Hispanic Heritage Month 2012 Interview Series: Vanessa Laven

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This post is part of my 2012 Hispanic Heritage Month interview series.

I’m thrilled to interview blogger Vanessa Laven today.  Vanessa was actually the first person I interviewed on my blog and I’m a regular read of her own wonderful blog, Mixed Martial Arts and Crafts.  Vanessa is also Cuban-American and from the NYC area, so I feel a strong connection to a lot of the stories that she shares about growing up and her family life.  In addition to her blog, you can find Vanessa online on Ravelry, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter.

Vanessa Laven in one of her knit cowls. (Click for blog post.)

Underground Crafter (UC): How did you learn to knit, crochet, and embroider?

Vanessa: My mother had taught me how to knit but it never really stuck, ditto for crocheting. I picked up the Klutz book about crochet and suddenly it clicked with me. I fell in love and I joined a Stitch n Bitch group. I decided to give knitting another try and this time my mom’s advice stuck. My sister, Maritza, taught me how to embroider when I was in the fourth grade but again, it never really stuck. My mom kept nagging me to not embroider all the time because it would ruin my eye sight, so I dropped it. In college, I bought Jenny Hart’s book and kit and this time it stuck. I embroidered a bunch of doodles on to a pair of old jeans and while it looked super cool, I never wore them after that. Plus my hands were killing me. I didn’t know at the time that I should have used a better needle!

Vanessa’s multi-crafty Frida Kahlo doll. (Click for blog post.)

UC: You are multi-craftual. What is your favorite “go to” craft these days?

Vanessa: I find my knitting to be the most portable project, so it’s the one I do the most often. While I do like to crochet, I find that sometimes my crochet stitches end up coming undone if I try to tote it around with me. Plus, I have to look where I’m crocheting. I knit so much that I can do it by feel now, which has become a “party trick” of mine. I once managed to play Texas Hold ‘em Poker and knit at the same time. It was less impressive than it sounds because I really don’t know how to play poker all that well. Embroidery has become a sort of “in between projects” project, mostly because I tend to make much smaller pieces. Plus, it satisfies that part of me that still likes to color in coloring books.

Vanessa’s Lily Owl. (Click for blog post.)

UC: We both have parents who were born and raised in Cuba.  Tell us a bit about your background and the crafting scene at that time.

Vanessa: I grew up in Union City, NJ. At one point, Union City was called “Havana on the Hudson” because we had more Cubans living here than in Havana. (UC comment: Yes, this is where most of my Cuban extended family lives!) When I was growing up, I would say that 98% of my classmates were Hispanic. We had a few Indian and Egyptian students but they were the exception rather than the rule. I don’t remember many people outside of my family crafting, but there were a few businesses advertising hand painted signs. My niece Olivia took a bunch of photos of these signs.

Apparently, most of them have been taken down. I love the look of the lettering but I’ve never really seen them outside of the greater NYC area.  (UC comment: Olivia has a great website of her own here.) 

My town does have an interesting crafty history. Starting in the late 1880s up until the 1990s, there were tons of embroidery factories. My parents worked a few, actually, particularly during the Viet Nam war. The factory they worked at made military insignias like company badges and rank stripes. They would take the big sheets of these home to cut out and got paid for so many that they cut.

My mom also worked in clothing factories. It’s where and how she learned to sew. My father was part of the book binder’s union thanks to one of the places he worked at. He later stopped factory work and became the superintendent of the buildings we lived in. He wasn’t the best handyman but I think part of him really enjoyed it. He used to build and set up model trains and also enjoyed photography, though he was terrible at it.

Vanessa’s Featherweight Cardigan. (Click for blog post.)

UC: Tell us about your blog. How did you get started blogging?

Vanessa: My husband bought a “Mixed Martial Arts and Crafts” t-shirt for me and thought the name would make a great blog for me. I had just finished up chemo two months before and I needed an outlet. He encouraged me to blog about the things I made during treatment. I was really shy about it at first but I quickly dove in. I had a Live Journal account for years so the idea of blogging wasn’t new to me. I’m glad that I listened to hubby because I love to blog like this! It’s given me both an outlet and a sense of purpose which is what I needed especially so soon after being so sick. (UC comment: I’m glad you listened to him, too, because your blog has a really unique perspective to offer!)

Vanessa’s hexipuffs. (Click for blog post.)

UC: You share some of your personal life, including your experience as a cancer survivor and posts about your family, on your blog.  A lot of crafty bloggers struggle with how much is enough/too much to share of your personal life.  How do you find the balance between being part of a community and maintaining your privacy?

