Craft Shows


People lined up around the block and then filled the atrium of Toronto’s MaRS Centre yesterday. The attraction?

Etsy, up close and personal.

A clever business card by FlowerPot Designs

A clever business card by FlowerPot Designs

The paramount online marketplace of handmade and vintage goods has more than 1 million active shops around the world. But while the experience of buying beautiful things online can be fun, even addictive, there’s nothing quite like discovering new treasures with your eyes and your hands.

(For sellers too, by the way, even though it’s wonderful to wake up and find you’ve received a batch of new online orders while you were sleeping, there’s nothing like meeting your customers face to face.)

So in an attempt to promote its Canadian sellers, on September 27, Etsy Made in Canada presented a series of pop-up craft shows in 23 locations across Canada featuring Etsy sellers in their home cities.

At the MaRS Centre I set out with a mission; to discover things that I had never seen before. I squeezed through the crowds searching for things exquisite, quirky, or clever. With 120+ vendors, there was a lot to see. These were the less conventional creations that stood out the most for me:

SISTER VALENTINE hearts & crafts

The charming Francie of Sister Valentine displayed an eclectic collection of handmade goodies, including crocheted fingerless gloves, fabric pouches fashioned like envelopes, fabric dolls, and these wonderful 3-dimensional animal portraits. Every piece she’s crafted is utterly charming. You can find more of her work here.

Whimsical 3-D animal portraits by Sister Valentine

Whimsical 3-D animal portraits by Sister Valentine

FLOWERPOT DESIGNS

Flora Cheung stood behind her knitted cacti knitting nonchalantly, her warm contagious smile welcoming visitors to her table of treasures.  The softest gloves, scarves, booties and accessories beckoned to me with their promises of cosiness. I easily imagined her creations as treasured gifts. I will definitely be treating myself to a pair of her travellers’ mitts pronto! If you like, you can peruse her lovely website here.

Flora of FlowerPot Designs

Flora of FlowerPot Designs

KIRIKI PRESS

Printmaking grad Michelle Galletta spent three years working in Italy before returning home to Toronto in 2012 to create Kiriki Press. The attention to detail she puts into her embroidery kits is simply stunning. Not simply craft kits for children, the beauty of these projects (with varying complexity) makes them attractive to grownups, too. You can see Kiriki’s kits on her website.

A few of the creatures you can make with an embroidery kit by Kiriki Press

A few of the creatures you can make with an embroidery kit by Kiriki Press

APFELSTRUDEL

Lest you think (heaven forbid!) that I am strongly biased toward textile art (I am), I wanted to share the work of a paper/collage artist who loves to use maps and vintage books in surprising ways. A world traveler with a huge collection of vintage maps and ephemera, her work is loaded with humour and adventure. “Up and Down the Thames,” a piece that combines an original 1920s map of London with tiny cutouts of Buckingham Palace guards from a 1940s picture book, was attracting loads of attention on Saturday, and it’s easy to see why. Apfelstrudel is a popular Etsy shop, and you can find it here.

A detail from 'Up and Down the Thames' by Apfelstrudel

A detail from ‘Up and Down the Thames’ by Apfelstrudel

CGMONSTERS

I would like to leave you with a stuffed toymaker who in my opinion has exceptional taste in fabric and makes lovely little monsters for children. But rather than show you her work, which you can see here in her Etsy shop, I share with you a photo of my 4-year-old nephew Benji holding one of her seasonal pieces, a soft skeleton perfect for Halloween! Please don’t be afraid of Benji’s very scary face, it is just for the photo.

Trying to be scarier than the monster

Trying to be scarier than the monster

Thank you for joining me in supporting handmade!

Sincerely,
Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design

p.s. If you want to see all of the vendors at the MaRS Toronto Etsy event, you can check out this nifty lookbook created by Etsy:

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As I prepare for the opening of the One of a Kind Show & Sale*, which begins next week in Toronto, I’m looking forward to seeing the work of hundreds of other craftspeople, or more broadly, makers; artists, designers, cooks, small-scale entrepreneurs.  It’s energizing being in a room with so many people who have similar aspirations and challenges.  Some people work alone and others have partners or staff who contribute to certain aspects. Some approach this work as art, and others as business, but even though our products and goals vary we have a lot in common.

Potter Sandra Silberman (right) and jeweler Danielle O'Connor enjoyinga  light moment with Sandra's porcelain necklaces at the One of a Kind Show

Potter Sandra Silberman (right) and jeweler Danielle O’Connor enjoying a light moment with Sandra’s porcelain necklaces at the One of a Kind Show

Many people who appreciate handmade goods wonder about the lives of the people who make them.  For those wonderful people who support us and are genuinely curious about this unusual way of making a living, here are my completely subjective top ten facts about career craftspeople:

1. It’s a tough way to make a living.

Sometimes the price tags on handmade goods seem high, but when you factor in the labour and skill, and the material and overhead costs involved in producing things this way, profits tend to be slim. While we are occasionally blown away by stories of artists or designers striking it rich, the vast majority make do with incomes that are modest – and that is putting it politely. Some of us supplement our incomes through teaching, adding a wholesale element to our businesses, or doing other work part-time. Some of us draw upon an entrepreneurial passion to squeeze the maximum possible benefit from our creative efforts. Any way you approach this work, it’s a challenging ride.

