defining handmade

Etsy announced some big changes on Tuesday—changes that have the potential to redefine handmade. I watched the live Town Hall and have been unpacking a big bag of thoughts, feelings and ideas since.

I opened my first Etsy shop on August 31, 2006. At the time, Etsy was a relatively new e-commerce site—a marketplace for people to buy and sell handmade items online. E-commerce for handmade was new enough—and the site was easy enough to use—to make it revolutionary. It crashed a lot, and had lots of room to improve, but it started an online community—a place for people not only to buy and sell, but also to meet, learn and share handmade. I was quickly a fan.

While Etsy was my first experience selling something I’d made online, it wasn’t my first experience selling handmade. I come from a family of makers. And since a love of making can result in more handmade items then you can gift or find room for, I guess I also come from a family of handmade merchants. I still have a scar on my arm from a table I tangled with as my mom, grandmother and I were setting up to sell magnets I’d painted and necklaces my grandmother had made from church bulletins in a festival parking lot in suburban Baltimore. Bake sales, church bazaars, quilt festivals and craft shows—selling handmade in my local community wasn’t new to me. Shipping to Walla Walla, Wash., Frankfurt, Germany, and Tallahassee, Fla., was. And, as an adult living in a big city, being part of a community that appreciated and celebrated handmade was new too.

PollyScoots collage

The weekly Creative Challenge thread in the Etsy Forum pushed me/encouraged me to design and make something new each week. The local Etsy Street Team led me to the original Etsy headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., for my first Trunk Show. I had fun designing packaging, creating my own website and blogging for the first time. As the number of things I was making grew along with my Etsy shop, I became active in the local handmade community, sold my own work at and helped to organize craft shows, blogged frequently, and did all the things it takes to make an online shop successful—including photographing items, editing those photos, writing product descriptions, responding to inquiries and taking packages to the post office.

I also encountered my first real understanding of the importance of pricing for something that might be more than a hobby. Could I make 200 cards and what kind of price could I offer for this quantity? I was thrilled that a former customer had loved my notecards enough to want 200 of them! I added up my cost to buy supplies, made a guess about how long it might take to make them, lowered my per-card cost to accommodate for a wholesale order and hit reply. Then I stayed up late and took up every available flat surface stamping, drying, folding and packaging those 200 cards and envelopes. They were a hit. They’d also taken twice as long as I’d anticipated to make. And since I’d bought my notecard blanks and ink at retail prices, 200 didn’t actually cost me any less to make in terms of raw supplies. Then the request for a reorder came in. Could I raise my prices to reflect my real costs? If I did, would they still want to order? The thought of doing it all again, for a price that was much too low to make it worth my while, did not fill me with excitement.

I wasn’t a high volume seller on Etsy by any stretch of the imagination, but the pace of orders, requests for customization and space everything was taking up in my little room at night when I got home from my day job was getting uncomfortable. Instead of challenging myself to create something new, I started thinking about which I items I could produce in bulk, quickly. Pieces became less unique and my interest waned. Spending 10 minutes (or more) to gift wrap, write a personal note, package and mail a pin back button whose imagery I’d hand cut, assembled and affixed to a tag (which I’d also designed, printed and hand cut) only to sell for $2 wasn’t worth it. But anything less than that level of detail wasn’t acceptable to me because those personal touches were the essence of what made it handmade.


My day job changed and I had even less time for the shop that needed more and more time if I wanted it to grow. And it just wasn’t fun anymore. I stopped making new things, let the listings that were up in my shop expire and published my last blog post in 2010.

Meanwhile, I’d fallen in love with handmade. I took the handmade pledge in 2007, and worked to purchase everything for Christmas that year from Etsy or local craft shows. The (cheap, mass-produced) prints I’d bought outside the student union in college were gradually replaced with photos, prints and artwork I’d bought from a person in Baltimore, Asheville, N.C., or Kansas City, Kan., to name just a few.

Today, I make a point to wear at least two handmade things everyday, and eagerly share the maker and whatever little story I know about them with anyone who gives me a compliment on the item. If I’m buying lunch out, I seek out a food truck or small business where I’m likely to be giving or picking up my order from the owner. And I’m trying to shop at the farmer’s market every week where someone who had a hand in physically creating what I’m buying is behind the table. Those all count as handmade to me.

While letting go of my first online shop and falling in love with handmade, I was also falling in love with glassblowing. Three years later, I’m back to where I last ended and trying to take a different path—one that doesn’t leave me resentful and unenthused about the very things I love about making and selling handmade.

WunderAround collage

Can I make eight clear drinking glasses 5” high that are each the same size? What kind of deal can I offer to someone who wants to buy 50 of one piece? Can I make another of something that’s already sold? Can I have a new piece ready to ship on Saturday? These are all questions a potential buyer has a right to ask. As a maker and a business owner, how I answer is my right too—and really gets at the meaning of handmade for me.

Etsy’s new policies take effect January 1. On the surface, they have the potential to help me address some of the challenges I faced with my first online shop and am encountering again today with Wunder Around. Under these new policies, I’ll be able to sell on Etsy something I designed, but someone else physically makes—whether it’s a friend at the glass blowing studio or a factory with 1,000 workers overseas. And, whether someone else makes it for me, or serves as a type of warehouse for goods I’ve made, they can now ship it directly to you. I’ll need to be transparent and let you, the potential buyer know that I’m doing things this way, but these will soon be options on Etsy and still count as “handmade.”

While I appreciate that Etsy has recognized that huge challenges come with the growth of one person making, and successfully building a business selling, something made by hand, changes like these strip away the essence of handmade for me. And ultimately dilute the beauty of what it means to be handmade.

With 30 million users from 200 countries, Etsy’s new definition of handmade will have ripple effects across the maker community. Might we see continued renewal and growth in local manufacturing? Will new collaborations form between solo designers and producers for the final goods? Will new opportunities exist for those who make by hand to make a living doing so? Will the marketplace introduce more people (and potential buyers) to all the good things about handmade? The potential is all there.

I’m hoping for the best, but know as a buyer in an increasingly crowded online marketplace, I’ll also need to spend more time finding—and probably more money buying—something that meets my own definition of handmade. It’s usually worth it though.

The challenge I’m issuing to myself—and other makers—is to be open with potential buyers about what it really takes to make something by hand. When I say no to making a matching set of eight clear drinking glasses, charge more for making 50 of anything, can’t duplicate something that’s already sold or need three weeks to make something new, I’ll also tell them why. Sharing both the process and the cost—in time and materials—to make and sell something created by hand is part of my job as a maker. I will lose potential sales. I’ll need to work harder for the ones I get. And I’ll need to cultivate my own community of people who define handmade the way I do. I don’t know that I’ll be able to make a life doing so, but I’m going to try.

Etsy is also a place for buying craft supplies and vintage goods, but for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on handmade.


One thought on “defining handmade

  1. Pingback: Tool Tuesday: the furnace | Wunder Around

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