Vanessa: I try to keep my personal stories focused on either crafting or cancer. With my cancer experience, I felt best to share the good, the bad and the really ugly because I wasn’t prepared for most of what happened. And if I felt that way, chances are good that someone else does and hopefully I can better prepare them.

I do share a lot about my family’s history partly because I think it’s a unique story, particularly how my parents met. And it’s the easiest way to share with the rest of my family since we’re all around the world at this point. Thanks to Facebook, lots of cousins and uncles (my father’s half brothers) are coming out of the woodwork and finding us. Most of them are still in Cuba but a few are in Miami and Venezuela. My mother’s family are in Cuba but do have internet access so it’s been nice to share with them as well. I’ve often thought about turning some of their stories into a novel, so I try to write those entries as creatively as possible. I also feel like everyone has a great story. Hopefully, I can encourage other people to put the tales of the past down on paper to preserve them. I do regret that I didn’t get more memories out of my father before he passed away.

Vanessa’s Wurm Hat for Olivia. (Click for blog post.)

UC: Does your cultural background influence your crafting?  If so, how?

Vanessa: I’m not sure if I can say that there is a direct influence, but it certainly is a passive influence. Whenever I pick up my needles (be it to knit or sew or crochet) I feel like I’m part of the past. My mother remembers that her mother, sister, and later, her step-mother, would spend time making bobbin lace when they weren’t busy making clothing for the family. Her friends tell me that they were all taught to knit socks before they were taught the alphabet!  My parents didn’t have a lot of schooling (my mother left school around the 4th grade and my father the 6th) but they both learned trades. My mother’s was more domestic (making clothing for the family and housewares and how to cook) but my father was a cobbler. I think about them when I’m working away and I laugh. What today is considered “hip” and “novel” and “crafty” was, once upon a time, part of a normal education. I remember trying to sign up for Home Ec in High School only to be told that they changed the class format. It was now a parenting class for the girls (and boys) who were expecting. I’m very sad to hear that this isn’t something that was unique to my public school system. If we bring back these skills, I’m sure we’ll see an overall increase in math and reading scores. (UC comment: I agree, Vanessa. We use math all the time in the needlecrafts!)

Some of Vanessa’s embroidery. (Click for blog post.)

UC: You recently moved to Hermitage, Tennessee from the Northeast.  What’s the crafting scene like down there?  Do you have any favorite spots to share?

Vanessa: I’ve noticed that quilting tends to be a lot more popular in the South. I’ve been able to find more fabric shops than local yarn stores. Also, the big box stores like Joann’s tend to rule. Since I’m not really a quilter, it’s been difficult for me to find my niche.

Vanessa’s childhood kung-fu ID card. (Click for blog post.)


UC: One of the things that’s unique about your blog is your combination of needlecrafts with martial arts and self-defense.  (One of my favorite guest posts on your blog is by Packing Pretty.  Thanks for introducing me to someone who so stylishly conceals weapons for personal protection!)  Tell us about your interest in martial arts.

Vanessa: I started martial arts when I was in the first grade. My parents put me in ballet and I hated it. Then they tried tap dancing and I hated that, too. The last thing on their list was the kung-fu studio that was near. My brother had taken lessons with Sifu Vizzio and suggested that they sign me up. They did and I loved it! I was finally in training to become a Ninja Turtle. Unfortunately, I had to stop thanks to homework overload but I always carried that regret. I tried some other styles as an adult but it wasn’t the same. I missed Sifu and I missed Fu Jow Pai.

For me, martial arts helps me relax and focus on my goals. The philosophical aspect of it has also spoken deeply to me. I’m not sure I’ve discovered the meaning of life but it’s helped me really think about what I’m doing here. I come out of class feeling like I’ve honed both my body and my mind and I’ve got them working together.

UC: What are some of your favorite Spanish or English language craft blogs to share?
Vanessa: In Spanish, I love Che Crochet. She’s an Argintine crocheter and makes some really nice stuff. Of course, I also have to mention FreshStitches as an English crochet counterpart. Stacey’s designs are fun and really modern. Mighty Distractable also makes me feel better for having a thousand interests and a short attention span.

I also read Craftzine to keep up to date on the latest crafting news. And I love to listen to CraftLit while I’m busy. Heather Ordover is a great hostess and knitwear designer in her own right. She’ll be starting Jane Eyre (my favorite book), which has wonderful knitting references, in October. I think I’ll work on something lacey and fancy while I listen.

