NOT LONG ago, most buyers at American craft fairs were looking for a handmade clay pot, a glass or a weaving for their own home. Crafts were mostly sold person-to-person, without a middleman. Then came the craft galleries. Now major department stores have discovered American craft fairs.

The recent Rhinebeck craft fair, according to Carol Sedestrom, president of the American Crafts Enterprises, "drew buyers not only from specialty stores and museum shops but also from the country's major retailers, such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Bendel's and Neiman-Marcus." American Crafts Enterprises sponsored the Northeast Crafts Fair in Rhinebeck, N.Y., in June and the Baltimore Winter Market in February.

"The country or Americana look is the trend these days," said Barbara Deichman, senior home fashions coordinator for Bloomingdale's. She looks for limited editions or one-of-a-kind crafts at the fairs. "We can't buy from them in bulk as we do from manufacturers. Handmade goods take too long to make. Instead of carrying mass quantities of a particular style stoneware, we're selling limited amounts and then only in certain stores where we think they'll sell. Customers are responding to it."

Deichman shopped at the Rhinebeck craft fair and also in Kentucky for handmade crafts. Bloomingdale's, she says, will hold a Kentucky crafts show/sale at the Tysons Corner and White Flint stores in October, similar to the promotional show done at their New York City and help jump LIVING page 2 HELP, From Page 1 Bergen County, N.J., stores last March. Bloomingdale's for several years has made large promotions of foreign handcrafts: Israel, India, China, and this September, Ireland.

Bill Williams, divisional merchandise manager at Neiman-Marcus, a store whose customers tend to think of themselves as sophisticated, says, "We're investigating the crafts market as a source of high design for decorative objects."

"We realize their output is limited. We might only be able to make a particular crafts presentation at, say, three of our 16 stores. However the craftspeople are a source of unique pieces that we think our customers will go for," says Williams. "The types of pieces we're looking for must be made of good material, exhibit fine workmanship and offer a high level of design."

Williams says American craftsmen are particularly good to buy from (as opposed to their overseas counterparts) since "they can often make the items we want in contemporary colors." Although Deichman of Bloomingdale's notes that "it depends on their attitude -- sometimes they refuse."

Neiman-Marcus buyers attended the Baltimore market and the Rhinebeck fair in June. In July, Williams and staff spent several weeks in Kentucky looking for crafts. Neiman-Marcus is planning a Kentucky crafts show for their Beverly Hills store in the fall. Handmade quilts, rag dolls and stoneware plates will be sold. In October, the American Crafts Museum is helping Neiman-Marcus with a "Tabletop" show at its Houston store. Exhibit-only items from the museum's recent tabletop show will be shown with new sale items.

Williams said when the crafts revival began, a few craftsmen sought out the department store as a market. "Now the tables have been turned," says Williams. "The stores are seeking them."

Jack Dorner, director of home fashions for Woodward & Lothrop, says, "Crafts are specialty items for us -- we aren't going heavily into crafts buying." But, Dorner says, he is using craft objects to accent the model rooms in their downtown store.

Buyers from Woodies were at both the Rhinebeck and Baltimore craft fairs this year, buying: felted pillows by Heather Marsh; large stoneware bowls with caning by Ted Lobinger; egg baskets hand-stained with natural dyes by Bob Daubert; blue and white ceramic bowls by Terry Allen; and brooms by Larry Pierson. Dorner says he looked at other high quality porcelain and textiles, but felt they didn't suit Woodies' needs.

Dorner thinks there are problems for a department store in carrying crafts. "We only carry small amounts of a certain piece. The price for a handmade item is too high once it reaches a department store. When Woodies sells it to the customer, we have to mark it way up." It becomes overpriced for medium-income clientele.

Some customers, Dorner feels, think of crudely made items when they think of crafts. "Obviously," Dorner says, "this isn't the case. Craftsmanship has grown in sophistication. Much of the work I've seen at the fairs belongs in a museum or gallery, not in a mass-marketing situation like a department store."

Lisa Wanderman agrees. Wanderman is the crafts buyer for the Smithsonian and worries about the trend of crafts buying for department stores. "Craftspeople put their life into their work, particularly those from overseas in poorer or less developed countries." She believes that both the shopper and the craftsman lose something when the craft is sold through someone who doesn't understand handwork.

Barbara Deichman of Bloomingdales admits, "Sometimes we don't work hard enough to educate customers. It's difficult to be as personalized in a department store as you are in a gallery or museum. There's so much else going on around the customer. We'd like our crafts shows to look like a Smithsonian exhibit and sometimes we try, but it's not always possible."

Dorner believes that crafts sell better in the more "natural" environment of a marketplace than in a department store. "The ambiance of the marketplace, where crafts are being sold everywhere, causes the customer to get excited about the merchandise. Seeing a small quantity of crafts in a department store set up doesn't generate the same enthusiasm."

The buyers at Lord & Taylor not only shopped at the Rhinebeck show, but have bought handmade items in North Carolina, Virginia and in Nantucket for past shows promoting crafts. Laurie Schaeffer, public relations director for branch stores, says they bought baskets, shawls, woven items and pottery for the Nantucket show they held in the New York City store two years ago. Last spring, Lord & Taylor focused on Charleston baskets, table mats, handmade furniture and quilts at the New York City store.

