The Bespoke Blog - The Stories Behind the Products

Learn more about the local and regional handmade goods we stock online and in our boutique store in Downtown Truckee, CA.

Heirlooms in the Making at Oaks Bottom Forge

When I walk in the door at Oaks Bottom Forge, blacksmith and owner Pat Wojciechowski is at the design table, talking and laughing with a visitor.

Through the glass wall beside him, sparks fly from a classic open-hearth style forge, where several smiths are busy heating, hammering, and working hot iron into the shop's popular knife blades. There's an aproned smith having lunch on a stool nearby, while another blacksmith polishes a finished blade near the door.

The forge is bustling with life.

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This is the vision Pat had for a community metal workshop, tucked into a revamped storefront in Portland's quaint Sellwood neighborhood. Oaks Bottom set up shop quite literally in the middle of things. There's a video store next door, a cake bakery across the street, a doggy daycare down the block. Straight off the nearby Springwater Corridor trail, cyclists and pedestrians can watch the smiths in action through the thick glass windows. 

He's just finishing a meeting with Bartek Prusiewicz, a local sculptor. Pat's team made a hand-forged miniature harpoon for Prusiewicz, to complete a piece in anticipation of a gallery show.

What better illustration of the continuing relevance of a blacksmith? The doors at Oaks Bottom Forge are always open to the public, and people with all kinds of projects visit the shop to inquire about custom metalwork. 

"I want to show people that this is an art as well as a craft, and that it's very much alive," Pat tells me when we sit down together at the design table.

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Oaks Bottom's primary focus is creating affordable, heirloom-quality knives. Pat had been working alone before moving to the current location. When he realized he was receiving more orders than he could fill, he began looking for a space where he and a growing community of blacksmiths and artists could hammer every day.

Currently, nine full-time blacksmiths contribute to the production process. While a single knife is often created assembly-line style, the smiths each do "a little bit of everything." They also teach basic knife-making and woodworking classes as part of Oaks Bottom's ongoing workshop series.

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Available online and in various retail locations, including Bespoke, the knives are hand forged from 01 tool steel. The blades stay sharp for a long time. A chef's knife the crew uses in the shop was last sharpened in March.

"We literally just sharpened it again the other day," Pat chuckles.

He tells me an Oaks Bottom knife ends up being the go-to knife for his customers. When they have people over to cook, it’s the one their friends automatically reach for and want to use.

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 But it's not just craftsmanship that makes an heirloom.

"It’s not about the knife, it’s about the knife," Pat says. "If you really put yourself into a craft, that creates conversation, and a community grows around that. It’s what happens around the process of making the knife, or using it. Whether it's the workers, sitting around the shop table sanding handles and talking. Or someone buys a mushroom knife, and takes it with them everythime they go out. It’s what happens while you’re using it that’s important. That's what people want to pass on to their children."

Today is for... Mountains

Truckee is a mountain town. There's a kind of grit and grace to living here year round. Mountain men and women, gold rushers, homesteaders, early settlers-- our predecessors knew the meaning of hardship, sacrifice, and perseverance in a way that's hard to fathom now.

Still, there are slivers of that tough pioneer commitment left in the groove and fiber of this place. Those of us who stay are here on purpose. It's not the kind of place you wind up in without intention, without weighing the beauty on one hand and the work on the other. For mountain lovers, the extremes of living at altitude are offset by the extreme privileges of its natural beauty-- from the stunning turquoise of Tahoe on a still day, to the powder of stars on a clear winter night. Here are a few of our favorite things, handmade and mountain-worthy.

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 1. Known for its simplicity and durability, the Opinel hand saw features a high carbon folding blade and safety hook. It's lightweight and portable. 2. If you can't live here, go on Permanent Vacation with this compact anthology from local press Bona Fide Books. It pulls together accounts from twenty writers on the experience of living and working in our national parks. 3. A bottle of backpacker's cologne from Juniper Ridge might not be the best idea for the trail, but it can help you bring the trail back to the world of screens and paperwork. 4. This is your chore shirt for life. From Muttonhead, in wool and waxed canvas. 5. Add a pair of Tellasons, and you might never buy another pair of jeans. 6. If you know a Rhode Islander, you probably know about Dave's coffee syrup. What you might not know is that Dave's Coffee is a family-owned, certified organic roaster. 7. Get extra brownie points with a Faribault scarf: classy and cozy.

