Monday, December 15, 2008

the trouble with buying handmade

Last year, along with ten thousand other people, I happily signed the Buy Handmade pledge. Then came the stress and the guilt. Some of my family made following the rules easy. I gave my jewelry or jewelry made by friends to my mother, sister, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. My brother Tim was easy - I had planned on getting him one of Tina Seamonster's "sometimes I worry about zombies" t-shirts since I first saw them. More challenging were my 17-year-old, soccer obsessed brother, my dad, my father-in-law, and of course, my husband. I scoured Etsy for hours, worried about it at every craft show I was at last season, and in the end only bought handmade for one of the four. I felt like a horrible person. A horrible person who gave my family members gifts they really wanted and used.

I've never really liked Christmas much. I find the entire gift giving (and receiving) process stressful enough without imposing a vague but strict rule on the whole thing. So this year, I swung the other direction. Like someone on a restricted calorie diet who finally gives up and eats the entire chocolate cake in one sitting, I bought an assortment of mass-produced goods. The process was relatively easy and stress free. And once again I feel like a horrible person. A horrible person who is going to give my family members gifts they want and will actually use.

After a year of running a business making things by hand, I'm tired. I'm frustrated by this rosy facade the handmade community is hiding behind. Making stuff by hand is a hard way to make a living. Don't let anyone tell you it isn't. If it wasn't hard, we never would have had the Industrial Revolution. I'm not exactly living the dream here - I work in a garage with no heat, I'm broke, and I'm stressed. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one.

I'm tired of the blatant copying. Artists work hard to develop a signature style or design, and if you're lucky enough to be a successful Etsy seller, there are twenty people waiting in the wings to rip you off. And every blogger who showcases one of these copycats and every person who buys from them is just making the problem worse.

I'm tired of people looking to handmade as a place to score a bargain. Making things by hand isn't cheap. If it was, we never would have had the Industrial Revolution. And I understand that everyone is feeling the pinch of the economy right now. But you shouldn't expect to get things more cheaply because they are handmade. The next time you think of something as expensive, imagine how long it would take you to make that. And what you would want to get paid for your time while making it. Plus, what its going to cost you to pay the mortgage, heat, electric, and your student loans. Suddenly that item probably seems cheap. Perhaps you should offer to pay more for it. If money's tight, but you still want to gift handmade, make something yourself.

"Handmade” is a slippery term to define anyway. In The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Dave Pye asks, “Is anything really made by hand?” All he comes up with are baskets and coil-built pots. Everything else requires a tool of some sort – whether that tool is a crochet hook or a power saw. Is my jewelry not really "handmade" because I use tools? And what about a computer and a laser cutter? Where do they fall on the handmade continuum? Today's technology blurs the line between handmade and manufactured. And its getting fuzzier everyday.

Instead of handmade, I think small is a better criteria. Items produced in small numbers - by hand, tool, or machine. Items purchased from local sources. With original designs and quality materials. Where the artist receives a fair price for her work. And if you can't afford any of that, than making things might just be the solution.

So for next year I'm thinking about starting my own pledge. The Buy Small/Local/ResponsiblySourced/OriginallyDesigned/FairPriced or Make it Yourself pledge. It doesn't roll off the tongue like Buy Handmade, but perhaps I'll get through Christmas without feeling like a horrible person.


dandelion blu said...

I know exactly what you mean- last year I agonized over trying to find something for my Dad and brother that they would actually appreciate and use that was handmade. They both don't really get the work, time and thought that goes into "handmade" items. This year I too am too tired and stressed, and went the route of the gift card- something I know both will definitely use and appreciate- sigh....

Jennifer - Beadoodles said...

Last year I did do the homemade thing and it went fine, but this year I've changed focus - handmade, vintage or from locally owned shops. If I can get two out of three with the purchase, bonus for me!

Valerie A. Heck said...

I tried to buy handmade for the men in the family. I found one item but gave up after a while. Even the lists for men they had on etsy didn't work for me.
I try to by handmade and in general don't shop that much but it's not worth beating yourself up.
Stay optimistic and things will improve.

Laura Crawford said...

So true. I've pretty much given up on gifting things to people and bake instead - it's a kind of "handmade" that I can afford without having to think too much. If you get a new pledge going, I will happily sign on.

kait said...

