Handmade holidays

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Crispina ffrench sits in the basement of the century-old church, as Christmas lights hang among the support beams like spiderwebs. It's a bustle of color, as she assembles blankets, rugs and toys from materials as ordinary as recycled sweaters.

It's fitting that ffrench's group is the Alchemy Initiative, which next month is hosting its second annual Handmade Holiday Festival.

With about three dozen vendors from the Berkshires and beyond scheduled to attend the fundraising event Dec. 4-6, ffrench hopes to give county residents an offbeat, alternative outlet for their holiday shopping.

"Everything is handmade, and is going to be available at the festival," ffrench said, saying that selections would include paintings, pottery, jewelry, clothing, and more. "We're trying to make it like a one-stop shopping station."

Local craftspeople who are participating said they were excited about ffrench's hands-on approach with the City of Pittsfield's Office of Cultural Department, which is co-sponsoring the event.

"We support [the event] because it's a wonderful event to bring people downtown," said Director of Cultural Development Megan Whilden. "It's also a wonderful way for people to support our local artists and artisans, and to encourage people in the community for their holiday shopping to look for things that are made locally."

"I admire [ffrench's] professionalism," said Jay Hallstein, owner of Minc House Designs in Pittsfield. "They're really taking the event seriously."

Annette Kramer, who plans to sell specialty fashion shirts and pants at the event from her Pittsfield-based company Ancient Languages, agreed.

"It's like New York, I'm going to wheel my racks down the street," Kramer said. "It's important that people want downtown to happen, so they can see what kind of things they can buy."

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Hallstein, who opened Minc House in January, said she hopes to expand her client base, which already includes the Colonial Theatre and the Red Lion Inn.

Hallstein added that an event like this was feasible only because of the pervasive Berkshire art scene, which she said was teeming with both full- and part-time artisans.

"Meeting other artisans, seeing their products, seeing where we overlap, seeing where we can help each other out, that's the most important thing for me," added Kramek. "That's why I'm doing it."

In addition to having live music, henna tattoos and horse-drawn carriage rides, ffrench also has a dramatic setting for the festivities -- the wide-open space of the former church. Construction is still in progress for the sprawling sanctuary, with stained glass windows, empty pews and high ceilings providing an awe-inspiring atmosphere.

"The chapel is a great space," said Jordan Skowron, who provides the illustrations for Minc House's pillows and scarves. "It makes it a good kind of downtown event, which we're trying to do."

ffrench hopes that this unorthodox venue -- combined with the sheer breadth of craftsmen present -- will bring the Alchemy Initiative enough funds to follow through on its renovations, specifically those regarding fire sprinklers and handicap accessibility.

"The whole thing, to me, is very important," ffrench said. "Walmarts are everywhere, but it's rare to walk into a room and see how 40 people are earning their living, and to support them."

Whilden agreed. "We've been known for a long time for having world-class dance and theatre," she said. "But we also have world-class artisans here, and events like this spread the message that the Berkshires are a wonderful destination and a wonderful place to live."

"This is about putting craftsmanship back into a product," Skowron said. "When our economy is good, we buy so much, and we need to go back to products that have a lot of love into it."


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