Take Two #67: The Crafters' War

By Kyra-lin Hom

For this week, I'm pulling from writer Roya Wolverson's Time Magazine article “The Handmade Wars.” For those who are curious it's from this year's February 18th issue. In it she deals mainly with the website Etsy.com, it's users and its creators and maintainers.

Think of Etsy as a kind of ebay for craftspeople. Each craftsperson can set up their own online store, advertise, accept payment, etc. In turn, anyone can then set up an account with Etsy and browse/buy from these individual stores.

In Wolverson's article, she addresses the issue of just what constitutes 'handmade.' As much as we'd like to believe it's an eccentric artist slaving away in their bohemian studio apartment, Etsy's new leadership is bending the rules. More room is being made for collectives, allowing these mini businesses to grow and expand – and in turn make more money for Etsy.

As a user of Etsy myself, I'm not entirely comfortable with this shift. I run a little shop selling geek-themed accessories. I take in about $300 profit a month. It's not a lot, but I'm certainly not complaining. How many crafters can say their artistic endeavors actually make money instead of drain it? That said, one of the reasons I love Etsy is that everyone who shops there knows what they're getting in to.

Homemade items are more unique, creative and customizable. They are also more expensive. Why? Because for example, my version of bulk buying is in the hundreds of units – not the hundred-thousands. Individuals like myself can't purchase materials as cheaply as manufacturers nor can we stamp out thousands or even hundreds (or tens) of units a day. Each item we make takes skill, practice and our own personal time. Yes, prices on Etsy can fluctuate to an irritating degree, but there is still room for everyone's prices to be competitive in a way that isn't possible when you introduce bigger businesses.

Creating wiggle room for larger enterprises has the potential to change all of that – not something I'm eager to see. Not only is it frustrating from a small seller's point of view, but it is also deceptive for customers. People come to etsy expecting something personally hand-crafted and original. They aren't looking for, say, mass produced items 'embellished' by hand. I'm not saying artists have to be stretching their own canvases or grinding their own pigments but they also shouldn't be adding the 'finishing touches' to non-original prints and then labeling the pieces as handmade works of art. Or as is becoming the case, paying other people to make their designs. There are other forums for that. Etsy shouldn't be one of them.

Begrudgingly, I do understand sellers' need for the expansion. If I suddenly started selling thousands of dollars worth of product, I wouldn't want to leave my Etsy customer base either. If Etsy wants to change its business model, it should create an off shoot website just for these burgeoning small businesses or at least design different store fronts that distinguish between the size of the stores' operations. An entirely different color scheme or layout is something customers can't easily miss – unlike the few lengths of text that are encouraged now. As it is, customers have often missed store announcements emblazoned banner-style across my store front. Requirements like this would keep sellers honest and leave less room for buyer confusion.

Maybe it's just my perspective, and I wouldn't feel the same way if my business began picking up. But as far as I'm concerned, Etsy began as a forum for not just the handmade but the homemade. It's a place where people can sell baked goods out of their own kitchen or jewelry hammered out in their garage. Etsy connects loner artists with customers looking for just that touch of hands on authenticity. It would be a terrible shame for them to give that up.

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