With over 70 crafts and up to 20 workshops, the HandMade craft festival looks set to bring out the best of Wellington, discovers Catherine Smith.

People can be so cruel about Wellington: the weather, the politicians, the hipsters and movie people, all easy to mock. I have not been one of the mockers. And after a weekend there playing with some of the city's cool creative people, I felt serious disappointment that Auckland doesn't have such a vibe.

I was in town on one of those brilliant "Wellington on a Good Day" weekends to sample some of the workshops being offered for the fourth annual HandMade festival at Queens Birthday. Last year 1200 people attended, this year over 10,000 crafters- male and female - are expected for more than 130 workshops.

Organiser Melanie Walker started the festival as a fun adjunct to her more serious corporate events business, realising that the generation that missed out on the basic sewing/knitting/woodwork school classes were actually craving to learn those skills.

It helped that she and her team are all into making stuff and were used to wrangling arty types through their years working on Wellington on a Plate events. Chefs and crafters have a surprising amount in common, apparently. From its modest start, where friends of friends were inveigled into teaching others about the things they made, the festival now has a professional call for tutors, the support of active crafting communities around the country and globe and 70 different crafts.


First stop on my hands on day was Tash Beneveld's charming wool shop-cum-community knitting centre in Petone, Holland Road Yarn Company. Royal connection number one: Tash's grandmother Margaret Stove knitted the merino wool shawl gifted by New Zealand to baby Prince William, and advised on Prince George's. Tash's OE coincided with the explosion of groovy knitting shops in London so when she returned home in 2009 she sat at her aunt and grandmothers' knees to learn about dying her own wools and importing beautiful yarns. The online shop turned into bricks and mortar in 2011 in Petone's rapidly gentrifying main street. The day we called by, women were already ensconced in the chintz sofas to knit, compare patterns - and talk, of course. Tash will be teaching absolute beginners, and is one of a number of knitters coaching and creating in the HandMade Knit Lounge.

On our way back into the city, we stopped by Nancy's Embroidery Shop, one of the country's biggest emporia of all things textile arts. Owner Mary Self, the most recent in a string of dedicated customers-turned-tutors-turned owners, typifies the modern crafter with her Massey textile design degree and City and Guilds experience. Like nearly everyone I met in the weekend, Mary has built a community: as well as selling her own branded yarns and cushion kits (and an eye-watering array of every other brand a crafter yearns for) she also has free "getting started" classes and a packed class syllabus. She even supports Otago med school students knitting for premature babies (the boys are as enthusiastic knitters as the girls, she proudly reports). The work is stylish and modern, the techniques are ancient and obscure, the shop buzzing with women from their teens to their eighties.

More than 10,000 crafters are expected to attend this year's HandMade workshops.
More than 10,000 crafters are expected to attend this year's HandMade workshops.

I had to be torn away to make the next class, a satisfying hour of carving rubbers (yes, stationery store erasers) to make cute Swedish-style stamps for fabrics and paper. Naturally, tutor Melissa wears many crafting hats, blogs, teaches and sells her crafts around the world. We met at one of the city's artsy pubs, the Southern Cross, and could have pulled a crowd of enthusiasts from neighbouring tables itching to get their hands grubby and rediscover their primary school instincts.

My final stop was one for the boys. As part of HandMade's ManMade category, Dan Mikkelsen from Newtown's welcoming, hip Bicycle Junction is teaching us how to build our own bike wheel. Trickier than it looks, weaving fine metal spokes into a rim to create a true, perfectly aligned wheel is a cross between engineering and meditation. Dan, of Danish-Kiwi heritage, is a lifetime rider keen to promote the urban cycling lifestyle.

On Sunday, we managed to squeeze in a cable car ride up the hill to the kitchens of Decorada, tucked in behind the lookout at the top (excuse for yet another gloating Instagram shot). Royal connection number two: owner Tanya Hugyeez contributed the decorations for Prince Charles' kiwiana birthday cake when he and the Duchess of Cornwall were in New Zealand two years ago. In the 10 years since she turned her baking hobby into a stylish business, Tanya's immaculately organised kitchen has pumped out hundreds of cakes, biscuits and cupcakes for pretty much every party worth having in the lower North Island (her skite book would give Martha Stewart a run for her money). Our scheduled one hour turned into two as we begged to ice more and more cupcakes; turning out leaves and flowers and small animals from her natty silicon moulds made me seriously consider ditching the day job and training as a pastry chef.

This being Wellington, naturally we managed to squeeze in some great dining - industrial-style oyster bar Charley Noble's and Cuba Street's Arthurs (vintage decor, vintage baking too). Cuba St's vintage shops didn't disappoint, and I had a blissful afternoon racing around the shops on the Craft and Textile Lover's Guide (highlight: Minerva Textile Bookshop).

You may have rained on a certain family visiting from Britain this week, but at heart, Wellington, you are sunshine and creativity.

Making out


HandMade runs Saturday May 31 to Sunday June 1 at the TSB Bank Arena, Shed 6 and other central Wellington venues, with over 70 crafts, and up to 20 workshops, lectures and masterclasses in each session time. Check out the HandMade Hub for free samples of the best crafters in the country. Workshop tickets start from $49 through to $299 for a Weekend Pass.

Ticket sales to HandMade are open now.

Ph 0800 770 772 or visit the website for programme and ticket information.

While you're in Wellington:

InterContinental Wellington
Charley Noble, 1 Post Office Square
Arthurs 272 Cuba St
Holland Road Yarn Company 281 Jackson St, Petone and Grand Arcade, Willis St
Nancy's Embroidery Shop 241 Thorndon Quay
Melissa Wastney
Bicycle Junction 5 Riddiford Junction, Newtown
Minerva Textile Bookshop and Gallery 237 Cuba St

* Catherine Smith was a guest of HandMade and Positively Wellington Tourism