My first trade show: Marguerite Swope

I’m Marguerite Swope, designer and owner of Ivy Reed. I volunteered to write an article about my first wholesale show, and now I’ve got a second show under my belt, I really need to get this article written. The show this article covers is ACRE which took place in early May.

I backed into this business from many, many years of home sewing/knitting/quilting. With a background in academics (mathematics), that’s all the experience I brought to being a DE other than a belief that I can do anything. My husband says, “Give Marguerite an idea and get out of her way.” So true. I first started making clothing to sell on eBay because I noticed how well colorful plus-size tunic tops sold. I knew I could make some, so I did and they sold well. One thing led to another and I made a whole bunch and went to craft fairs.

As a fiber artist, my designs were well received at fairs and I started thinking about wholesale. Someone told me about the Buyers Market of American Craft, and I discovered they have a Visiting Artist Program. If designing and producing your own clothing under your direct supervision (ie not manufactured abroad which is a whole other venue) is what you do, I highly recommend BMAC’s Visiting Artist Program. Not only do you have some time to walk the show, they teach you all about what it means/involves to do wholesale. It’s a 3-day program and costs about $90. I signed up for the February 2007 show.

Then —a sort of lucky thing happened— I broke my hand in late January and was forced away from sewing and spent time on the internet. That’s when I discovered Kathleen and her book. I was trying to figure out how to actually make clothing for wholesale and her book was so glowingly recommended on Amazon that I had to buy it. It was only then that I discovered I was a clothing manufacturer.

Her book left me a bit overwhelmed as I realized how much I needed to learn. But, I was sitting around with a broken hand, so I worked on line sheets, style numbers, learned more about hang tags, RN numbers, about what retailers want, etc. I must admit I skipped the parts about pattern makers, grading, markers because I just couldn’t make sense of them. Now I understand it better (after reading, re-reading, and reading on the blog), and maybe in the future I might branch out that way.

I also found while my hand was broken and discovered they had a wholesale show coming up in early May, ACRE, with an “emerging artist” category. How perfect since the BMAC program was in February. Being an emerging artist meant booth space was half-price (and half-size, 5 x 10). It also meant a year on for free! The cost of the booth was around $800 as I recall.

I started with designs that had a proven (through craft fairs) market, but I needed all the presentation that goes into a wholesale show. The first thing I worried about was fabrics. I had been using whatever I could find, mostly one-of-a-kind, but I felt wholesale meant having a consistent supplier. I found a wonderful source of quality rayon batik with a minimum order of 11 yds. So, I ordered a bunch to make samples.

Preparing for the show
In late February I started making samples. Thanks to Kathleen’s book, I limited my styles to 7. This allowed a few things: a one-page line sheet, a one-page order sheet, and easy shipping to the show. I read and re-read parts of the book and many entries on her blog. Nothing was a straight line, and sometimes it felt overwhelming. All I can say is that if you follow her advice, it all works out. Every time I had angst over not including something in my line, I just believed that her experience in this field topped mine (which was practically non-existent).

For hang tags, I went to a craft store and bought stock that I cut with scrap booking scissors. That made it easy because the curved edges looked nice and didn’t require me to cut nice straight edges. I printed on my computer and they looked quite nice. If you search this blog, you’ll find great hang-tag advice (like what should be put on them). My woven labels are from Lisa is very good to work with and her prices are great as are the labels.

For the line sheet, I really was stuck. I do not draw, and when I used gray-scale on photos to try to get a look of a drawing, I failed. So ultimately, I took photos of each style and made a colorful line sheet of photos and included all the information Kathleen recommends. I did it all in Photoshop.

For the order form, I used an example from this blog and adapted it. I did this on Microsoft Word, but there must be an easier way to make tables. I ordered business cards and postcards online. I handed out both at the show.

By the middle of April I had samples, hang tags, line sheets, post cards, business cards, and order forms. Now I had to think about booth design and how to get everything to Vegas (from the east coast).

The good news is that a 5 x 10 space is so little that I really didn’t need to design a space. Clothing can hang on the drapes (provided by the show) to make a background. They provide a table and chair, so I took a nice cloth cover for the table. This is where I displayed my knit and fabric scarves and wrote orders. It also gave me storage space underneath. Ultimately, I just took a big suitcase in which I could fit my hangars, samples, and a clothing rack. Another suitcase held my own personal items plus all the misc. for the show (order forms, stapler, tape, etc).

If you’ve never done a show, you may be surprised to learn that there are many regulations in exhibit halls. Things I never thought of. For example, could we actually carry in our goods or did we have to have the show contractors carry it in? We were told we could roll in a small suitcase to our booths. Another example: everything in your booth (except the clothing you are selling) must be fire retardant and the fire marshall can ask for proof. You are typically not allowed to bring in ladders (hah! Everyone does, otherwise how could you access 8’ rods?), use certain kinds of lighting, leave floors uncovered, etc. Every show has a company (Hargrove is an example) who can provide (for a fee) lights, tables, displays, rugs, anything you can think of, and this company also is responsible for everything on the loading dock and getting it to your booth. Often there are unions involved which means you cannot do certain things (like move your items 10 feet from your car to your booth—you must wait for them to do it). Power tools are a no-no.

