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Ever wondered what it takes to run a craft event with hundreds of makers? Sarah James, from Craft Festival does! Not only has she inspired and helped thousands of makers over the years, she’s also now just set up an online directory of makers – Find a Maker.

Hear her very honest story, of how she started out and how she manages the stress of juggling so much every day. Plus, she gives top tips on how to sell more and stress less at craft events.

Find out more about Craft Festival here.

Podcast transcript:

Here on episode two of Creative Slurp, Sarah James, from Craft Festival tells her story so honestly, talking about how her first job, organizing craft events, meant juggling it with a newborn baby and a failing marriage. Here’s her story. 

V:  Hi Sarah. It’s so lovely to catch up with you to hear your story. Now, we’re so familiar with seeing you on Instagram and interviewing makers online, but we don’t really know that much about you because you never talk about you. So tell us a bit about you and what you do. 

S: I did start life as a maker. I discovered that I was quite creative in my early teens, probably before then. I’ve never really thought about it. I used to do a lot of sticking and collages and things and just used to like to make stuff and never really thought it’s something that I would do as a job, as a career. 

But my art teacher, I’m going right back into the depths. Now my art teacher retired and I got a new art teacher called Mr. Clay. And he said, well, “Can you cook?” And I said, “Oh, I love cooking.” He said, “Can you knit?” And I said, “Well, I do knit and I knit with my grandmother.” and he says, “Well, if you can do those things, you can draw.” And it just basically set me on a path to filling up books with drawings and ended up going to do my art ‘A’ level and being very grateful for that because I wasn’t very academic. 

And I went and did my foundation in Carmarthen, which is near where I’m from in West Wales. As you might have gathered from my Welsh accent, I’m a very proud Welsh person. And then funnily enough, I studied ceramics. So thank you, Mr Clay. And what a great name for an art teacher. 

V: I think that’s fascinating, actually, because I’ve always thought that I can’t draw, but I can cook and I can knit. So maybe this helps me?

S: Yes. I think the message was basically “Can you send messages from your mind, from your brain to your hands?” “Can you talk to your hands?” And most people who are creative don’t think about that. Because people think that drawing is really difficult. But he sort of gave me that little, sort of like little light bulb moment that it doesn’t matter to have a go. And then I did my degree in ceramics. 

I had a slightly circuitous route and in those days it was really tough to get onto an art school course. It was the absolute heyday. So, we’re talking about in the 80’s, 1989. We’re going back a long time now and I went to Leicester and that’s when I met Sue Pryce. She was a year above me at Leicester while I was at Leicester, which was a really good course, but it’s very design-led and really about leading you into a career of almost a designer or a maker of tableware. So it was quite restrictive, much more industrial-based than I was really wanting. 

But there were quite a few exchange programs and there was a new exchange program in the second year and I actually went to America. So, I went to Baltimore. It was an extraordinary experience and it was so freeing and you could do anything you wanted, basically. As long as you attended all the courses and got all the points, you could do all sorts of different things. 

Another college art school student was also exchanging at the same time and she was from Glasgow School of Art – an unbelievably revered place to go and study art. And I actually couldn’t face going back to Leicester. The course wasn’t suiting me at all. I managed to get an interview with Glasgow and I actually transferred. I came back and actually moved to Scotland.

That really changed my life. 

And then I ended up using that module that we did at Leicester to be the sort of basis of my work going forward when I went to Glasgow. So even though it was much more sort of fine art lead, as long as you can produce drawings and research to prove that you’ve got a real idea there, they didn’t mind what you made – whether it could be tableware or not wasn’t a problem. It ended up suiting me well. But my time at Leicester definitely had positively fed into what I produced. 

V: So what happened then when you finished uni? 

I moved to Bristol for a while and I did all sorts of bits of work. I worked in retail and in Bristol Guild, which is a really nice sort of shop and craft shop in central Bristol. It’s still on Park Street. Yeah. So sort of floundering a bit. And then I did actually get married very young and I moved around a lot, but then was always wanting to become a maker. 

I tried to keep any of the part-time work that I did sort of craft-related, but we were moving a lot and we ended up being in London and I worked at the Craft Council for a bit. I was on the information desk. I quite liked that. And then we moved around a bit and then we ended up in Northumberland in the north of England. And I got a Prince’s Trust grant. I was desperate to get going, but the moving around was not helping. Although, at the same time it was interesting because we’re moving to all sorts of different places all around the country because of my first husband’s job. 

I got a grant from Prince’s Trust, which was phenomenal, really. It wasn’t a loan then. It was a grant. And also you had incredibly massively discounted stands at very large trade fairs. My experience of doing big events was like the NEC, but hardly. I think I paid like 100 quid for a stand in those days. It would be a couple of thousand now.

V: That’s amazing. So it sounds like all the things that you did in that time were actually training for what you’re doing now. 

S: Yeah. No, it was. And it was almost like I remember doing a few craft fairs myself. I’m thinking, well, Where’s the organiser? I never saw them, but the camaraderie of all the makers was fantastic. You’d have such a laugh because normally you’re on your own in your dusty shed sort of thing, making away quietly. 

And then, of course, you go to the shows and then you meet all these really lovely people, incredible people. You only have this incredible bond because it’s a very, quite stressful environment where you’re sort of thrown together and you need to make friends with you because most people are one-man bands and you need to nip to the loo or what have you. 

But then strangely I actually found the making side of it became something that I didn’t really enjoy, turned it into more of a manufacturer really. And I was making these bubbly boats, these boats and submarines and things in bright colors and I wasn’t very happy. By then we had moved all over the place and a job came up for a craft development officer. I mean they don’t exist anymore and it was an absolute golden nugget of a job in Calderdale. And it came up and it was lottery funded. So it was a fixed-term, three-year contract to develop crafting activities in and around the area. But mostly based at this museum which is a fabulous textile Museum run by June Hill who was the creator. And again it was like a hidden gem. You wouldn’t even know it was there. There was a gallery and a workshop program and there was a craft fair. 

It was a small craft fair that was already in existence was a little bit on the sorry side. It needed help and there were a lot of people sticking stones into key rings and things and I came in and sort of gave us a little bit of an idea and we managed to get it on the telly. 

A TV station came and filmed something because it was at Shibden Hall. It is incredible to think about 3000 people came to this fair because of the BBC. I was like, “Oh my God!”

V: How did you make that jump then? Because it’s quite a big jump to making in your shed to all of a sudden organising a huge craft fair?

It came quite soon after I left that job, mostly because my husband’s job was moving to Bristol and I’d always wanted really to open my own sort of gallery and retailing craft place and I did that in 2000 in Bristol. And I did that for a couple of years and then while I was there I got a call from Dale Bennett (who’s a member of the Devon Guild) and I used to sell her work in the shop and she said, well they’re looking for a project manager to start a craft fair down in Bovey Tracey – because at the time what people don’t quite know is Craft Festival is a nonprofit company that was set up with European funding by three organizations in Bovey that got together to access lottery funding there. And we got a chunk of money and it was three companies. 

They all got together and set up a nonprofit so they could access this funding and then they needed a project manager and then they just put out a call for people to apply. And in the interview they said, well, how are you going to manage from Bristol? And I said, Well, I’m actually moving to Bovey next week. And they didn’t notice that I was nine months pregnant, which was really lucky!

I had a very big coat on and I kind of walked in quite confidently and I sat down and I was thinking, oh my god, I hope they don’t notice because I can imagine they wouldn’t have given me the job. So my interview was on the 28 October and then Louis was born on the 18 November. They did give me the job, thank god. And then within six months I was made a director of the company because one of the companies went bankrupt.

I was away for the weekend with the family and I was sitting in a ball pool somewhere in some hotel. I opened up the Western Morning News and I was like, “Oh, my God!” They jumped off because they had to. And I jumped on. 

V: That must have been quite a stressful time because you were a new mum, you had a tiny baby. I mean, what was going through your mind? 

S: God, I was young and foolish.  I just was like, oh, my God, I have no idea, because I’ve never done it before. I had no idea. We had quite a bit of backing because there was funding and what have you to sort of soften the blow. But I think I was just literally flying by the seat of my pants and I mean, bear in mind I could barely use a computer. I hadn’t really ever sent an email. That seems ridiculous to say now, but it was so early doors. Websites weren’t really in existence then. There were a few people with websites, but it was really rare. 

