Craft market booms as traders pitch worldwide

Craft Candy Summer Fair at the Millennium Galleries: Sophie Cooke of Imogen's Imagination, as a customer examines her stall
Craft Candy Summer Fair at the Millennium Galleries: Sophie Cooke of Imogen's Imagination, as a customer examines her stall

A ‘SOCK monkey’ created by Sian Hughes recently appeared on his world travel blog confirming a ‘whirlwind vacation to his homeland in England’.

“He looks so happy,” posted his Canadian owner under a photo of the monkey, called Monkey, sitting in front of Stonehenge.

Sian creates sock monkeys and other ‘plush art’ under the name of Siansburys. On one of her own internet pages, she notes the company “was established as a creative venture when a love of primates and colourful socks combined in a sock monkey explosion that demolished 90% of my house.”

On Saturday afternoon, Sian was sitting at the welcome desk for the last Craft Candy summer fair at the Millennium Gallery, carefully enumerating customers with a hand counter climbing towards the 1,800 mark.

“We’re all big kids really but at least we’re having fun,” she said.

Craft Candy is, or was, a voluntary non-profit group promoting craft and craftspeople in Sheffield. Saturday’s fair, on Craft Candy’s third anniversary, was designed to send the group out with a bang, said founder Sarah Waterhouse.

“I’m sad it’s ending because I’ve spent the last three years dedicated to this group but I’m also happy because I can dedicate myself to other parts of my life now.”

That is, her own craft business making textiles, and as manager of the exploding online Folksy portal, for buyers and sellers of “handmade things”.

The interest in home-made and handcrafted ware has boomed since Craft Candy started: three times as many customers at the fair than in 2008, said Sarah.

“I never expected it to be this popular when we started, when we just wanted to get together to put on good quality fairs in Sheffield.

“I was amazed when I realised there were so many creative people out there doing things in their own spare time, who have now realised they can actually make them into a business.”

Sophie Cooke, from Hillsborough, for example, who runs several online shops in her spare time after coming home from her day job at South Yorkshire Police.

“In a way it is a movement, with people picking up those skills that their grandmothers taught them,” she said. “For me it’s my hobby, my business and in a way my social life too.”

Sophie began by making hats and fascinators for herself, set up her business Imogen’s Imagination in 2008, and now sells her wares in the UK, France, Spain, Canada and even as far away as Singapore.

The media interest in vintage and ‘upcycling’ (or, as she prefers, reworking) old clothes and accessories has helped generate orders, she said, but she feels the homemade industry has grown for a multitude of reasons all coming together.

“There’s a little bit of make do and mend because of the economic climate, and the likes of Folksy supporting local businesses, and making it so easy to set up your own online shop when you wouldn’t have the time or money or skill to set up your own web portal.”

The internet is the key to the success of the booming home crafting economy, said many stallholders. Makers can learn and correspond with other makers and, more importantly, can very simply sell their wares to the whole world.

The industry appears particularly suited to part-time makers, especially women and mothers who can find time to run their own business from home while bringing up children.

“I wanted to do something creative that I enjoyed and that my kids could be proud of,” said Camilla Smith-Westergaard, who has created the Butterscotch and Beesting’confectionery and magic online store from her home in Broomhill.

The shop, based on an imaginary circus, has only really come about because of the opportunity for online selling.

“Customers are interested in handmade things, they value what you’re doing. I think everyone is going away from cheap throwaways, valuing the effort people put in, and looking for something worth more.”

The success of Craft Candy drew the attention of the originators of Folksy.com, with the result that the UK’s biggest website for ‘crafters’ is now run from Sheffield by Sarah Waterhouse and her team.

Folksy has over 7,000 active (UK-based) shops, with nearly seven million page views a month and two and half million shoppers a year from all over the world.

“Thanks to the internet there are now effectively lots of little internet shops up and down the country run by people making their own things,” said illustrator Debbie Greenaway, who runs her ‘little shops’ after coming home from her job in a bacon factory.

“I’d say to the public if you’ve got a computer, go and have a look for an original one-off and buy something no-one else has got, and while you’re at it you’ll be supporting small businesses in a recession and helping people to keep working doing something they really enjoy doing.”

“I can’t imagine a better job,” said Sarah Waterhouse. “Selling is almost a side issue – you need to make money for what you do – but it’s great when people say: ‘I like your work and want to buy it’.”