Holly Balfour is happy, she sighed, among her fabric moomintrolls and space princesses.
“This is my job,” she said, with perhaps some incredulity. “I’m not unemployed, I’m self-employed. I make adorable felt things for people to buy.”
At Saturday’s Spring Craft Fair at the Millennium Galleries, ‘Holly Heartfelt’ and more than 40 other glass painters, jewellers, paper sculptors, mug makers, photographers, ceramicists, upcyclers, bear knitters and laser cutters were selling their handmade products to 800 or more customers of local craftwork.
Organiser Rosie Eagleton from Museums Sheffield noted there could have been many more stallholders. “I’ve been told that Sheffield has more practising artists than any other city outside London,” she said, adding that participation has doubled at the Millennium Galleries Craft Fairs over the last three years, with even more local businesses joining the waiting list for the next fair on May 14.
That kind of competition could stifle the prospects for new feltwork or glassware producers, you might think, but stallholders said the opposite is true.
“It helps there are so many people making things,” said Holly. “More makers means more variation, which increases the market because it makes handmade things more popular, so more people come to craft markets and buy things.”
“And there is a rebellion against the homogenised High Street everywhere you go,” said Rosie.
“People aren’t interested in that any more, they want something unique and individual, and that has a human touch to it.”
Some economists believe this could be the future: intelligent software and global labour markets will diminish traditional labour, leaving many people to set up their own jobs in the creative industries.
“We are on the cusp of a revolution,” said Zak Ahmed. “More people are making their own stuff, and if you’re a creative in Sheffield, you’re never more than a few steps away from another creative.”
Zak has been helping people make their way into these industries since 2014 when his LearnCreateSell social enterprise began helping unemployed or other disadvantaged people launch their own creative business by taking a 10-week course covering business, psychology and craft skills.
The programme has already helped 50 people set up their own brands, he said, and in May will bring its first Sheffield Hallam University students on to the courses.
“We try to help creative people who are tinkering with their own ideas at home who want to go to the next level.
“We help them get ready to go to the market.”
Zak said the Sheffield village mentality helps people support each other. As an example, upcycler Janet Holgate teaches new crafting skills, and has joined the new Sheffield Creative Guild which starts this spring to help artists and makers work together.
The official creative industry in Sheffield is smaller than Manchester and Leeds, said Zak. “But it’s developing at a fast rate. We are well connected here, and the Year of Making will prove that.”
Throughout the fair, crafters told how they’d given up traditional jobs to enjoy selling homemade products, at fairs or on their computer where your shop is online, and social media is your sales team. Every product needs as much time tagging as it does making, they said. It’s no good spending an hour making a feltcraft Chewbacca if you don’t tell American Star Wars fans about it, explained Holly Balfour.
All this creativity and making and networking is the ‘blood of life’, said the enthusiastic Rosie Eagleton.
“There is a thriving, independent artistic community here, and that kind of community is what we need more of. But Sheffield can only be that kind of city if people support it, whether that’s by making things themselves, or helping people carry in 50 heavy boxes, or just by coming and spending £2.50 on a handmade card.
“Now it’s recognised that we are such a creative city, we can only carry on going upwards.”