By Angie Boyer
Many moons ago, back in the early 1980s and before the days of Craftsman Magazine, Paul and I would venture out most weekends to sell our hand made work at craft fairs. Paul had just started his own business as a graphic designer, but I was no longer in employment and had just had a baby; we also had a mortgage and bills to pay, so craft fairs beckoned as a possible way to supplement our income. We were very new to the whole notion of selling our work direct to the public - and eventually to the trade, too - the craft fair and crafts industry was pretty much in its infancy and it was all very easy going, very sociable, affordable and fun. There was very little information to help the would-be craft fair exhibitor (which is why we launched Craftsman Magazine back in 1983), much of what was or was not acceptable to sell at the shows was decided by the individual organisers. So pricing, packaging, display, lighting and presentation were frequently a hit and miss affair, all determined by the individual maker, and things like copyright issues, compliance with CE or Health & Safety regulations, electrical safety and so on were just not considered at all. The people who exhibited alongside us as craft fairs each week were often bank managers, nurses or perhaps teachers - professional people in their ‘real’ working lives, selling at crafts fairs at weekends for additional income or for a bit of light social interaction away from the pressures of their Monday to Friday life. Some were retired and some, like us, had their own creative businesses and saw craft fairs as an extension of that. Like us, many were self taught and rarely did they have any formal training for their chosen craft - there were few of the university graduates that we see coming into the industry today, in the main the training in creative skills was not as accessible as it is today. What most of us sold pretty much depended on what we could make - Paul and I used to sell our hand made greetings cards and related products such as stationery printed with Paul’s illustrations and calligraphy, wooden stationery boxes and writing desks which we made when we had time, Paul’s framed wildlife illustrations and paintings - which I now sometimes regret selling, but we needed the cash at the time! And if stocks ran low I occasionally made a batch of fudge and coconut ice to package prettily, that was always sure to sell quickly and earn us a bit of money - so much for not having mixed crafts on the same stand! Over the years, alongside the Craftsman Magazine, the craft industry developed and matured; regular retail outlets recognised the value of hand made work and began buying from makers; art schools and universities trained people in creative skills; efforts were made to keep traditional crafts alive; television programmes commissioned craftspeople to create pieces for their TV make-overs (frequently people we had previously featured in Craftsman Magazine, which was reassuring); technology boomed and Crafts became a serious business for very many people. Now the industry supports thousands of full time makers, people who have chosen a creative way of life. There are still plenty of part timers, too, those who still want to supplement their regular income and have a creative social life through exhibiting at craft fairs. Every year around 250,000 people use the Craftsman website, every day we have orders from new subscribers, many of them new to the industry, and almost every day we are asked - “How do I sell my work at Craft Fairs?” Over the coming months we’ll be answering that question, looking at the craft fair industry, helping people who are new to it all with advice and information - and also offering tips a new ideas for those who are already familiar with crafts and craft fairs. Over the coming months we’ll be answering that question, looking at the craft fair industry, helping people who are new to it all with advice and information - and also offering tips a new ideas for those who are already familiar with crafts and craft fairs.
At one time the word ‘crafts’ was synonymous with knitted toys, pots of jam, cakes and corn dollies. All very fine for what it was, but very much a hobby pastime or activity to raise funds for local groups or charities. Now the term ‘craftsman’ is often replaced with ‘designer-maker’ or similar, in an effort to escape this rural handicraft image and to reflect the quality of design and craftsmanship that is found in so much of today’s handmade work. If you have access to the internet, just visit our Selected Gallery at www.craftmaker.co.uk to see a fine selection of top quality British craftsmanship, you’ll understand what I mean about how things have developed and progressed over the years. Despite the cheap imports which now flood this country, there remains a great deal of respect for hand crafted designer products, both with the people who make them and those who buy them - perhaps those cheap imports are at long last serving a useful purpose by providing a contrast and comparison with our quality craftsmanship. The key for makers to succeed in business in this present-day tough retail environment is to carefully identify their market, design and make specifically with that market in mind and promote their work where it will be seen by their potential buyers.
There are no barriers in crafts, craftwork can be created by men, women and children, old and young; crafts bring together people of all nations and backgrounds; crafts are acknowledged as a major part of Britain’s small business economy, with Crafts Fairs still playing an important part in the industry. And Crafts can be good for you! As a spinner and weaver once said to me, “If G.P.s prescribed spinning wheels instead of tranquillisers, there would be less stress and fewer nervous breakdowns each year, spinning is so therapeutic!” Just as importantly, though, Crafts Fairs offer more than just a sales opportunity, there is a unique social life to be found within the industry, an opportunity for makers who spend much of their time in isolation in their work places to meet up with like minded people from all walks of life, from all over the country. The chance to exchange ideas, chat about the business, gossip and socialise - the support network which is established between craftspeople at Crafts Fairs is like no other; friendships are forged, people look after each other and if someone is unwell or has a problem, word travels fast and there is always someone there to help. At many events, especially summer crafts fairs held in marquees, the organisers provide on-site camping and caravan facilities for the exhibitors. At the end of the working day, after the show has closed, the campsite comes alive, people meet up, children make friends, barbecues are lit, drinks are shared, the day is discussed and then the socialising begins - the business of selling at crafts fairs can be quite a sociable one!