 

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1. When the temp drops, you can turn up the collar on your Curator jacket 2. A classic wool Faribault Scarf gets an update with fresh neon stripes. 3. Like a field walk after the rain. Brew a pot of white sage and wild mint tea from Juniper Ridge 4. Make a statement with a Laurel Hill mountain necklace 5. Tuck a box of art supplies away (notebooks, Lyra pencils) for snowbound afternoons 6. A great gift idea: mushroom hunting knife and tools from Opinel 7. Take the advice from Gary Snyder's poem "For the Children": stay together/ learn the flowers/ go light. Gather some friends and learn to cook with Sierra Nevada plants. Living Wild cookbook.

The Beauty of Process

In a results-driven culture, we're often so fixated on the next goal or milestone that we forget to appreciate the process. We neglect our families and friends in the rush to finish a project at work, telling ourselves, Just one more late night, then I'll clear my calendar for the weekend.  We give more attention to our ever-evolving to-do lists than we give to our bodies, in need of some idle time on the porch swing or a float in the river.

The truth is, we can never keep up with our to-do lists. If we're even a tiny bit ambitious and altruistic, there will always be more tasks, household repairs, and people in need than we can ever tend to in this lifetime.

That's why the vocation of artist is, in some ways, inherently countercultural. The artist willingly pushes out the noise of to-do in an attempt to listen to a deeper, wilder voice inside. This voice is unintimidated by the anxious press toward completion--sometimes frustratingly so. If you've ever tried to hurry along a poem, a story, a ceramic bowl or even a cheese souffle, you know that craft and inspiration are immune to any agenda-based pressure. Sure, a looming deadline or customer order can quickly cure a case of procrastination. But the muse is not a workhorse. If you demand a specific outcome or shape, and you're not willing to move with the creative process, you kill the spirit of creation.

This is both exhilarating and exhausting.

 mary burrows of mb studios, at work on a handmade ceramic plaque.

mary burrows of mb studios, at work on a handmade ceramic plaque.

Any artist who makes a living from their art is familiar with this balance. On the one hand, there's the very unpredictable nature of creating. On the other, there's the very real need to sustain and support creativity in practical ways, grounded in good business sense. Most of the time the two needs are at odds, though sometimes the tension itself can be creative fodder. 

That's why it's essential to return to process itself. Process is the still point, the neutral ground between the two sides. It takes a kind of meditation to acknowledge both the fear of not knowing the outcome of the piece in front of you, and the need to pay bills and do the laundry, and then put both aside as you focus on the present moment.

There's an interview with visual artist Ian Boyden in the most recent issue of basalt, an art and literature journal put out by Eastern Oregon University. In it, the interviewer talks about his teacher's apprenticeship in Iran, studying Islamic calligraphy. At first, the artist was told to study the overly elaborate examples of text and illumination that most of us are familiar with. But as he improved, he was shown more and more refined examples, with less decoration. Finally,

"he was taken to a secret room, where he was shown what his master considered the finest expression of the calligrapher's art. He presented my teacher with blank sheets of paper. But as he moved in for closer scrutiny, the text revealed itself as the marks of writing with pure water on the surface of the sheet. The greatest statement had nothing to do with legibility. It had to do with process."

(Quoted from "With Forces Older than our Sun," by T.C. Ely. basalt, volume 9, no 1, pp 22.)

 

Q & A with: MB Studios

The story behind MB Studios will give you goosebumps.

It’s one of those stories you run into in the world of creative entrepreneurs, where a developing artist takes a leap in faith. Following a creative path to new life, the artist finds her new life leading back to more art.

Mary Burrows worked in the corporate world for fifteen years before her life took a different turn, with the birth of her first son. Born premature, he didn’t speak until he was four years old, and Mary entered into a time of learning to care for him. She quit her job and enrolled him in a Waldorf school.

Volunteering for the school, Mary became interested in art, particularly pottery. She acquired a kiln, and soon created a fine arts program for children, which she ran for five years. Her daughter was born during that time, and she found herself looking for ways to supplement her family’s income, all while continuing to be attuned to her children’s unique learning needs and her own developing artistic interests. MB Studios was born.

