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Life After Etsy October 18, 2013

Posted by J. in FYI, Genius, Sticks and String.
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I believe in handmade things.

I believe in the artisan movement.

I believe that things that are made with skill and care and attention to detail have more inherent value than anything made by a machine or on an assembly line.

I believe in art for art’s sake, even if I don’t understand it sometimes.

I believe there is a market for handmade artisan goods.

I believe I am not alone.

I’ve been on Etsy since it was just about to celebrate its first birthday, and in recent years I’ve found cause to rant about its policies as far as what handmade is, how they enforce it on their own site, and I’ve seen a tide creeping in slowly but steadily during that time.

When I opened my first shop, I was as new to internet sales as Etsy was. We were both still feeling our way along. As my knitting skills improved with much time and practice, I began to understand more and more what the artisan handmade movement was really about. I stopped looking at the things that came off my needles as mere objects that were utilitarian, no different than what you could buy in a retail outlet somewhere, and began to see each thing as an individual work of art.

Every stitch is made by my hands. I am an artist, and I work in fiber.

And as that realization grew in me and took hold, I grew as an artist. I embraced what I am.

Etsy did the same thing, seeing what it is and where it wanted to go. It embraced what it was becoming, only we grew apart. Etsy saw that their biggest selling vendors (and biggest source of income) were hitting a ceiling. Some of their policies meant that when a seller felt that they couldn’t grow any more on Etsy, they’d close up shop and leave to where they could have parts of their products manufactured. They could use drop-shipping to fill orders. They could hire help to produce product and fill orders.

That kind of growth is what makes this country great, don’t get me wrong. I believe in growing your business as far as you can.

But at some point, you have ceased to be handmade.

That’s a conundrum for Etsy. How do we claim to be a handmade site, yet keep these very lucrative sellers with us bringing in all their money?

We redefine what “handmade” means.

I don’t think hobby crafters will mind so much. Etsy is a terrific platform for folks who make things and want a great looking place to sell them. Etsy has a name now, and a reputation (or at least it did), and if you understand that you need to drive your own traffic to your own shop and don’t expect Etsy to promote you in any way, it’s great. Easy to use, very affordable, and you can look professional with very little effort.

Business crafters will be in heaven. The ceiling is gone. If you need to hire other hands to make your handmade items, if you want to have your creations mass produced in a factory, you can. Oh, there will be new rules and new caveats, but you are no longer hampered by having to run a one-person show.

It leaves artisans in the lurch. When you create art, whether it’s a painting, a fine aged cheddar, or an embroidered pair of baby booties, it is essentially a solitary process. It’s as much about the process of bringing an idea to life as it is about seeing the idea realized. It’s putting yourself into what you make, and it’s why paintings by fine artists sell for way more money than prints or reproductions of the same picture. The original is where the artist has left himself, in every brush stroke and line and shadow. It’s why you eat an artisan cheese slowly, tasting every bite, pairing it carefully with the right complementary flavors, as opposed to slapping a square of Cracker Barrel on a Triscuit and munching away while you watch football. And it’s why that pair of hand-embroidered booties gets packed away carefully in a cedar chest until the baby that outgrew them announces that they are expecting a child of their own, unlike the $10 pair that came from the Gap and went into the bag being donated to the Goodwill.

I believe that when you say something is handmade, that should mean something.

Etsy and I disagree on what that something is, and it’s why it’s time for us to part ways.

I’m in the process of opening my own online shop. Etsy has always served as my own personal craft fair and art gallery. I make whatever comes into my head, and Etsy gives me a place to show it off and maybe exchange it for a little cash. But I’d like to be more than a hobby knitter, and I think I have the skills to see that happen.

When I went to Seattle over the summer, my main reason for going was to check out the Urban Craft Uprising show and find out why I didn’t get in. It was eye-opening, for sure. It was a large hall, and it was full of artists and craftsmen. And my art was easily up to (and in some cases far beyond) anything I saw there. It was gratifying to see that if nothing else, I have the skills to compete at that level.

But I needed to see what the vendors that got in were doing that is so different from what I was. And about halfway through the show, it was starting to become clear. It was at the booth of a crafter who made all felted things. I was interested because I do a fair amount of felting myself. She had a very small line of items: vases, coasters, bowls, and some wall art. She used a limited palette of colors, and very simple designs. And I remarked at the time (out of earshot of the artist) that I didn’t think I could be that sort of crafter. I’d be bored to tears reproducing the same simple designs and colors all the time, and not being able to give my creativity free rein.

It was a common theme, too. Soap makers produced a small line of really good soap. A woman selling leather bags and cases had a limited number of sizes, and a very unified design theme. Jewelry makers created to a theme or a medium, like the one seller who embraced the 8-bit geekery of old video games, and another who worked in laser-cut wood. And every booth was like that. They made one thing, and they made it very well.

By the time we left, I knew that if I’m going to be an artist at that level, I need to focus. If I want to “quit my day job” and compete in that lucrative marketplace of artisan handmade, I need to figure out what I do well and concentrate on it. I don’t need to leave myself room to grow…I need to figure out how to keep myself in check!

I thought about it a lot, and there was a lot of discussion about what my focus should be. I can knit anything. It’s kind of a point of pride with me.

But looking at it from a business standpoint, my biggest seller and most popular item that I make, by far, are the knit booties with hand-embroidered soles. Without boring you with the numbers, focusing on booties is kind of a no-brainer from a business standpoint.

Creatively speaking, I could make them all day long. And lately, I do. Because every pair is different, and the only limit to what I stitch on them is my own imagination, when I say the possibilities are endless, I mean it. Even though they’re all the same, they’re all very different. It’s hard to get bored with them.

Using booties as the centerpiece, I added baby sweaters and hats under the same umbrella. I chose a palette of colors and a limited selection of styles that I’d produce. So rather than just booties, a customer could get a set, or individual pieces, and can always have something made and personalized just for them.

I’ve also found that less-traditional baby designs are wildly popular. Sure, the monkeys sell, and flowers and such. But a Killer Bunny with Big Teeth? Sold the minute I list it. Skulls? Can’t keep them in stock. Dragons? Sold. When I think of the expression, “This is not your grandma’s knitting,” it strikes me that many people my age *are* grandparents, and we’re defining what “grandma’s knitting” actually is.

So the new shop is called Sprogtoggery, and my focus is on baby things. I have a Facebook page started and ready to go, and the shop is just about ready to launch. I had a vendor supply issue getting buttons (because I insist on using artisan handmade buttons and not just any old thing you can get at Joanns) so I’m a bit behind getting sweaters finished. I hope to be open by November 1, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

My logo is simple, and when the graphic designer showed it to me, she had added the words “100% artisan handmade” under it, and that pulled it all together for me. That’s the focus, and the emphasis, and the whole reason I do what I do. I know that the artisan movement is alive and well, and it is because there are buyers out there who know that when you buy something handmade, you’re not just getting a “thing”. You are getting something special, something beautiful, and something worth preserving.

Now I have to get back to work. These ends aren’t going to weave themselves in, and there are no Chinese kids in my basement gonna do it for me…

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