Local craft fairs have been a mainstay of Northwest Arkansas’ fall and spring tourism for decades. People come from all over the country to find delicious food, home décor, jewelry, or knick knacks for their homes. Others who own small businesses visit the craft fairs to get wares to resell in their stores.
Whatever the reason, the charm and popularity of the area arts and crafts festivals bring thousands of people to the region every year. Interest in the craft fairs has paved the way for other, smaller events throughout the year, providing more opportunities for vendors who do not produce as many products as those that exhibit at the major shows.
Ironically, part of what has kept the arts and crafts festivals consistently popular is their willingness to change. Vendors, attendees and coordinator agree that over the decades, the most noticeable changes have been the increase in “buy/sell” items and the influence of the Internet. Some say those changes have helped, others say some of the changes have taken away from the craft fairs. (Link here for a schedule of each area craft fair.)
The War Eagle Craft Mill Craft Fair is the “granddaddy” of craft fairs and has been coordinated by Barb Lile for 15 years. They still require handmade items despite many craft fairs allowing manufactured items. She said the Internet, including sites like Pinterest and Etsy, have enhanced the process of finding a wide variety of vendors.
“It’s easier to actually locate people,” she said.
The Internet has also made it possible for vendors to not necessarily have to participate in craft fairs because they can connect with potential customers online. That would make it seem that it would decrease interest in the craft fairs, but instead it’s enhanced the experience.
“Most artists love the one-to-one contact,” she said. “I love hearing the passion in their voice about what they do and that can’t be done online.”
The biggest evolution is how the vendors are constantly working to adapt to modern times. For example, some potters have started making microwave bacon cookers using the same techniques and materials that they have used for years. Other examples include purse makers creating cell phone holders and leather workers making laptop cases.
“It’s new things for the old ways,” Lile said. “Many make similar crafts each year, but try to think of new designs and new applications.”
There’s also a more modern influence in the details of craftsmanship.
“It’s more than colors. Fabrics have changed to reflect modern design,” she said. “The really good vendors have kept up with what people need but still keeping them handcrafted.”
Ann Burbage, coordinator of the Frisco Station Mall Fall Craft Festival for many years, said the biggest change she’s seen in the industry is the increase in buy/sell items.
“Years ago, pretty much everything was hand done. Now for all the craft fairs to have all handmade items is nearly impossible,” she said. “There’s just not enough to go around at every craft fair.”
As sites such as Pinterest and Etsy grow in popularity, it’s helped some people find new jobs by becoming vendors.
“They’re learning the crafts to sell them for a job,” Burbage said.
Pinterest can also give existing vendors new ideas. Most vendors make the same basic items every year but add a few new items every year to see what sells.
“They continue to build on their inventory,” she said. “If one thing doesn’t sell, they don’t make it anymore.”
Brandi Soloranzo of Huntsville has attended craft fairs for years and she said that sites like Etsy and Pinterest have helped the craft fair industry. She has found items that she now makes and sells at smaller craft fairs that are throughout the year in her area. She still enjoys attending the major fairs in Northwest Arkansas, she said.
“It’s helped me as far as growing my business,” she said. “Etsy supplies me with customers the rest of the year when there’s not a craft fair going on.”
The sites also gives her ideas for what is popular in various parts of the country so she can sell to customers in other areas, Solorzano said.
Another change Burbage noted is that people are not spending money on the high-dollar items that used to be popular.
“They can’t afford to buy the big items,” she said. “Women would come out with armloads of stuff and it’s not that way as much. ... Craft fairs are making more affordable items now and sales are increasing. (Vendors) are just having to be more creative.”
At the Bella Vista Arts and Crafts Fair, handcrafted items are still required but long-time coordinator Misty Baker said that’s a rare thing these days in the craft fair industry.
“It’s always been handcrafted and now that’s very, very few,” she said. “People are bring buy/sell to the arts and craft shows and a lot of events are letting them in because it sells booths.
“(Before) the importers would not have attended an arts and crafts show. It’s changed the look, appearance and feel.”
For Donna Schoby of Fayetteville, her changing tastes and the noticeable decrease in handcrafted items is partially why she doesn’t usually go to the craft shows any more after years of enjoying them.
“It was all about the atmosphere and handcrafted things then it turned into stuff you can order out of a catalog,” she said. “I wanted to be able to get something that was handcrafted.”
The changing trends of what is popular can be easily determined by looking at how much space large craft stores give to a given category. For example, jewelry making is popular now and the beading departments at many stores have grown, she said.
There is also a new wave of consumers at the craft fairs and those people are very technology savvy, she said.
“We need to address that entire market segment,” she said.
Baker plans to increase the fair’s social media presence to reach those audiences, she said.
Sites like Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter provide better marketing and follow-up opportunities for vendors, she said.