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Telltale signs of quality

Editor's note: This week Coast Reporter presents part two of a three-part series looking at the Asian influence on artists on the Sunshine Coast.

Editor's note: This week Coast Reporter presents part two of a three-part series looking at the Asian influence on artists on the Sunshine Coast.

A group of yurts, round tent-like structures, has sprouted just off Highway 101 near Madeira Park - the new home of Fibreworks Gallery and Studio. One of the yurts is the workplace of Coast fibre artist Yvonne Stowell. Here, under the skylight, sits her large loom and much of her hand-spun, hand-dyed yarns. She shows me a work in progress, in which a soft grey fades to cream within a mat of woven strips. Her hand-crafted items (cushions, throws, carpets, clothing and wall hangings) are offered for sale. She also spins and knits.

"To create that final piece is many, many hours of work," Stowell said. "If you worked out all the hours I spend, I probably make 50 to 75 cents an hour."

Stowell's friend and colleague, Mary Bentley of Foxglove Textiles Studio One, demonstrated on a smaller loom at Fibreworks' grand opening last October. As she weaved, she wore a multi-coloured vest, her own intricate design based on ethnic motifs and created as a unique, wearable artwork.

"The public doesn't realize that," she laughs. "They think it's from a pattern." Bentley moved to Pender Harbour two years ago to set up her weaving studio and classroom in a renovated 1940s cottage. Yes, Bentley said, it is difficult to sell woven items for a decent price because most people expect they should be cheaper. "We can never compete with woven scarves, shawls, table linens that are made in Asia or even Central or South America," she said. "We do it because we love it."

Pete Unger runs Ironwood Designs from his Halfmoon Bay home. His custom designs are rendered in his metal workshop as one-of-a-kind pieces, for example, interior railings created to fit a certain space or architectural constraint. His garden furniture, trellises, arbours, outdoor chairs and tables that incorporate geometric slices of cedar and maple, are often custom orders as well.

"My time is taken up in making that one unique item," he said. "It means meeting with the client, selling the idea, measuring, returning to the site many times for fitting, then production, installation and finishing. I'm a one-man show."

He displays a hand-wrought lamp standard with a twining vine motif. The spirals and curlicues are challenging, but that's what makes it fun, he said.

"I don't want every piece to look the same," he adds.

He told me that the material we refer to as wrought iron is really "mild" steel. Paradoxically, it may be made from ore that has been shipped from Canada to China and then shipped back to us in the form of manufactured steel. Unger noted another characteristic of Chinese trade that I had not considered: products must be light. The goods are loaded onto cargo ships carrying containers so large they can hold up to 30 tons each. One giant vessel can transport up to 15,000 of such containers across the Pacific to North America's demanding market. The goods must be constructed with transportation costs in mind - that is, light weight and packed flat into cartons that will fit into containers.

He explains that a 10 by 12 gazebo from China will likely be made of structural tubing that is hollow and paper thin. The modular pieces are screwed together, making it shakier. He has seen such gazebos on the Coast; they last for two seasons, maybe three. One of his clients who had such a gazebo later called on him to design a better quality one. Unger pats his own sturdy arbour set in his garden; it's solid, and the structure is welded together for durability. He points out that he coats his own furniture with a rust inhibitor primer and then paints it to prevent corrosion. The metal frame of a Chinese product has likely been powder coated, he said, not necessarily a bad thing, but one that is difficult for a small craftsman to emulate. This speedy factory process lowers the labour cost of the item. A shopper can buy an imported arbour in the $150 to $200 range, whereas his handmade ones would cost $400 to $600.

A unique item, for example, a wrought iron candelabra that Unger makes, is not difficult to design or to sell. "But if someone makes 10,000 of them and floods the market, that's a problem," Unger said.

In the end, Unger is not worried; he's confident the quality of the product will come shining through.

Quality is a must for jewellery artisan Kerri Luciani. "I can't even go into those stores with the cheap jewellery," she shudders, and warns me what to look out for.

Cheap bracelets and earrings may use nickel in the silver hooks and chains that can cause a reaction on the skin. Pewter may have harmful lead in it and the wearer will not necessarily be alerted to its lead content. All Luciani's jewellery components are lead-free pewter or nickel-free silver and she produces documents from trusted suppliers to support this.

Harmful metals in Asian goods are a cause for concern: in addition to jewellery, lead paint may be used in toys, and lead glazes in poorly fired pottery may be leached out by acidic foods. Most local artisans wear or use their own creations themselves, thus demonstrating a belief in their quality and safety. Larry Westlake of Davis Bay builds small boats from heritage designs. Getting good rowing hardware has become difficult, he said, because cheap off-shore imports have pushed good products off the market or to the top end of the price scale as North American market share drops and economies of scale diminish. Westlake fumes about the poor quality of Asian hardware: fastenings that don't fasten, screws that drive halfway before breaking off, slots poorly drilled and scrap metal used in manufacture, that, while ecological, is made up of alloys not suitable for use in small craft fittings. "Over the past two years, I've spent over $500 buying oarlock products to test and put more than 100 hours into testing them," he said.

Most of what he has bought cannot be used on the boats because it can't be trusted or it corrodes, deteriorating into greenish-blue verdigris that drools and stains. Although Westlake can still afford to make small wooden boats for his niche market, he has to be careful that shoddy hardware does not find its way on to his craft. It becomes extremely expensive in lost customer confidence and painstaking repairs.

Next week: How the market influences the maker: Maggi Hampson, fused glass artist, cuts back on household items and blossoms into fine art. Glass blower David New-Small talks about knock offs and Jan Poynter expresses the other side of the coin - when Canadian designers have their items made in China.