Left in Andover: Our thriving crafts industry

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I forsook the craft fair circuit decades ago to go all-out for farmers markets. They are casual, fun, delicious and aesthetically pleasing. I feel at home exhibiting my wares among fresh picked produce and flowers.

Craftspeople have much to offer the markets in return. The weekly farmers markets that thrive in so many of our Vermont communities are funded almost entirely by vendor fees. With non-perishable products, day-vendor craftspeople can be flexible, ready at a moments notice to fill in an otherwise empty space. And of course we add to the experience for visitor and resident alike, keeping alive the traditions of handwork.

Whether clay, wood, metals or fiber based, these essential human skills are in danger of dying out in New England. The irony is that during the pandemic when so many folks have had to isolate at home, traditional crafts offer a supremely absorbing creative outlet.

And, for those who choose to make their avocation a vocation, newly minted Vermonters are here, eager to support local enterprise.

Now is a most favorable time to dig out knitting needles, sewing machines, looms, lathes, potters wheels, rug making and blacksmithing supplies.

For knitting support and yarns there is Six Loose Ladies. For quilting heaven there is Country Treasures. Both of these resources are in Chester.

In Ludlow, the magnificent Fletcher Farms offers classes in a myriad of crafts disciplines. Gaining experience in clay working is more difficult to access. The Courcelle Building community center in Rutland offers modestly priced wheel throwing classes. Most of the local high schools feature well-equipped ceramics studios.

Years ago, the Frog Hollow State Crafts Center operated a beautiful clay studio in Manchester. Whenever I have the opportunity to do clay residencies at local elementary schools, I am inevitably bowled over by the enthusiasm of kids for the pottery wheel. I even include those students who raise hands to share their love for “making” pottery on an app.

In olden days, there were at least three blacksmith shops right here in my Middletown neighborhood. It was common for farmers to maintain such workshops on their own premises. Of course spinning and weaving were essential home based crafts as well.

According to my favorite book, Thomas Hubka’s 1984  Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn, the connected architecture of Vermont farmsteads reflects an economic imperative to maintain diversified fields of endeavor.

The added-on sheds and outbuildings we take for granted as scenic Vermont housed myriad crafts endeavors necessary for the economic survival of farm families.

Susan Leader’s well-loved copy of ‘Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn.’

Seen through the lens of tradition, it is clear that diversified crafts, engaged in seasonally, are natural companions to comestible farm products.

In this area, farmers markets are blessed with a customer base of full-time residents, second-homeowners and visitors who show up in support all season long. The markets, of course, are as much entertainment and community square as grocery store.

So how many craftspeople would be too many to add to a farmers market line-up? Roughly 20 percent of the total number of vendors would be my guess — but this is as much art as science.

A large market like Norwich might feature three or four potters on a busy day. Londonderry includes three of us on a regular basis, each with a different style of work. Over the years, others have come and gone. But at a couple of my markets, I am, to my everlasting surprise, now the sole potter.

So your kid wants to be a potter or a woodworker or a knitter. Consider this: It might not be a disastrous idea. The public is yearning for authenticity, to use in daily life objects made by other hands, not machines, delivered not by Amazon, but rather hand-selected from the maker. I see a crafts renaissance on the horizon.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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