Please welcome another columnist with ambitious column plans. The second in the ‘In My Town’ series, Valerie Williams is focusing on the Washington DC Metro area. A former lobbyist and crafter – check out her handbags – she has jumped right in with zeal and enthusiasm! If you know the area she’s writing about, please let her know in the comments if you have any tips about places for her to visit.
Jean Zakotnik is a woman after my own heart. She loves handbags, bright colors, and the soothing power of making things with your hands. She is also the owner, designer, and head knitter of JZ Bags, the home of a colorful and playful line of hand knit and felted wool handbags. I had a chance to visit her Potomac, Maryland studio to talk with her about what inspires her, and to learn more about the process of making her one-of-a-kind handbags.
I love the look and feel of felted wool, but it’s not a craft I have ever tried, so I was excited to catch Jean while she was literally in the middle of felting a batch of small bags in a lovely dark charcoal gray. I knew the general principle of felting: hot water, along with a little soap and agitation, causes the fibers to bond together to form a thick, dense fabric. What I didn’t know was that creating a three dimensional, functional object like a handbag takes much more than just a toss into the washing machine.
Constant vigilance is required to prevent the knitted bags from becoming mangled and unusable during the felting process. While we chatted, Jean repeatedly removed the bags from the hot, soapy water and manipulated the wool by hand, deciding on the fly how each bag should look in shape and texture.
I knew that hand knitted wool would shrink significantly when felted, but I had no idea by how much! I was amazed to see the before and after of two of Jean’s most popular styles, the flagship “Bag JZ” which is a large hobo style, and a smaller shoulder bag with a flap.
An incredible amount of hand labor goes into the creation of each handbag. Jean knits her handbags by hand, without a pattern. Although she has developed a few favorite shapes and styles over the years, there is no set “line” of JZ Bags. Each one starts out with just her size 15 knitting needles and inspiration, and she decides as she goes what colors to use and what shapes to make.
Jean calls each of her handbags a “felix culpa,” or happy mistake, because there is no way of knowing how each will turn out, and she makes no effort to predict the end result. Each handbag is its own novel experience and creative adventure.
Even after the bags are completely felted and dry, there are still design decisions to make. Jean has lovely collection of vintage and handmade buttons (made for her by her father), and has also recently experimented with needle felting and fringe embellishments.
What I loved most about Jean’s story was that when she first had the idea to make what would become the first JZ Bag, she had absolutely no idea how to felt! She was already an experienced knitter, but had grown weary of churning out scarves and sweaters. It was the time of the “It” bag, but the styles on sale at the mall with four-digit price tags left her cold. She had a vision of a big, soft bag that was all about color and texture, something that hundreds of other women in the DC area wouldn’t have. She knew she could make this unique bag, and simply started knitting and felting and hoped that what came out would match the picture in her head.
Although she calls her first attempt “a disaster,” the failure did not deter her, and only led her to embrace the “felix culpa” approach to making her handbags.
Just as each handbag is its own surprise, Jean is constantly surprising herself as she lives the adventure of knitting, felting, and running a handcrafted business. “You learn so much about yourself during this process,” she says, referring not only to running the business but also the specific tasks of creating something by hand.
Jean has discovered she has an eye for color. Her favorite part of handbag production is looking through her yarn stash and creating unexpected color combinations.
She’s discovered she can still challenge herself. After many years in the information technology business, not much about that world was difficult or trying anymore. She would give presentations in front of thousands of stockholders without breaking a sweat. Her first craft show, however? “I was a nervous wreck,” she says. “I was so personally invested in every single bag…how people reacted to them mattered more than I thought it would.”
Finally, what she calls a “very cool and unexpected bonus” is that JZ Bags offers her the opportunity to employ local women who might have few other options. Whether it’s help with the knitting or filing legal paperwork, Jean has had a chance to offer temporary employment to women who are homebound by illness or with children.
Her handbag business may have started out as a way to relax and create the perfect fashion accessory, but it has turned into so much more. You can find Jean’s bags at www.jzbags.com, and at juried fine art and craft shows in the DC area.