The Inside Scoop On Flea Market Strategies

Aside from stitching and embellishing, is there anything more thrilling than finding a beautiful vintage textile or an unusual found object at a yard sale, thrift shop, or flea market? Especially at a great price? Such a piece can add just the right touch to make a contemporary art quilt or mixed-media piece unique.

Terrific flea markets exist everywhere, but in our neck of the woods, the granddaddy of them all is the Brimfield Antique Show in Brimfield, Massachusetts. "Brimfield," as it's known locally, runs three times a year, with more than 6,000 dealers and 130,000+ visitors during the course of the week.  

If that sounds overwhelming, it can be. However, Jenn Mason–who explains how to use unique found objects for surfaces and embellishments in her Cloth Paper Scissors Workshop DVD, Mixed-Media Medley: Explore the Possibilities–has developed some strategies. She agreed to reveal her secrets so you can use her tips for finding wonderful old objects to use in your own artwork and apply them to your own local flea market or antique mall excursion.  

QD: Jenn, in your video you talk about using options for surfaces and embellishments that you can't buy at an arts or crafts store. Have you always used these "found" objects in your work?
JM: In art school I almost never used any found objects in my art even though I was always inspired by my environment-which is made up of found objects. About 10 years ago, I became fascinated with the Brimfield Antique Show.  It's absolutely huge and even though I go to the show about six days a year, I haven't ever seen the whole thing and I'm a pretty fast walker. At first I was using found items in my decorating around the house, but slowly I started to use them in my collages and assemblages. 

QD: What do you look for when you're on the hunt?
JM: For me most of the fun is looking for a deal. This means that while everyone is looking at the goodies on the table, I'm on my hands and knees looking through the boxes of the leftover "junk" under the tables. If it doesn't make it onto a table, it usually means I'm going to get a good price for it. In general I'm looking for interesting surfaces and old books with interesting subjects. Children's readers are my favorite. I also love to find vendors who have a lot of mismatched, broken and rusted cabinet ware like handles and feet. I can use the broken pieces they can't sell so we both leave the deal happy.  

QD: What is the weirdest thing you look for?
JM:  I'm always on the lookout for ceramic or porcelain doll parts, but I get odd looks when I ask a vendor, "Do you have any spare body parts?" 

QD: How do you decide what to buy and what to pass up?
JM: Oh, if I had the answer to that question I would be a happy woman. I like to leave some things to fate. If a piece is really cheap and I'm pretty sure I'll use it, I buy it up. If it's expensive, I might have to walk around for a bit and think about it.  If it's not there when I get back then I wasn't meant to have it.  Trust me though, I've passed up a few things that I wish I hadn't. 

QD: Any great tips for our readers on preparing to go to a big antique show like this?
JM:  Yes, I do!

  1. Before you go, picture what you're looking for–like glass or rusty things or books, etc.  Then, when you walk down the aisles of vendors, look for THOSE things primarily. If you wander without purpose you'll never make it down one aisle, you'll spend all your money on things you didn't come for and you will become overwhelmed rather quickly. 
  2. If you find a vendor you particularly like, ask if they have a card with their contact information. You may want to visit their shop or website between shows, and many will have a flier with their booth location on it so you can find them easily next year.
  3. Go early on the first day of a show if you want the best selection of hard-to-find or very popular items. I rarely do that as I am usually looking for a bargain. For the best prices, go on the last day of a show, or the end of the day.
  4. Go on a rainy day. As long as you're dressed for it, you will enjoy getting great deals from the vendors who want to make sales on a slow day. Note: Textile vendors understandably don't put a lot of their wares out on a rainy day, because that makes for a lot of laundry! So if you're looking for textiles, don't be afraid to ask. Vendors will usually be happy to open up their bins and show you what they have.
  5. Bring cleaning supplies. You'll be touching lots and lots of old, dirty and dusty items. I like to bring wet wipes or even just a wet washcloth in a plastic bag-there isn't enough hand sanitizer in the world to scrape off the dirt.

Thanks for the tips, Jenn! 

If you're wondering about ways to incorporate all your fabulous finds into your art, don't forget to check out Jenn's Cloth Paper Scissors Workshop DVD, Mixed-Media Medley: Explore the Possibilities today.

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