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When traditions become trends

Internet tastemakers are using family traditions to redefine the Martha Stewart aesthetic

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Brittany Watson Jepsen learned how to sew from her grandmother — Dorothy Bradshaw — who had dedicated an entire bedroom in her mid-century Los Angeles home to hems, backstitches and finish seams. To Jepsen, now 38, it was a sewing room of wonders. There was a cabinet filled with fabrics from all over the world. There were trims and ribbons scattered everywhere. Each piece turned into a patchwork of memories in Jepsen’s mind. Her grandmother’s hands taught her how to create with her own — guiding her around the sewing machine and placing thimbles on her fingers as she attached buttons to cream-colored dresses.

Jepsen, who learned how to make bags, ornaments, Halloween costumes, blankets, dresses, party decorations and more, has since turned these memorable lessons with her grandmother into a thriving brand and creative services studio — The House That Lars Built. The site itself has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and serves as a lifestyle blog, design studio and shop with collections of licensed product lines. The House That Lars Built is in fact built upon skills passed down through the generations of her family as a foundation for her own success.

Lifestyle bloggers like Jepsen are in the business of taking the knowledge and love for the creative that was passed down generation by generation in families and sharing it with the whole world. What was once domestic is now a career.

If you scroll through Jepsen’s website, you’ll see posts dedicated to DIY quilted coats, step-by-step instructions on how to create your own wreaths and roundups of Andy Warhol-inspired home décor. Jepsen is an internet-age tastemaker using timeworn traditions to shape modern aesthetics. “My mom was also instrumental in showing what types of things I could dig into and not limiting creativity to one thing,” Jepsen recalls. “She would say, ‘a creative mess is better than tidy idleness.’”

Through that maternal encouragement — and a tendency to take up all offers of digging in and making messes — Jepsen became fascinated with learning and creating. During one particular creative phase, a pre-teen Jepsen spent hours pouring over a 5-inch thick book that detailed her family tree. She followed the records of each branch, reaching back to Denmark, Norway and Ireland — and read the first-person accounts of difficult journeys west. These real life tales of adventure inspired her to keep dozens of journals herself. Eventually — as all things seem to do — her journals found a home on the internet. And a blog was born. “I could record experiences and projects influenced by my past,” Jepsen says. “And I found people were interested in them. A lot of the projects I make now are derivative of things I grew up with.”

It’s a delightful spin on that adage that “everything old is new again.” Jepsen has a knack for bringing the past into the present with addictively whimsical originality. One holiday season, she turned black and white photographs of her ancestors into heirloom Christmas ornaments by printing them on linen and stuffing them with cotton to form tiny pillows. Then, using a needle and thread, she outlined elements in the photos like bows, hats, blushing cheeks and bicycle wheels with a cross stitch to add a quaint pop of color. “It gives them a classic, old but new feel,” Jepsen says. “That’s something l like to do with everything.”

Laura Knapp Alviso, 29, is also in the business of making old things new again. Her blog and Instagram account — Knapp Time Crafts — has gained notoriety for refurbishing thrift store finds and creating upcycled décor from items that would otherwise be thrown away.

Alviso’s inspiration comes from her mother, Dianna Knapp. Alviso remembers her mother constantly creating — whether it was cooking, making her own soap or bedecking the house. During one particularly festive project for a church youth conference, Alviso watched in awe as her mother transformed their entire California home into Whoville — wrapping feather boas around styrofoam balls to create colorful Dr. Seuss-style trees and creating a snow-capped Mount Crumpit out of papier-maché. To Alviso, it was like watching her mother make magic.

But it wasn’t magic. It was simply her mother’s rendition of inventively using practical knowledge passed on from her father, who was a carpenter. “The first time I made something, it was horrible,” Knapp, who hired a fellow church member to come to her house and teach her to sew, says with a laugh. Knapp didn’t know she had to wash the fabric first before sewing a green floral jumper. “I made the outfit and then it shrunk all cattywampus.”

But that didn’t stop Knapp from mastering a multitude of skills and passing them on to her three daughters, including Alviso. One of the early projects was teaching Alviso how to crochet a scarf. “Mom would sit down next to me while she was doing the same thing or watching TV, and periodically she would peek over and say, ‘That’s wrong, let’s fix it,’” Alviso says.

“My girls grew up knowing if they wanted to do something, they could come to me and we could figure it out,” Knapp says.

Their combined imaginations came up with designs for coasters made from ink stamps baked into tile and wedding invitations etched into individual pieces of thinly cut wood. Many of their endeavors, such as sewing beautiful gowns for infants, were motivated by a desire to provide — with flair.

The same is true for Karli Bitner, 28, who lives in a town of 250 in northern Utah. But instead of making dresses or repurposing credenzas, she reimagines food. Her blog, Cooking With Karli, gets close to a million visits per month from people interested in her Instant Pot recipes and decadent dessert posts. “Sharing my food is one of the biggest ways I show people I love that I care about them,” Bitner says. “That has definitely been passed down to me.”

Bitner’s mother — who had seven kids and was famous for her pillowy soft dinner rolls — was her culinary cheerleader, always encouraging her to experiment in the kitchen. “The deal was, if I made something to share my mom would clean up the mess afterwards,” Bitner said. “She was so gracious because I would absolutely destroy the kitchen.”

A hands-off teacher, Bitner’s mother prefers to cook by feel, rather than following a recipe. She taught Bitner to follow her instincts. Today, Bitner encourages the same kind of freedom and creativity among her three kids (with one on the way). Her kids don’t watch TV, but they love to spend time taking care of the family’s cows and goats, or play with the neighbor’s pigs and chickens. And if they’d rather make mud pies than the French silk or apple variety, that’s fine with Bitner — for now.

It’s reminiscent of the simple life Jepsen’s grandparents had decades ago when West Los Angeles was still suburban. They raised goats for milk and made everything from scratch — hard-pressed habits forged from the Great Depression.

In that home’s sewing room, piles of tattered clothing were mended by the same hands that made doll dresses and quilted coats out of fanciful fabrics. Recreating memories of the ordinary mingling with the extraordinary has turned into a lifestyle for Alviso, Bitner and Jepsen — one that they want to share with everyone. It seems that although it’s trendy to blog, you might also say that it’s traditional in its own way. But passing on what mustn’t be left behind — well, that’s timeless.

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.