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How craft fairs became cool

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Craft fairs are no longer the stuffy, uninspiring events they once might have been. With a new generation of unmissable events taking place in the run up to Christmas, Helen Brown investigates the rise of the beautifully curated makers’ market.


The term ‘craft fair’ can evoke a number of images, and not all of them are particularly flattering: church halls, floral bunting, tea in polystyrene cups and hand-knitted teddy bears might come to mind. Thankfully, things are changing. Over the past few years, a new breed of makers’ markets has arrived on the scene – and this time, they’re nothing short of cool.

Throughout the UK, the beautifully curated makers’ market is on the rise. Setting these markets apart from the craft fairs of the church hall and polystyrene cup variety are perfectly polished social media accounts, online shops, networking events, skills-based workshops and hoards of devoted followers.

New beginnings

Rosie Drake-Knight, a designer-maker based in Devon, was inspired to start her own market, Native Makers, after a bad experience with a more traditional craft fair at a shopping centre in Plymouth.

“Over two days I made zero sales, had only two visitors to my stall and one of them told me that my work was overpriced,” says Drake-Knight. “It had cost me £200 to exhibit. I cried, then I got a grip and realised that I wasn't alone. The environment wasn't for me, and if I was so upset then maybe I should do something about it. Native Makers was born.”

How the humble craft fair became cool

Plymouth's Native Makers market is described as 'a festival of making'

In launching her own market, Drake-Knight wanted to create something new and different. “Our events are more that a market – they are a festival of making. We have live music, workshops, refreshments, and even a pop-up hair salon. We encourage visitors to stick around, relax and enjoy the environment”. 

This December, she will host Native Makers’ sixth event – a winter market taking place at Plymouth’s Ocean Studios on the 16-17 December.

In London, Sinead Koehler launched Crafty Fox – a collection of markets and creative networking events which take place in various locations throughout the year, with forthcoming events in Brixton, Peckham and Hoxton – to ‘shake up’ the traditional craft fair. She found that it was something consumers really wanted, too. “Over the past few years, shoppers have become increasingly interested in the provenance of their purchases,” says Koehler. “Markets like Crafty Fox offer a brilliant opportunity to talk directly to the maker and hear their story.”

Eclectic events

In Leeds, Carley Batley and Sean Mort worked together to launch Northern Craft – a fair that feels similarly fresh. They host a small number of themed events throughout the year, the most recent of which was a (very on-trend) pin exhibition. Next up is a more eclectic makers’ market, taking place on the 14 October, and a dedicated print fair, following a month later on the 18 November (more details for both events can be found on their website).

How the humble craft fair became cool

Tote bags feature Northern Craft's slogan, 'Make craft great again'

“Through our fairs we aim to elevate the status of craft from something that's generally considered kitschy to a word that's associated with good design, quality, creativity, and skill,” says Batley. “Our makers are a real mixed bag – we've got some makers who do their thing full time and for others it's a 6-11 job. We have people who've been doing their thing for years and others who are just starting out.”

The American influence

Mort, a print designer and maker, came up with the idea to start Northern Craft after travelling to America to trade at Renegade Craft Fair – an impressive event which started in Chicago in 2003 and now boasts events all over the US as well as a huge Christmas fair in London (taking place this year on the 9-10 December at the Old Truman Brewery). 

Along with Renegade, other popular American craft fairs – including BUST Magazine’s Craftacular – have also made the leap across the pond. Plans for this year’s BUST event, taking place at Bethnal Green’s historic York Hall on the 3 December, are well underway; it will include over 70 stalls from designer-makers, and there will be a bar and cafe from Drink Shop & Do, a live portrait illustration booth and even ‘boob wreath making’ workshops from knitting and crochet gurus I Make Knots.

How the humble craft fair became cool

American craft fairs like Renegade have started trading in the UK

For every one of these markets, careful curation is key. “One of the best but also hardest parts of my role is selecting the stallholders,” says BUST Craftacular’s London organiser, Nikki Shaill. “There has always been a high number of applications to BUST Craftacular and that increases each year, which is a fantastic sign of how independent businesses and freelance making is growing and booming. But it does mean you have to be selective and achieve the right balance and variety of stalls. Spotting trends at each event is really interesting – last year it was botanicals, succulents, Stranger Things and geometric Scandinavian designs. Making decisions on who to choose can be tricky when you can't accept everyone, but it's also a fun jigsaw puzzle.”

