THIS WEEKEND, the Women's Committee of the Smithsonian Resident Associates is bringing something to Washington that it sorely needs: Whimsy. Color. Functionalism.

The occasion is the fourth annual Washington Craft Show, a tony gathering of some of the best craftsmen in the country. Small in scope -- the hundred artists have been selected from 1,100 applicants -- the show combines all the advantages of a small gallery where you can see and absorb the collection in one visit, with the resources of a large gallery. It will let you see the finest workmanship in baskets, ceramics, fiber, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, paper, wood and mixed-media.

The show -- selected, or "juried," this year by Aline Fisch, a jeweler and professor of art at San Diego State University; Cynthia Bringle, a potter from Penland, N.C.; and Lloyd Herman, director of the Renwick Gallery -- is known for being "very professional and even in quality," according to Paul J. Smith, director of New York's American Craft Museum, the exhibiting arm of the American Crafts Council, which sponsors five craft shows of its own around the country.

The selection process means browsers and buyers can't lose, says Katherine Pearson, editor and author of a number of books on crafts. "You're guaranteed high quality, so anything you buy is going to be a good investment," she says. "Plus, it's likely to be something you like and need, so you'll get your money's worth out of it. And even if you buy nothing, you'll be learning something about quality just by walking around."

Craft fairs, she says, still include a "chance of discovery. That's the reason they're maintained. They're a wonderful way to spend the day."

The Washington Craft Show is heavily weighted on the side of whimsy, with entries from people such as Myrna Tatar, a fiber artist whose work appears in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tatar does one-of-a-kind quilted furniture, things that she says "start out serious, but always end up being sort of funny."

Things seem to take on a life of their own for this Ohio woman, to hear her talk: "I started out painting acrylic on canvas, cutting it up and stitching it together to make wearable art. But it got too stiff, so I decided to use dye and cotton sheets."

She spent six months going to garage sales, buying up old cotton sheets when the permanent press craze elbowed them out of the market, and gradually taught herself to use a kind of dye whose color comes clear only when it's set, not when it's applied.

Not content with the clothes, she started to make "boxes to put them in, which I covered and quilted." She put feet on one of these, "and the feet just kept growing and growing until finally I had a full-sized chest of drawers."

The furniture she makes can grow no larger than the measurements of her Plymouth van, she says, so she can truck them to shows. Read that as galleries; this is only Tatar's second craft fair.

Not so for Barrie Cliff, a corporate executive drop-out who hauls his traditional and contemporary pewter to close to 20 craft fairs per year. When he's home in Cape Cod, he says, "I work like the dickens -- it's part of the discipline of business. But we like to travel, and do perhaps one or two shows a month."

Cliff hit the vice-presidency in the corporate world at 40, lost out on two different runs for president, and finally decided with his family to take their assets elsewhere. "First we decided where we wanted to live," he says, "and then we figured out what we wanted to do."

They toyed with the idea of opening a restaurant or an inn, and finally decided on pewter, something Cliff knew nothing about. "It was like, how do you make the damn stuff?" he says. "I was a typical corporate executive, no hobbies, just tennis and a Porsche and work."

He started doing traditional work in pewter -- Jefferson cups, Revere bowls -- until his first craft show, where he was impressed by the more contemporary items. "I went and designed my own, based on geometric shapes -- nothing too odd." His favorite is a decanter, which he says "gives off an aura of success. I always imagine my corporate self as my best customer, and this is the sort of thing I'd buy."

Perhaps more typical of the kind of craftsmen showing at the Smithsonian show is John Flemming, who learned the leather craft in the '60s and '70s from a Mexican American while living in India ("we used to make runs to Bombay to buy cobra skins," he says). He started making leather masks for fashion shows in France, and when he returned to the States in the mid-'70s, found the "arts and crafts scene well-developed."

That translates as a good market for his masks -- everything from small "loups" ("people call it a Lone Ranger mask") to three-foot-high "sculptures," all of which are "very elaborate, very planned, lots of polychrome color."

Leather for him has a wonderful mystique: "It's like putting on another skin, one you can sculpt." His masks tend to fit into themes; he's done a series of masks on winds ("like the Santa Ana, which plays with your emotions"), Greek and Roman mythological deities and the Firebird Ballet.

