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A personal shopping tour

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2005

PUTNEY, Vt. -- Thanksgiving weekend marks the 27th year for the Putney Craft Tour, a prototype for open studios around the country, and exceptional both in quality and setting.

Crafts tours tend to circle through former factories and urban blocks, but in Putney artisans are scattered inside a 12-mile radius among the meadows, woods, and hills that inspire what they create. Search them out on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and you are sure to find beauty both natural and man-made.

According to glassblower Robert Burch, his signature cobalt perfume bottles and vases with delicate silver bubbles reflect the night sky above the 200-year-old barn in which they are blown.

With large-format negatives, photographer Lynne Weinstein focuses on the fruit, flowers, and vegetables in her orchard and garden.

Carol Keiser depicts her view of Hickory Ridge in paintings and tiles.

''Each thing handmade by a person has a little of their spirit in it," says Ian Eddy, a blacksmith who works with traditional hammer and tongs to produce delicate, hand-wrought iron.

''People are captivated, watching something as rigid as iron take on the life of a leaf under a hammer," Eddy says. ''When they bring a piece home, or give it to someone else, there's a sense of where it began."

Participants in the Putney Craft Tour represent a wide variety of media: pottery (practical as well as decorative), glass (stained as well as blown), wood (sculpted as well as crafted into furniture and turned into bowls), wool (spun as well as woven into soft scarves and shawls), bags and hats, handcrafted books, metal art, jewelry, paintings, and -- this is Vermont, remember -- an aged, artisanal cheese. Prices begin around $15 and each artist raffles off a gift (all visitors are eligible to win). Several studios also offer discounted seconds.

Clearly, the idea is that it's more satisfying for the shopper to buy from the source than from a shop or gallery. Putney's resident artists prefer this way of selling, too.

''I've done retail shows and gallery tours, but talking and weaving in my own studio is entirely different," says Dena Gartenstein, who weaves rayon and chenille scarves in luscious colors. ''Here, I get a chance to demonstrate the use of one loom over another, to compare old and recent works."

Says Burch, whose enthusiasm for his craft is infectious, ''I demonstrate nonstop." Shaping exquisite forms and colors from a mass of molten glass is one of the tour's prime sights to see. Burch, a pioneer in the art glass medium, routinely draws students from Boston.

For Josh Letourneau, 28, a former Burch apprentice, this will be the first year demonstrating in his own studio. Letourneau specializes in functional, deeply colored glass decanters, goblets, lamps, and vases. He promises some reasonably priced seconds.

''Our idea was to get people into our studios and share our lifestyles and processes," says Ken Pick, a potter and one of the founders of the tour. It began, he says, as a two-day tour in early December but ''took off" when it moved to Thanksgiving weekend. Last year, the tour drew up to 700 visitors a day (fewer on Sunday, a recent addition) but, Pick assures, there's rarely a crowd in any one place.

About 120 miles north of Boston, Putney is an easy 2 1/2-hour drive and, after all these years, the mechanics of the tour are down to a science. Participants pick up the nicely executed map and guide at the Vermont Welcome Center on Interstate 91 in Guilford, or at any shop in Putney Village. They also can be downloaded beforehand at www.putneycrafts.com. The website also offers detailed information about each participating artisan.

Most studios will be serving cider and munchies, and at Vermont Shepherd, David and Cindy Major plan to offer samples of their nationally known sheep's milk cheese, along with tours of the one-room cheese house and the cave in which it is aged.

Several of the tour stops are open regularly but still offer more to see during the tour. At the Green Mountain Spinnery, which processes unbleached fibers from farms throughout Vermont, the small retail space will be crammed with specially priced skeins of yarn, short ends from large orders, and some experimental and hand-painted yarns.

In Putney Village (Interstate 91, exit 4) the sleek Putney Food Co-op, the Putney General Store, Putney Diner , and Putney Village Pizza are all good for a quick lunch, as is the popular new Front Porch Cafe in the white tavern at the center of the village. Seven miles up Westminster Road, handy to a dozen studios, the Westminster West Congregational Church will serve a variety of homemade soups, breads, and pastries from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (or as long as they last).

Large red and white signs will be scattered along Westminster West Road as it heads north through rolling farmland, and along the many dirt roads, pointing to side roads that strike off across the valley and into the hills.

Not all the studios are in Putney. Some years ago, Ian Eddy moved from his small Putney forge to a former auto body shop on Route 121 west of Saxton's River. His is now the northernmost stop on the tour. It's also ''Number 1," an attempt to keep traffic flowing in two directions. (To begin at the northern end of the tour, take exit 5 off Interstate 91 instead of exit 4.)

The roster of individual artisans participating in the tour changes each year, but their number has remained constant, a clue to the resources Putney offers. The website www.Putney.net lists almost 80 artists and artisans, not bad for a town of fewer than 2,700 residents.

According to Margot Torrey, a woodcut artist who began publishing a Putney Artisan's Directory in the 1970s, Windham College, an experimental school founded here in the 1960s (its campus is now occupied by Landmark College), drew young people who stayed on, as did the Putney School, a private, progressive high school.

In the 1840s, Putney also spawned a group that practiced what they called Bible Communism, the sharing of all property, work, and wives. John Humphrey Noyes, the group's leader, was charged with adultery in 1847 and fled with his flock to Oneida, N.Y., where they founded the Oneida Community.

Putney also has had its share of entrepreneurs. Proof positive is Basketville, the first of the ''world's largest basket stores." Founded by Frank Wilson, this vast emporium (just north of the village on Route 5), featuring wooden ware, toys, and wicker furniture as well as baskets, remains a family-run business.

With some planning and an early start, many visitors complete the tour in a day. Dusk comes early, though, and an overnight visit is worth considering.

Contact Christina Tree, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at ctree@traveltree.net.

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