Etsy’s Industrial Revolution – What is “handmade”?

The New York Times had an article yesterday called “Etsy’s Industrial Revolution” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. If you’re not familiar with Etsy, it’s an e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items, as well as art and craft supplies. It has 30 million registered users and over US$1 billion in total annual transactions. Here are their latest statistics.

Last month, Etsy announced new policies that would allow sellers to apply to peddle items they produced with manufacturing partners, as well as to hire staff and use outside companies to ship their goods — all provided that the sellers demonstrated the “authorship, responsibility and transparency” intrinsic to handmade items. By easing the definition of “handmade,” Etsy is trying to accommodate individual vendors who are having more and more trouble keeping up with their growing volume of customers. But many Etsy users are outraged by what they see as Etsy’s abandonment of its commitment to human handicraft, with some jumping ship for purer artisan sites like Zibbet.

When is something truly “handmade”? If you make something by hand out of supplies bought at your local craft or hardware store that were made using machines, well then it isn’t 100% handmade. Along those lines, the New York Times article makes the point that almost nothing has been truly handmade for thousands of years. But the real issue that Etsy and both its sellers and buyers are facing I thought was very well summoned up in the comments section:

“The “my handmade is more handmade than your handmade” debate has waged since Etsy first opened. But THIS isn’t not about degrees of handmade. This isn’t about “Hey, Sarah’s shop is handmade because she hand sews every stitch of her handbags while Betty’s shop isn’t because she uses a sewing machine”. This is about Sarah (who stitches everything by hand and charges a price that justifies that time) & Betty (who charges a bit less because her labor is a bit less) both being put out of business because Lulu who is actually a factory with 900 employees is mass producing handbags & selling them as “handmade” on Etsy next to Sarah and Betty’s, charging 1/2 the price. Also: Lulu’s able to produce 2000 new listings a month while Sarah & Betty can only do a few dozen, making their work unfindable. It’s about Cora, who isn’t making ANYTHING. She’s buying bags wholesale dirt cheap on AliExpress & merely reselling the already finished goods that she had NO part of making on Etsy as “handmade” at a fraction of the price Sarah & Betty can. Even before Etsy’s change in policy, you’d find several Lulus & Coras for every Sara or Betty. For Etsy to be transparent, they’d have to be able to tell Sarah’s handmade bags from Cora’s not-even-remotely handmade handbags, a task which they seem unable or unwilling to handle. It’s a masquerade ball & instead of actually investigating who is under the masks, they send out more invitations.” – by “Artist” from “Angryville”. As someone who makes handmade mobiles through a shop on Etsy, this is obviously a topic that concerns me too.

The second issue, and probably the the more contemporary one that wasn’t addressed at all in the article, is Etsy’s policy regarding “handmade” and 3d printing. I sell our collection of 3d printed mobiles through my shop on Etsy. They do allow it (“3D printed items can be sold in the handmade category without listing the manufacturer.” – from their Seller Guidelines). I designed them with the help of Henry Segerman, a mathematician, and we have a 3d printing service company called Shapeways print them for us. We do have a very significant part in creating these mobiles, they are 100% the product of our imagination and creativity. But they are anything but “handmade”.

3D printing aside, if you’re looking to buy something handmade, please make sure it really is handmade and listed by an honest seller. Don’t fall for the cheap pretend handmade stuff. There are a lot of honest hardworking people listing their beautiful and carefully handmade items on Etsy who will very much appreciate your business.

© 2017 Marco Mahler