For years, Pittsburgh has been trying to shake its reputation as a stodgy old city. Rarely has it been viewed as a hotbed of indie culture; the hipster badge is typically bestowed upon places like Portland, Ore. and Brooklyn. But a crafty group of local women is doing its part to revitalize Pittsburgh's image by uniting artists and crafters at the grass roots.
On the weekend of March 31 and April 1, the organizers of Handmade Arcade --Pittsburgh's indie-craft fair -- hosted Craft Congress, the first-ever U.S. meeting of the movers, shakers and tastemakers of the underground crafting movement. The Congress drew 50 participants, representing such cities as New York City, Atlanta, Austin, Milwaukee, Chicago, Sacramento, Toronto and Leeds, England.
The new-craft subculture is composed mostly of women in their 20s and 30s with a penchant for vintage style and kitsch. They make clothing, jewelry, stationery and more, often with repurposed/recycled materials: knitting with Kool-Aid-dyed wool, for instance, or turning album covers into purses.
The idea for Craft Congress arose over a year ago, when Handmade Arcade organizers noted exponential growth in their annual fair, held since 2003 at Construction Junction, in Point Breeze. (Full disclosure: I was a vendor at the 2006 Handmade Arcade.) At the same time, such similar shows as Bazaar Bizarre and Renegade Craft Fair were expanding in other cities. Craft mafias -- local collectives of crafters who unite to support and promote each other's work -- were springing up all over the nation. Etsy, a Web site billed as "your place to buy and sell all things handmade," was gaining momentum as well. And as the new craft movement and its DIY ethos spread, it was inevitably co-opted by merchandisers like Urban Outfitters.
The organizers realized that they all faced similar challenges, including competition from mainstream shops. Having already established relationships through craft shows and Etsy, they hoped to build these networks through face-to-face dialogue about topics ranging from guerilla marketing to activism. "So many of us have 'met' online, and as vendors at each other's craft fairs, but to create a space for open dialogue is inspiring personally and professionally, and crucial to the movement's evolution," says Craft Congress organizer Jennifer Baron.
The organizers took a leap of faith, sending e-mails and posting to Web forums to invite crafters from the U.S., Canada and beyond to Pittsburgh. "We thought we'd be lucky if we drew 30 participants," says Baron. "Once we hit 50, we had to start turning people away!"
Congress meetings were held at Spinning Plate Artists Lofts, in Friendship. Besides bringing indie-craft leaders together to share best practices, the conference offered a chance to show off Pittsburgh. A trolley tour conducted by local artist and performer Sharon "Mama" Spell gave guests a glimpse of the city. Out-of-towners marveled at Pittsburgh's affordable housing, and at such arts facilities as Artists Image Resource, on the North Side. A Saturday-evening reception, at AIR, featured Penn Brewery beer and desserts from Coco's Cupcakes.
Participants left Craft Congress with new ideas and relationships, and a renewed image of the Steel City.