handbags to hats: the handmade and one of the kind works of amber zaraza

13 Sep

The final countdown has begun!  Amber Zaraza will be joining us on at Philly Swap on October 3rd and gives us a preview into her fantastically creative world below…

Give us some background. How did you get into DIY work?

I started sewing around the age of 12. The first thing I ever made was a simple handbag, cut from an old pair of blue and white polyester houndstooth pants that I had gotten at a thrift store. I finished off the handbag with a crystal clasp that I took off a sweater I found in my mom’s closet. I had no idea that what I was doing would be considered DIY/up cycling, literally I was just using what I found around the house.

Formally, I obtained a BA is Fashion Design and entered school with intentions of becoming a bridal designer. During my time in college I began making handbags for myself and soon they caught on with friends. When strangers began approaching me about the handbags I was carrying a little light bulb went off and in 2005 I started phea jean. Originally, I made only custom handbags, but now I am happy to say the phea jean repertoire now includes hats, wallets, scarves, hair accessories, and dresses.

What do you like about Philly? Is it a good place to do what you do?

I really love Philadelphia and I see it as a great place for artists, in particular DIY folks, to actively create on a regular basis. Compared to other cities I’ve lived in on the East and West Coasts, Philly is a really affordable place to live. I think this factors into the creative process in a few ways: first of all people have more time to partake in creative endeavors instead of working 5 jobs like a maniac just to be able to cover living expenses. This leads to less stress and a more conducive, welcoming environment for the mind to explore ideas and be creative. So, it’s a cheap city, but there’s also a lot at our fingertips and I find everything to be quite accessible. There are so many artists working in every medium you can think of. Art is really all around us in Philadelphia. I can think of over half a dozen artist collectives, and groups that offer skill swaps and supply swaps and next to free classes. Its great to participate in shows and there are a number of boutiques offering consignment and other options to local artists.

DIY projects have never been more relevant than they are right now. Whether the motivation is to minimize one’s carbon footprint or maximize what’s in the bank, people are showing an interest in reusable materials, local goods and creative projects to do at home. What are some simple steps we can take to be more financially-sound and environmentally-friendly in our creative projects?

I definitely try and use what I’ve got around the house, rather than buy new materials. I save everything, even small remnants. I’m still finding uses for “scraps” I’ve collected from over 10 years ago. I like the ideas of using recycled cardboard for tags or packaging (ie flipping a cereal box inside out and using it as a mailer). I also save clear glass jars and put buttons in them.

How do you think about the audience for your work? Who is it that you want to reach?

Well, honestly, I want to reach anyone who has a love for art/fabric/design and who understands and values the one of kind, handmade quality of my work. I have teenagers wearing my dresses and I have women in their 80’s carrying my handbags. Some of my customers are fellow DIYers, and some can’t sew a lick and just appreciate the workmanship. I think that the audience for DIY work and the interest in supporting the local community is expanding and I’m always eager to talk about my work because I love it and it’s something I am very passionate about.

What’s your take on the recent proliferation of the DIY/craft sales online such as Etsy? Do you see this more as a network of support or as competition for your sales?

I have very mixed feeling on the subject of online craft sales through websites like Etsy.

I think it is a good place for people to browse and become familiar with the types of handmade items people are capable of creating. I also think it’s great for people who live in areas that don’t have local boutiques or handmade stores. On the other hand, I see a lot of repetition and similar items, where one is not necessarily better than the next. This is a turn-off for me and the exact opposite of what (in my opinion) the DIY/handmade scene should represent which is more along the lines of originality and showcasing ones creativity. And let’s be frank, anyone can start an Etsy shop. I see these sites as neither friend nor foe.

What do you hope the future holds, for you and the arts and DIY scene in Philly?

