Bright Lights, Big City of Craft
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Bright Lights, Big City of Craft

Amy Borkwood/Nightjar Books at City of Craft 2008.

Toronto crafters Jen Anisef, Leah Buckareff, and Becky Johnson, the organizers behind this weekend’s City of Craft show and sale at the Theatre Centre, are busy transforming the perception of crafting as a charmingly retro pastime to a cutting-edge trend that’s spawned a burgeoning local community of artisans creating handmade items with a decidedly modern spin.
“Craft is just the art of making; it’s the doing,” explains Johnson, fingers flying as she deftly twists strands of bright orange yarn between two slim crochet needles. Johnson turned her knack for making pretty things into a successful sideline when her acting career stalled, travelling the North American craft-fair circuit selling her wares and making key connections along the way.
Not only is crafting now big business (thanks in part to websites like Brooklyn-based, which sold $21.9 million in handmade items last month alone), but it’s also somehow managed to acquire a veneer of cool in recent years—particularly in Toronto, where crafting has taken off within the city’s young, arty set.
Lynchpins of the city’s crafting community (Anisef runs Toronto Craft Alert, the online nerve centre for local crafters; when Buckareff isn’t touring with Pitchfork-approved drone-metal band Nadja, she runs Coldsnap Bindery, devoted to meticulously handbound albums and journals; and Johnson offers delicate crocheted wearables and illustrated one-inch buttons under the Sweetie Pie Press handle), the trio joined forces as City of Craft three years ago to capitalize on the growing appetite for things created the old-fashioned way.

Paper Dolls by Pin Pals.

“There’s been a real cultural renaissance in the city, and a return to making things by hand is part of that,” notes Anisef.
The do-it-yourself movement also gave rise to infrastructure that’s helped expand the local crafting network in recent years: Parkdale sewing studio The Workroom has become a de facto clubhouse for crafty types, offering classes for novices and experts alike; knitting shops like Knit Café and Purple Purl often resemble coffeehouses, filled with laughing, chatting needleworkers; even an established organization like the Ontario Craft Council boasts gallery-like Queen West digs.
“I think, more and more, people understand the satisfaction and joy they can get from making something themselves. It’s really a whole new way of approaching life,” says Workroom owner Karyn Valino, who partners with the City of Craft team to hold smaller craft shows at her shop throughout the year.
City of Craft’s curated approach sets the event apart from the host of other local small-time craft fairs—now in its third year, the show received over 250 applications for its 50 vendor spots.
Many of the vendors featured at the show have begun to develop a profile beyond the city’s borders, such as Lee Meszaros, whose fabric “merit badges” (think Girl Guide pins for hipsters) have garnered plenty of notice online; Shannon Gerard has also attracted attention for her anatomically correct crocheted body parts (think naughty bits) that aren’t exactly your grandmother’s macramé.
Local artist Tara Bursey came on board to organize a corresponding visual-arts exhibit in the Theatre Centre’s front room, and she also curated fourteen interactive installations for City of Craft.
“For a long time, craft was a four-letter word within the art community,” says Bursey. “But in recent years, there’s been more of a crossover. Crafting and craft processes have made a home within art so that the division isn’t so obvious,” she notes.
To that end, Bursey has assembled an eye-catching showcase of artwork crafted from tactile materials, including Saskatchewan-based Shanell Papp’s eerie “Lab #4”, a life-sized skeleton and internal organs made entirely out of knitted yarn, and Oshawa artist Holly McCllellan will construct an elaborate “Garbage Dress” out of layers of discarded clothing during the event.
That cross-pollination between subcultures is part of what’s helping City of Craft build on Toronto’s buzz as a developing craft centre. Buckareff, who split her time between Toronto and Berlin this year, hopes to establish a small outpost of City of Craft when she goes back in the spring—despite its reputation as an artistic hub, she found Berlin was lacking the kind of emergent craft culture so readily found at home.
“Being away from the local craft scene really made me realize what a vital community we have here,” Buckareff says, noting the City of Craft team works all year with next to no pay to organize the show—in-kind sponsorship and vendors’ table fees cover the costs of putting on the annual event. “Of all the things that ground me, this connection with the scene and being surrounded by so many creative, talented people, it’s inspiring in a lot of ways.”
City of Craft runs Saturday (12–7 p.m.) and Sunday (12–5 p.m.) at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen Street West). Admission is $2 at the door.
Photos courtesy of city of craft.