Like Flemming, most of the exhibitors make whatever living they can strictly off crafts, though a few, like part-time dentist, full-time metal-working craftsman Dave Bacharach, supplement here and there. That means visitors to the crafts fair are dealing with the survivors -- people whose technical prowess and business acumen is solid enough to allow them to eat, drink and be sheltered off crafts.

Which brings us to the little matter of money: The works you'll see here run for perhaps $5 to several thousand dollars, all of which are considered a bargain by craftspeople ("we're really very competitive, compared with the finer stores," says Bacharach). Remember that these pieces are unique, often one-of-a-kind, all original designs and handmade.

But perhaps the warning is unnecessary: People who attend craft shows "are getting much more sophisticated," says Bacharach. "They used to balk at anything over $5; now everything's so expensive that going to a craft show looks pretty good, compared to going to Kitchen Bazaar, where you might spend the same amount on a mug to get a mass-produced one from Japan."

"The tendency is to buy something small the first year," says the American Craft Museum's Smith, "and then invest in something more major the next year."

Perhaps the biggest advantage to this kind of buying is that you can "actually meet the person who made the thing you want to buy," says Bacharach. Washington collector Mitch Berliner thinks this is the fun part of craft shows: "I have yet to meet a craftsperson who wasn't willing to talk about his work, even if you're not buying."

Talking to the craftsmen is a way to educate yourself about the crafts, Smith points out, which will help you make a good choice. Plus, "it's good entertainment," maintains Pearson.

She advises that you walk around once quickly, noting areas you like on your map, and then go back to those. "Let's say you're looking for a casserole," she says, "and you've narrowed it down to two. Go back to those two and examine them in detail -- hold the lip, look how the lid and bowl match, run your hand over the glaze looking for any bubbles, feel the heft of the bowl. If it's too heavy for its size, that's a sign of a beginning potter -- it's hard to pull up clay into thin walls."

Craftsmanship is liable to be fairly even at this show, so Pearson advises you to choose the item "with the most graceful lines -- nothing too trendy or gimmicky. You're looking for something that endures, here."

Berliner takes a slightly different tack: "Walk around the whole show at least twice," he advises, "because you can miss some really wonderful things the first time." He also thinks visitors should come with no preconceived notions on what they want: "If you're looking for this item in these colors and that size, chances are you won't find it," he says.

The Berliners have gone to craft shows, however, with measurements and an idea of what category item they want, and have used the fair as a chance to find artists whose work fits their decorating scheme. "We might find something, like a rug, that we really like," he says, "and ask them to make it in a different size."

Some people use fairs as a chance to commission work from those whose crafts they admire. Berliner says they try to have the craftsman to their home for this, so he or she can see the space and get a feel for what's needed.

Normally, a craftsman will start a commissioned work by submitting a few renderings for the customer's approval. If he's on the entirely wrong track at this point, you can stop the process by paying a fee for the renderings (which often represent hours of work), or make countersuggestions.

Once you've agreed on a design, the craftsman may do a mock-up and try it out in your home, or just go ahead and build the item. "All this takes months and is a pain in the neck," Berliner warns, "but for us, it's worth it, because we get exactly what we want."

This from the man who says he goes to craft fairs and then just buys "the things I really love. We're pretty darn impulsive."

And that's another thing the Washington Craft Fair is bringing to the city this weekend: Spontaneity.

WASHINGTON CRAFT SHOW -- Friday 10-8; Saturday 10-6; Sunday 10-5 at the Departmental Auditorium, 1301 Constitution Ave. NW. (Across the street from the Museum of American History.) Admission is $5 for adults, and $4 for children under 12, senior citizens over 65 and Smithsonian Resident Associates. For more information, call 357-4000. MORE CRAFTS AROUND TOWN

At the Art Barn, the 18 members of Washington's Woodworkers Guild are demonstrating their craft and showing their works -- everything from Steve LaDrew's funky palm-tree floor lamps with their bent, plywood leaves, to Eve Rafferty's earthy relief carvings and the sculptural work in Sidney Stone's turned-wood bowls.