I am so fortunate to be able to do what I love. I will be so happy to continue designing, sewing and (the best part of running a DIY operation) being my own boss! I hope to keep being inspired and meet other people who are as committed to this movement as I am. I am looking forward to seeing more local and independent businesses popping up and flourishing. I hope more people come out and support the artists in Philadelphia- whether it be at craft shows, art openings, or joining any of the creative groups in the city- or better yet starting a new one and letting me know about it.

In the immediate future (like tomorrow), I’m hoping for a new intern!

What comes first, the material or the project? Are you inspired by a specific material and develop a project around it, or do you first envision a project and seek out the materials to suit it?

When I come across an amazing material that I am inspired to use I will look at the pattern or texture of the fabric and envision how it will fit with a pattern that I already have in existence. It also depends on the type of fabric and size, whether it will be enough for a handbag or just as an accent on a wallet. While every item that I create is one of a kind, I do have over 20 pattern templates that I work off of. I’m not much for pre-planning or sketching, I let the materials speak to me and I improvise as I sew.

What recycled materials do you use in your work and where do you find them?/Name your 3 favorite places in Philly to find reusable craft materials.

I’ll use anything that will run through my sewing machine including shower curtains, table cloths, curtains, scarves, tea towels, etc. I’ve even had friends salvage upholstery fabric from discarded chairs. Aside from using actual fabric from old clothing, I pay attention to the smaller details in the form of notions. I’ll take buttons, trims, and even seam rip out zippers and re-use them.

The places I find the most usable materials are not necessarily Philly specific-

I go to a lot of flea markets and thrift stores because I prefer to use mostly vintage materials; however, my number one source of materials is family/friends. I am beyond fortunate to have so many amazing fabrics/notions donated to me quite frequently. I believe that sewing is an activity that people become very excited to start and perhaps overambitious at first buying more materials than necessary. Sewing takes a lot of time and patience and its easy to become discouraged so all the materials then go into a box never to be seen again until I come along. I’ve received massive amounts of materials that have been handed down from past generations. Whatever I can’t/won’t use, I swap or give away for free online. I suggest talking to people and letting everyone know that you can re-purpose any fabric!

These days, we can learn knitting (or other folk arts) by reading an online tutorial (namely, in isolation), while past generations of crafters often learned in a knitting circle (namely, in community). How does this impact the artist community and the future of traditional folk arts?

The internet has its uses, but it is very impersonal, so I wouldn’t suggest using an online tutorial as the sole tool in learning any traditional folk art. The purpose of knitting circles and sewing groups is to learn a new skill, but it is also to have social interactions and engage with like-minded people in the community. Can you become good at something you learned from an online tutorial? Sure. But I think a natural step in creating something is being able to share your accomplishments with others. Being involved in the community aspect of any art that you are pursuing will only enhance your experience; whether its to get feedback or tips from other people or just get an idea of what other people are coming up with. I have found that everyone has something to share and can offer a different perspective or method of working. That need will never change and I think that is why we are seeing more and more groups in existence to support the artist community.

Many of us are not as good with tools as we’d like to be. What are some tips and tricks to fake it till your skills make it?

I’m not sure that sewing is one of those skills that allows for faking it til you make it, nor would I necessarily subscribe to or promote that way of thinking. Assuming that what you are sewing will have some functionality, if it isn’t done correctly, it will be obvious and most likely fall apart. So, in my opinion, it’s best to do it right the first time. This being said, I think a good sewing foundation starts with mastering a straight stitch on a machine and if you don’t have a machine, a basic hand-stitch will do. Go slow and work on even stitches. If you aren’t comfortable putting in a zipper, use Velcro or a magnetic snap. Start simple and then build from there. Enlist the help of friends. Practice, practice, practice…sewing and PATIENCE! And of course have a seam-ripper handy at all times. Sew what you know you are capable of accomplishing, so that you don’t have to fake it. In my opinion its better to have something that is simple and sewn good, than an overly complicated design with poor construction.

Visit http://www.pheajean.com today!

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3 Responses to “handbags to hats: the handmade and one of the kind works of amber zaraza”

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