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Crafts

The handmade's tale

Lish Dorset's dish towels are a mother of pop invention

MT photo: Travis R. Wright
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Published 6/17/2009

It's been six years since the first Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago's hipster haven, Wicker Park. The DIY-spirited fest of artful handmade wares was the big bang of urban craft revivalism. Tiny crafting planets were quickly born in cities around the United States: Brooklyn, Portland and Austin grew in step with Chicago's scene, but it wasn't until 2005 that Detroit caught on. It started when four girls — Carey Gustafson, Stephanie Tardy, Lish Dorset and Beth Nixon — joined husband and wife Amy and Ethan Cronkite (detroitcraftmafia.com). They called themselves Handmade Detroit and launched the first Detroit Urban Craft Fair, which saw its biggest iteration last November at the Fillmore Detroit.

Dorset maintains the virtual home of Detroit crafting (handmadedetroit.com) and not only helps organize the DUCF, but plays a big part in Plymouth's Green Street Fair, which focuses on educating the public on organic, environmentally sound materials while providing tons of Detroit indie rock.

Lish Dorset lives in Plymouth, in spite of Ann Arbor, the city she works in and playfully detests (lingering Spartan pride), and so she can be closer to Detroit's creative enclaves. When we tracked down the Motor City craft queen and learned she lived in Plymouth, there was skepticism. Like the crafts she slings, Plymouth for Dorset is about efficiency; it's halfway between Detroit and A2.

"Sometimes I call it Plymouth Rock!" Dorset quips, sipping on her second Jack Daniels and diet Coke ("a very girly drink") at the WAB in Ferndale; it's her home away from home. She says this again, only louder and gesturing, like Tina Fey doing Denzel Washington as young Malcom X in that Spike Lee Joint.

Dorset is a craft-obsessed, social-media-coordinating (that is a real job), blogging, tweeting, pop-culture junkie. A '90s kid, Dorset digs Steely Dan, yacht rock boat captains and Jimmy Fallon ("He's dreamy"). Her mission's to promote crafting as a serious pursuit — but never too seriously — and to make people recognize the sheer artfulness in handmade goods. She's also reminding the crafting community that there's a market for what they do.

Dorset and her gang do what's commonly called "alterna-crafting" and, in recent years, it has become woven into the fabric of local music scenes. They are artists in the margins and in the fringes, virtually ignored by the National Craft Association.

Metro Times: Is Handmade Detroit a hobby or a job?

Lish Dorset: I consider it a part-time gig, and a pretty good one at that. It's not the one I always wanted though. See, after seeing High Fidelity, all I wanted to do was work in a record store. I thought it'd be a good way to find a cool boyfriend too. Instead, I ended up working at a toy store for a while. I met a lot of boys there, which was cool, but they were all, like, 7. So, yeah

MT: What was the moment Handmade Detroit was born?

Dorset: Back in 2005, I was working as a designer for the Observer & Eccentric with Stephanie Tardy, who was always crocheting at her desk during lunch. I loved that she did that — it just went from there. That'd be the most specific moment. The moment where it all came together was when me, Stephanie and Carey Gustafson [another in the long line of Detroit musician-artists] hosted a small craft show at Stephanie's house.

MT: Did people come out, or was it the three of you with some friends and boxed wine?

Dorset: It was really casual, but a solid number of people came. We made some posters at Kinkos and put them up around town, the total street-team approach. MySpace was a big help back then. Wow! Why does MySpace seem so ghetto and dirty now. It feels weird to say it even.

MT: Three years later you're hosting a fair at the Fillmore?

Dorset: It's crazy how fast this thing is spreading, our extended network of crafters is really huge. It really exploded last year.

MT: Has it been hard to promote Handmade Detroit at the Detroit Urban Craft Fair?

Dorset: People get us or they don't. I think most major media outlets have a hard time describing what it is and who we are. "Not your grandma's craft fair." If I hear that one more time

MT: What is your craft?

Dorset: It's really exciting dish towels.I make dish towels. I know, I know. But really, it's what I love. I'm way into fabrics and patterns and when I started making these towels it was because I couldn't find ones I wanted. I think that's actually why a lot of people get into crafting — necessity. The assembly line method of creating something is sort of meditative. So, yeah, I make dish towels.

MT: It's not like you're bedazzling dirty old dish towels, right?

Dorset: It's handmade — the material I use comes from flour sacks made on the west side of the state, which is cool. I'm big on Michigan-made stuff.

MT: Sorry, Reality Bites? What's with your '90s nostalgia?

Dorset: I'm pretty sure my '90s nostalgia was born from my '80s nostalgia. I was way into Duran Duran when it was not cool to like them — like 1994. I feel like everyone has a decade they associate themselves with and no matter how much I wanted that to be the '80s, I grew up in the '90s. Now I'm some '90s freak.

MT: Do you combine comedy and crafting?

Lish: We do! Handmade Detroit has started to make these funny, quirky videos we call Craftervidz, which show people how to do something crafty but they're funny at the same time. When we were making the "How to Stencil a Skateboard" there were some open gas containers we couldn't see in the garage we were shooting in and I had a few beers, inhaled some gas fumes by accident and totally passed out. I was like, "Cut! That's a wrap!" then fainted.

ME: Can I find them on YouTube?

Dorset: Actually, they're on Vimeo.

ME: What, is YouTube the MySpace of video hosting sites?

Dorset: Exactly! Tumbleweeds roll across your screen.

MT: With the handful of craft blogs in town and seeing towns such as Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint grow small alterna-craft scenes, why isn't there a huge, statewide fest?

Dorset: That'd be great; we could all meet in the middle, wherever that'd be. Saginaw? I don't know. I think people could really get into it, I think if something like that could be pulled off, it'd remind people why Michigan is so badass, why we love this state, why we haven't left.

MT: What would you call it?

Dorset: The Ultimate Michigan Craft Smackdown.

MT: Nice. Now do it!

Dorset: It'd be great to do it with the support of the national association [National Craft Association], but — I'll sound a bit harsh — they're a stodgy bunch. They're the old institution who'll only consider finely carved wooden bowls and salad tongs — stuff like that. They're fighting the change.

MT: So it's a generational thing?

Dorset: The thing that really gets me is that they [the NCA] don't at all understand cross-promotion or that we have such an audience! I don't think they know quite how to handle us. I think they're surprised to see us forging our own path and supplementing our incomes at the same time. OK, they're not museum pieces. So what?

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