I was enjoying myself, but at the same time it was crazy. I sort of found what I wanted to do. I think I was so like, I can do this. I like this because it was sort of like the combination, as you say, of being part of those, being on the front side, knowing absolutely loads of makers, whether they were friends or colleagues or now with a shop like that in Bristol. So they knew that they trusted me, even though we did do a lot of sale and return. I used to pay people so people knew that I was okay. And of course, the Devon Guild had a fantastic reputation in the area, so makers wanted to do it. 

But when I got the job in November, there was literally just the park and that was it. Then nothing had been organised. I didn’t even know what it looked like as a brand or what they call it or what it would be like. I just sort of put that forward about a proposal and I always wanted to have children’s activities included. That was really important. I mean, obviously with my two children, my daughter was three and a half, and my son was a baby.  

I mean, looking back, it was crazy. And my marriage was also volatile as well and was finally coming to its end. And that wasn’t a surprise for both of us. So, it wasn’t a particularly easy time for that either. So, yes, it was a bit mad, but at the same time, I knew that I was very grateful to have found it because it meant that I could move on with my life, with the children. And it gave me the future, a bit of a future that I always felt. I was sort of struggling to find my niche because I felt right. 

V: How has it changed? 

In the early days, I just concentrated on the show mostly for the first seven or eight years. And I did actually work for the Guild. I actually went back and actually became the director of the Guild for a couple of years. It’s kind of like the time forgot, really. Most people don’t remember because most people, when they become the director of the Guild, they stay for like ten years, when I did a two year stint back in 2008. And that was my way of being able to survive being a single parent really as much as anything. But it gave me that opportunity as well. Yeah. And then I was offered the Arts Council of Wales came down to look at Craft Festival with Tradega House, which with Newport City Council, and they were looking for a vehicle to promote Trudeau House. It’s a fabulous Regency property. When you’re driving along, you see it on the side of the road there by Newport. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place. And they wanted to do a craft event there based on our craft event in Bovey. I started that’s when I started doing other shows, really. It was actually by being asked to do another one. And I did that for Newport for about three years. And then the National Trust took over the property and it wasn’t a good mix, really, because we brought in lorries and it was not a happy marriage when they took over. 

I did set up Made By Hand online as well, but that was my friend, Kate. I only really stayed involved with that for about the first year. I was much more involved than I thought and I realised I didn’t have the time. Events just started to take off, really. And we wanted to try and do how do we create a retail space with all these incredible makers and we set it up, but like, not in the high street where you buy a shop. And Kate has done a fantastic job with that business, that’s been going eleven years now.

V: That was the start of the digitalisation of all the businesses that you did. So, I’m imagining that when 2020 hit and the pandemic happened and you’ve got all these craft festivals going on, that must have helped a bit. How did you feel when the pandemic happened and all that started to kick off?

S: Well, the first few weeks I was thinking, well, we’re just going to ride it out. We’ll just move the events and I’ll be fine, don’t worry about it. I think we got to week five. And the Government did this ominous presentation saying, there’s no way we’re going to be out of this before the end of the year. And of course, I was just like, oh, my God, everyone just went, oh, my God. And then I did have a bit of a two week where I was literally my mind just blown. I didn’t know what to do. People may think, absolutely, I totally handled it amazingly. But for a couple of weeks I was just like, oh, my God. And then the Arts Council came to a bit of help, really, because we kind of applied to various things and I thought, Right, we’ll start putting things on, do the first digital festival online. And basically everyone who had taken part, we had basically chosen for chatting them and Bobby, we said we’ll put them onto our website or listings so we can link to their shops. But I was really keen to create like a program of activities, a bit like the activities that we do. Yeah, it was a massive learning curve because I’ve never done anything like that before. And Zoom has become this amazing communication tool that none of us knew about. Massively. It didn’t look like it, but we had massively, certainly my contribution. I had learned the hard way, gone completely nuts with it. I nearly blew a gasket, really.

V: It must be really stressful running all these events. I was going to say, you’ve got so much on your shoulders all the time. How do you stay calm? What do you do to relax? You must have some good tips.

