Death by Christmas Craft Fair

This piece is dedicated to all the friends I made, both as traders and customers during the seven years I ran my own business as The Woolly Pedlar, upcycling knitwear, and selling it at markets, fairs and events around the country, and in particular in the north-east of England. It is intended as a light-hearted but irreverent look at trading at Christmas events, but also as an acknowledgement to the stresses, strains and sheer hard graft that go with doing the Christmas Craft Fair circuit.

Two o’clock, and the doors are open for set-up, but first there is the need to get your vehicle as close to the door as possible. Goodness knows, you will be doing dozens of trips, wielding your trolley through mud and over wonky boards to your allotted stall. They haven’t put the heating on in the marquee yet, and so it’s bliddy freezing, but you’ll soon be working up a sweat as you march from your van to your table on countless trips. It’s every man and woman for him and herself, but of course we will all greet each other with a cheery ‘hello’ a hug and ‘lovely to see you’. We are after all, one big happy trading family.

A table? Didn’t they get my message that a table is no earthly use to me? I sell clothes for goodness sake, I have rails and a mirror, and full-length coats to display, so how the heck am I supposed to use a six foot table? The table is discarded round the back of the marquee, (let’s hope the fearsome organiser doesn’t realise it was me who dumped it there) and I begin the set-up. Thank goodness I paid for a double pitch this time; however, with the van hire, insurance credit card machine, price tags, bags and a new set of rails, I don’t have much change from a thousand pounds. I wonder how many of the punters who turn over my items with a look like they’re chewing wasps, realise my outlay before I’ve even set foot at these events?

Shit! One of the rails has a leg missing. Why did I get my husband to help pack the van? A quick phone call, and I ask him to bring it along. ‘Yes, I know it’s a nuisance, but no, I can’t do without it, and I did tell you there were five pieces to each rail.’

Despite having set up a zillion times before, each event is different, and with new stock to display, I want to get it right. A quick word with my neighbour, and we decide to butt up to each other to gain a bit more valuable space. The organiser is patrolling the venue to make sure we don’t go over the line, although there is a stand at the end, best friends of hers it seems, who are sticking right out into the aisle with their imported tat – I thought this was supposed to be a ‘handmade event’. I worry about the bottle-neck they are causing with their Union Jack and sequinned cushions. I’m also seething because I asked to be in the main marquee, and I’ve been demoted yet again to the side tent. Probably my own fault for sticking my neck out and complaining last year. I’m surprised I wasn’t struck off!

Everything is now out of the van, and I move it into the turnip field to allow other traders to unload. I notice others are not so magnanimous. It may have something to do with the rain we had over the last three days, and the prospect of being towed out by a tractor in the dark tonight.

Set up took five hours. I am shattered. The other half did turn up with the rail, and we hissed at each other as he tried to ‘help’ with suggestions of how he would do it better.

I have been working on this collection since the beginning of August, sweating under the Velux windows in the woolly garret under piles of wool when everyone else was outside, sipping Pimm’s and basking in the summer’s heat. Not only do I source all the knitwear I use, rushing around Hexham’s charity shops on a Tuesday morning like an old bag lady, but I then wash and dry it  – think Widow Twanky’s laundry – then design and finally cut and sew. I think of that oft heard comment ‘How long did it take you to make this?’ Sometimes, admittedly said with admiration and genuine respect, but more often by the chewing wasps brigade, with first an incredulous look at the price tag, then their friend as they show it to them and mouth something, Les Dawson style thinking I can’t hear.

Home for a much-needed gin and tonic, or maybe two, and meal I had the forethought to put in the slow cooker before leaving, washed down with a bottle of red that doesn’t touch the sides.

I wake at three in the morning – What?? I need my sleep more than ever tonight – Oh why did I drink so much? I’m hot fidgety and sweaty, and my mind is now racing. Did I put the card machine on charge – I must remember it in the morning; I forgot the bags – must put them in; Have I got all the orders ready for collection? I’m not sure if I drifted off again. Other half says I was snoring, so I must have done, but at 6.30 I get up, feeling dreadful. The show must go on despite the hangover.

I park the van in the turnip field and head down, covers off, in time for a quick bacon buttie and a coffee before we start. I stock up on ‘Christmas Slice’ – a calorific confection of shortbread, caramel, cranberries, chocolate and almonds that will see me through the day. It’s soon ten o’clock and the doors are open. There is a sea of people, mainly older women, with the look of the undead, making their way around the venue. There are four coach parties due in this morning.

‘Morning!’ I say with a smile – by the end of the four days I will have an ache in my jaw from smiling.

‘We’re only looking’ they snap. The wasp chewing has begun.

And I’m only saying hello!

Not put off, I try again,

‘How’s the Christmas shopping going?’ I’m ignored.

