In economic times like these, the urge to hunker down in your house, limit spending and jump off the merry-go-round of shopping, credit and consumerism can be strong. And one way for people to step outside the system, if just for a few hours a week, is crafting. Rather than being a consumer, a crafter becomes a manufacturer; the end result of a night on the couch isn't three hours of empty Tivo space, but a scarf, toy or handmade holiday ornament that one can give away, keep or sell.

Crafting Means Community

Whether you're interested in the crafting industry as a crafter-turned-merchant or a craft supply manufacturer, understanding that crafters are community-oriented is crucial. The internet brings together crafters of all stripes. Here are a few sites to join and learn from:

  • Craftster.org , started in 2003, is the queen supreme of indie craft sites. With 450,000 unique visitors and 10 million page views each month, the message boards buzz with crafters posting their clever projects.

  • CraftStylish.com , created by Taunton Press, went online last spring. It already has 266,000 unique visitors every month and 1.2 million page views. It boasts a variety of members and a burgeoning library of projects.

  • Threadbanger.com and Ravelry.com are just two popular sites targeting specific crafts--sewing and knitting, respectively.

  • Etsy.com isn't just a marketplace for handmade-goods creators. An active blog and messages boards where sellers exchange advice have also made it a vibrant crafty community.

  • Craft Mafias are groups of business-minded artisans who meet in the real world to help support one another in their entrepreneurial efforts.
While data are still being compiled for 2008, the Craft and Hobby Association reported that in 2007, craft sales in 39 categories reached nearly $32 billion, and nearly 57 percent of U.S. households engage in crafting. Online handmade goods site Etsy.com reported $88 million in sales in 2008, a significant increase over 2007 sales of $26 million. With 1.9 million members and more than 200,000 sellers, Etsy enjoyed $9.9 million in sales in January alone.

Like most retail sectors, it's likely that craft sales may decrease in the coming months. But all signs point to more and more people diving into this market, both as consumers of supplies and handmade gifts, and as entrepreneurs selling their own items and supplies.

At the January CHA show, spirits were high as manufacturers and retailers recognized that the economic climate creates more folks ready to put needle to fabric and stamp to paper to join a crafting revolution that's been in the works for more than a decade.

Some of the big crafting trends present at the show, which featured more than 900 exhibitors, include:

  • Scrapbooking. This is the most robust craft category that CHA tracks, and scrapbooking companies had by far the strongest presence at the show. While paper still rules scrapbookers' supply cabinets, many crafters are taking skills such as stamping, painting and decoupage into other media for jewelry making--like sandwiching tiny art between glass slides for a pendant or stamping blank wooden bangles. Another trend is personalization of supplies--companies such as Boss Kut and JustRite Stampers allow crafters to create their own supplies, such as die cuts and acrylic stamps.

    Most heartening, there's still plenty of room for startup companies in this field. Rusty Pickle, a paper company that defines itself in the marketplace with its edgy designs, was started in 2003 by Tasha and Lance Anderson. They release new designs monthly, and most of their products are sold in independent scrapbooking stores. The Andersons reach such stores organically, by teaching at more than 30 scrapbooking conventions across the country.

    Christian and Angela Magnuson started Unity Stamp Co. in Minnesota just last May. They're receiving a good reception online for their unique eco-friendly stamps, which contain significantly less wood than traditional stamps and are packaged with recycled paper. "There are some people who are going to change [to our stamps] just because they like our packaging," Christian says.
     
  • Green crafting. It turns out that the Magnusons are on the forefront of the huge green craft movement. Scrapbooking suppliers are using recycled paper. Manufacturers such as Berwick Offray and Coats and Clark are using earth-friendly materials--bamboo, recycled cotton and a new acrylic blend created from recycled water bottles--to create yarn and ribbons. Wooden bangles, from DIYBangles.com, come from a tree in India that reaches full growth in just seven years and requires no chemical processes for drying.

    "Crafting in general is kind of green," says Sarah Meehan, marketing manager for Stampington & Co., an independent magazine publisher that's launching Green Craft magazine later this year and already features re-use titles such as Altered Couture. "People are recycling and reusing things that they have, revamping them, bringing them up to speed."
     
  • Crafts for kids. Kid-specific kits and products are hotter than ever, even in this tough economy. "Unfortunately, the schools cut a lot of creative areas, so it's up to the parents to do it at home. And I really think [crafts have] become an important part of the American family," says Jenny Lowe, design director of Moorestown, N.J.-based Sbar's Inc., a 50-year-old supplier of family-friendly crafts that has lived through its share of recessions. "Kids are just so eager to accomplish something. And let's face it--crafting gets them away from the computer."

    Some companies foresee growth in this area because of parents wanting to craft with their kids. Parents can purchase a $15 kit and have a fun evening at home, rather than pay $50 to take the family to the movies. There are also ancillary customers, such as church camps and Scout troops. And of course, there's always the need for kids' birthday gifts, too.

    "We've grown our business," says Melissa Milne, North American sales vice president for The Orb Factory, a Canadian company that makes Sticky Mosaic kits, which allow kids to make mosaics with paint-by-number-style stickers. "Our year-end is March 31, and we hit our target for this year two months ago." The company, which was started by owner Steve Kay in 1993, will see its sales increase 50 percent, according to Milne.
     
  • Sewing. Among crafters, sewing is the new knitting. "The No. 1 craft on Craftster is sewing clothing. It's disproportionately popular," says Leah Kramer, founder of the site. Trend Hunter Research listed "Credit Crunch Couture" as its No. 1 trend, citing the poor economy for an uptick in interest in making your own fashions.

    When indie crafter Kathy Cano-Murillo set out to design her second line of Crafty Chica products for Duncan Crafts, she chose to target sewers with her trademark Latino motifs. "I knew that sewing was an emerging trend, and my [grandmother] was a really good seamstress. That empowered me," says Murillo, who's run her art business with her husband for 19 years in Arizona. "So when it came to do the second round of CraftyChica, I was like, 'Please, can we do stuff with fabric.' "

Tough times tend to spur creativity. As an entrepreneur, there are few better ways to channel your creativity than in a crafts business. Whether you start to find your artistic voice or you do it to sell personalized gifts, crafting makes the most out of your creativity--as an artist and as an entrepreneur.