Peggy Kaufman, promotions director at Lord & Taylor, has just returned from Santa Fe, N.M., shopping for a spring 1982 promotion. Kaufman and staff brought back black clay and glass owls, dishes and vases made by the New Mexico Indians, glasses, woven rugs and shawls, leather belts, candles, dried flowers, silver and beaded jewelry. "Unfortunately," says Kaufman, "we could only buy enough for our New York City store."

The craftsman had to change to sell to the major galleries and department stores. Dorner of Woodies noted, "The craftsperson had to learn the language of the buyers.

"I was very impressed with the craftspeople at the Baltimore Winter Market this year," he said. "They had printed invoices and a DUNS number the number that tells the buyer if the craftsman is solvent or not . They knew about insurance, packaging, transportation and when deposits were expected. This gives the buyers confidence. Most of the time I couldn't tell the craftsperson from the buyer."

Ceramic artist Bill Hall, who exhibited at the Baltimore fair, has also noticed a metamorphosis of the craftsman.

Decked out in a preppy-looking tweed jacket and blue cords on the first day of the fair, Hall admitted, "I dress differently now than I did when I first got into this business." (Hall is a former wire service photographer who now works in Kensington, Md.)

"During the wholesale days, we kind of use the 'Madison Avenue' approach. The buyers like us that way. Of course," he added, "when the retail days begin, I'll be back to my flannel shirt and blue jeans."

Carol Sedestrom points out, "The craftspeople have found that they can earn a living doing this. It's no longer a sideline hobby -- something to do between college and a 'real job.' "

The fairs themselves now draw a mixture of blue jean wearers and cosmopolitan buyers whose knowledge and appreciation of the crafts is greater than that of the crowds of years past -- as is the amount of money they're willing to spend.

Washington area craftspeople were well represented at both Baltimore and Rhinebeck. Sixty-two of the 450 craftspeople at Baltimore's Winter Market and 35 of the 520 exhibitors at the Northeast Craft Fair in Rhinebeck were from this area.

Baltimore, in its fifth year, is the second oldest of the ACE fairs. Rhinebeck, in its 16th year, is the oldest. The fairs run for five days -- two days wholesale and three days retail. The Baltimore fair netted $3.3 million, the Rhinebeck show $4.7 million this year.

"We were especially pleased with the Rhinebeck turnout paid attendance: $48,000 ," said Carol Sedestrom. "We were worried that last year's surge in paid attendance, from $30,000 to $47,000, was due to the end of the gasoline crisis and that this year we'd see a drop. But the fair seems to have remained popular." Last year Rhinebeck netted $4.5 million.

Ceramics was the largest category at both fairs, then fiber, then jewelry. "Up till a few years ago, jewelry used to be the second largest category," says Sedestrom, "but since the skyrocketing price of gold, jewelry-making seems to have waned."

Though most of the large craft shows are over for this year, Pacific States Craft Fair will take place Aug. 20-23 in San Francisco. Dates and application deadlines for exhibitors for next year's fairs are: Baltimore Winter Market -- Feb. 24-28, 1981/deadline -- Oct. 1, 1981; Dallas Craft Market -- April 22-25, 1981/deadline -- Nov. 16, 1981; Rhinebeck's Northeast Craft Fair -- June 22-27, 1982/deadline, Jan. 8, 1982.

Craftspeople at the Rhinebeck show gave it mixed reports.

Ceramicist Volker Schoenfliess of Baltimore Clayworks said he sold half of what he brought before the fair was half over. Schoenfliess makes ceramic egg-like creatures decorated with gold luster.

Tom Raredon, trained as an engineer, works in his studio in Northhampton, Mass., to combine -- with engineering exactness -- brass, gold, silver and semiprecious stones. One cook lustfully eyed his tin-lined copper pans with handles made of mountain laurel or rosewood. "They're almost too pretty to use," she said. The pans go for $150-$200.

Fiber artist Louise Lodis of Spokane, Wash., at Rhinebeck for her second year, also exhibits her colorful silk tapestry/banners at Seraph Gallery in Washington. The banners start at $800.

Alan Friedman's lamp sculptures and tables, described by one critic as a cross between Chippendale and Art Nouveau, are functional and fun. Although they don't look it, all his pieces are made of plywood. One of his card tables has a carefully inlaid surface with long spindly legs. His sculptured lamps are solidly built with curlicue tops, similar to a treble clef. They start at $1,600.

Pewter maker Sally Richards of Hamden, Conn., said wholesale sales were particularly good. Richards, a nine-time exhibitor at Rhinebeck, remembered: "They used to have to call out the National Guard to direct traffic when we had the show in Bennington, Vt. The fair was then moved to Mount Snow and finally to Rhinebeck."

Ceramic artists Ron Bower and Sylvia Bumgartner were supposed to be married after the Baltimore show. In their exhibition booth at Rhinebeck they said they had postponed it until after that show.

"We haven't had the time," Bumgartner said, smiling sheepishly. "Business has been too good."