You are NOT the only one who's broke and stressed and frustrated! At this point, I'm trying to focus on baking and spending time with people because gifts are out of the question. It was hard the first year I let it go, but this year I'm enjoying the season a lot more than I used to. Do whatever works for you!

lulusmithstudio said...

As an 'established craft show' jeweler I must respond. I love how frank you are about all things that you see and experience. I remember it took me a good three years before I realized that all the ACC jewelers around me either had wealthy partners or inherited enough to keep them going! I was shocked and sad because I did not have any support like that. There is a 'rosie' facade for sure. But at a certain point - usually after racking up a good amount of debt you ask yourself..Can I or would I be happier being or doing anything else other than being a MAKER of these objects.?..And for now at least...good years and bad years..I'm a much happier person doing what I do. Eventually more and more people do find you who would never dream of asking for a discount! Etsy should update their handmade pledge to reflect a more realistic/realized vision like yours..

Margaux Lange said...

Great blog entry Megan, thanks for this. I had similar feelings about the "Buy Handmade" pledge last year, so I didn't sign up for it then, nor will I sign on this year. I feel like balance is important in everything - including where I buy my gifts for the holidays.

I definitely agree with you and lulu about the "craft facade." The work we make is not cheap for MANY reasons, and the ones who understand this are the ones who buy. I try not to let the negative comments from those who gripe about my prices affect me too much, but it is hard at times. Hopefully we can strive to educate craft consumers through more conversations like these.

alisa said...

everytime i do a show, i think of your post after renegade new york, i think. you said "this is a pretty stupid way to make a living." i'm broke too and taking some time off from shows or anything where i have to put out money to try to sell my work. this year has just been too much. and i cannot deal with people's comments about my pricing. i think i make more an hour waitressing. and somedays i enjoy it more. :-)

skowood said...

Great commentary on "handmade", indeed. It's comforting but so very sad to see so many designer/makers feeling the same and having similar experiences with the issues of design copying and price perception.

Maybe what also needs to be stressed to consumers is that they shouldn't expect things so cheap that they can buy one in every colour. This is mass-production which only supports exploitive labour practices abroad such as low wages, child labour and a mound of other problems.

When a customer has commented on my prices being expensive I've
explained to them gently about the difference between what I make and what Target/Walmart/Starbucks offer. The difference: a object that no one or very few other people have that can be cherished and passed on in your family. Our work also is an investment in the home grown talent we have in our local communities and supports our local economy.

Indeed none of us should beat ourselves up over the issue but also we shouldn't give up. I love the idea of people baking gifts for the holidays and I know there must be hundreds of more creative solutions to this. Personally my entire family and I have just stopped buying. When we do it's when we have found or made something for each other that we know the other person really needs or enjoys not out of a holiday obligation...

Thanx for giving us more to chew on Megan!

Catherine Chandler said...

You are so spot on! Great post. I struggled with handmade last year, and ended up giving most people ornaments. Not really the most glamorous gift, and one that only comes out once a year, but it was what I could make in time for the holidays.

This year? The hubby and I are going in together on a bike trainer for ourselves, I'm making a computer file full of photos and video for my soon-to-be-deployed brother, and making a bangle for my mom. Others are getting ornaments or jewelry I have in stock, but not many people are receiving anything.

I think everyone understands, with money tightening up. I'm facing the second drop in nanny hours this fall/winter and am considering living off my student loans, but will probably still look for a weekend job. fingers crossed.

Keep up the good work!

Sophia La Chouette said...

I really liked your post. I also did craft shows for a few years but got tired of the 'this is so expensive' comments as well as hardly making any money to pay myself for the time I spent standing around all day in a stall. In high heeled shoes! I did learn something though - lots of people who attend craft shows are looking for a bargain. They think since they are buying directly from the maker in a stall and not a real shop, they don't have to pay shop prices. Anyway, it's still discouraging to hear that a piece of jewelry that I spent days on is expensive. C'est la vie.

megan said...

thanks for your comments everyone!

it seems like the price thing is an issue for a lot of people, and the question comes back to, as always, how do we educate our customers on why things cost what they do? how can we explain the value of handmade? do we need a major ad campaign? a door to door pamphlet drive? should Etsy, as a major contributer in this new movement, talk more about fair and equitable pricing?

this brings up two more (slightly unrelated) thoughts:

1. what happens when your design aesthetic draws a customer base that doesn't have the economic means to buy your work? what if your work appeals primarily to 20 and 30 somethings but is at a price range for an income level they won't hit until their 50s?

