A year ago, fledgling rent-a-tent entrepreneurs Terry Macfarlane and John Wickliffe were still scrounging to cover the start-up costs of their canopy-catering business. Today, though still technically in the red, they're talking in the future tents.

"We have 12 now, ranging from 16-by-16 feet to 40-by-100," Macfarlane said of the now established Classic Tents Inc. "We had 37 jobs in June. We want to get a much larger tent for next year, 60-by-120 . . . and with poles and stakes and lights and sides, that'll cost $20,000 to 25,000."

Even at that price, said Macfarlane, "four or five set-ups and you've paid it back."

With the current stock, one-night stands run from $250 to $2,500, but it's "more expenses than profits." Trucks have to be rented and, occasionally, extra dance-floor space has to be obtained from subcontractors.

Classic Tents was conceived as an offshoot of the big-ticket catering industry in town. Macfarlane was formerly the warehouse manager for Ridgewell's; Wickliffe used to moonlight as a master waiter and truck driver.

These days, Wickliffe still works as an engineer at the Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory in White Oak and carries on his graduate studies; Macfarlane deals tents full-time, paying himself a scratch salary. Comparing that salary with the money he used to make at Ridgewell's, he remarked: "The numbers are lower, but psychologically, it's a step up."

Classic Tents has equipment stuffed into garages in Kensington, Chevy Chase and Bethesda -- warehouse space is also on next year's investment list -- and a pool of 15 part-time employes. The company has raised the roof at weddings, cocktail parties, dances and high school graduations, and even laced up a free-standing ladies' boudoir inside the Alcott & Andrews store downtown.

Macfarlane and Wickliffe haven't broken into the lucrative embassy business, but they've learned some lessons. Last year, a prospective client broke off negotiations because the yellow-and-white-striped tent seemed insufficiently formal. These days all 12 tents, like the ties at formal parties, are white.