Being at the show was exciting, exhausting, and disappointing. While I did well and wrote orders, the number of buyers was a disappointment as was the placement of emerging artists. We were hard to find in the floor plan and many buyers didn’t know we were “back there.” They have revised the floor plan for next year’s emerging artists. It’s an up-and-coming show, and I think it will be the west coast show for artists and crafts people. I plan to return in 2008.

I concur with what Bethany wrote in an earlier post—it’s not all about writing orders, it’s also about advertising and exposure. You have to show up. You get to talk to other artists as well as buyers. The information you get from 3 days at a show is invaluable.

KF here: I found a related article on lighting called Lighting a Fine Craft Trade Show Booth – Options for the Budget-Conscious Artist. In reference to Marguerite’s comments on getting goods to the booth (“marshalling”) see What it’s like to exhibit at MAGIC.

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  1. First of all, thank you Kathleen for posting my article! And for providing editing and links.

    A couple of things: regarding lighting. In real estate they say the most important 3 things are “Location location location.” In trade show booths they are “Lighting lighting lighting.” It’s going to make or break you. Never rely on the lighting provided by the hall. Your booth will disappear. At our second show, we thought we had tons of lights, but on set up we discovered dark spots. The good news is that (for a fee) the service people managing the show can set you up on the spot. DO NOT SKIMP ON LIGHTS.

    Second, the link Kathleen provided to exhibiting at MAGIC reminded me of all that can go wrong. We made many calls to the managing company BEFORE the show (can we take a ladder, is our fire retardant acceptable, can we use the kind of lights we bought, will you be providing S hooks, as examples) and we got DIFFERENT answers depending on who answered the phone. Sometimes we called 2-3 times and got 2-3 answers. We always asked for the name of the person who told us the answer we wanted and documented it just in case. Neither show where we exhibited asked for any proof of fire retardant, complained about our ladder, inspected our lights, etc, BUT you must be prepared because it has happened to other artists I know.


  2. colleen says:

    Thanks Marguerite! It’s an interesting article. At what point did you write a business plan, consult a lawyer/accountant, etc? Are there other professionals you worked with to get your business off the ground?

    I appreciate your insight.

  3. Hi, Colleen,

    Business plan? Well, my husband is going to a working group this Friday at our Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The goal is to meet weekly until we all have a business plan. I know we should start with one, but I just started buying sale fabrics, making clothes, and selling on eBay. I funded myself to buy $2000 worth of fabrics to make samples for my first wholesale show. Everything else I did for my first show (line sheets, business cards, etc) I did myself with photo shop, word processing, and online.

    I haven’t talked to a lawyer, but I did consult with our SBDC who helped me register my name, set up for taxes, get a bank account, etc. All SBDCs do FREE consulting and they are nationwide. Go here
    Click on SBDC Locator under the Resources column. They are usually housed at a university, but they have an area of coverage that includes all rural areas as well. They are wonderful, and again, FREE.

    As far as getting off the ground, I started with craft festivals, and funded the first wholesale show myself(which was why being an emerging artist helped so much). Right now, we’ve taken out a loan so we can pay for the next wholesale show. It’s very tricky, and I’m lucky enough to have a teaching career behind me which gives me a paltry retirement check and a husband who still works. Orders are slowly coming in, but I am by no means successful yet if you measure just in dollars. But if you measure in terms of meeting goals, then I am successful so far and still in business.


  4. Colleen says:

    Thanks, Marguerite! I worked with a division of the SBDC and have what I now consider my business plan “draft”. It helped me identify the gaps in information and highlight where I need specific apparel industry help. I have contacted the Garment Industry Development Corp (NYC) and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) professors with specific questions; both resources have been helpful.

    Best of luck!

  5. Annie says:

    Wow, Marguerite, we have a lot in common! I was also at the Feb 07 BMAC Visiting Artist Program in Philadelphia. I agree that it’s an excellent program.

    I was also planning on attending ACRE last May as an Emerging Artist, but when they sent the floor plan, I dropped out. The placement of that section was ridiculous… I was completely horrified when I saw the plan. I’m glad that I feel like I made the right choice in not attending, but I’m sorry that you had to experience the effects of a crappy placement on the floor.

    Do you feel you will continue with the craft market? While I started out in the craft field, I’ve actually found much more success in the fashion realm. It seems to me that the craft world is too focused on ‘traditional’ mediums and styles, which is so disappointing… I feel like innovation is not rewarded in the Fine Craft genre.

    Best of luck with your business!

  6. Annie,

    Please contact me (use the link on my name) so we can chat about the BMAC experience and where you’ve gone with your business. I’d like to trade notes.

    Consider the ACRE emerging artist program this year–relatively cheap booth space–and they are integrating the emerging artists into the sections for their craft. So you’d be in the fiber section, just with a smaller booth.


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