S: Well, we’ve had some serious close to nervous breakdown in the last year and a half, I would say, because not only did we do all this, but the first half of the two shows I did June and November. I didn’t have any real assistance in terms of the build-up. I brought in some. I ended up getting some sort of help in the new year from nutritional help and physical movement help. The nutritionist that I’ve worked with, she actually was more concerned about my stress levels than anything else. And so we worked on things like reducing my phone use, going to bed early, getting up, doing exercise first thing, creating a routine that was more positive because my health was going downhill more than I thought. I’ve got an underactive thyroid as well, which doesn’t help. So I have problems with my weight. I am unnaturally overweight. I shouldn’t be overweight because of what I eat .But it’s a real challenge mentally as well. It’s really upsetting, to be honest. It’s hard to concentrate because I don’t know what you do to help yourself, but it’s breathing techniques as well. I work with someone called Matt Bagwell. He does breath work on online with love to learn to. And I used to do a lot of chicken. I mostly watch it now, really, with my friend Mark Shayler. I go running now. I started running, started off with walking in January, like really purposeful early morning walks, and that transferred to running in March. And now we run. My husband and I run three times a week if we can. First thing in the morning. I’m the slowest runner on the planet. And I’m absolutely like, I might not be fast, but I do all right. I think so many people are slow. I’m not built for running, but I do it.

V: I think it’s really important that you talk about all these different tools that you use and you found. I think it’s really important for makers of all kinds, because they tend to be people who are passionate about what they do and therefore find it really difficult to switch off. So I think for anyone like that, you’ve got to have those little tools just to remind you, because otherwise you are going to get really overwhelmed and really stressed.

S: Yeah. I think Instagram is a bit of a factor, isn’t it, because you can be on that all the time. And we talked about it’s not actually the be-all and end-all. And I have to remind myself that there’s much more effective ways to manage your business. And you do have to just turn off. And actually I do have someone else doing my social media for me now. I mean, it’s not always perfect, I think, because if you hand it over to someone else, it’s not quite the same. But there’s a consistency to it now that we haven’t had before and given me back my it’s weird. I’m working still as hard. I don’t know how I managed to do that as well. You know what I mean? And it’s not like I’m superhuman. It’s just, I don’t know, just go into another place and I just get so worried about and worked up about making sure everyone is doing okay. I know how hard it is, but I think as a maker, I think a lot of makers, if you were actually sort of online and doing all right, I think last year was quite a good year. People were buying online and doing quite well. And I think the digital fairs did a good thing in the sense that it actually got some people. It forced them into going online. But there’s some makers that struggled to sell online and but it was almost like, well, this isn’t going away fast. You’ve got to do something about it now.

V: I agree. And I think it’s almost precipitated a digital revolution where people now have become so much more confident in buying online that they’re not going to go completely back to the way they shop before. They’re not going to go completely back to the way they were before. They know Zoom. They know all these tools. They know they can get things online and they know where to get them. So almost like they will go to fairs, I think an event, but maybe they won’t be going with the intention of buying more for finding and maybe especially for high-end goods. And maybe they just hope that people kind of still put that time into developing the digital side of the business, because I still think it’s really important. Will you be carrying on doing digital fares online?

S: I think it depends, really. The thing is that they require ridiculous amounts of content and activity. If, say, for example, we’re at another event and we want to do some other things, like let’s do a digital demonstration. Is the building got enough WiFi to host and assume that you’re not usually dealing with a very secure link? We might do a conjunction of doing live some Instagram lives. They might work okay. Again, it is going to be dependent on coverage, but I think there’s something really positive about them. I would like to do another one again. But now that we’re opening up the real shows again, there is a real factor of hours in the day. I’ve just got to ease back a bit from it’s been very full on.

V: So, Find A Maker’s been launched now, which is your online directory. Was that something that you were always going to do, or is that something completely came because of the pandemic?

S: No, that came out of the pandemic completely. I mean, I was thinking of different ways because we were like, it’s been very traumatic in lots of ways, because if you can’t run event, and you’ve got four members of staff, you think, “Oh, my goodness, what are you going to do?” So I thought, right, well, what’s useful? What became clear was that we’ve got this audience, we’ve got this fantastic mailing list of people who love craft and we’ve got this resource of all these makers who are really great and they want a platform. So it kind of came about like that, really. And I thought we could do a bit of good and have a business school because we’ve always done business training over the years. It’s usually one day that we do a couple of times a year called, “Preparing to Sell”. It used to be with people who did the shows, but over the years it became people who wanted to do the show. So we’d have 40 to 50 people in a room and we would have various presenters talking about the different aspects of getting ready for a craft event. And I talk about marketing and stand presentation. And then the maker will talk about their experiences and say how to get yourself ready. And then we talk about good photography, about how to put in a good application and planning your time from the time you get accepted to how you tell the press and your customers that you’re there, the whole thing.

