Crafter Thought

Just when you think you've seen everything Phoenix has to offer, someone drives you down to the warehouse district and walks you through a towering maze of boxes stuffed with papier-mâché teapots, tiny plastic feet, and soaring stacks of grosgrain. And there, deep in the swamp-cooled bowels of Diane Ribbon and Notions, something in you -- something you've been trying to repress, or maybe that you didn't even know you had in you -- begins to stir. Your inner crafter is awakening and, like some scary movie monster, is about to burst into being and overtake your life. Soon, you'll be buying sacks of bugle beads and "Sad Hobo" heads and something called Mod Podge, and from way in the background, perhaps behind a big box of glitter paint, will come the sound of Diane Rust's knowing laughter.

Rust, for whom Diane Ribbon and Notions is named, likes to say she's been in the crafting business since before she was in the crafting business. Her parents founded the wholesale notions company in the mid-1940s, and Diane herself opened the company to the public a few years ago, "because we want people to be able to get their notions at a good price." Rust isn't much of a crafter herself, but she's not above talking the occasional newspaper reporter into making a big plastic Fourth of July wreath while she tells him all about sequins and decoupage and the lost art of safety-pin jewelry.

New Times: Here's something I've always wondered: What's a notion?

Rust: It's just a big word for buttons, zippers, bias tape -- all kinds of doodads to help in sewing.

NT: Couldn't you just say "buttons, zippers, bias tape"?

Rust: Yeah, but I think most people know what notions are. They're what made us a success. In the early '60s, there was the squaw dress craze. Everybody had a squaw dress. I had three. We sold the metallic rickrack you needed to make these dresses.

NT: Rickrack.

Rust: It's like a kind of braid. Rickrack. It's what made my parents into successful businesspeople. Squaw dresses and rickrack were the foundation of our company.

NT: But you couldn't call them squaw dresses today.

Rust: Right. Back then, you didn't get in trouble for saying that. But then we evolved into the crafts business from the notions business in the late '60s because of safety-pin jewelry.

NT: Ah, yes. Safety-pin jewelry.

Rust: Have you ever seen it?

NT: No. But I'm guessing it's jewelry made from safety pins.

Rust: Yes. Pins and pendants and squash blossoms made from turquoise beads and pins. And we had the pins, because we sold sewing notions. And [our customers] said, "Well, if you carry the pins, why not carry the beads?" So we did, and it got very hot. Then another great thing happened: macramé!

NT: Macramé owls!

Rust: Owls and pot slings! We used to sell truckloads of jute. Truckloads!

NT: But where are those macramé owls today? Where are all those squash blossoms made from safety pins?

Rust: They're probably in people's attics. Although there might be people who still like the look of a safety-pin squash blossom. If a craft hits and the demand is there, it can live forever.

NT: What's up with the name of your store? Shouldn't it be Diane's Ribbons and Notions?

Rust: You mean, like several Dianes?

NT: No. Like a possessive and a plural. But it's Diane Ribbon and Notions. Why? Why is it only one ribbon? Why doesn't the ribbon belong to Diane?

Rust: They wanted to name the company after me. I'm only one Diane.

NT: And your father wasn't a grammarian.

Rust: No. Now, where was I? Oh, okay. So before all the Michaels and the Jo-Anns --

NT: These are employees of yours?

Rust: What? No. They're craft stores.

NT: Oh. Sorry.

Rust: Well, back before Michaels and Jo-Ann, there was the Cabbage Patch craze. There weren't enough of those dolls to go around, and so people started making their own. And we started selling Cabbage Patch heads. And iron-on eyes. It was good times! We were selling cross-stitch, puff paint. That was very hot. We rode all those different crafting trends. Now it's somewhat lost because a lot of the bigger stores have teens working there, and they just don't really care about crafting.

NT: Maybe they know something we don't.

Rust: No. Crafting has a lot of competition. Let's face it. There's the Internet, there's people working full-time, the importers are bringing in ready-made crafts. When I started, you couldn't go buy a wreath already made. Now you can go into Target and they've got them, and they're already decorated. Here, I'm going to show you how to make a wreath out of punchinella.

NT: Is that a drag queen?

Rust: No! It's the ribbon that they stamp sequins out of. It's a by-product. We sell a lot of punchinella, and it's very popular to make it into wreaths. Now, take this Styrofoam stem --

NT: It looks like a pipe cleaner.

Rust: Well, right. But they call them stems in the craft world.

NT: Then I will, too.

Rust: And you weave it in and out like this, and you make these little doodads like this. Then you bunch it up, and this is where it gets tricky -- and I'm really bad at this part --

NT: Wait. You're bad at crafts? You're Diane Ribbon!

Rust: I'm creative, but not with my hands. Don't tell anyone. Okay, see how I've got this all bunched up here? Then you just hook this onto this wire wreath form. These are normally used for hot-gluing wreaths onto.

NT: Hot glue.

Rust: Oh, yeah. Hot glue is great. It's been around forever. But listen, don't believe what they tell you. Hot glue is not a permanent fix.

NT: Why do I want to do crafts?

Rust: Why crafting? Because there's nothing better than saying, "I made it myself." Even if it's something that doesn't look great, you don't want to throw it out because somebody made it for you.

NT: So it's art for people with no artistic talent.

Rust: Right. Because there are crafts where virtually all you have to do is cut and glue. Now, you're not scrunching that punchinella up enough there.

NT: Can't I just go to Target and buy a finished wreath?

Rust: No. Now, I can go get our girl Margaret to come help you -- she's the punchinella queen.

NT: That's okay. I'll try to scrunch better. But when I'm done with this wreath, what am I going to do with it?

Rust: Well, if you finish it I was going to give to you to hang in your office.

NT: Oh, that's okay.

Rust: Aw. But you could hang it on the door! The nice thing about it is it's indestructible. It will last forever. And if it gets dusty, you just blow it off with an air compressor.

NT: Okay.

Rust: The hottest craft thing now with kids is cell phones. They all have cell phones, and they cover them with rhinestones. Hot hot hot hot hot! Paris Hilton had one, and that was it. You want to use glue, not Mod Podge.

NT: Excuse me?

Rust: Mod Podge. Mod Podge is forever. It got really hot in the '60s when people were doing decoupage. We go through a lot of Mod Podge. If every house has to have running water, every crafter has to have Mod Podge. I mean, it's just the way it is. Twist that punchinella a little tighter there. That's it. You can ask me some more questions while you do that.

NT: Here's one: Is plaster of Paris really from Paris?

Rust: No! I don't know why they call it that.

NT: You have a whole aisle devoted entirely to plastic feet.

Rust: And doll hands! But to be honest, doll-making is really over with. In the '70s and '80s, when dollmaking was hot, we sold those. What you see there is my leftover inventory. Now, you skipped a hole there.

NT: I noticed that your doll heads are separated by race.

Rust: Right. And this is how old that inventory is -- the boxes [for the African-American doll parts] are marked "Negro." That's what we called them then.

NT: Okay, I'm done with this scrunchy thing. Now what do I do?

Rust: You put the different pieces on the wreath form. No, you put it on the wrong side of that little wire divider there.

NT: I'm sorry I'm such a lousy crafter.

Rust: Well, you probably have other skills. You just keep working at it. There's a whole universe of crafting ideas out there. Are you sure you don't want to take this wreath home?

NT: No, really. That's okay.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela