For crafty travelers, DIY classes are the ultimate souvenir
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-colored 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."
Some courses consist of an hour or two of demonstrations by a local craftsperson — a Japanese paper maker, a North Carolina woodworker — with a chance to try your hand at their art and create your own memento. Other classes (such as my time on the Laotian silk loom or block printing in Jaipur, India) might take all day or a few days, depending on your level of interest and available vacation time. Some programs employ refugees or people who might otherwise be living in poverty; all let you interact with locals in a deeper way than a stop at a souvenir stand.
Artistry tours are cropping up, too, leading creative-minded adventurers on longer odysseys into, say, Oaxacan weaving or Indian bamboo-bicycle making. Founded in 2015, VAWAA (Vacation With an Artist; Vawaa.com) links individuals or small groups of travelers to 69 artists in 23 countries for "mini-apprenticeships" of four to seven days. You cover your lodging and meals, then spend four hours or so a day cutting out leather shadow puppets in Malaysia or sewing denim jackets in a Los Angeles design studio. "I think people are craving tactile experiences," says founder Geetika Agrawal. "There's been this growing desire to know who made this, how was it made? Crafting really gets at that."
And ACE Camps (Acecampstravel.com) take groups of 10 to 16 people on retreats spanning 5 to 11 days and focused on, for example, batik in Swaziland or flower arranging and pottery throwing in southern Japan. "We try to create immersive experiences with not only hands-on crafting but also cultural and culinary opportunities," says company founder Angela Ritchie. "You'll get to take home a handmade souvenir, but you also leave with a collection of local experiences and fresh ideas."
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.
1st Floor, G7/B, Vinobha Marg, Opp. Magpie Villa, C Scheme, Ashok Nagar, Jaipur, Rajasthan
Cost: About $85 for one day, about $155 for two days. Fees include a traditional thali lunch and chai; transportation from Jaipur available for about $25.
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.
Scuola del Cuoio
Via San Giuseppe, 5R, Florence
Costs: Book cover making about $160 to $270; belt making about $308 to $470
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.
Ock Pop Tok
125/10 Ban Saylom, Luang Prabang, Laos
Cost: From about $24 to $146
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.
Beldi Country Club
Kilometer 6, Route de Barrage, Cherifia, Marrakesh, Morocco
Cost: About $20 for adults, about $10 for children
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.
John C. Campbell Folk School
One Folk School Road, Brasstown, N.C.
Cost: Rates run from $354 to $898
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.
602 N. Hoover St., Los Angeles
Cost: From $46 to $230 (for more complex crafts, such as making leather sandals)
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.
Corning Museum of Glass
One Museum Way, Corning, N.Y.
Costs: Typically $13 to $32
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.
Streetwires Artist Collective
354 Albert Rd., Cape Town, South Africa
Cost: About $20; book in advance for weekday-only sessions
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.
Fileteado Porteño Workshop
Admiral FJ Segui 1465, Buenos Aires
Cost: About $110
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 Silver Jewelry Boat
No fixed address
Cost: About $110