A dozen years later, the studio is a full-time, family-run business that “believes in the beauty of handmade and keeping it simple.” Showcased on countless design blogs and Etsy Spotlights, Mary was also one of Babble’s top moms of Etsy in 2011.

Bespoke Truckee caught up with Mary to find out more about making a life in art and learning.

Bespoke: Tell us more about the early years and the path to where you are now.
Burrows: Teaching art to children was awesome. I loved it. I loved how organic it was, so spontaneous. Their lines are just so imperfect. But I was trying so many different kinds of schools for my son, and it became difficult to juggle an arts school—I had 30 students coming to my studio—with raising my kids. So I started making things, and a friend suggested I sell them.

I’ve done it slowly, over the years. It hasn’t been a straight line. There have been detours and curves to get where we are. In 2010, Etsy started to take off and I decided to home-school my kids. Then my husband was laid off from his job [specializing in tiling in the construction world], and so we decided to do this together.

It’s so cool, what we get to do now, and we’re learning a lot at the same time. Neither of us has had any art school or training, but we balance each other. He has helped me improve my projects and become more efficient with my time. Together we’ve made the porcelain dinnerware line that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. He has the mechanical side, with our glazes and molds, whereas I design the words and the graphics. We brainstorm together and make everything by hand.

Bespoke: How do you find the words, or how do they find you?
Burrows: I look for words that kind of wake people up. I find them in all different places: when people request special pieces, Facebook and Pinterest. It’s funny. The kick-start was when I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It made me want to find quotes that opened up people’s hearts, and made them think about their inner lives. I went into bookstore and found a book with quotes—Rumi and Emerson and Kahlil Gibran. My mom always read The Prophet growing up, and I loved that book.

But there are so many words out there, and I don’t want to overwhelm people when they come to the shop. I’m very selective. It just has to resonate with me.

Bespoke: What’s inspiring you right now?
Burrows: Being outside with my kids when we’re walking—rocks, trees, leaves. Nature really inspires me. And patterns. I’m always drawn to patterns, especially when they’re very irregular.

Bespoke: How do you balance work and family time?
Burrows: It’s always moving. It’s a juggling act, just trying to be aware of it. Me and my son are very similar. He’s always thinking of things. He’ll get very focused on a subject or project that interests him. When he gets excited about something, I try to find ways to help him earn extra money for what he wants to do. He’ll work in the studio. But I think balance is about just bringing awareness to it. That’s the important thing.

Bespoke: What do your kids think of the business?
Burrows: I think they love what I love about it: that we get to be together as a family a lot. We have a detached studio at home. We do our learning all the time, but a lot of our focused learning happens in the morning. I really love what I do, so sometimes it’s hard for me to balance.

They’re kind of like little Buddhas. They snap me out of being too... how do I put it? When I get really into my art, it can be hard for me to switch my brain to doing something else. They’re good at reminding me when I need to focus on them. When I worked before, my husband stayed home with my son for the first two years. I have more appreciation for what I do now, because I get to cook with them and just be with them.

Bespoke: What’s next?
Burrows: I’ve focused on the pieces with text for a few years now, which appeal to everyone. I will continue with them, but I’m really excited about our dinnerware line, which is expanding. We’re making platters and cheese trays and little cutting boards. It’s different. I love the modern design. We’re constantly improving the process and adding new screen-prints each year. I’m also designing a new [Christmas] ornament in the shape of a house. It’s going to be neat, very irregular, and screen-printed with text and different textures.

Brass is the New Gold

Owing in part to the rising price of gold, brass jewelry in minimalist geometric designs was last year’s hot item—so much so that the trend migrated into interior design.

The good news is this striking, affordable trend shows no sign of disappearing. Brass is still hot for 2017. Here are just a few of Bespoke’s fave artisans in metal.

 Photo: Laurel Hill

Photo: Laurel Hill

Laurel Hill

Leaving her native Georgia for California, Laurel Hill took the 21st century version of the covered wagon trek across the country, carrying her impressive talents in traditional metalworking and picking up inspiration along the way. The result is a mix of metals and stories, and a gorgeous collection of boho-chic pieces, like her brass Gate Earrings.