2. Most of the time, we love what we do.

Most people know the joy of creating something with their own hands, or conceiving of something and then watching it come to fruition. For many of us it feels like a privilege to be able to live a creative life, and despite the challenges, we don’t take that feeling for granted. It’s a thrill to create something and then see others enjoying it.

Ross Stuart makes tin can banjos and ukuleles that sound fantastic. You won't find anything this original at the mall.

Ross Stuart makes tin can banjos and ukuleles that sound fantastic. You won’t find anything like this at the mall.

3. We have a high tolerance for risk and ambiguity.

People who prefer to walk down a clear, linear path in their lives do not often choose to be artists or craftspeople. It’s a topsy-turvy world, and you never know what will happen next. We need to be brave enough to take risks with our work and to make mistakes, and smart enough to learn from them. Last year Forbes Magazine named “a tolerance for ambiguity” as “the one key trait for successful entrepreneurs” and I think that easily applies to artists and makers as well.

4. We’re jealous of your paycheque, but not enough to quit.

Once in a while, when our customers spend large amounts of money with ease, we feel a tiny bit envious of their financial security.  Ironically, some of us could not afford to buy our own products if they were made by others (a reality that we sometimes overcome by trading goods with one another).  But most of us feel that the freedom to direct the course of our work lives creatively and with an entrepreneurial spirit wins out over the security of a steady paycheque.

5. We have a strong sense of community.

The camaraderie that develops at craft shows is unbeatable. For most artists and craftspeople, work is quiet, focused, and solitary or in small groups. Bring hundreds of us together, and we’re an instant community. Give us a crisis and we will work together to overcome it.  I have witnessed collections taken up by strangers for fellow show exhibitors who have suffered a great personal or financial loss, people rushing to help rescue artwork from a collapsing booth, and generous sharing of tools, supplies, and labour.  When the show is done, we celebrate our successes and count our losses together.

6. We’re vulnerable to theft.

As the audience for handmade goods has grown, so has the frequency of knockoffs. On sites like Etsy, for example, where many craftspeople sell their work, there have been several documented cases of goods being rampantly copied and sold as original handmade pieces. This image from the Etsy website shows twelve sellers of a virtually identical necklace, with eleven of the sellers shipping from China and all claiming that the necklace is handmade. I wonder who designed the first one. There are many cases of larger companies copying the work of small-scale artists without any acknowledgment or compensation, and it’s a tough battle to fight.

etsy copying

Etsy sellers who are upset with the growing number of knockoffs on the site have been creating product ‘treasuries’ like this one to illustrate their concern.

7. We’re sensitive.

If you declare to your best friend that you think our work is ugly or overpriced and we are standing right next to you, we can hear you and our feelings will be hurt. And if you try to haggle with us over price, we will be offended. Would you ask your dentist or accountant for a discount? For many of us, this is the way we earn money to support our families. And like everyone, we want our work to be valued.

8. We’re tough.

If a storm damages our display, we’ll fix it on the spot with whatever materials we can find. A challenging year for sales? We’ll design something new, or reach out to our customers in different ways. Tenacity is the norm in the world of handmade, and I’m constantly impressed by the grit and determination of my fellow makers.

9. We like media attention.

Even those of us who are shy appreciate having our work featured in the media. For a large company, being featured in a magazine’s list of “fabulous finds” is likely one of countless PR activities, but for a small-scale maker it can have tremendous impact. If you work for a media outlet that promotes products, consider promoting handmade to your audience. The spin-off benefits of promoting small can be big, benefiting both makers and consumers.

10. We appreciate our customers deeply.

Even though we chose to do this for a living, we couldn’t do it without our customers. When you support a maker by buying their work, you are helping to create the right conditions for more good work to be created. How do we show our appreciation for this support?  We endeavour to make art or to design products that will give you enjoyment, value and pleasure.  We listen to you and try to create pieces that you will love. And in a world where so much is cheaply manufactured and disposable, we work to create things of real quality. We appreciate you deeply for making this possible.

Sincerely,
Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design
Red Thread Design will be at the One of a Kind Show in booth R-30

*The One of a Kind Show and Sale takes place from November 28-December 8, 2013 in Toronto. More information is available on the show website

You can see Ross’s tin can instruments at http://www.thegreatmush-uke.com/ or visit him at the One of a Kind Show in booth X-24

Sandra’s beautiful “Dotti Potts” porcelain can be found at http://www.dottipotts.com/ or at the show in booth R-32

You can’t see any of Danielle O’Connor’s gorgeous jewelery in this post, but you can check it out at http://danielleoconnorjewellery.com/ or in booth T-33

Thankfully, there are no actual tornadoes in this story.

Thankfully, there are no actual tornadoes in this story.

