grew up in Brentwood—“Before it was super-nice,” she insists—where she started making her own clothing at the age of 12. She attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco before heading to New York to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.
She’s done everything—she was a cigarette girl in LA and San Francisco, and she’s sung in a few bands, including the Roulettes, a “’60s girl group done New York Dolls-style.” She was also the go-go dancer previously mentioned. Abbott says the club, Stinky’s, was popular and remembers a time when Vince Neil and Tommy Lee came in. Michael Stipe visited once, too—but “just kinda stared from behind a pole . . . ugggh.”
“I had a friend who did an act called Boobzilla. She had amazing boobs, and she’d come out and stomp on Little Tokyo and dress in full monster gear,” says Abbott. “One night, we did a battle where I was Muffra. I had these big wings, and I made it look like I had a vagina on my back. It was really bad.
“And now I’m boring,” she concludes. “I just sew and do my podcast [The Leatherette Heart Rock N Roll Hour].”
Abbott has also worked as a pattern maker for the Costa Mesa-based Paul Frank (after Paul Frank was no longer with Paul Frank) and Fox Racing.
“What I do is called ‘technical design,’ and it’s a new field basically because everything’s done in China now. You get the measurements of something, and you make a diagram, and [workers in China] make the outfit fit that,” she drones. “It’s just really boring, tedious and technical—there’s always a language barrier, and I have to tell them to ‘submit blap blap blap.’” Abbot motions her fingers over a keyboard. “I call it speaking robot because you can’t really say anything. No one wants to work domestically anymore.”
She brings out her array of bright, bold dresses, blouses and skirts—chainlink is a common theme. She credits her style to her love for music, especially old-school punk rock. A wall of decorative mirrors is adorned with images of Sid Vicious and Debbie Harry; another wall has hanging toy guitars.
“Everything now is a conglomerate. How many boutiques do you know of anymore? I buy a lot of clothing at H&M and Forever 21. You know Forever 21 is the devil—you just know it—and you buy there anyway!” she says. “The thing is, I think there’s more of a trend in looking more individual—and I think the crafting thing helps that. It helps foster individualism.”
Abbott left Paul Frank after not even a year. While she did think it was a cool company to work for, “I just couldn’t take the corporate fashion thing. So I’m doing this indie fashion thing now. Start my own empire. The Puff Daddy of Etsy.”
The morning of the Long Beach Second Saturday Art Walk, Abbott’s garage door refuses to open. “This never happens when you’re going to work!” she remarks. An unhelpful landlord meant that her racks, tables and displays wouldn’t make it that Saturday. It’s only with Cooper’s help that Abbott makes it down to the East Village with her clothing and jewelry.
Tote bags of items lay about the two EZ-Up tents the Craft Mafia occupy that afternoon. The girls have already set up their individual tables.
Lee’s is draped with a vintage cloth covered in yellow elephants and clowns with red hair, with her stuffed dinosaurs, journals, print, candles and hats fanned out carefully. For most of the afternoon, she spends her time crocheting a purple hat.
Dutton has a diorama of sorts as a display for her crayon fawns—the display is covered with AstroTurf and features a psychedelic sky, trees and even a river. Two slightly terrifying mannequin heads with mouths ajar, acquired at the Old Towne Orange Antique Mall with her grandmother, proudly display her cupcake hats.
Cooper is set up next to her, with a hand-painted display rack to hang her bags—one with a picnic-watermelon-and-ants theme—and her newsprint wallets and zippered bags propped up for display and ready to go.
Lee and Dutton were the first to arrive at the space earlier that afternoon—only to find some sort of mysterious towel dripping with some sort of mysterious liquid. Even after the offending towel was disposed of, the rest of the afternoon alternated between smelling whiffs of dog shit and whiffs of vomit—depending on which way the wind blew.
The event was to run from 4 to 10 p.m., and it only spanned one city block, but foot traffic was steady with young couples, older moms, children, and even the occasional skater and hipster. The other tents sold organic hand soaps, beaded jewelry, original art.
Laura Harjo, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident visiting the Art Walk that day with her daughter, had heard about the event through MySpace. She had come back for a second glance and finally purchased a Kelso Doesn’t Dance newsprint wallet for $12. Harjo says she enjoys supporting independent artists and designers whenever she can.
“Well, I’m starting at the beginning of the supply chain. So instead of going to Target and spending money there, I’m going straight to the ladies who are making it.” She pauses. “And it’s cool,” she continues, lifting her shopping bag with her new vinyl wallet inside.
Frequent Art Walk visitor Katie Stayner, 29, who lives in Long Beach and works at local bar and venue Que Sera, purchases a cupcake hat. “I’m really into handmade stuff because I guess I like to hand-pick everything that has to do with me,” Stayner says. “You know, what people create here—it’s art, and it’s functional. I really like enjoying those kinds of things all the time and surrounding myself with that. It’s not contrived. It’s handmade; it’s from the heart.”
That Saturday’s Art Walk ends up being an unusually slow event. Seasoned crafter Calvert says craft shows can be like that. “There are definitely days where it’s really super busy and it’s going like gangbusters, and other days are just one big ol’ goose egg.” For most artisans, online sales through sites such as Etsy are still the best way of getting your name and your product out there.
But slow sales from an uneventful Art Walk won’t deter any of the crafters.
“Part of it,” begins Calvert slowly, “is that human beings as a whole like to create stuff. That’s just how we are. People—humans, they make stuff. And when you do, it feels good.
“Buying from an artist like me, you actually have some kind of relationship with your item. You’re buying it from the person who made it, and it makes it more special.
“And that’s what I like about buying on Etsy,” she continues. “What people on there are trying to do is what I’m trying to do. That’s my whole thing: I just want to make stuff. And you know, when I’m buying on Etsy and at craft fairs and other people are buying on Etsy and at craft fairs, you’re supporting people who just want to make stuff.” She smiles. “That’s all.”
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