It's an old idea -- putting senior citizens back to work in crafts -- but it's pleasant to discover that this doesn't mean they're creating nylon-net cleanser covers or handpainted toothpick holders.

Organizations are encouraging senior craftsmen to use thier own special skills and channeling them into highly marketable merchandise. Many talents are examples of dying arts, skills sometimes brought over from other countries.

"One of our purposes is to make the elderly artisan feel useful in this sophisticated world," says Dorayne Lyons, project director of the Senior Craftsmen Showcase, a three-room shop sandwiched in on Connecticut Avenue between the Shoreham and the Sheraton Park Hotels.

"And there is nothing that makes you feel so good than when someone pays you money for something you've made. From sitting in a chair doing nothing to doing something worthwhile -- this is our best purpose.

"Our store is like an ongoing church bazaar open six days a week."

The shop, stocked with crafts from 700 consignors over age 60, was started in 1970 as a joint project of the D.C. Department of Recreation. It was the first project of its kind in the country, according to Lynons, "for the dual purposes of giving an opportunity for senior craftsmen to use talents and skills they already possess, and also offer the public a place to purchase handmade items seldom found in the city."

The shop is run as a private, nonprofit corporation with funds granted from the D.C. Office on Aging. According to director Dick Artis, his department so far has been spared from the recent budget cuts slashing many social programs.

"As far as we know our prinicpal federal funding has not been affected," he says. "And we expect no cuts in our 1981-1982 programs. But our crystal ball is a little bit cloudy past that point."

The craftspeople at the shop sometimes aren't as interested in their financial gain as in the creative process.

"It's fun to make things, but what do you do after you've finished them? You can only keep so many for yourself," says Becky Williams, 62, a retired government employe now stocking the shop with her handmade dolls.

The oldest craftsman in the shop is Ella Hevener, 101, who makes finely-stitched quilts from whatever fabrics she can find. A few cosignors who have moved away still send in their crafts for extra pocket money.

The items, taken on consignment, are priced on the basis of what the craftsmen himself wants to charge, plus about 35 percent for the store's overhead. Most prices are reasonable, with many less than that of comparable items in other stores.The salespeople are volunteers, mainly senior citizens.

Karolyn Martin, president of Natural Innovations in Hoboken, N.J., has only senior citizens working in her infants' and children's accessory company. (Her 3-year-old firm sold a half-million dollars' worth of products last years to 2,000 stores around the country, including Neiman-Marcus and Woodward & Lothrop here.)

"My workers are pros," says Martin "not little old ladies sitting around crocheting those awful things that go on the back of chairs."

It all started when Martin saw some dolls made by seniors that she "flipped over" and then sold to Saks Fifth Avenue. Soon after, she found herself heading a team of seniors who make a line of high-quality, meticulously-stitched cottom items like bibs, baby after-bath sacks, stick horses, padded picture frames and baby quilts. Prices range from $6 for a tooth fairy pillow to $150 for an elaborate, lined carrying basket (rock star Rod Stewart was one purchaser).

Martin's workers are mainly retired garment industry, sewing machine operators originally from countries like Italy, Ireland, Romania, China and Sweden, "whose talents," she says, "are unsurpassed." Her pattern maker is Elizabeth Roes, for 25 years the chief patternmaker at Christian Dior's New York operation.

The women work in piecework, cottage-industry style. As a personal touch, Martin has each of them tag every piece they make with a label giving their signature and age. Each item is shipped with this tag, tied on with a satin ribbon, and including a brief story about Natural Innovations, which read:

"A company of senior artisans who have come together to illustrate that aging need not deter skills, insight or energy. American grandmothers and grandfathers who trace their apprenticeships back to the 1900s and who feel it is important to demonstrate that being over-the-hill should never mean retirement from life, or settling for the old rocking chair. We believe that vitality and dexterity have to do with spirit -- and that spirit itself is ageless."

Martin said she didn't know how important those tags were until a store called to complain that one item was missing a tag. (She shipped them a replacement.)

The ultimate compliment, she says, came from one boutique where a tug of war broke out over one of the items.

"A new shipment of our things had just come in and people were fighting over who was going to be able to buy the item made by the oldest artisan."