Have you heard the one about the torrential downpour that crushed people’s tents overnight as they slept?  Or the passerby who stood and watched calmly as her dog peed on a stunning handmade women’s dress on display, and then just shrugged and walked away? How about the sudden wind that took out so much hand blown glass, dozens of people nearby froze in horror?

It’s not all fun and games at a summer craft show. In those pretty rows of tents, populated by smiling artists, there are a lot of stories to be told.

My first summer at the Muskoka Arts and Crafts Show (coming up this year from July 19-21), I drove right up to my allotted space and excitedly began unpacking my tent. First I slowly expanded its metal frame, a process that takes less than a minute with two people but eons with only one, preparing to spread the nylon roof fabric on top so that the tent could be raised to its full height. I was thrilled to be there and happy to work at my own pace, as usual.

Then the sun disappeared and the skies opened up. A sudden slamming of rain fell upon us, the kind of rain that slaps against your forced-closed eyelids and makes them burn. The few people who were around quickly scurried into their cars to take cover until it passed. But I could not, for I was holding on to the corner of a 10’x10’ tent frame that was not yet secured to the ground, and that would surely be carried away to god-knows-where if I let go of my grip for a moment. I stood immobile, with closed eyes, feet planted wide for stability, as the rain soaked through to my bones. I held on with all my might as the wind lifted the other legs of the tent frame off the ground, and I waited.

How did this story end? Successfully, of course, as do most small calamities. The downpour soon stopped and the work of setting up was finished for the day. I secured my tent to the ground as though my life depended on it, and went to a friend’s house to enjoy the evening, trying to ignore the rainy night. I arrived the next morning at the park to find a still-standing tent, and enjoyed three beautiful days of meeting new customers, selling summer dresses, chatting with other exhibitors, and drinking lemonade.

And as for those other exhibitors I told you about, for whom things did not go so well? They were fine too. At the Cabbagetown Show last year when the rain destroyed numerous tents overnight, people rallied to help those who’d lost their tents to “rebuild,” many in impressively creative ways, and the show went on. The glassblower recovered quickly too, as all glass artists do.  And as for the dog pee? Well, life isn’t perfect. But it’s pretty damn close, when you’re strolling around at a summer craft show, enjoying beautiful things and of course, drinking lemonade.

I hope you’re soaking up all that summer has to offer.

All the best,

Devorah
Red Thread Design

p.s. Have you ever experienced a craft show calamity? Please share your story with us!

You drive toward a big park on a hot summer day, anticipating a great afternoon. The first thing you spot is a sea of white tents, the identical peaked roofs betraying none of the treasures this makeshift community is housing. As you approach on foot, the cluttered bursts of colour reveal themselves. Whatever you’re seeking, whether it be small treasures like locally made treats and jewelry, beautiful things for your home made from glass or wood, a piece of art, or an unplanned discovery and an enjoyable walk, you’re likely to find something you love and meet some engaging people.

When I was setting up my tent at my very first outdoor craft show (the Cabbagetown Festival in Toronto, still one of my favourites) my first thought was “who are these people?”  Some seasoned exhibitors came from far and wide with large trailers, traveling to a different community every weekend like creative nomads. Others seemed less sure of themselves, some showing their work to the public for the first time. I had rented my tent rather than buying one, not convinced this was the best place for me to be showing Red Thread, but willing to give it a try.

Me in the Red Thread tent at the Muskoka Show, July 2010

Five years later, I’m still doing outdoor shows (and my tent is nearing the end of its useful life). I love seeing the cast of amazing characters I’ve met over the years and seeing how their work is changing. Katie McLellan is a gorgeous textile and glass artist with a fantastic sense of colour, who makes whimsical wall collages from recycled fabrics. Rudy Kehkla creates stunning kinesthetic sculptures from wire, steel and rock, and has an infectious spirit and a smile to match. Robert from Henderson Farms has bright red hair and a great laugh, and makes the best jam ever (I lived my whole life hating jam until we met and I discovered his organic fig rhubarb marmalade) and also bakes delicious squares, which he generously shares with me when I need sustenance. Sandra Silberman, a great friend ever since we met at that first outdoor show five years back, makes stunning porcelain tableware that I use every day and covet at every show (and so does everyone else, judging by how busy her booth is!). I know it sounds like a cliché, but there really is something special about knowing the people who make the things you use and enjoy every day. If you take the time to chat with them about what they make and why, you’re sure to come away with some great stories, and a greater appreciation for the dedication that this kind of life requires.

The sense of community is quite strong at the craft shows I’ve attended over the years. There’s always someone willing to lend a hand if you’re in a pinch. And like sailors on a great ship together, our collective attention is focused on the skies. Rain is less than welcome, but the most destructive force at an outdoor show is wind. I’ve witnessed artwork damaged and tents crushed, and been amazed at how quickly people pull together to help. Putting yourself and your work at the mercy of nature may not seem like the wisest decision, but it’s worth it. At a time when we’re so disconnected from the makers of almost everything we own, it’s a great opportunity both for the customer and the artist to forge connections that benefit both of us, and make us all better appreciate the value of handmade.