So I’ve always enjoyed that sort of aspect of imparting advice and business to makers. And I’ve spoken to literally probably thousands of students over the years about setting up a business, and I enjoy that. So we put together Find a Maker with a view that it was a lovely directory of makers selected by an independent panel. So we’ve got a really nice group of makers that we’ll keep building and then in the back, which you don’t really see but from the makers have a business school, so we have monthly meetings and we’ve got different topics every month and then we have a family gathering. And then we chat about whatever people want to talk about and be about what they’re working on or plan for the future or what they’d like the business school to be because it’s only been going a few months. And then there’s a Facebook group as well, which is where members can put in questions. And we had a really good talk with Becky Breyer, who talked about VAT in the European Union. It was great to get a member talking to other members. And she had learned by actually having to do it.

V: I love the idea of it when you told me about Find a Maker because it’s so needed. It’s exactly why I started my blog a few years ago, because if you don’t know about the craft community, and you’re not in the craft community. You can’t find these people. It’s really hard to know how to find them.

To find makers, obviously you can find them on Madebyhand online, which is really great. And then Design Nation is another really good resource of makers. But I think what made us stand out of it is that we have this incredible mailing list because it’s from all the people there, from people who have been to our events. So, it’s almost like it’s a bit of a golden ticket, really. The fact that our list is from people who have been to the craft festival, so they are really into it. It’s been really good, actually. It’s gone better than I thought. I was hoping people wanted to join. Lots of people wanted to join. I was going to do four applications a year, but we’re going to do three because there are too many people joining each time to manage.

It will slow down, but we want to make sure that it’s not so big that people don’t get lost. And it’s about the quality, really, because you want to be a really good resource. Yeah, absolutely. And we’ve been around a little bit now.

V: So, you’ve been going 18 years, and before that, you obviously were still running craft businesses. If you could do one thing, what would you do to help makers and craft people with their businesses? What would you like to give them right now? Yeah. If you could do one thing, what do you think would help them the most?

S: Get them to prioritize their marketing time, really? I think just to spend a little bit more time, but less on the stuff that doesn’t make the boat go faster. I don’t know. I always use that phrase in Preparing to Sell because it was from the Beijing Olympics and the Olympic team were asked, “Why didn’t you go to the opening ceremony?” Because they won. Like, I don’t know how many golds. But they said that didn’t make the boat go faster. And now this is a metaphor for everyone. It’s like, are you using that marketing time wisely? Because you can spend lots of time doing Pinterest, Instagram, all these different things. I always think you should just do one thing well and make sure that you’re talking to your customers more than you’re talking to random strangers on social media.

Because as you know, talking to the right person, you know, you don’t own that list. If Instagram shut tomorrow with 200, you’ve got 20,000 or 100,000 followers on Instagram and they shut tomorrow, that’s all. They’re all gone. So it’s about prioritising and putting them onto your mailing list. I just think, I think people should just spend a bit less time working and trying to look after themselves a bit more, really. I think if anything, last year taught me your mental health is the absolutely most important thing. You’ve got physical and mental health really spend some time outside and try and get well. I’m 51 now, so suddenly looking after yourself is really important.

I think if you don’t look after yourself, then you’re not going to be here. To be honest, I’ve done all the wrong things. I’ve overworked myself for many, many years. And yeah, I broke my thyroid and that’s really not been great. So what’s next for you next in terms of projects?

S: So, rebuilding the show. We’re just about ready to do the relaunch of the show. So it’s a moment. It’s consolidation. Bear in mind that we have got Find a Maker, which is a whole new business that essentially appeared and needs managing. So there are no immediate plans to do any more events other than what we already have in the calendar. I would love to do one back in Cardigan in West Wales, but have it more like an event that you go and learn more rather than selling, but more like a music festival, but a small music festival with lots and lots and lots of activities and things like that.

V: That’s what I love about your events. Because it’s just not just people selling stuff. It’s also all the other things. Where did the idea from that come from? Because that’s not a traditional craft fair.

