4″ hand spun nubby aluminum sphere closed with a zipper and lined in hand felted wool roving. By Guy Ingognito.
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.
A recent tweet on Urbanite Jewelry‘s Twitter feed reads: “Time to catch up on tour de tea…I’m behind like a mo fo! Life is crazy busy right now!” For Krista Leben, jewelry designer/event organizer/business owner/world traveler, “crazy busy” is an understatement. In the time that I have known Krista, she has never had just one thing on the go, and yet always seems to find the time to get everything done with style and grace. Keeping up with so many projects and still managing to make time for herself must be no easy feat, so you know that if anything gets added to Krista’s already-packed schedule, it must be very important.
Lovely repurposed vintage teacup bracelets by Stay Gold Mary Rose.
That is exactly the case with Krista’s “Tour de Tea”. A passionate foodie, Krista is on a personal quest to sample the 70 varieties and flavours of tea in her collection. To that end, she is drinking one per day and blogging about it. As she can’t share the taste experience with us, she provides dreamy Polaroid-style photos of each tea with a brief description of each. It’s almost as good as being there to taste for ourselves.
As I write this, Krista has sampled and logged 58 teas from her collection. Her favourites so far have been a stand-out Swedish tea called Soderblanding (a complex blend of black tea with floral, citrus and vanilla notes), which Krista picked up on a trip to Stockholm, and the Raspberry Ginger Zinger green tea from Edmonton’s Steeps. They haven’t all been winners, though; an intriguing blend from My Tea Mix turned out to be better in theory than in practice. With ingredients like Chinese Wolfberry, ginsing blossoms and rock sugar, it turned out to be more of a treat for the eyes than the tastebuds.
Upcycled vintage teacup pendant light by Mostaza Seed. Such a bright idea!
I asked Krista about her preferred method for brewing tea and she was gracious enough to share these tips with us:
Don’t Use Boiling Water: While this seems totally counter-intuitive, it’s actually bad to steep your tea in boiling water because it can burn the tea. Boil your water, then take it off the stove (or out of the microwave) and let it sit for a minute or two. Then add the tea to it after it’s cooled. You’ll have sweeter, more flavorful tea that’s less likely to get bitter.
Don’t Over-Steep Your Tea: Most tea only needs a few minutes to steep in water. If you’re brewing your tea more than 5 minutes, you’re likely to end up with bitter tea. Different types of tea need less steeping, too. In general, white tea needs the least amount of time to steep, with green tea needing a bit more and black tea needing the most. But even black tea doesn’t typically need more than 5 minutes, so don’t leave your tea in the water too long!
Do Use Loose Leaf!: While the quality of bagged tea has improved greatly in the past couple of years, the flavor and complexity of loose leaf tea can’t be beat. Loose leaf tea is more expensive than tea bags, but is still super affordable and is easy to prepare. Just buy yourself a tea ball or spoon from a kitchen store, put about a teaspoon per cup (250 ml/8 oz) in the ball/spoon and brew just like you would a tea bag!
Keep your tea hot to the bottom of the pot with this modern wool felt tea cozy by Argyle Street.
Krista also mentioned that it’s important to be aware of the shelf-life of your tea. Just like herbs, it’s best to buy your teas in smaller quantities, store them in airtight containers and, for maximum flavour, use them as soon as possible. While drinking “expired” tea won’t be harmful to you, it will taste stale and lack some of its original flavour profile, as Krista found out with some of the older teas in her stash.
One-of-a-kind vintage teacup ring holder by W.Ho Made It.
You can keep up with Krista’s “Tour de Tea” on her blog and via her Twitter feed. To see her stunning line of handmade jewelry online, visit the Urbanite shop. I am personally looking forward to the day when I can venture out to Ottawa to meet my dear friend in the flesh. Over a pot of tea, of course.
“York, England” earrings by Urbanite Jewelry.
2009 is the International Year of Natural Fibres. One of the world’s most beloved natural fibres, wool, is also one of the oldest in use. Although sheep were domesticated around 10,000 BC, it took people nearly 5,000 years to begin spinning their wool. In the time since then, wool has been a worldwide textile-of-choice for clothing as well as a myriad of home comforts.
Currently, global wool-production is at around 2.1 million tonnes per annum with Australia leading the herd, so to speak, followed by New Zealand and China. This figure, while seemingly large, is actually much less than it once was. An increased demand for synthetic fibres beginning in the 1960s meant a decline in wool prices and, as a result, production.
The current “green” movement, however, has led to a renewed interest in sustainable natural fibres, including wool. While new wool products continue to enjoy their popularity in fashion and home décor, it is the “old” wool that is garnering much attention in the handmade community. With an eye on thrift and a commitment to “reduce and reuse“, eco-conscious crafters and artisans are repurposing existing and heirloom woolen garments to create fun and fabulous items.
Pastel Hippy Upcycled notecardsThese 4 darling butter yellow cards measuring approx. 2.5 x 2.5 inches (6.5 x 6.5 cm), are accented with salvaged wrapping paper in a pastel, retro motif, a crumply distressed paper bag square with a heart hand stamped on the front and a lovely pastel pink bow.4 matching… → details
Rainbow BrightThree strands of multicolored small glass beads – no particular pattern or order. Approximately 7″ → details
Fireworks Barrel BagThis bag is hand knit in a cylinder shape, black yarn is used throughout and mixed with a rainbow of colors (gold, orange, red, pink, purple, blue and green) all of pure wool. It is then topped with a fluff black eyelash yarn to give it a flirty look.… → details