If you’ve stopped by your neighborhood bookstore lately, you’ve probably spotted a shelf full of cool new craft books covering everything from t-shirt surgery and naughty needlework to cleverly repurposing everyday objects with glue guns, power tools, and everything in between. Spring is the perfect time to get crafty with inspiring titles like these!
I’ve picked six of my favorites to spotlight, and had a chance to ask their authors about their favorite projects and what writing their books was like—thank you so much to Kathy Cano Murillo, Sarah Sockit, Julie Jackson, Grace Hawthorne, Jessica Vitkus, and Megan Nicolay.
Art de la Soul, by Kathy Cano Murillo
This charming collection of lively, lovely craft projects is punctuated by Kathy’s candid and funny “Diary of a Crafty Chica” entries–covering everything from an ill-advised attempt at spray-painting a cute new pair of shoes to her grandmother saving her from too-tight bridesmaid dress hell at the last minute. Each themed chapter includes three open-ended, wonderfully customizable DIY projects: “Las Luminarias” has delightful candles and tiny lanterns, for example, while “Patio Pleasures” fancies up any yard with ideas like a hand-painted fence.
Kathy says: I wrote La Casa Loca back in 2003 and got such a huge response from it, not only from Latinas, but also from crafters who love Mexican culture. The colors and pop art are so addictive! So it was my goal to do another book, bigger and better, with a larger publisher. I loved that my husband Patrick did all of my illustrations, he really captured the spirit I was looking for. I knew I didn’t want this to just be a craft book. I wanted uplifting features, funky projects, and fab illustrations. My favorite aspect is adding the “Diary of a Crafty Chica” features. These are first person stories about my adventures in crafting. Some are embarrassing, others sentimental, but they succeed in proving that art really does come with drama! And I know that the Latino crafter is sorely under represented in the crafts industry so this is my shout-out to my peeps!
Her favorite project: I like the “Latin Power Jean Jacket” project. I love functional art and you can totally turn an old jeans jacket and fabric scraps into something spectacular! I used the front of an old t-shirt as the focal point and random pieces of scrap fabric and trims. You can hand-sew it or use flexible fabric glue from Duncan Crafts (I discovered this after I wrote the book!). The jacket makes such a statement and it was so inexpensive to make!
My favorite project: I was instantly drawn to the “Super Santitos Fabric Prayer Book”… but the “Fantastico Fantasy Paper Lights” are such a charming idea, and using your own imagery makes them truly one-of-a-kind.
Tease, edited by Sarah Sockit
Full disclosure: Sure, I contributed a project to Tease, but I’m certainly a fan of the other 49! Sarah rounded up super cool t-shirt makeover ideas from everyone from Angela Adams to Fred Flare, and the results are colorful, fun, and inviting. Each one is rated with handy icons like “Done in Under an Hour,” “Special Shopping Trip Required,” and “Knitting [or Crocheting, Embroidery, or Cross Stitch] Knowledge Helpful.” They’re also graded for difficulty from S (like the Hula Lampshade) to XL (T-Shirt Boxers) so you can plan your dream project accordingly.
Sarah says: Working with 44 different contributors on a project gave me the opportunity to have a lot of great interactions with a lot of amazing people. It was so incredible to contact people like the Austin Craft Mafia girls, Angela Adams, Katherine Shaughnessy, or Leah Kramer out of the blue and ask them to contribute and have them all so enthusiastically say, “Yes!” I thought I’d really have to court people like Amy Sedaris, Todd Oldham, Patricia Field and David Dalrymple to be a part of the book, but they too were caught up in the concept and the impressive crowd of contributors and were totally gung-ho.
The best part, now that the book is complete, is seeing people flip through the book and loving some projects so much that they want to go home and get right to work turning their drawer of junky ol’ tees into something cool. Inspiring, yo!
Her favorite project: Many projects in the book are extraordinary in their remarkable transformations of a T-shirt into something totally different like a tote bag, circus doll, treasure chest or room décor. Others are brilliant fashion transformations from a boring old shirt to a clever, style-y garment that is totally unique. Callie Janoff, the founder of The Church of Craft, managed a superhero feat of making a really great-looking shirt, the “Empire Waist Tee,” that requires absolutely no supplies, no skills, and virtually no time to create. It’s one shirt cut in a few places to create ties for the shoulders and an empire waist, and it turns a totally blah, big t-shirt into a cute and unique fashion item. Brilliant!