2. what are the true costs of buying mass produced items? (i mean in actual monetary terms) i would love for someone to calculate the "real" cost of buying cheap goods from China - till you factor in all the taxes we pay that cover the tax breaks major corps get, the health care for under or uninsured store and warehouse employees, the lobbyists, cleaning up the environment, etc. this seems like a great gorilla project - repricing items in Target to reflect their real costs

thanks again for your great comments - so much more to think about!

Sophia La Chouette said...

I have no problem with mass produced items - thanks to cheap mass production, I have more than one chair on which to sit, a set of eating utensils and warm shoes. And good design does not need to be expensive. The problem with trying to educate (I hate using that word - reminds me of re-education camp) potential buyers is that once you start explaining how you make your jewelry their eyes start to glaze over, and I don't blame them. We may view jewelry as art (on the same level as painting or sculpture where you expect high prices) but for most women, it's just stuff to wear. They don't want the boring details of how you used five different types of sandpaper and two polishing compounds because the machine in their head is saying, 'what in my wardrobe can go with this and is it worth that price, hum, maybe I should get the purse instead'. I guess sadly this might also be true of paintings these days - will those colors in the painting match the couch? I don't know about you, but I am a craft circuit failure not because of high prices or lack of knowledge. It's because I am crap at selling. One time I brought along a very charming girlfriend with me to a craft fair. She knew nothing about jewelry making but she had a silver tongue. She managed to sell almost all my stuff. In half the time. That's why these days I stick to shops and galleries. People expect to pay more in a shop because the jewelry is in a different context (indoors with plumbing). Marcel Duchamp's urinal was only a piss pot until it was set in a museum and called the Fountain.

joanna said...

1. what happens when your design aesthetic draws a customer base that doesn't have the economic means to buy your work? what if your work appeals primarily to 20 and 30 somethings but is at a price range for an income level they won't hit until their 50s?

megan, i personally think that if this is happening, and you want to be in business, then you need to change your product to something that people can afford. or change your prices. or your production methods. or your designs. being a jewelry artist is different than being in business making handmade jewelry.

i have been making my living making jewelry for over 11 years now. i don't make a huge living, but it is fine for me. less than most of my friends, but my stress level is lower and my happiness level is higher. this is priceless to me. i do not have any sugar daddy or trust fund...actually i just got married a year ago and for the 1st time in my 36 years i have someone to share the bills with me and i feel like it is totally luxurious!

but...even though i LOVE LOVE my job, i spend about half my time making things i don;t have that much fun making. but when i do have fun making things, it is really, really fun! and i diversify my income: i teach, i write books, i do freelance project writing, i do custom work, i do consignment, i do wholesale, i do craft shows. this seems to help alot for me. and no one gave this stuff to me, i created it all by myself through perseverance and hard work. because i love it. more than anything.

also, i have had about 8 different lines of jewelry in my 11 year career. when things stop selling or don;t sell enough, i move on and make something different. i can't help it. this has worked for me in some has given me the chance to see where i make the most money, but also gives me the opportunity to keep growing and learning in my work. i probably don't have as much name recognition because my styles have changes so much, and this has also created other challenges for me, but it has worked for me so far, and so i'll just keep doing what i've been doing....changing it up, keeping it intersting, having a delightful time at work.

i think if you love this field, you should persevere. you have entered into things when the economy is at it worst. try new venues for your work, literally hit the streets and talk to new stores, new venues, etc. try out new work, keep making....hang in there. if you want it, you can have it. i promise.
joanna gollberg

Condo Blues said...

I took the Handmade Pledge but with the understanding (mine) that I will buy/make handmade for those it was appropriate for on my gift list because I have some folks that don't like or want handmade. Instead I bought them gifts that they found meaningful and used. I refuse to feel guilty for giving someone a gift that they will truly like or need.

Jeni Buckingham said...

Very stirring, Megan! It has been up and down for me this year too, mostly down when I consider how much harder I've been working to market myself and my work. It's a hard living especially in this market, but what else would you do - what would you love as much?

I couldn't give up art, or craft, or whatever you want to call it. I spent almost 20 years in denial, telling myself it wasn't practical and following other paths until I finally came back to what I love. I'll never give it up again no matter what economic crisis brings.

