NOLA Craft Culture is a shop dedicated to providing craft supplies to makers who are creating for Mardi Gras.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Chamoff
When most people think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, they picture crowds of people, strands of colorful plastic beads and quite a bit of alcohol. While celebrations leading up to the start of Lent feature all of these things, you might be surprised to know that preparations also include crafting.
A lot of crafting.
Just like the popular bakeries sell out of their king cakes, the shelves of big box craft stores such as Michael’s were stripped bare of hot glue sticks, glitter, feathers, and rhinestones by the time I headed to the Crescent City in late January, in preparation to ride with the all-female Mardi Gras Krewe of Cleopatra.
Krewes and costumes
The Carnival season officially kicks off on January 6, Three Kings Day, and the next several weeks are packed with parades. They’re organized by clubs, called krewes, some of which were established decades ago and others that formed in the last several years. The so-called “super krewes,” such as Endymion and Bacchus, ride on massive floats, most of them built by a local company, Kern Studios, which has also fabricated installations for Disney theme parks.
There are several smaller krewes, like Krewe Du Vieux and krewedelusion, that are known for their artistic and satirical parades, as well as numerous sub-krewes and walking krewes. ‘tit Rex, a small parade that takes place in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, features “micro floats” — tiny wagons that are intricately decorated to look like full-sized floats.
Parade krewe members, and even many attendees, don colorful sequined costumes. Like Halloween — which also has its own parade in New Orleans, the Krewe of Boo — Mardi Gras costuming is a DIY endeavor. Many residents have “costume closets,” and even my Airbnb host offered to lend me her hot glue gun when she learned I was riding in a parade.
While my Cleopatra costume came to me fairly plain, its gold polyester fabric trimmed with some blue sequins, many krewe members add their own embellishments. Before the February 10 parade, I added amber-hued rhinestones in honor of our float name, based on the overall ”Jeweled Jubilee” parade theme celebrating the krewe’s 50th anniversary.
This semi-DIY outfit was topped off by a leafy, bejeweled headpiece, which my friend and fellow krewe member, Margaret, individually crafted for each of the nearly 140 members of our float, complete with fairy lights that glowed with the flip of a switch.
The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, a sci-fi themed parade named for a mashup of the Star Wars character and the Roman god of wine, is a cosplay extravaganza. Krewe members dress like characters from all sorts of nerdy and pop culture fandoms and hand craft their own “throws,” or gifts to the crowd, such as bandoliers, pendants, books, and stuffed animals.
The author in her costume, along with hand-crafted Cleo cups.
The handcrafted, signature Mardi Gras throw originated with the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, formed by African Americans in 1909. Instead of expensive beads and doubloons, the krewe handed out decorated coconuts, which became a coveted souvenir of paradegoers. In the early 2000s, as an homage to the Zulu coconut, the newly-formed, all-female Krewe of Muses began glittering and decorating shoes that they’d bestow on lucky spectators along the Uptown route.
Other krewes soon followed. Today, Cleopatra riders hand out decorated plastic wine glasses, Champagne flutes and other cups. The co-ed, family-friendly Krewe of King Arthur hands out hand-decorated grails, while the all-female Krewe of Iris is known for their sparkly sunglasses.
In the weeks before my parade rolled on St. Charles Avenue, I spent hours with paintbrushes, bottles of Mod Podge and containers of glitter, laboring over gifts that I would place in plastic bags and give to strangers from my float.
Instagram abounds with people sharing their “catches” via hashtags like #cleocuptracker, #musesshoes and #gotagrail.
During my ride, I surprised several people with my glittered cups. While it was fun to see the parade spectators get excited about catching cosmetic bags and light-up trinkets, the looks on the faces of my decorated throw recipients meant so much more.
As with most DIY endeavors, opportunity and community has sprung up around Mardi Gras DIY. Lisette Constantin and Nori Pritchard opened their Mid-City shop, NOLA Craft Culture, four years ago. It’s packed with their own brand of glitter and confetti, as well as glue, feathers, ribbon trim and a wide variety of accessories for decorating throws and costumes — everything from fake flowers to fake food. A workspace downstairs is open to anyone looking for an already-filled-with-glitter place to create, and regularly hosts workshops and private parties.
Constantin, who has a PhD in clinical psychology, and Pritchard, with a PhD in biomedical materials, saw a need to supply their crafty neighbors. Both are members of Muses and struggled to amass the supplies they needed to decorate their throws and costumes.
“You would look online and you’d get what you ordered in, and you’re like, ‘It’s not really the right color’ or ‘It’s not exactly what I expected,’” Constantin said. “I was frustrated by that whole thing and I thought, ‘What would I want? I’d want a place where I could get everything in a one-stop shop.’”
Business is booming, particularly at the height of the season, when throw-making kits and embellishments like king cakes made from polymer clay fly out the door. And while some popular items do sell out in the rush before Fat Tuesday (and Cleo Friday and Muses Thursday) Constantin and Pritchard make sure there is plenty of glitter, glue and sequins in stock.
“I kind of feel like we caught lightning in a bottle,” Constantin said. “More than just me and a few Muses wanted something like this. Now at parades, people don’t really want the beads, they want the pretty things that you’re making.”
Lisa is a freelance journalist in the New York Metro area who specializes in home design, real estate and healthcare. When she’s not writing, or knitting shawls and sweaters, Lisa runs Indie Untangled (www.indieuntangled.com), a marketplace and blog that promotes the work of yarn dyers, pattern designers and crafters of knitting-related accessories.