Visitors can try hoop embroidery at Makers Mess in Los Angeles. Picture: Makers Mess handout photo
Visitors can try hoop embroidery at Makers Mess in Los Angeles. Picture: Makers Mess handout photo

For crafty travellers, DIY classes are the ultimate souvenir

By Jennifer Barger Time of article published Oct 26, 2019

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Washington - As I sit at my loom overlooking the Mekong River in Laos, the gray-blue water and jade-green trees distract me from the melon-coloured silk I've spent the morning weaving.

Thank goodness for Mrs Vanthong, the patient master weaver supervising my efforts at Ock Pop Tok, a crafts center on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, a dreamy city where jungle landscapes meet French Colonial architecture. 

I'm here for a half-day weaving course that involves dyeing silk with plants harvested on site (indigo, lemongrass), spinning it into thread and then, over several hours of hard work, weaving a surprisingly professional-looking silk place mat.

Travelers have long dipped their paws into local culture with cooking classes and tastings of wine, beer and chocolate. But, perhaps because of DIY-mad millennials or the current vogue for worldly, fair-trade goods and fashion, there are increasing options to learn regional crafts, too. 

"Many of my clients, particularly ones with kids, are asking for hands-on experiences," says Bethesda, Md., travel agent Michael Diamond, whose Cobblestone Private Travel sets up tile-making and pottery classes for clients going to Marrakesh, Morocco. "Maybe it's Instagram fodder; maybe it's people really wanting really individualized activities."

Here are several places you can exercise your creativity as well as your curiosity. Booking in advance is recommended.

Indian block printing

Visitors to Bagru, India, about 20 miles southwest of Jaipur, will see yards and yards of vibrantly colored woodblock-print textiles drying in the sun in a giant communal field, as has happened for centuries in this textile hub. 

Studio Bagru holds one- or two-day workshops demonstrating how artisans chisel teak into intricate blocks, then painstakingly use them to stamp patterns on cotton using natural dyes (indigo, mud, vegetable). Students then stand at long wooden tables, imprinting scarves, shawls or bags with paisley, leaf or elephant patterns.

Italian leather crafts

Founded in 1950 to teach a trade to World War II orphans, this Florentine leather workshop and school makes its home under the arches of the old dormitory of the Franciscan friars at the storied Basilica of Santa Croce. 

Students pop on white smocks and choose from a rainbow of richly scented hides before cutting and stitching a book cover during three-hour courses, or they sew and finish a belt over six hours. Want to be the next Salvatore Ferragamo? You can also buckle down at an intensive 10-week course covering bag-making basics.

Vacation with an Artist helps individuals or small groups book mini apprenticeships with craftspeople like a Malaysian leather puppet carver. Photo courtesy of Vacation With an Artist

Lao weaving and dyeing

This fiber-arts center employs weavers and dyers from nearby villages who teach batik, basket making, silk weaving and other traditional crafts, including some aimed at kids. Courses run from half a day (dyeing a cotton napkin) to three days (weaving an ikat scarf). An on-site cafe serves spicy East-meets-West food, and the textile-filled, five-room Mekong Villa offers lodgings.

Moroccan pottery making

Fifteen minutes outside central Marrakesh, Beldi Country Club, a Kasbah-style hotel and garden complex, has small glass-blowing and pottery-making workshops spinning out the region's trademark candy-hued tagines and teacups. In the pottery shop, kids and adults get messy turning clay pots, cups or bowls on the wheel, which the staff will then glaze and fire.

Appalachian mountain crafts

This school and arts space, in a bucolic setting about a two-hour drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Asheville, North Carolina, opened in 1925 to preserve Appalachian folk crafts. More than 860 week-long or weekend classes in subjects as varied as "Sweetgrass Baskets" and "Forging an Axe" are taught by acclaimed craftspeople. Students can also book cozy on-site lodgings and wholesome meals.

Vacation with an Artist helps individuals or small groups book mini apprenticeships with craftspeople like a Malaysian leather puppet carver. Vacation With an Artist handout photo

Macrame and more

Do all current design trends - the return of macrame hangings, pots of succulents - originate in Los Angeles? Maybe, and students can learn how to do these and other West Coast-cool crafts at Makers Mess, which holds classes in a slick Silver Lake storefront (and, through 2019, a pop-up downtown). 

Participants scoot a brightly hued Eames chair up to a long wooden table for hands-on instruction in producing marbled clay coasters, felted pet portraits, leather sandals and, yes, macrame. Classes last two to five hours.

American glass making

In a bright, industrial-chic workshop at this New York museum, adults and kids 4 and older can try glass blowing, etching and fusing. Slip on safety goggles for highly supervised 20- to 40-minute classes at one of the world's largest showplaces for glass, where students turn out a pendant, a picture frame or even a wine glass.

South African wire beading

This 19-year-old nonprofit workshop and boutique set amid the coffee shops and galleries of Cape Town's buzzing Woodstock neighborhood employs disadvantaged artisans who use colorful beads and wire to string and shape life-size lion busts, holiday ornaments shaped like the African continent, and mini soccer cleats. Ninety-minute classes help children and adults construct keychains, bracelets or small bowls.

Argentine fileteado painting

Stroll older Buenos Aires neighborhoods such as San Telmo and La Boca and you'll spot business signs and the occasional vintage bus festooned with swirling calligraphy letters, carnivalesque colors and elaborate scrollwork. 

That's fileteado, a homegrown painting style started by 19th-century Italian immigrants and continued by artists such as Alfredo Genovese, who teaches frequent two-hour group classes at his Fileteado Porteño Workshop. Participants craft a small decorated plaque.

English silversmithing

On a 60-foot longboat parked in England's scenic Worcestershire Canals (about 45 minutes from Stratford-upon-Avon), silversmith Jonathan Kettle teaches small groups day-long courses on making rings, crosses and bracelets. Participants also get cake, tea and, in cooler months, a chance to cozy up by the tiny wood stove on board.

The Washington Post

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