A steady flow of shoppers strolled through the Harvard Square Holiday Crafts Fair on a recent weekend, eyeing the bounty of cozy knit hats, ceramic paperweights, and handpainted greeting cards.
But for all the winking lights and good cheer, holiday fairs like this one, held at the First Parish Unitarian Church, can be make or break for local crafters. Behind the whimsy is the pressure to sell — now — before the window for ironic onesies and personalized cat toys closes for the season.
“Sleep, illness, family strife — none of it matters,” said Liz Stewart, a jewelry maker and owner of Boston-based Lush Beads. “The time to make and sell is now, and you have to take advantage of what is in front of you.”
The craft scene is burgeoning as the DIY, or do-it-yourself, trend continues and shoppers become more interested in buying local. According to the nonprofit Craft & Hobby Association, crafting cleared $28.6 billion in sales in 2010, and last year was projected to top $30 billion. A large portion of those sales is squeezed into the monthlong holiday season, which means crafters often must have their goods completed and ready to go, said Andrej Suskavcevic, the association’s executive director. If something doesn’t sell, the crafters are out the cost.
“If a big retailer does not sell everything during the holiday season, that’s not going to hurt the pocket of the sales people” who aren’t working on commission, said Suskavcevic.
“The store will discount the items or send them back to the manufacturer on a consignment agreement. Crafters can’t do that. They are the manufacturer.”
Boston Handmade, a collective of artists and crafters whose members sometimes attend fairs and shows as a group, says 2012 has been a good season so far, but they admit the tension can be fierce.
Jessica Burko, the executive director of Boston Handmade, who specializes in paper quilts, photographic mixed-media, and encaustic collage, says of all the things that worry artisans this time of year, it’s that they’ve put all their eggs in the holiday basket.
“For some, this is when they make most of their annual income,” said Burko, who noted that because she’s both an artist — who exhibits and sells through her studio — and a crafter, she’s less reliant on holiday sales earnings. “Many artists build their holiday inventory throughout the year, stockpiling their ‘best sellers’ to roll out specifically at holiday shows and in their online shops in December.”
Crafters in the Northeast have it better than those in other parts of the country. After the Upper Midwest, this region has the most crafters, craft fairs, and craft buyers in the country, according to the craft association. Here, 55 percent of the population makes, sells, or purchases crafts with some regularity, compared to 59 percent in the Upper Midwest. General crafts are the most popular in the Northeast, according to the association, followed by needle and sewing crafts, painting, finishing, and floral crafts.
Of course, every artist faces a different set of challenges. Karen Mahoney, owner of City by the Sea Ceramics, has sold her pottery alongside Burko’s artwork and Stewart’s jewelry at the Bazaar Bizarre Boston, the Jamaica Plain Holiday Craft’s Fair, and the collective’s pop-up gallery in Canton this season. But she feels additional pressure, because of the long lead time her work requires.
“Once my holiday season begins in November there is little time left for the cycle of making, drying, and firing,” Mahoney said. “If something sells very well early on and I didn’t predict it, I may be out of luck on having any left closer to the holidays, costing me income that could have been there.
“I can’t rush home and make more to have the next day, or even the next weekend, like most of my crafty friends can with their work.”
Kathy Koveleski, who makes wool hats and scarves from her base in Ocean Park, Maine, has sold her wares at the Harvard Square fair for more than a decade. The final two weeks of the year, she says she feels the tension in the pit of her stomach.
“You can’t help but have it weigh on your mind that if you don’t sell what you have, there’s no other way to dispose of it until you make it to another craft fair, or unless you’re one of the lucky ones who has a store where you can sell your things somewhere else,” she said.
Leftover inventory means sellers go through a familiar cycle: Pack up the goods, load the car, drive it home, unload the car, and line up the crates or tubs or racks of handmade table runners or felted flower pins or exotic skin wallets. Then, go through the whole process in reverse after the holidays, when the crowds will almost certainly be smaller and less eager to buy.
For now, though, the shoppers keep rolling in, looking for gifts. (The Harvard Square craft fair continued through Sunday.)
“We come here every year,” said Karen Chio, an Arlington resident at the Harvard Square fair. “Mainly, the crafts are beautiful. But it’s really neat that they’re handmade. They’re personal, and you get that feeling when you browse them, since the people who made the crafts are the ones selling them to you.
“It’s just different than something mass-produced from a large retailer,” she said. “And it never hurts to buy local.”
If there’s a final piece to the craft fair puzzle, it’s a commitment to the local economy and the distinctive goods shoppers discover.
“Take my cards and prints,” said Connie Barbour, a co-organizer of the Harvard Square fair who draws and paints greeting cards and other works in her Jamaica Plain studio. “Local. And if you look around here, you have a vendor whose intricately carved candle holders are made completely out of recycled cans. And there’s a potter whose work is all original . . . It’s not that you won’t find crafts like these anywhere — that’s a cliche. What fuels our success is that you won’t find this stuff everywhere.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.