My favorite project: I’m partial to the very first piece in the book, the feminine “Flower Cutout Tee” by Alison Rose–it’s a cleverly designed applique that adorns the neckline with gorgeous cutout petals, just in time for spring.
Subversive Cross Stitch, by Julie Jackson
This hilarious collection of patterns puts the #@%&!! cross in cross-stitch, from profane pieces like “Bitch in Kitchen” to simply surly messages like “No You DIDN’T!,” all embellished with deceptively charming borders of birds, hearts, or flower designs. Julie gives a thorough and beginner-friendly introduction to her preferred craft and then launches right into the 33 patterns themselves, encouraging her readers to “enjoy the delicious thrill of embroidering saucy messages in the last place people expect to see them.”
Julie says: My favorite anecdote about the book is that my mother, who is in her 80s, loves it and told me that she keeps it right under her mattress. I was apprehensive about what my parents would think of the language, but they were supportive as always. On the copy I sent to them, I put Post-It notes over all of the “bad” words. I think it allows them to show it to their friends without their friends wondering if they’ve raised some kind of monster.
Her favorite project: I’d have to say “Is That All There Is?”, for so many reasons. Not only am I a huge fan of Peggy Lee, but this song has always amused and perplexed me since it loomed large in that great jukebox scene from the movie “After Hours”. And, sometimes, when I was stuck in a cube at a job that I hated, I found it really comforting to listen to this tune now and then. So this pattern is closest to my heart for all of these reasons. My little tribute to Ms. Lee: “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all… there is.”
My favorite project: I love “#@%&!!” (aka “Curses”) for so many reasons… it just says it all. Plus (if this happens to be an issue for you) it’s work-safe for your cubicle, unlike some of Julie’s more explicit creations.
ReadyMade: How to Make [Almost] Everything, by Shoshana Berger and Grace Hawthorne
This utilitarian primer to all things handmade is what you might get if the brilliant minds behind Martha Stewart Living, McSweeney’s, and Wired all guest-edited each other’s publications for a few shining months, and then crammed the resulting mash-up into a single book. Dozens of original projects are arranged by their main raw material–paper, plastic, wood, metal, glass, and fabric–and each chapter kicks off with a clever, visually driven history of the medium. Shoshana contributed the writing, while Grace came up with all the projects. And they managed to pull it all off in eight months, all while putting out four issues of their magazine and planning a wedding (Shoshana) and having a baby (Grace). Wow.
Grace says: The book was an opportunity for Shana and me to roll up our own sleeves and get our hands dirty to return to the roots of why we started ReadyMade in the first place. When you put together a magazine that’s also a business, you don’t always get to indulge in your own creative fantasies. Since the essentials of ReadyMade include design/customization, understanding the means of production and making stuff with your hands, we organized the book according to material, provided brief material histories (how man evolved from cave drawings to the Victoria’s Secret catalog), projects of varying degrees of difficulty (okay, let’s be honest, glass was hard! It is a difficult material to work with), and signature humorous essays (for example, in the plastic chapter, how to avoid plastic surgery).
The most challenging part about the book was coming up with the right mix of projects for each chapter. For each raw material, I wanted to make sure there was a nice diversity, and the projects had to look good. There was a TON of trial and error and infinite trips to Home Depot.
Project with the most anecdotes: the “Take-out Chandelier.” It’s one of those projects that midstream, you wonder, “what the heck am I thinking?” because you’re in the thick fog of what appears to be a big mess. I was about 5 months pregnant in my freezing garage in rainy December drilling holes in plastic spoons dressed like Nanook of the North to keep warm. My husband was not happy. People in the office were big cynics. “What the hell is that?” they’d ask me. But when it was done… “Ahhhh” was the popular response.
The chandelier photo (above) has a nice-looking couple with loving gazes. That’s Shana and her then-boyfriend. I told her… you better marry this guy if we’re going to have him in the book… and they’re getting married this weekend.
Her favorite project: My personal favorite from the book is the “No Sew Messenger Bag” because it represents ReadyMade on all fronts: the key ingredient is an everyday material, the end object has utility, it is easily customizable, the project is very gender neutral… anyone can make it, no sewing machine or sewing skills necessary, it’s easy on the eyes (the NYT bags are a great blue color), and besides, who doesn’t have newspaper bags or an iron?
My favorite project: It’s tough, I adore (and covet) the “Eames-Style Drawer Unit,” but ultimately I have to go with the instant-gratification “Coat-Hanger Wine Rack,” which transforms eight wire coathangers into a remarkably stylish wine-storage solution with a few deft twists. I’m a pliers-over-power-tools type of girl, what can I say?
