Calligraphers define their art in various ways. They call it beautiful writing, ornamental self-expression, makng words look like what they mean.

Calligraphy is an inseparable feature of holiday traditions. Greeting cards, wrapping paper and invitations to Christmas parties often show the work of a calligrapher's hand.

Interest in practicing the art of fine lettering is increasing so rapidly that membership in the Washington Calligraphers. Guild, founded in 1976, has swelled from about 75 members in its first year to 450 today. Six open meetings of the guild a year and a series of workshops permit the sharing of ideas related to the history and practice of calligraphy.

But guild members are quick to caution beginners.

"While those calligraphy sets are good starters," says Patsy Crouch of Silver Spring, who teaches the art in Montgomery County adult education classes, "beginners peed to be convinced that calligraphy takes years of learning and practice to perfect."

Calligrapher Linda Abrams of Potomac agrees that working consistently with a teacher is a necessity. "If you're self-taught, you don't catch all your own mistakes," she said. Lynn McFadden of Fort Washington, another instructor of calligraphy, says that taking a class is "just a jumping-off point. About the fifth or sixth lesson, students' eyes begin to open to the beauty of letters. Their biggest surprise is the time it takes to master a style."

Classes in calligraphy are offered in county adult and continuing education programs, at Georgetown University, in credit courses at Northern Virginia Community College, and by the Department of Agriculture. The classes range from the easier methods of forming letters to things such as the marbling of inside book covers and Celtic calligraphy using zoomorphs -- twisting an animal shape into a letter -- and other complicated patterns. Calligraphers say you don't have to have good handwriting to be a good calligrapher.

Mimi Armstrong of Annapolis has been teaching advanced calligraphy classes at the Smithsonian for six years. She says that her classes have attracted more students this year than in the last two years.

Another instructor, Anne Lane, operates a store that caters exclusively to the calligraphic artist: Calligraphics Ink in Arlington's Crystal Underground. She perceives a growing market for commercial calligraphy, one that peaks this time of year.

"Greeting card companies such as Hallmark Cards have hired a couple of calligraphers for cards and wrapping paper. Many people approach calligraphers with a poem or a quotation this time of year and ask for it to be penned and framed for a gift."

Certificates, business cards and birthday cards are some of the more common jobs for calligraphers. Requests for book jackets in calligraphy also trickle down to Washington area artists, usually from New York.

Sammy Little's work has included advertising, menus and menu cards, songs and name tags. "The most unpleasant job for a calligrapher is addressing envelopes," says Lane, of Gaithersburg.

More permanent commissions of the art in this area are calligraphic inscriptions in stone. Rhode Island inscriber John Benson was responsible for quotations inscribed at John F. Kennedy's grave and in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Julian Waters, the son of Gaithersburg calligrapher Sheila Waters, was commissioned for large calligraphic inscriptions relating to Francis Scott Key at St. John's College in Annapolis.

Several local artists say calligraphy should be elevated to the status of a fine art. "Right now, calligraphy is where photography as fine art was 10 to 15 years ago," says Abrams.

"Sure, there are bad calligraphers, as there are bad painters, but the public needs to be more aware of the art," adds Lane. "I would like to see good calligraphers find a market for their work. Only recently has a gallery accepted a piece as fine art. What we need is permanent collectors to realize that it is more than a simple craft or hobby."

Since galleries are often reluctant to show pieces that are slow to sell, calligraphers have trouble exhibiting. When they do show, they generally must pay a commission on pieces they exhibit, even if none of them sells. Although a juried exhibit at the Art Barn in the District produced some sales, public consumption has been limited to personal requests, calligraphic calendars and cookbooks, the artists say.