 

 Photo: Besty & Iya

Photo: Besty & Iya

Betsy & Iya

All of Betsy and Iya’s jewelry is handmade in their Portland studio and retail space, where they celebrate the imperfections of a handmade life. “We’d love to live in a house from Dwell magazine,” their mission statement reads, “but we don’t.  And if we did, you might find a stray sock in the hallway or a ‘temporary’ stack of dishes in the sink.” This embrace of the quirky and the loveable filters into their jewelry. The Cathedral Park ring is made of hand cut raw brass, and each one is a little different.

 

 Photo: Kiersten Crowley

Photo: Kiersten Crowley

Kiersten Crowley

There’s another Portland artist expressing her unique aesthetic through brass jewelry. “I’ve always been a scavenger at heart,” says the New England-born Kiersten Crowley. A broad range of influences comes through in her spare, simple designs. A brass half oval necklace called the Ida, for example, combines an art-deco sensibility with a romantic flair.

 Photo: Marisa Haskell

Photo: Marisa Haskell

Marisa Haskell

California native Marisa Haskell’s jewelry has a decidedly western feel. She started out as a leatherworker, then moved on to assembly jewelry with bits scavenged from Navajo, Zuni, and Mexican pieces. Her current work, like this Francisco Chain with brass knife pendants, has the laid-back feel of an artist who knows herself.

 Photo: Favor Jewelry

Photo: Favor Jewelry

Favor Jewelry

Designer Monika Reed finds her inspiration in the play of light and shadow on shapes. Favor Jewelry is sustainably-sourced and exceptionally well made, with a portion of profits earmarked for Women for Women International.
 

 

Makers' best friends: the tools of the trades

Handmade is perhaps a misnomer for many craftspeople, who rely as much on their hard-working hands as on the beautiful and complex machines they touch.

That said, the work is no less challenging for this reliance. On the contrary: the care and expertise that go into working well with a machine only add to the skilled labor of the craftsperson. And in the hands of an artist, a well-kept machine brings remarkable things to life.

Here now, two stories of makers and their machines.

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Canadian knitwear designer Anna Zygowski produces an impressive array of goods on five old-fashioned knitting machines in her Hamilton basement studio. Inspired by vintage patterns and photographs, it is any wonder she feels just as passionately about revamped classic machines? The daughter of a clockmaker, she even enjoys restoring the machines herself—but prefers analog machines to the newer computerized versions.

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In a recent blog post, she showcased two of her vintage machines, both mid-century Italian models. The Dubied hand-flat knitting machine and Santagostino are industrial models with complex working parts and hard-to-track-down user’s manuals.

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Dismayed at the dearth of technical information available for high-quality knitwear production, Zygowski shares the fruits of her research, and her expertise, with the online community. There’s palpable enthusiasm in her blog posts, and a genuine desire to preserve this knowledge for the future.

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She writes: “I seem to collect books and equipment which are of course technically interesting but which represent the passing of a craft technology skill that should not be disappearing.”

We’re glad she’s a collector and a maker, and we love the gorgeous Anna Kari mitts and scarves now gracing Bespoke’s shelves. Take a gander here, then come check them out for yourself.

 Workers at Faribault Woolen Mill hand screenprinting a US Navy blanket

Workers at Faribault Woolen Mill hand screenprinting a US Navy blanket

West of Ontario in Faribault, Minnesota, another textile business is just as keen on restoring, preserving, and building on the sound traditional tools of the past. Family-owned Faribault Woolen Mills has been operational since 1865, but the mill recently underwent an extensive revitalization, with a new generation of family owners stepping in to revive the sleeping machines.

 Faribault loom and worker's hands

Faribault loom and worker's hands

Originally horse-powered, the mill is practically woven into American history, having its beginning in the turmoil of the Civil War and keeping troops warm through World War II. A fifth generation of craftspeople is now hard at work bringing lush wool blankets to a fast-paced world still eager for the fruits of simpler times.

Watch two great films by the Faribault team, showcasing the Mill's transformation and its ethos.

 The Cabin blanket in process

The Cabin blanket in process