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Makers and shakers

Lifestyle | A growing do-it-yourself movement takes old crafting techniques and gives them a new twist

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

Do-it-yourself (DIY) used to be for people who were either handy or cheap. Who hasn't tried to tile a bathroom, construct a room partition, or cut down a broken ceiling fan? But today's DIY ethos involves more than fixing things up. As writer Sara Jacobson explained, DIY involves "questioning a given, and messing with it. . . . Take stuff you like, break it open and re-jigger it, combine it with other stuff you like, and repeat."

It is like "Fractured Fairy Tales" on the old Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, where elements that don't obviously belong together get mashed into the same story. For today's DIYers, a regional Maker Faire-"a new­fangled fair that brings together science, art, craft and engineering plus music in a fun, energized, and exciting public forum," according to the innovators at Make magazine-is a thrill ride.

I went last month to the Maker Faire held at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, site of the 1964 World's Fair. The Faires started in the San Francisco Bay area, spread to Texas, and have now invaded Detroit and New York.

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They attract big sponsors, including Ford and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, and mini-faires are popping up all over.

The point of Maker Faire is to get people making things. At the New York venue kids with goggles soldered, others put together electrical circuits and played with computers. Volunteers offered free knitting and crochet lessons along with free needles and yarn from sponsors Red Heart and Lion Brand. Commercial vendors showed off their sticker-making machines and 3D copiers. At Martha Stewart's display, folks demonstrated how to construct huge bones in anticipation of Halloween.

The event had its weird side: people walking barefoot in shallow pans of white "oobleck" to help set a world record. Kids riding hacked bicycles. Cigarette-smoking "charioteers" racing crazy chariots. "Musicians" playing "dual resonant solid state Tesla Coils" to make ear-splitting noise. Men in kilts selling "Utilikilts," a heavy-duty kilt with utility belt pockets.

Individual makers also performed. Artist/sewer P. Nosa stitched freehand drawings on a Singer sewing machine he had rigged up to a solar panel. It and the battery sat on a custom-made aluminum chassis that cost $1,200. Another man cut hair using souped-up electrified scissors.

Maker Faire celebrates recycling and reuse. Knitter/artist Robyn Love knit and pieced together a yarn installation that hung near several permanently displayed NASA rockets. She planned her project so it could be taken apart and "in the spirit of Maker Faire" be reassembled into blankets for Warm Up America, a charity that distributes them to people in need. Celia Barbieri, who calls herself the Button Florist, sold flowers fashioned out of old, new, and custom buttons.

A huge robot constructed out of cardboard boxes, toilet paper tubes, and other recycled material showed off a simple plastic fastening system called Makedo. It allows even young children to rivet cardboard together into cool constructions (makedo.com.au). One yarn spinner from Brooklyn summed up the new DIY and craft ethos. She said new crafters take old techniques and "give them a new twist." They pair them with high-tech elements in new and innovative ways, seeking to be "true to who you are as an artist."

Another DIY tenet is that creativity doesn't have to be expensive. Recipes for many craft and science projects are available online. Free knitting and crochet patterns are available at coatsandclark.com. Using conducting and insulating playdough, kids can learn about simple circuits (courseweb.stthomas.edu/apthomas/SquishyCircuits/howTo.htm). Websites such as artistshelpingchildren.org/homemade.html and Kinderart.com show how to develop homemade art supplies.

Europe without a passport

European museums have banded together to put some of their collections online. More than 6 million digital items from museums including the Louvre in Paris, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the British Library are accessible through europeana.eu/portal. A virtual exhibit of Art Nouveau, the curvilinear nature-based style popular a century ago, is currently on display. It features a history of the movement and examples of interior design, fine crafts, architecture, posters, and other art products of that movement.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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