Joanna - what an encouragement to read your comments. :)

Rachael said...

This morphed into a really interesting discussion. I also signed the pledge last year and I can totally relate to the problem with buying handmade. I just couldn't bring myself to buy my dad a hand-knit beer cozy or funky tie that he would never wear. The things that he might actually have use for, maybe a hand knit sweater, I can't afford even though I fully appreciate the value! I think that the handmade pledge is more of a guideline to get people thinking responsibly, not rules to live by.

As for trying to make a living - I don't know that anyone who makes things by hand is ever actually monetarily compensated for the time they put into it! Sometimes I only accomplish email in a 12-hour day, but I'd rather do that than sit in a cubicle and be miserable for 8-hours. I haven't had the heart to actually figure out my hourly wage.

It's difficult when your main audience can't afford to buy your work. I know that you don't want to undercut your wholesale accounts, but what if you had a good sale every few months (store have ales whenever they feel like it)? Or offered a cheaper item exclusive to your shop that you didn't wholesale as well? And going the opposite route, could you offer more "high-end" pieces (even the same design in different metals) to appeal to the people who actually have money?

One thing I am grateful for as an artist is that I am often able to trade for the things I really love. This isn't necessarily money in my pocket, but it does mean that I can have beautiful pieces in spite of my limited income. So, no matter how poorly a craft show goes, I know that chances are high I will still leave with a new ceramic dish or set of earrings and slightly less inventory to cart home!

megan said...

I asked the question about price point not matching audience as a bit of a hypothetical question - but it been great to hear everyones solutions to that problem. Running my business over the last year, I think I lost sight of my primary goal - to develop myself as a brand with a strong aesthetic. I think the solution for me is to work on offering a variety of items with my aesthetic that can appeal to customers at lots of different price points. And that doesn't necessarily mean jewelry. I keep thinking about how last year, after the holidays, I bought a bunch of Tord Boontje plates and cups at Target on clearance - I was just so excited to be able to afford to buy something designed by Tord Boontje. I love how blogging discussions can bring so much clarity!

Sophia - you make such great points! I think that's my biggest problem with the buy handmade pledge - that it makes you think that everything mass produced is evil. And while there are aspects of mass production that are less than stellar, its not all bad.

I also agree with you about craft shows - I'm giving them up for many of the same reasons. I'm happy to give a store or gallery 50% of the cost of a piece to let them sell my work. Selling is hard work - and its not for everyone.

Rachael - After reading Sophia's comments, I was totally reminded why I don't want to do shows anymore - but after reading yours, I'm reminded of all the things I miss about shows. Like you - we need to find an excuse to hang out again - I miss you and all the other Second Storie girls!

I also miss trading - I love coming home from a show with lots of wonderful new items. Maybe I'll do a show from time to time - with the goal not of making money, but just to trade and have fun.

I wish more of the world could operate on the barter system - I would love to trade my accountant jewelry for his services. And if any of my customers (or would be customers) have a service, or skill, or something they'd be willing to barter for a piece - shoot me an email - I'd love to discuss it!

Jangrrrrl said...

Due to our exam schedule ending so late this year [12-22], I had a surprising and refreshing holiday. No time for shopping unless I did it before the onslaught; no time for plans. My Christmas was quiet and kinda stress free. Xmas tree decorating Xmas eve after a good, long overdue run, roast chicken in the oven, xmas carols playing and a fire in the fireplace. No one complaining, no hurrying, no grousing, no road rage. I was reminded that my one grandmother would look forward to an orange for Christmas and my mom reminded me that her parents would look forward to getting an orange and a small box of candy from Sunday School. I decided to adopt this philosophy. I am happy that I have a beautiful house, in a safe neighborhood, with an income, with good food, and peace...which is alot more than many, many people around the world have. My interest in Christmas had also dwindled b/c of all the "stuff" that went along with it; I started to hate Christmas. This year actually felt like Christmas. I decided to stop and enjoy and be thankful for what I do have and take care of what I do have. I bought people what they wanted not what I wanted to give them. And when my nephew opened his Under Armour sweatshirt, he loved it and knew that I had paid attention to him. Hopefully he will remember that I love him every time he wears that sweatshirt. What do you want to "give" to the world?