A hand-crafted community

Copper sculpture.

Copper sculpture. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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Black Friday — America’s seasonal starting shot — has been soundly fired, as early as Thanksgiving eve in some stores. Many shoppers endure the crowds, the lines, the full onslaught of all things shiny and prone to beeping to bring home a harvest of gifts.

In a few pockets of the Walla Walla Valley, a different approach to Christmas marketing goes on, steadfast against a rising tide of online shopping and products that require batteries.

From hand-sewn Christmas stockings to carved wooden pens to beaded necklaces, gifts that hark back to a Norman Rockwell perspective of the season can be found at area craft fairs, from a few tables in church basements to those covering the floors of community buildings.

It’s interesting how trends in handicrafts cycle through time and time again, said Pam Wildman, who has managed Milton-Freewater’s Mary Stewart Christmas Craft Show for 19 years. “We’re coming back to things we used to see.”

The event, established in 1980 and showcasing 35 or so vendors, occurs early in November, allowing sellers to slake the thirst of those anxious to begin the season, Wildman said.

When she began retail crafting “way back when,” she was the youngest person in the room, she said. “It was more for retired people … busy work for the ladies. Lots of crocheted slippers, a lot of knitted items.”

No one makes any significant money on selling crafts, Wildman said. “We do this because we love it.”

Crafting is traditionally an activity that appeals to women on a number of levels. Devotees range from those who can afford to indulge in it as a leisure pursuit, those who seek a return to local and natural products and women attracted to certain crafting elements — scrapbooking is one example, said Michelle Janning, associate professor of sociology at Whitman College.

Gathering together to create, sell and buy handmade goods is appealing for temporary communities that form. While those don’t provide the interaction as established groups that meet regularly, a chance to share a common interest and camaraderie is in the moment, Janning said.

Hand-knitted-booties-on-the-ground craft shows face stiff competition these days from virtual, online sites like Etsy, where about one million sellers set up “shop” and offer everything from homemade soap to giant photo prints to more than 30 million users.

“Sites such as Etsy provide women an outlet for the selling and buying of items that still represent traditional femininity, but that also allow women to work individually and perhaps more flexibly in order to sell them,” Janning said.

Businesses like dollar stores — especially attractive to children doing their Christmas shopping — have also put a dent in craft shows, Wildman said. So do fairs that allow a mix of handmade and commercial merchandise.

“You can’t compete with Miche,” she said, referring to a line of customized handbags sold nationwide. “We don’t let commercial stuff come in to Mary Stewart.”

There’s nothing like walking into a sea of red and green pot holders, soy candles and lace angels to jump start the Christmas spirit, Janning noted. With commercial saturation of the season starting earlier every year, some people turn back the calendar with a day at a craft show.

“They may look at these as a return to a time when people didn’t see decorations going up by Nov. 1,” she said.

For those shoppers, going to the local handicraft event equates with tradition, she added. “Its like going to the Nutcracker or visiting relatives for the season.”

Judging by this year’s attendance numbers, the Walla Walla Valley is showing love for tradition, Wildman said. “We had a really good turnout. We had some different vendors this year and the public actually came and spent a little bit of money.”

The same can be said for the Christmas Craft Show, held annually at Walla Walla County fairgrounds for a decade. Seller numbers doubled the first three years, said organizer Mary Lou Norton. “It was too crowded. Now we only accept so many vendors and we’re done.”

The tables there get laden with everything one might imagine, she said. “We sell jams, plants, wreaths, ornaments, quilted table runners. Anything hand crafted. We do sell a lot…we seem to be popular.”

It was obvious Wildman’s vendors were doing well and having fun this year as about 500 people came through the doors of Milton-Freewater’s Community Building to drink hot cider and stroke crocheted shawls, which are once again trendy, she noted.

“It’s completely cycled back again, but it’s got a different tilt to it. The same, but renewed.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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