The last -- so-called because they're turned on a lathe -- have been pushing woodworkers to the limits of their medium lately, LaDrew says. "Bowl makers are starting with wood that's green or rotten or insect infested, and just seeing what kinds of effects you can make with it," he says.

What they're creating are bowls of amazing beauty and originality -- pieces that are translucent, wood turned through the smallest possible opening, shapes that defy our concept of the word "bowl." Edward Jacobson, a Phoenix collector, gathered 98 of these from some of the top turned-wood bowl makers in the country; his collection appears at the Renwick now until September 28.

If you stop by there, you can also sneak another peak at Wendell Castle's extraordinarily crafted "Masterpieces of Time," on display until May 11. You may want to schedule your visit for this weekend, when the Renwick is featuring a number of demonstrations of wood turning.

Here are the details on these and other shows throughout the area:

Art Barn Gallery -- in Rock Creek Park, 2401 Tilden St.NW, Washington, DC 10008; 426-6719. Washington Woodworkers Guild show through May 4. Woodworking demonstrations on weekends. Phone for details.

THE ATHENAEUM -- 201 Prince St., Alexandria, VA 22314; 548-0035. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-4; Sunday, 1-4. From May 2 to June 8, it will exhibit a juried show of the Creative Crafts Council of Washington, Maryland and Virginia, a large group including ceramics artists, enamelists, fiber artists, stained glass designers and jewelers.

Franz Bader Gallery -- 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20006; 659-5515. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10-6. Now featuring a show of ceramic artists Gertrude and Oto Natzler -- she did the forms, he glazed them. Gertrude has since passed away, and the show will include some solo pieces by Otto.

Community Quilts -- 7710 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, Md.; 654-7763. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10-5; Tuesday 10-7. This is a supply store for quilting, which occasionally shows works "for inspiration," says a spokesman. Right now, it is displaying "Spring Inspirations: Garments From a Cotton Collection," the works of five local quilters based loosely on Folkwear and Vogue patterns. The Dimock Gallery -- George Washington University, Lower Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW, Washington DC 20052; 676-7091. Now displaying its "Annual Awards Show" of art students, including perhaps 20 percent crafts (GWU has a strong ceramics department).

Fendrick Gallery -- 3059 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20007; 338-4544. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10-6. Albert Paley (he did the inside gates at the Renwick) is showing his jewelry right now.

Foundry Gallery -- 404 Seventh St. NW, Washington, DC 20004; 783-2757. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 11-5. Now showing works by Linda Hendriks, a fiber artist doing wrapped sculptures in an American Indian motif.

The Glass Gallery -- 4931 Elm St., Bethesda, MD 20814; 657-3478. Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11-5. Now showing nonfunctional glass sculpture by Ken I. Ipsen and painting on glass by Walter Lieberman.

Glen Echo Gallery -- Glen Echo Park, MacArthur Boulevard, Glen Echo, Md., 492-6282. Hours: Monday-Sunday, 12-5. Featuring "Montgomery Potters Show" until May 4; more than 100 pieces, juried by the gallery's resident artist, Jeff Kirk.

Sherley Kotten Associates -- 2604 Tilden Place NW. 363-2233. She's an art consultant representing 90 craft artists in all media. In April, she'll be featuring fiber art. Call for an appointment.

Anne O'Brien Gallery -- 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20006; 429-9649. Now showing the glass bowls of Seattle artist Sonja Blomdahl and the carved wood furniture of Florida artist Kathran Siegel, including a screen she did with her mother, local teacher Ruth Siegel.

Plum Gallery -- 3762 Howard Ave., Kensington, MD 20895; 933-0222. It always has a jewelry exhibit; the present one is by metalworker Gretchen Raber.

Renwick Gallery -- Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20550; 357-2531. Hours: Daily, 10-5:30. "Masterpieces of Time: Clocks by Wendell Castle" will run until May 11; "The Art of Turned Wood Bowls" stays until Sept. 28. The James Renwick Collectors Alliance is sponsoring the following free wood-turning demonstrations: Friday, noon to 2: Alan Stirt, bowl-turning with green and dry wood; Saturday, 11 to 3: Palmer M. Sharpless, spindle turning and its variations; Sunday, 11 to 3, David Ellsworth, greenwood turning of hollow wooden forms. In addition, the Collectors Alliance and the Smithsonian Associates are sponsoring an all-day seminar on "Living with Wood" on Saturday, The cost is $60, $50 for members. For more information, phone 357-3030.