AlternaCrafts, by Jessica Vitkus
This glossy spiral-bound book, filled to the brim with colorful collage-style photographs and sidebars, invites both teens and adults to jump-start their DIYing. Jessica includes beginner-friendly projects in a broad range of craft mediums, from embroidery and decoupage to summer-camp favorites like woodburning and macrame. As she says, it’s “a relaxed approach to crafting with an emphasis on recycling and transformation,” with a few curveballs in the mix.
Jessica says: Basically, the book is supposed to entice cool girls into the craft scene–it’s good for beginners. Nothing is too hard. But hopefully there are enough oddball, interesting ideas to keep the experienced crafter awake and excited. I get bored of my clothes, and if I’m not wearing a certain T-shirt, jeans, or sweater I am likely to attack it and improve it or turn it into something else. So there are lots of projects like that.
Many of the projects teach really basic craft 101 techniques (knitting, macrame, quilting, woodburning, printing, paper flowers embroidery) but apply it in a non-granny-ish way. Most AlternaCrafts projects involve using and reusing what’s around you — bottlecaps, buttons, T-shirts, wingnuts, chopsticks. Also, I hate glue guns and I prefer handsewing to machine stitching. (When I worked in the craft department at Martha Stewart’s old show–the one before jail–my co-crafters made fun of me for being sewing machine phobic.) I find handstitching and embroidery super relaxing. So there’s a lot of both.
Her favorite project:Well, it’s like asking me which of my children I love best, but I do have a special warm spot for the “Pintastic Cards”– the technique is so easy and the supplies are so few. It’s based on an old Victorian technique called paper piercing–done with a special tool that you still see sometimes among scrapbooking supplies. But a pushpin (a thumbtack with a better grip) makes lovely little holes and is pretty easy to control. One of my favorite designs came from tracing jar lids and drinking glasses to fill the page with circles. You can also use templates over and over. If you are feeling feisty, poke your holes from back-to-front on your card for a more 3D effect.
My favorite project: I love those cards, too! I also like the “Table Talk” embroidered napkins embellished with tiny buttons–so sweet.
Generation T, by Megan Nicolay
Megan has created a staggering 108 t-shirt transformation projects, many of them scissors-only (ie, no sewing required!). She starts things off with helpful cutting, stitching, and embellishing tutorials and includes unexpected jewelry and accessories ideas alongside her garment designs for a truly well-rounded collection. Sprinkled throughout are clever snippets of “Tee Trivia” (did you know it takes about six miles of yarn to make a single shirt?) and “Tees in the Movies,” listing every iconic t-shirt flick worth a spot in your Netflix queue, from Rebel Without a Cause to Flashdance.
Megan says: I like hosting Tee Parties from time to time — everyone brings a T-shirt to refashion; we sit around gossiping and sipping tea (hot or iced, pick your poison), and at the end of the day, everyone gets to walk away with the perfect party favor.
During the writing process, we were getting close to the deadline for the photo shoot—and I still had about 30 projects left to make from the book. I hosted my largest Tee Party to date in order to get those projects made—it lasted 2 days! Friends and friends of friends came on over—I had T-shirts piled all over the room. It was great.
Her favorite project: Ooh, just one? With 108, it’s so hard to choose… But my favorite in the shirt chapter is “Ode to the Mullet”—it looks like an ordinary T-shirt from the front, but has this cool ribcage effect in the back (i.e. “business in front, party in the back”). My favorite skirt is the “Flare Thee Well” circle skirt. Not only is it super spinner-rrific, but the fold-over waistband is comfortable and flattering on everyone I’ve seen wear it. And lastly, my favorite accessory—the “Go-Go Gauntlets.” They’re functional too—when the cold winds start to blow, they bravely defend against that pesky draft between your coat and mittens!
My favorite project: Too bad I got married last year, because project #108, “Tying the Knot,” is a real head-turner: it’s a formal, floor-length wedding dress made out of seven white t-shirts! Pair it with “Ice T,” the perfect ring to symbolize your eternal love for all things DIY.
If you’re eager for more book recommendations, be sure to check out getcrafty’s own Bibliomaniac column by Jessica Reed for engaging reviews of titles in every genre, from classics to hot off the presses.
Susan Beal is a West Coast writer and jewelry designer whose all-time favorite craft book is the Reader’s Digest Complete Guide to Sewing.