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Crafty Ladies Build Their Own Wonderland

Crafty Wonderland, Portland’s giant twice annual craft show, has grown enormously since its inception in 2006. Founders Torie Nguyen and Cathy Zwicker both manage to nearly make their living from the craft shows and their downtown shop. They might expand to another neighborhood, or to the airport, or increase their online presence. One fan even tried to convince them to open a store in Brooklyn.

But when pressed about their future dreams as they ran their store one rainy November afternoon, the two women smile. “We’re always hoping for a Crafty Wonderland love connection,” says Torie.

“We have yet to have a Crafty Wonderland wedding,” agrees Cathy.

Turns out that a lot of thought goes into the layout of the shows, which happen on Mother’s Day and in December at the Oregon Convention Center. Cathy pulls out a piece of graph paper with impossibly small handwriting, which shows which vendors has which space.

“We put people next to each other that we hope will be friends,” says Torie. “Or if their business names are similar, we think it’s funny to put them next to each other.”

Vendors fall into eight different categories: clothing, jewelry, accessories (such as handbags and belts), knit/crochet, children’s, body care, ceramics and glass and food. The food – this year they’ll have chocolates, nut butters, hot sauce, soup mixes, kettle corn and tea – is all packaged for offsite consumption.

Torie and Cathy met in 2002 at the women’s craft collective Portland Super Crafty. Torie has a background in business, and had worked in advertising, retail and real estate. Cathy studied communication in school and also worked in retail. Both had lots of experience making and selling their crafts.

The two women discussed what they wanted out of the perfect craft fair. “We wished there was something regular that’s indoors,” says Cathy. “I was so tired of setting up on the street, and showing up to stake out a spot four hours ahead of time.”

Crafty Wonderland began with monthly shows at the Doug Fir in 2006. After three years, they decided twice annually would be better. “We used to feel like it was constant,” says Torie. “Now it’s an intensive three months of planning, then a little break in between.”

The move from the Doug Fir to the Convention Center was a big deal for the show. But they appreciate having all the resources of the center. “They do a lot of the work for us;” says Cathy. “That’s what we pay them for. At Doug Fir, we were out there with measuring tape, on the floor with chalk.”

With 250 artists showing at the Crafty Wonderland Super Colossal Holiday Sale this year, the event has way outgrown the Doug Fir. It’s a prestigious show for artists; only about a third of applicants get in. Artists come from as far as Chicago and New York to participate.

Torie and Cathy have to make hard choices about who gets in and who doesn’t. “We try to not take too many people in any one category,” says Torie. “We look at how well made it is, if it’s something we’ve never seen before that looks really exciting.”

Artists are sometimes surprised to learn that once you get accepted, you’re not in for life. “It’s so competitive,” says Cathy. “If you’re applying with the same thing you applied with four years ago and a new person applies with something similar, we have to say no to the old person. We have to keep it fresh. We have to make it exciting for the shoppers and not the same thing every time.”

Many of the artists who sell at the holiday shows also sell in the locals-only shop, which features 180 Portland artists. The shop started as a pop-up in November 2010. It was supposed to be up just for the holidays, but then they managed to stay. The shop is directly across from the downtown library, so a wide variety of people wander in. “I feel like we don’t have a specific demographic,” says Cathy. “We get it all.” Shoppers include library visitors, tourists and people who work in the neighborhood and come in for gifts. “Part of the goal is to not make it too cool for our moms or grandmas to come in here,” says Cathy. The shop sells a wide variety of jewelry, T-shirts, handbags, magnets, stationery and other crafty items.

Right now, Torie and Cathy have their hands full with the upcoming holiday show. As for the future, who knows? They’re not ruling out any growth possibilities. Both are single moms and artists, which isn’t the easiest combination. The fact that they’ve grown Crafty Wonderland into a huge success, helping crafters around the country raise their profiles and make money, is a testament to these women’s dedication, hard work and ability to dream big.

Don’t miss the Crafty Wonderland Super Colossal Holiday Sale! December 14-15, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. at the Oregon Convention Center. 777 NE MLK Boulevard, Exhibit Hall D. Free admission.

More info at: http://craftywonderland.com/events/

—by Teresa Bergen, www.teresabergen.com