UC: What’s next for Mixed Martial Arts and Crafts?
Vanessa: I do have some pieces in the works of my own. I’m currently designing a cancer awareness hat that should be released in November. And I’ve got some more book reviews and tutorials in the pipeline so keep your eyes peeled in the next few weeks! I’m not quite sure what next year has in store for Mixed Martial Arts and Crafts, but I’m always open to suggestions.


Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your story, Vanessa!

Handmade Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Great Gifts for Yarncrafters

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) signifies the official start of the holiday shopping season.  In the spirit of keeping the holidays a little more handmade and small business and a little less mass produced and corporate, I’m sharing several holiday gift guides today.

Great Gifts for Yarncrafters

There are so many great gifts out there for yarncrafters that I hardly know where to begin.


Books are great gifts for yarncrafters, but with so many options out there, it can be hard to choose.


CRAFT magazine posted a Craft Kits gift guide for 2011.  Here are some of my favorites.

Double Drop Spindle Maple Wood Yarn Spinning Kit from Maine Woods Yarn & Fiber. (Image used with permission.)


Classes are so fun!  Not only can you learn new techniques and projects, but you get to meet more people who share your passion for knitting and crocheting.


Most yarncrafters are always on the look out for new (and more) yarn.  Buying yarn for someone else can be daunting though.

  • Look for tips for color and yarn weight in their Ravelry project pages.
  • Or pick up something unique, like a handspun or hand dyed yarn, or something that isn’t available in their community, like small batch yarn ordered online.
  • Check Ravelry’s Black Friday Yarn Sale thread in Needlework on the Net for weekend sales.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to some wonderful yarns from several small companies this year.  You may want to check out A Stash AddictBitsy Knits, or Chopped Tomatoes Design Kitchen.  Other yarns that I’ve admired from a distance but haven’t yet tried include Candy SkeinFunky Monkey, and Swoon Fibers.
Emerald Forest colorway from A Stash Addict.
  • A gift certificate to a LYS is another option, if you are worried about making the final decision yourself.
  • And, of course, I wrote about my favorite yarns here if you are still looking for ideas.

Hooks and Needles

Crochet hooks and/or knitting needles make great gifts, especially if you pick out something special.

Show Your Appreciation

Making things by hand is a labor of love.  Show your appreciation with a set of This Took Forever woven labels from Sublime Stitching and maybe you’ll get a homemade gift in return :).


Does your favorite yarncrafter have a wishlist?  I rely on the Add to Amazon Wishlist browser button to keep my wishlist organized in one spot.  (Hint: If you are a yarncrafter hoping people will get you awesome holiday gifts, maybe you should do that, too! You can even add patterns from Ravelry so that non-members can see them from the pattern purchase page.)

Enjoy the last gift guide, and feel free to share your favorite gifts for yarncrafters in the comments!

Creativity – Interview with Leslie from Astor Knot

This post contains affiliate links.

Recently, I was very excited to come across Crafting a Beautiful Life, a great, new blog written by Leslie Astor.  Leslie is the owner and creative mind behind Astor Knot, an awesome Etsy shop.  (Full disclosure: Leslie and I are on the same Etsy team, The {NewNew}.)

Leslie’s blog documents her attempts to “incorporate the handmade more and more into (her) everyday life.”Today, I’m interviewing Leslie about her blog, creativity, making handmade stuff, and other cool things.

Leslie with her family. It looks cold out there!

Underground Crafter (UC): Your blog documents your efforts to add more handmade to your daily life.  What led to you trying to do more handmade?

Leslie: There are a whole bunch of reasons why I’m trying to practice living a more handmade life. I’ve been feeling more and more pressed by the moral imperative to live in a more sustainable, environmentally responsible way, and making things helps me to do that. In a similar vein I was starting to get freaked out when I stopped to think about all the crap we buy unnecessarily in our culture; not just because of what our throwaway mentality means to our landfills, but also because the act of buying something, rather than making it, cuts me off completely from the opportunity to connect to my own creative nature and DIY spirit. Plus, it sets a terrible example for my kids on so many levels to model buying over making as a lifestyle choice. Finally, I’ve always been a creative person, but I realized how compartmentalized I was keeping that aspect of my life. I decided to start a blog about living a handmade life in large part as a way to hold myself accountable for practicing creative principles in all areas of my life, rather than just making it my “work”.

It’s easy to want to do right by these cuties.

(UC comment: I think many bloggers write publicly as a way to keep accountable to themselves by sharing their goals with an audience.  I know I do!)

