AMONG PORTLAND’S vast agora of snippers, sewers, and gluers—and its shoppers hungry for all things idiosyncratic—few have achieved the craft cred of Susan Beal. She proudly authored the popular tutorial books Bead Simple and Button It Up, and cofounded the Portland Super Crafty collective. She even got married at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, in a ceremony officiated by a reverend from the Church of Craft, wearing a wedding dress made by local fashion house Dragonlily. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, Susan Beal will craft.
Beal’s latest creations, Modern Log Cabin Quilting and World of Geekcraft, hit national bookshelves this spring. From stitching new variations on 19th-century Amish quilting patterns to assembling terrarium tableaus of Star Wars action figures, the two tomes offer a dizzying breadth of ways to fill time and space. Or as Beal succinctly describes the unlikely pairing: “It’s really fun to be a nerd.”
On a recent sunny afternoon in her Southeast Portland living room, the 37-year-old plopped her 5-month-old, Everett, into an electric swing and melted into a beige couch for a rare pause from productivity to talk about her wanderings through the world of craft. Like many women of her generation, Beal recalls how her mother never made things or even really baked. Her earliest inspirations came courtesy of her grandmothers, both “exquisite seamstresses,” and her dad, who studied architecture and made furniture.
Early on, Beal balanced interests in the ethnography of her native South (she majored in American Studies at the University of North Carolina) with a serious jewelry-making hobby. But a trip to Portland in 1997 for a six-month metalworking workshop airdropped her into a city blooming with creative spirits rediscovering the handmade. Designer Holly Stalder and others were kick-starting the raw-edged local couture house Seaplane, embellishing used slips with recycled ruffles and trim. Cathy Pitters and Torie Nguyen had begun to rally felt-and-calico types together for a trendy artisan bazaar called Crafty Wonderland. And Rebecca Pearcy, often credited as one of the first Portlandian crafters to “put a bird on it,” was building her Queen Bee brand of handbags with their trademark “chirp” icons. “Craft is like healthy, nutritious food,” observes Beal. “People are similarly willing to look harder and pay a different price to know the person who made it.”
Beal joined the flock, making and selling her own handmade jewelry and clothes to local shops, but quickly discovered an equal passion for exchanging technique tips with fellow crafters. She wrote tutorials for magazines like ReadyMade and Bust, and established her impressively wide-ranging blog, WestCoastCrafty.com. Soon she had become a kind of Stumptown Martha Stewart, mining the vast world of crafters and techniques and bringing them to the masses. Her first book, Bead Simple, a 2008 guide to handmade jewelry, recently enjoyed its fourth printing. Button It Up, a 2009 showcase of craft projects that use buttons in novel ways, as Beal puts it, “still enjoys its own warm little niche” among aficionados like the National Button Society.