The Instagram effect

For makers and markets alike, a polished online and social media presence is especially important. Mel Jarron, organiser of Glasgow’s fortnightly Urban Market, explains: “Social media has played a huge part in being able to convey what your market is all about. All of our traders have an online presence and are either doing this for a living or close to making the jump into it, so they are more tuned into simple things like product photography. That makes it easier to cross promote and showcase traders.”

How the humble craft fair became cool

Scotland's Tea Green Events are often held in stunning venues like Kibble Palace in Glasgow

Another factor for organisers to consider is the venue. “I try really hard to pick event spaces that add an extra element,” says Joanne MacFayden, organiser of the popular Tea Green Events in Glasgow and Dundee. “One of my favourite venues is Kibble Palace, a Victorian glass house with a tropical backdrop in the heart of Glasgow’s west end.” 

Forthcoming Tea Green events at the impressive venue – part of Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens – will take place on the 4 November and 9-10 December. This year, Tea Green are also hosting a pop up boutique at Dundee’s Taypark House (a former Scots baronial mansion house), which will launch with a late night shopping event on the 30 November and then welcome shoppers daily from 1-24 December.

Embracing community

The evolution of craft fairs has undoubtedly been fuelled by the success of online craft marketplaces like Etsy, which have made it possible for crafters to make money by selling their creations online. In turn, Etsy offers its shop owners the chance to join local teams and meet customers in person through their successful Etsy Made Local events.

How the humble craft fair became cool

Visitors to Northern Craft have a chance to discover new makers and support small businesses

“Our Etsy Made Local events have grown over 300% since 2015,” says Annette Picardo, managing director of Etsy UK. “This year, there are 42 events planned to take place all across the UK during the first weekend of December. We’re anticipating around 1,500 Etsy sellers taking part this year, bringing their locally designed and handmade items to buyers in their local community.”

Both shoppers and makers are drawn to these events for their sense of community. “Nine years on, BUST Craftacular London has grown in reputation and size, but it definitely hasn't lost that sense of community.” says Shaill. “Each year, both makers and shoppers can return to meet friends they have made at previous events, meet those they know via social media in person for the first time, and get to know others whilst crafting in workshops together. It's lovely to see when stallholders next to each other swap contact details at the end of the day.”

How the humble craft fair became cool

BUST Craftacular London features performances, workshops and talks alongside a popular makers' market

With Christmas on the way, now is the perfect time to discover your local makers’ markets. And if those above weren’t enough to get you started - we’ve listed a few more below, as recommended by up-and-coming makers around the country.


From north to south: UK markets recommended by makers

  • Niki Sammon, founder of Hiya Pal! recommends Scotland’s craft fair scene. “As well as Tea Green and Urban Market, there are also markets run by Craft Scotland, SWG3 and The Fruitmarket Gallery. These markets feature high quality makers and designers who are creating unique work, and they really highlight what a creative hub Scotland is,” says Niki.
     
  • Katrina Sophia, founder of Katrina Sophia Art, recommends markets in the north of England. “I love trading with and visiting Handmade Nottingham,” says Katrina. “They have exciting selections of makers, both new and established, and attract plenty of curious visitors so there is always a good bustling atmosphere throughout the day."
     
  • Fiona Fawcett, founder of Plewsy, recommends the Etsy Made Local market in Leeds. “This market is located in the City Museum right next to the Christmas markets showcasing the best of local creative talent,” says Fiona. “It’s a great place to find some different Christmas gifts by supporting small business, or take part in a lovely workshop to learn a new skill!”
How the humble craft fair became cool

A selection of cacti on display at Native Makers

  • Emily Dixon-Gough of Allen and Bear recommends Manchester’s Winter Market. “This is a really lovely handmade market which launched a couple of years ago,” says Emily. “It’s growing and there are plans for it to be in a bigger venue this year.”
     
  • Jai Bess of Jai Bird Press recommends markets in the south west. “Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Market is the perfect place on a sunny Sunday for a potter and browse and a plate of good food,” says Jai. “I also always make the effort to attend The Frome Independent, which is full of exceptionally talented makers and often themed - for example the annual Frome-on-sea event brings the sandy beach to the town!”
     
  • Lola Hoad, founder of LH Design and One Girl Band, recommends Brighton’s Etsy Made Local Christmas market. “This market is a firm favourite of mine and the rest of the city. I've exhibited every year since starting my business in 2014, and it's something I look forward each Christmas,” says Lola.

Main image: Renegade Craft Fair

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