People who are new to the business often contact us to ask which crafts fairs they should book, where we think they will best sell their work. First of all, they need to know that craft fairs vary hugely in cost, quality, size, design, content and organisation, so ideally each maker needs to assess carefully which ones are right for them before applying for a stand. Check through our Where&When listings of UK Crafts Fairs and you’ll see that they are held in almost any and every type of venue that you could think of; garden centres, purpose built exhibition halls, National Trust and English Heritage properties, stately homes, church halls, museums, galleries, schools, country fairs, steam rallies, county shows, shopping malls, open markets, agricultural shows, village halls - it’s no wonder that it’s widely considered that “the crafts of today will become the antiques of tomorrow” when you realise just how big a part crafts now play in many people’s lives. Think about your potential customers, the type of venues and events they would visit in their leisure time, and check through our pages and website, the internet and your local papers to find out about when and where Crafts Fairs are being held. If you make traditional willow baskets or work with countryside skills such as pole lathe turning, for example, you might find that a country show or an event held in the grounds of a stately home might particularly attract your type of buyer; bright, modern fashion accessories could find their niche in a busy town centre venue which is popular with young people; whilst contemporary silverware might be most successfully exhibited in a city centre venue which attracts professional and business people during their lunch breaks or after work as well as at weekends. Don’t rush into things, try to visit as many events as you can, especially those which you think you might eventually like to exhibit at, before applying for a stand at any of them. As a visitor, be mindful of the fact that you may well be an exhibitor the next time you attend the event, so go with an observant eye, notice how people display their work, what lighting they use, how things are presented and packaged, observe what visitors are buying, the type of product, the general price range. Is it mainly small items for less than £5, for example, which seem to be attracting the buyers, or is larger, more expensive work such as furniture, designer jewellery and so on more popular. Make notes mentally but don’t take liberties, respect the exhibitors and their work. Most people are happy to help with some general advice, but if they think you are really trying to pick their brains, copy their work or pinch a few of their ‘secrets’ they may not be so forthcoming - their first objective at any event is to sell their work - just as yours will be when you become an exhibitor, so a friendly chat is fine, but don’t stand in the way of their potential customers.
The various craft events around the country are organised by different companies and small businesses. Some may organise shows mainly in one area, whilst others hold events all over Britain. To begin with it may suit you to take a stand at a smaller, more local and less expensive event, so that you can ‘find your feet’ and test the waters. When you are more confident about everything, you may choose to travel further afield and exhibit at larger events. To apply for a stand (or space) at an event, you should contact the relevant organiser and ask for information about their shows and a booking form. At the same time send them good quality photographs of your work (post or email), if possible also showing a display of your craft as it would look at a craft fair, together with a brief outline of what you do and your contact details, including your website address if you have one. Demand for stands for many craft disciplines (jewellery at the moment, for example) is very keen, so it is important that you present your work to the organisers as professionally as possible. If it’s appropriate, send them a sample of your work as well as photographs, being sure to include packaging and postage for photos and samples to be returned to you if you want them back. Organisers receive a great deal of correspondence by post and email, so make sure they notice yours - and for the right reasons! If you think you’d like to apply for a stand, check out a few things first - the cost; what you get for your money; are electricity, table, chairs included; how many people doing the same craft as you will be accepted; insurance requirements; what happens if the show is cancelled; what happens if you have to cancel; does the organiser send you any publicity leaflets to use, etc. And if the organiser doesn’t ask you anything - doesn’t even want to see photos of your work before accepting your booking - you should be cautious. Professional organisers are keen to present a top quality event with a good balance of different crafts and skills. If they’re not too bothered about what you make, just seem keen to sell a stand and fill their show, there’s every chance that the event may not live up to your expectations - but then, if you’ve taken our advice, you will have visited it before booking a stand and checked it out for yourself anyway, won’t you! Craft Fairs continue to offer thousands of people the opportunity to run their own small business and have an element of choice and control in their lives. Next month we’ll be looking at what a stand will cost you, payment terms, what you get for your money, pricing & displaying your work - with lots of tips and hints for Selling at Craft Fairs.