Global crafts: cultivating homemade consumerism

(Graphic manipulations by Kate Turner)

(Graphic manipulations by Kate Turner)

Amy Walbridge hasn’t had a proper dining room for six years. Reams of fabric and spools of thread now take up the space; a one-woman factory exists where the formal table and chairs once sat. Like a tiny assembly line, the subtle stitches, sales and sending of handmade clothing happens rhythmically in the Walbridge’s home.

Walbridge is one of hundreds of thousands who sell handmade goods on the popular e-commerce site, Etsy.com. Built for the unique consumer – the consumer who won’t settle for a mass-marketed sweater – Etsy and other craft-peddling e-commerce sites are quickly changing the landscape of consumerism and corporate labour.

Dubbed ‘craft capitalism’ by academics, the sea of knitted scarfs, engraved lockets and hand-carved, wooden iPhone cases inundate the seemingly endless pages of Etsy listings. Church bazaars and small-town craft sales are but fleeting memories for the unique consumer; the intimacy of a handmade item is available online.

Grant Packard, assistant professor of marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University describes how craft culture is not revolutionary, but a reversion to once necessary trade skills, one with added value.

“Etsy creates global access, there are no barriers or entry fees to open up a shop and see if you can have a business,” says Packard. “eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji opened doors for more formal models like Etsy or crowdsourcing where people have become investors.”

By most accounts, Walbridge fits Etsy’s most prominent statistics: a female under 40 who moved away from the corporate sector to pursue a passion for the handmade. In Walbridge’s case, it’s sewing and selling women’s and children’s clothing from her Waterloo home.

“I have always been crafty, I learned to sew from my grandmother when I was young,” she says. “It wasn’t until I had my daughter six-and-a-half years ago that I had nap times available and I started sewing in my dining room.”

Walbridge, a former overseas educator finds herself committing to her craft and indefinitely leaving her teaching behind. Etsy boasts this situation on their blog entitled ‘Quit Your Day Job.’ The quixotic ideal of leaving the corporate sector to build a wood-working shop in one’s garage proves to be an immense marketing tool.

Sarah Parker, 33, seller of kitchy silver spoons, cutting boards and other home accessories from Richmond, Virginia was recently featured as one of Etsy’s blog-worthy, epitomizing sellers. Parker left the possibility of a career in anesthesiology in hopes of finding more joy in her work.

“I studied nursing and I loved it, but I needed a creative outlet…it didn’t take long before I realized I was getting more pleasure out of crafts than science,” says Parker.
Parker began her pursuit of craft sales when she found a fillable gap in the consumer market.

“I wanted a cake stand that said ‘let them eat cake,’ and despite everywhere on earth I looked, I couldn’t find one.” Parker adds.  “I thought ‘how hard could this be?’ It was one of the first things I started selling in the shop.”

Parker, however is an exception. Her ability to quickly adapt to a business mindset and the support of her family in wholly committing to her craft is not the norm. The success stories, like Parker, are featured on the ‘Quit Your Day Job’ blog. The remaining sellers, unable to fight through the inundation of online content, often find themselves equally as insignificant when selling online.

Skeptics argue that this sort of reversion to pre-factory, individual labour is almost ironic. People leave the corporate sector to quickly start forming partnerships where a percentage of sales and listing fees are paid out – arguably what they sought to escape.

Packard disagrees, “it’s simply a democratized market. Any small business needs partners to sell a product; retail stores have a landlord, have utilities. You’re always going to need other individuals or companies to do what you want to do.”

The intangible quality of something homemade undoubtedly adds value to an item. Usually, however, this value can be speculated upon in person. Walbridge argues that the subtle qualities of handcrafted goods linger, even when purchased overseas.

“People want comfort and trust. They can find this if they are familiar with one shop or a group of shops,” says Walbridge. “Handmade things have love in them regardless of if I made it or someone else.”

Despite the ‘buy local’ mentality oft associated with the counter-culture market, Walbridge notes the scope of her sales, “though Canadians really like to buy Canadian, most of my sales are from the U.S.”

The consumer market has carved a niche for the handy craftspeople and meticulous shoppers of today. Etsy’s clever business tactics are perhaps at the helm of witling a modern space for craft culture.

Etsy cannot solely attribute its success to the inherent goodness of a handmade item. Regional networks are created, to which Etsy sends training personal to help improve the seller’s business strategies. For those who cannot attend, tailored information on everything from product photography to keeping up with customer requests are provided.

Sellers, however, don’t seem to find any irony in moving from the corporate sector to selling craft through a corporate entity.

“I see Etsy as a platform, not an employer,” argues Parker. “I could open a website and put everything up for free but wouldn’t have the listings or traffic I get because of their brand.”

“Being a mother of young children, I have limited time to spend on the business side,” says Walbridge. “It’s something you can’t ignore to be successful online.”

Craft workers seem to take part in and push forward capitalism but are not necessarily defined by its characteristics. Mimicking the growth of a large corporation, sellers on Etsy see similar exponential growth, but seemingly as a self-made success. Conscious consumers, whether concerned about the environment, buying locally or simply supporting a small seller can choose the ethics they apply when exercising purchasing power online.

Anna Beard, 23, of Waterloo does just that.

“On one hand, there aren’t many niche shops in Kitchener-Waterloo so I’m forced to go online to find things I like,” says Beard. “On the other hand, I’d much prefer supporting people who are making things themselves rather than supporting mass production.”

Whether shopping online for specific items unavailable in the community or for the sheer ease of proceeding straight to a virtual checkout, the nostalgia available from interacting with an individual is perhaps lost.

“There’s something so cold about shopping online, you only interact with the product,” says Beard. “There is still something romantic about going to a store, horrible Christmas music, sales quotas and all.”

Consumer trust, then, lays not in the handmade or in the small seller, but in the ability to interact with another person, even if that person is the far-removed face of a massive corporation. Etsy supplies this to an extent through open access reviews and the ability to contact a seller, mimicking reputation systems of the corporate world.

Rather than certification partners (like Better Business Bureau) the consumer decides the fate of a seller’s success, penalizing or providing strong reviews as needed.

But the Walbridges of the world, the crafts-people buried in the fabric of one-woman, in-home assembly lines find themselves on a proverbial conveyor belt to average sales, average exposure and the same purchasing hesitance provided by any computer screen as individuals choose the mass-marketed, whether in store or online. The differences between counter-cultural e-commerce and the droning world of corporate production are increasingly as subtle as a hand-sewn stitch.

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