I grab a pair of my armwarmers and step forward

‘Can I show you what I do with recycled knitwear?’

 big mistake

‘What? Second-hand? Eugh – do you wash it first?’

Of course I bloody wash it you silly old bat

‘Oh yes, everything has a forty degree wash first, then any shrinkage that is going to occur has already happened. I use the felted jumpers for mittens and bodices of my coats and jackets’

I grab a jacket and pair of mittens and show them with a cheerful smile and hope in my heart.

‘No, it’s ok dear, we’re only here for a coffee and scone. It’s all so expensive’

I step back, the smile fixed, and look for someone else to chat to about my process and creations. It’s only early on day one, I’m not going to feel defeated.

You see some traders sitting behind their table, hunched over mobile phones, hardly glancing up. ‘I didn’t sell much’ I’m not flipping surprised – selling is all about talking! Talk about anything – the weather, the car park, kids, Christmas, anything to get the conversation going while you suss out what colours they like wearing then Bam! Hit them with a design in their colourway and style and the sale in in the bag – well, sometimes!

There is an invisible line about two feet in front of the stall; a line which some feel is a sound barrier. You can be as rude as you like about the products on display, and the stallholder won’t hear you – I have news – they can. As my patience with the general public wore thin, I was heard to say, ‘I can hear what you’re saying. I made all these.’ Rule number one, don’t take comments personally, but it’s very hard. You made everything, and they are part of you, how can you not take it personally? I have a story to illustrate this:

Still feeling a bit ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about my designs, I was doing my first big event at a local venue, and a lady came up to my rail of hooded sweatercoats. They had long liripipe hoods, a full skirt and are not for the faint hearted, but many raved about them. (I’d like a £1 for every ‘Joseph’s Technicolour Dream Coat comment made)

‘Feel free to try anything on, there’s no pressure, have a play!’

I helped a short lady into a coat. I noticed her bowed head and closed in stance lifted, as we buttoned up the coat. She looked at me and smiled.

‘Have a twirl!’ I said, ‘you look fab!’

A man appeared. I had not seen him at first, but now he was six inches from my face, his own, bright red, and spittle flew as he roared at his wife:

‘Take that off! You look fucking ridiculous!’

The general hubbub that had been in the tent stopped with the volume of his tirade, which continued, the room now silent, listening and watching, as he turned his venom on me.

‘Are you taking the fucking piss?’

The lady took off the coat, and placing it on the rail, whispered ‘Sorry’ to me. I noticed she had retreated back inside her shell as he marched her off.

I had turned to face the back wall, tears welling up in my eyes, when I felt a hand around my shoulder. Seeing and hearing what had gone on, a fellow trader had gate vaulted over her stall of cushions.

‘You’ll need to grow a thicker skin’ she said. ‘You’re dealing with the general public’ She continued. ‘Your work is beautiful, and if you ever need a seamstress I’m your girl”

This angel of mercy was Julie, who had her own business as a seamstress, and importantly, an industrial over-locker. Following our serendipitous meeting, Julie made hundreds of ponchos, bedspreads and blankets for me over the years. Talk about silver cloud! I do however, think of that woman often and wonder what sort of a life she had with that bully of a man.

It was seven years later, when another man came up to me (at the same event interestingly – it did attract them) and said ‘Perfectly good jumper til you started messing around with it’ and I replied, ‘Piss off!’ that I realised I’d grown my thicker skin.

Christmas Sweatercoat and a Thicker Skin

‘The general public’ can be a nightmare, and one’s patience tested to the max, but over the seven years I sold my woolly wares at Christmas events, I met some wonderful people. There are jewels out there, who support, encourage, and buy from crafters year in and year out, preferring handmade to imported tat, and supporting local artisans and producers.  I thank you for your kindness, purchases and friendship.

Poncho love from some of my happy customers

I am in fact having lunch with a woman this week who first bought a sweatercoat about five years ago. Our paths have crossed at pop-up-choirs, music concerts and political events, which is hardly surprising – we sing off the same hymn sheet.

I only lasted seven years, before the sheer hard work and all-consuming nature of the beast got the better of me. To all those selling at craft fairs and ‘Designer Maker Markets’ on the run up to Christmas, I salute you! It’s a Monday as I write this, and hope you’re taking a well-earned day off before the next onslaught at the weekend.

If you are a customer, visiting a handmade Christmas event, please spend a moment to smile, say hello and encourage our artists. They have put their blood, sweat and tears into what they do, and if you can, buy homemade this Christmas.

Woolly Pedlar Christmas stocking
Woolly Pedlar Christmas stocking

Whilst I am no longer making any woolly goodies, there is a small selection of remaining stock at The Cane Workshop in Alston, where Lou demonstrates chair caning, as well as stocking a wonderful range of products made by local artists in lovely old shop in the market place.