Forget the mall. Holiday shoppers fill convention center seeking handmade gifts | Crain's Pittsburgh

Forget the mall. Holiday shoppers fill convention center seeking handmade gifts

  • Holiday shoppers in Pittsburgh not only flock to the malls, but also to craft shows, like the Handmade Arcade held each year at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. | Photo by Joey Kennedy. Used with permission of Handmade Arcade.

  • Pittsburgh's Handmade Arcade is expected to draw about 9,000 people this year. | Photo by Joey Kennedy. Used with permission of Handmade Arcade.

  • Pittsburgh's Handmade Arcade is expected to draw about 9,000 people this year. | Photo by Joey Kennedy. Used with permission of Handmade Arcade.

Carrie Nardini’s craft is coordinating craft shows.

“I gain a ton of satisfaction out of organizing these events, working one-on-one with artists and growing the community,” she says. “To me, crafting an event is as tangible as making a necklace. I look at it as creating art.”

Nardini’s masterpiece is I Made It! Market, pop-up bazaars filled with handmade items. Since 2007, local artists have traveled throughout the region, selling their wares in parking lots, empty storefronts and busy pedestrian thoroughfares for a day, night or weekend.

About 15 of the juried events happen each year, with one of the largest being I Made It! for the Holidays. On Nov. 24 (Black Friday) and Nov. 25 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., more than 100 new and veteran crafters will set up shop in a former Office Depot at the Waterfront in Homestead.

Chris and Rachel Millard of Hanover Designs will be there selling their lightweight concrete jewelry and accessories.

After only one year in the business, the couple’s gross sales hit over five figures. Chris says I Made It! Market is responsible for half of that number.

“The way they engage the community and set up the events – food, drinks, electricity and other needs – makes it a great experience whether you are vending or buying,” he explains. “We never have to worry about finding the perfect holiday and birthday presents ever again; we just buy them at the markets we go to.”

Sunday, Nov. 26, is Kids Day at the free winter fair. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., children will be able to make their own crafts and peruse shelves full of modestly priced goodies while their parents check off their Christmas lists.

Reaching out to the youth demographic is a big deal to Nardini, who got bitten by the crafting bug at the age of 5 when she took a pottery class.

“Then my mother signed me up for a class with some friends in the back of a craft store and I remember the satisfaction of learning a new skill and leaving with something really interesting and tangible in my hands every week,” she said.

As she got older, she sold her creations – mostly jewelry – in a few retail and consignment shops or directly to co-workers and friends, but struggled to find a niche. She realized other local artists were having the same problem.

When she met fellow crafter Nina Barbuto, the pair decided to launch a nomadic marketplace. The first event boasted 20 vendors and about 300 attendees.

Appreciating handmade items

“I have been working at this for 10 years and a few things remain true: shoppers appreciate handmade, they love meeting the maker behind the work and there are always talented people who just need a little encouragement to get out there and get busy making,” Nardini says.

Christina Miller, a senior at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, found encouragement to market her own products – including pillows, clocks, wall décor, T-Shirts, embroidered patches and keychains – through Startable Pittsburgh. The free, eight-week program teaches students ages 16 to 18 entrepreneurial and maker skills. During the summer course, Miller developed her design, built prototypes and sold her merchandise at local retailers.

Her business, The Beauty Within Company, made a splash at Handmade Arcade, an annual independent craft fair. Miller, along with seven other local high school students, is the recipient of the non-profit organization’s Youth Maker Scholarship. The award includes a free vendor space and mentorship from experienced crafters.

Shoppers number in the thousands

Founded in 2004, Handmade Arcade gives artists a large platform in which to sell their goods: the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

On Dec. 2 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. more than 170 do-it-yourself designers will occupy the 1.5 million-square-foot facility in downtown Pittsburgh. Products range from soap, jewelry and housewares to toys, clothing and photography.

Approximately 9,000 shoppers are expected to attend the free event. This year, they can stop by the Hands-on Handmade Activity Area to screenprint T-Shirts, practice leatherworking, wood burning and macramé, block print holiday cards and make masks, pins, ornaments, necklaces, and other crafts while local DJs spin a festive soundtrack.

For shoppers who like a little history with their bargain hunting, Bay 41 Holiday Market offers both. Located in Lawrenceville, the repurposed steel mill was converted into a public plaza and event space last June. The old foundry has hosted pop-up beer gardens, farmer’s markets, fitness classes and exotic car photo shoots.

From Dec. 1-3, it will feature music, Christmas tree sales and local craft vendors. It also is a stop on Lawrenceville Corporation’s annual cookie tour.

“Shoppers should chose the Bay 41 Holiday Market because they will be supporting local Pittsburgh vendors who have original, beautiful and quality items that make great gifts for the holidays,” said Ben Herring, manager. “It’s also never a bad time to stop by and hear some music and grab a few free cookies.”

November 16, 2017 - 3:54pm