UC: Your background is in ceramic sculpture.  Do you still find time to work in ceramics?  If not, how did you move into other crafts?

Leslie: Unfortunately I haven’t worked with clay in years. The worst thing about graduating from college when you’re an art major is losing access to all of that amazing equipment and free studio space! I would still love to go back to making ceramics again, and I believe that someday I will. In the interim though, I learned to pick up on different artistic processes that could be practiced at my kitchen table. And I’m still a student, all the time. I love taking classes that keep me engaged in a creative mindset. Most recently I took a screen printing class at the Textile Arts Center here in Brooklyn, and I also took a block printing class at Diana Rupp’s Make Workshop in the city a couple of weeks ago. I’ve taken a bunch of classes at her studio, including machine sewing and embroidery, and I’ve always enjoyed them. They’re affordable and can fit into anybody’s schedule. I’ve also taken several continuing ed classes at SVA, which are more expensive and more of a time commitment, but have always been worthwhile when I could do them. I’ve made use of lots of good books on crafting, including Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Sewing and Fabric Crafts and her Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Crafts. Plus, there is so much free instruction available online, and I’ve certainly availed myself of that resource as well.

(UC comment: Keeping your own creativity fresh through taking other people’s classes is so important!  I’m taking two once-a-month classes at the City Quilter this summer, and have really been inspired by learning new techniques and meeting other needlecrafters.)

Leslie’s studio space. 

UC: How did you get started making and then selling your bags?

Leslie: To be honest, I never set out to make tote bags! The idea just kind of came out of a period of experimentation last spring when a neighbor of mine, who is also a ceramist, asked me to participate in a local craft fair she was organizing. I had been doing some painting and sort of mixed media stuff in my studio but none of that work was work I was interested in selling.  When I said yes to doing the fair, I started playing around with some materials I had lying around already, and the bags just started making themselves. I showed the beta versions to a couple of friends whose creative input I valued, and who told me the bags were something they would buy if they saw them. The idea evolved from there and turned into my Etsy shop.

I know I feel the same about crochet some days.

UC: You seem to be multi-craftual.  What is your favorite “go to” craft these days?

Leslie: I do love exploring a variety of art forms and crafts, which I sometimes think might be to my detriment, because just as I’m really learning how to do one thing, my attention gets turned to something else and I move on. That makes me a Jane of all crafts and master of none! Right now I’m getting back into block printing, which I first did probably twenty years ago. It’s so satisfying and also can be done with a minimum of materials and space. I might be adding some printed designs to my Etsy shop in the near future, just to keep things interesting.

Leslie’s DIY message board allows her to share some great messages with her kids.

UC: Where do you generally find your creative inspiration?

Leslie: I know it sounds completely cliché, but I find inspiration all around me, in the everyday. I find that when I’m actively making, it builds my creative momentum in such a way that my eyes are more open to seeing the beauty in everything. When I’m watering my garden, I’m struck by the range of greens there, when I’m reading to my kids at bedtime, I really pay attention to the variety of different techniques illustrators use to tell the stories. I’m inspired by textile patterns, by language and words, (which is evident in my Etsy shop) and I love good shop window displays. Anthropologie is brilliant at creating an environment in each of its spaces that feels so singular and handmade, even though it is in fact a chain.

UC: Do you have any favorite crafting blogs or websites you’d like to share?

Leslie: Gosh, there are soooo many beautiful and funny and clever and useful blogs out there, its hard to narrow down a list of my favorites. Right now I’m loving Amanda Blake Soule’s soulemama, though it has the weird paradoxical effect of totally inspiring me and also making me feel completely inadequate as both a parent and a creative person. I love Jodi Call’s hilarious, heartfelt and spot-on parenting blog pistolsandpopcorn. I love the craftzine blog for its endless ideas and inspiration and how-to instructions, plus it always leads me into the creative clutches of other creative crafters and bloggers. I recently stumbled upon Elsie Larson’s A Beautiful Mess, and (Indie) Pretty Projects has a lot of inspiring stuff on it. I have links on my own blog to a few other blogs I read, but it’s by no means comprehensive.

It is always interesting to read about how other artisans and crafters in New York City deal with the usual suspect of lack of space/studio.  Leslie was able to harness her creative energies into more portable crafts, which is definitely a way that those of us with limited physical resources deal with our artistic energies!  I’m ready to take on her challenge of incorporating more handmade into my daily life, too.

Thanks Leslie for stopping by for an interview.  Don’t forget to check out her blog and Etsy shop!