S: Well, it was really like a mashup really, because once upon a time there was an event called ‘Art in Action’ in Oxfordshire. I wasn’t that keen when I went. I was a bit surprised, but the makers were selling so much stuff. It was crazy. So it was massive, massive, massive traffic. I did lots of workshops and things, but it was really expensive. It was like 250 quid to do a two or three-day course. And I was just like, well, this is great, but how can you translate this into something that more people can take part in and get involved with? So I kind of took that as one part of how I wanted the show to be. And then the other part was the Chelsea Crafter, which you probably remember. We were in a funny little rural village called Bovey Tracey in sleepy Devon and all that. I wanted people to come and go and be absolutely wowed by what they found and we wanted it to be the best anywhere.

So people came from all over the country, it was about mashing up the two together and I wanted children to be really welcomed. My children were really little. I was really into craft. I basically sort of use myself as to who is the customer. I’m the customer and I think with any business that’s the best way you can do it. When I see people who never worked in food opening restaurants, you’re like, oh my God, I use myself as an example of what I want. And it started slowly. I mean, it’s grown and grown the way it is now with 24 workshops and huge this and a cinema and all the food and the music. We have acts every day. We’ve got ten food concessions.. I mean it’s grown and grown and grown and masses of demonstrations. We used to have one demonstration in the first one and we have ten going on all the time. It was almost like, right, we do it one year. Have we done? We survived. Let’s do it again. And then I’d add a little bit more and add a bit more and a bit more each year. We just try and do it, not try and build Rome in a day. Try and just tweak as you go along. Just try and take your time keeping to a budget because you can get so over-excited. Oh God, they actually go, no, I know there’s a lot of money there, but actually it’s for this. It’s all in a spreadsheet for like who’s putting up the fencing and the toilets and the boarding stuff and the stuff that you don’t see.

V: You must have so many tips and you mentioned you’ve been teaching makers about it. If you could give makers any top tips for doing well at craft fairs, what the three top tips be?

S: Probably plan your stand in advance, have a really good idea of what your stand is going to look like because it’s a highly pressured situation. So maybe go to other shows. I would go and visit other events and get some ideas about how people are and see what they’ve done. And don’t be afraid to self-promote the fact you’re going to be there. I would do lots of promotion that you’re going to be at the show. But you know who your customers are. You must tell them whether it’s an email or even a little postcard. I know that some makers do really well with the old-school printing of a postcard and putting in the post. I mean, I know there’s a cost, but usually those makers do extremely well because they personalise their communication to them and it might be key customers. You might only want to send, say 20 people.

So, I think it’s really a lot about planning and even having a lookbook, really. So it’s a bit like when I used to work at Next and this book would come around and you set everything up the same in all the shops. That’s why they looked all the same because everyone had this book and I sort of did dummy runs. I would set up your stands at home. Once you know you do what you’re doing, you don’t need to do that. Obviously, if it’s your first event, I would definitely plan it within an inch of its life because you’ll get there, and you’ll be so nervous. Your time will go so fast. And if you’re in a field and you haven’t got your bits and bobs, you need to plan all things that you might need, making sure you’ve got everything. We don’t supply anything. When you come you’re going to bring everything that you have. So it’s a question of having those tools and planning, I think just pace yourself as well because you have such a great time, you end up absolutely exhausted because your big customers might come in on Sunday afternoon and you’ll be looking like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.

We do try to look after exhibitors. If it’s raining, a lot of people camp and that can be really exhausting because you might not be sleeping that well. Yeah, I think a lot of pre-planning and that’s really the key. I think really it’s just preparation.

V: Thank you so much for telling your story. It’s been so interesting. I learned so much about you that I didn’t know and I love the fact that we can see how everything you did at an early age just really came together to get what you do now. All those skills.

S: What I didn’t tell you is that when I was sort of like nine or ten, I organised coffee morning charity coffee mornings when I was very young in my grandparents’ garage. There you go. By the end my mum had to say it’s got to stop, there’s too many people coming in – and by the end the whole road and all the mums were in the kitchen making hundreds of cups of coffee. So, I think I was just always really enthusiastic with always organising events.

V: So if people want to find out more about you and more about Craft Festival, where can they go?

S; Go to – that’s our website and there’s and on Instagram @Craftfestival.