V O Galerie -- 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20005; 293-0249. Hours: Monday-Friday, 10-7; Saturday 10-6. Currently exhibiting jewelry by Giam Paolo Babetto, an art professor from Padua, Italy who works chiefly in gold. AND STILL MORE . . .

If you can't make it this weekend to the Washington Craft Show or the other shows just mentioned -- or even if you can, and just like looking at crafts -- you may be interested in this list of galleries and shops throughout the area that often feature the works of people who work in crafts.

American Hand -- 2906 M St. NW, Washington, DC 20007, 965-3273. American pottery.

Appalachian Spring -- 1415 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20007, 337-5780. Contemporary and traditional American crafts, all media.

Appalachian, Inc. -- 10400 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda, MD 20814, 530-6770. Functional American crafts and home furnishings.

Barstons Craft Gallery -- The Shops at National Place, 1331 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20004, 737-0569. Functional wood, ceramics and glass.

The Best of Everything, Ltd. -- 12211 River Rd., Potomac, MD 20854, 983-8686. Baskets; ceramics.

Bouquets by Carolyn -- Seven Locks Plaza Mini Mall, Rockville, MD 20854, 340-2346. Contemporary crafts, including ceramics, baskets, glass, jewelry and pillows.

Enamelists' Gallery -- 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, VA 22314, 836-1561. Classic and modern designs of enamel on metal.

Fibre Workshop Gallery -- 105 N. Union St. (Torpedo Factory Art Center), Alaexandria, VA 22314, 836-5807. A co-op group featuring fiber art and wearables.

Full Circle, Inc. -- 317 Cameron St., Alexandria, VA, 22314, 683-4500. Japanese crafts and clothing.

The Gadfly -- 215 South Union St., Alexandria, VA 22314, 548-0218. Crafts and clothing.

The Glass Gallery -- 4931 Elm St., Bethesda, MD 20814. 657-3478. Contemporary glass.

Going to Pot -- Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria, VA 22314, 548-0707. Functional and decorative clay works.

Grand Jury -- 10301 Old Georgetown Rd. (Wildwood Shopping Center), Bethesda, MD 20814, 530-7982. American decorative arts, jewelry, accessories, knit clothing.

Grey House Potters -- 5509 Wilson Blvd. N., Arlington; 522-7738. Local potters.

Holly Ross Gallery -- 516 C St. NE, Washington, DC 20002, 544-0400. Features ceramics, tapestries and rugs.

Jackie Chalkley Fine Crafts and Wearables -- 3301 New Mexico Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016, 686-8882. Clay, glass, wood, fiber and metal crafts, wearable art, jewelry.

Lee Gallery -- Georgetown Court, 3251 Prospect St. NW & 3222 N St. NW, Washington DC 20007; 342-1212. Decorative and functional pottery, jewelry and fibers by local and national artists.

Maurine Littleton Gallery -- 3222 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20007. 333-9307. Contemporary glass and ceramics.

Moon, Blossoms and Snow -- 225 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20003, 543-8181. Handmade clothing and jewelry, functional ceramics, glass, wood, paper and basketry.

Much Ado About Something -- 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006, 463-7878. Wall hangings, pottery, ceramics, wooden sculpture, brass and handblown crystal.

The Old Mill Gallery -- Evans Farm Inn, Route 123, McLean, Va. 22101, 893-2736. Fiber art, clay, wood, glass, jewelry.

Spectrum Gallery -- 1132 29th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007, 333-0954. Features the work of 28 area artists including potters and jewelers.

Trocadero Textile Art -- 1501 Connecticut Ave. at Dupont Circle, Washington, DC 20036, 328-8440. Antique textiles, oriental rugs and kilims, Bolivian ceremonial mantas, Navajo blankets.

Zenith Gallery -- 1441 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20005, 667-3483. Contemporary crafts, furniture, jewelry and tapestries.