Anyone who fears that Americans have traded their independent spirit for material security can put his fears to rest. The spirit of freedom is alive and well, thriving among craftsmen and artists of this country.

Last weekend 200 of them came from as far away as New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the Third Annual Spring Arts and Crafts Fair, sponsored by Sugarloaf Mountain Works, at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. Although many spoke of the economic uncertainty of their lives no one wanted to give up his freedom.

"There's no paid vacations and no retirement plan, but you're your own boss," said pewtersmith Fred Pulsifer of New Hampshire.

Glass artist Anita Iaconangelo of Colorado agreed. "There's not much security in it, but there's a great deal of freedom. I'm telling myself what to do and that's a good feeling."

Self-employment means the craftsman must pay attention to the business end as well as the creative side of his work.

"This business aspect is difficutl; it takes a lot of discipline," said blacksmith and metalsmith Jennifer P. Sayre of New Hampshire. "I'm a creative person; I can't be bothered with bookkeeping. But I must keep my own books, I must know where my stock is, I must know about taxes. Otherwise you don't survive."

Beyond the novelty of being one of a handful of female blacksmiths in this country, Sayre produces work unusual in its combination of techniques. For kitchen utensiils, she forges the handles from iron by using traditional blacksmithing techniques, and the ends from brass, which is polished to a high sheen by using jewelry techniques.

Finding the unusual can be an important factor in the craftsman's success. By applying his trade to his hobby, Sandor Herskovitz of Flushing, N.Y., found a distinctive way to sculpt briar pipes. For shapes, he found inspiration in the shoes he had been selling for years for Genesco, a shoe corporation.

From making pipes in the shape of Benedict Arnold's boot and Abigail Adams' shoe he has gone on to make a camera shape for a Nikon executive, a foot shape for a podiatrist and a vertebra shape for an osteopath. His Liberty Bell pipe sent to Washington for the Bicentennial caught the eye of pipe-smoker Gerald Ford.

"Maybe I got a little ham in me, maybe that's why I do it," said Herskovitz. "You take a piece of wood and you never kwow what's inside."

For photographer Raymond Harti, of Wisconsin, art fairs are a way to see the country, meet the people and get their reactions. "How else do you exhibit? Maybe in galleries, if you can get in. You have to get that feedback."

Hartl views the fairs as a first step in his career. He plans to spend only a few years on the circuit.

Others make going from one fair to another a way of life. Having spent the winter at fairs in Florida, Fred and Caroline Pulsifer stopped at the Gaithersburg fair on their way back to New Hampshire where they will exhibit in August.

"People look at us spending our winter in Florida and think what an easy life, but we're working all the time," said Pulsifer. "It's no eight-hour job. There's no such think if you're a craftsman."

At fairs, Pulsifer usually wears a straw hat while he is hammering on a piece of pewter. A sign on his hat says, "Working - please disturb - Fred."

"I want people to feel free to ask questions," he explained.

People do just that, often because they are practicing the craft or art involved. "I'm into photography and I usually pester the photographers about their secrets, what kind of film they use and so on," said George Simonis of Rockville."

Others come strictly to admire. "We go to a lot of fairs to look at the crafts. We admire what we can't do ourselves, although I wish I could," said Tom Pettloff of Silver Spring.

For many people there is an appeal in the revival of the handcrafted item. "We like to see support going back to our native crafts, to see these arts revived, some lost for hundreds of years," said Ted Goetzenberger of Rockville.

His wife, Ann, agreed. "In this materialistic age we need things like this. I think it's great to see young people doing this and making a living at it."