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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Not Everything Handmade Deserves a Gold Star

If you know Etsy sellers, you've probably heard them whine about views, search algorithms, SEO and  — the number one complaint — outside manufacturing. (Gasp!)

My complaint isn't Etsy, not really. It's that, if you're an Etsy seller, statistically speaking ... your items suck. Or they aren't truly handmade. Or both.

Yes, I said it. Some handmade items suck. And not in a funny Regretsy sort of way.

I feel like there's a huge pressure on creatives to treat one another as equals. On Etsy, it is outright forbidden to say anything negative about another seller. Period.

Sure, we don't want to have a petty insult fest. There's no point to saying "Your stuff sucks." It's just mean-spirited.

But while we avoid calling people out on the carpet, we also translate that into patting everybody on the back. "You made that? Good job!" On Instagram and Facebook and Etsy, there's a likes-for-likes trend.

"I liked your page. Please like mine back."


If I like your work, I will like your page (or follow your Instagram or favorite your Etsy shop). And, unless you are a personal friend, that is the only reason I will like your page. I don't really care about having followers whose only reason for following me is because they think they'll automatically get a return like/follow/favorite.

Here is one artisan I recently discovered and liked on FB, IG and Etsy:

Steampunk heart sculpture by Steelhip Design

That is beautiful work!

Contrast it with a lot of "steampunk" "handmade" items, which just make me yawn with how derivative they are. When steampunk started, artists disassembled old watches and machines and used the parts for unique creations. Now craft stores sell mass-produced gear-shaped pieces. Just hang those gears off a mass-produced chain or glue them onto a mass-produced hat and — voilĂ ! — a "handmade" accessory.

The handmade items I most admire are made with a combination of skill, time and creativity. And that's pretty rare to find.

I remember being in elementary school and somebody's mom doing the parents' career day thing. She made handmade cards and bookmarks. She bought stamps from the craft store and stamped three leaves down the center of card stock, cut it out, glued it to a larger piece of card stock, punched a hole in the top and put a ribbon through. And she sold these at craft fairs.

Handmade? Absolutely! But even my elementary-school self was cynical. Buying mass-produced stamps to make handmade bookmarks? Pfft! Anybody can do that! What that handmade artist showed our class years ago involved minimal time, minimal skill and minimal creativity.

There are a lot of handmade artists out there who are assemblers: merely stamping a notecard or hanging a pendant off a chain. Not much time, skill or creativity involved.

If you can't excel at all three, excel at one. I've thought all of the following about handmade items:

  • That probably didn't take much time, and the style is really easy-to-do, but — wow! — I would not have come up with that creative idea!
  • I can see how that was done and could probably duplicate it, but that artist put in a lot of time! I don't have the time to make something like that!
  • I could maybe come up with the design or idea to be like that artist, but I don't know how to actually make it.
"Into the Wind." Original painting by Sally Trace.

The gorgeous painting above involves time, skill and creativity. Just perfect! I used to do colorful abstract paintings myself, but my skill and creativity were not as good as hers.

As a hat-maker, I take great pride in my work. I block all of my hats by hand. (If it's a sewn hat, I draft my own pattern.) I like to think I am creative in my combinations of colors and materials. Handmade hats do require skill, and they require a lot of time.

So I am not a fan when someone says to me: "Oh, you make hats? So does [So-And-So]!" And then I look up [So-And-So], only to find that she takes mass produced hats and glues ribbons, feathers or flowers onto them. That is not handmade. It may count as hand-decorated or hand-altered. But [So-And-So] does not make hats.

Eucalyptus-dyed hat by
Justine Gillingham Millinery

The two hats above are somewhat similar in terms of shape and color scheme. Both have a high level of time, skill and creativity involved. But no one would say they're derivative of each other.

Hand-printed top by iheartfink

Most handmade screen-printed items are hand-printed often from a computer-generated or mass-produced design onto a mass-produced t-shirt. Think of all the "Keep Calm" shirts you've seen. But defined as "handmade." Amidst all those screen-printed items, Kristen of Fink prints her own designs on fabric before using that fabric to create clothing of her own design. Truly handmade!

I could rant against crappy "handmade" even more, or praise quality makers even more. But I'll leave it here. I'm not going to post any of the numerous examples of bad handmade for a few reasons: (1) it's tacky to single out individual artists (2) how could I choose which of so many to feature? and (3) I'd rather devote photo space on my blog to artists I admire.

** My opinions are my own and do not represent the artists featured. I admire them for being some of the best of handmade, so I wanted to give a shoutout to them. **

Click through the photos/links to reach each item's listing and the artists' Etsy shops. You can also find out more:
Sally Trace Abstract Paintings at www.sallytrace.com.
Steelhip Design at www.steelhipdesign.com.
Justine Gillingham Millinery at www.facebook.com/JGmillinery.
I Heart Fink at iheartfink.com

And, of course, you can find Silverhill Creative right here, at the Silverhill Creative Millinery Facebook page or on the Silverhill Creative shop on Etsy.

I would like to qualify my remarks slightly. Part of the challenge of being a maker is finding an audience, finding customers. For example, there are thousands of jewelry sellers on Etsy. To stand out, regardless of how simple the jewelry is, requires time, creativity and skill. I applaud that.

Lots of Etsy sellers have debates about what constitutes "handmade." They will never all agree. And it doesn't matter anyway. If it fits Etsy's definition of handmade (or Amazon's when they launch), then it can be called handmade. Ultimately, there are different degrees of handmade.

And, to me, the implied message from the maker matters. If someone combines Thing A and Thing B — say a mass-produced pendant on a mass-produced chain — I have a very different reaction if that seller says (metaphorically) "Behold! I am an artiste! A creative genius!" than if that seller says, "I like this thing I put together, and I hope you like it, too." If that seller's customers like it, great! I, personally, won't be applauding the ingenuity.

In certain circles, Etsy has a reputation as being the home of cheesy crafters. And there is a lot of stuff that is hokey or amateurish. But there is also a lot that goes way beyond what most people think of when they think handmade.


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  2. hahaha! I get similarly annoyed when [So-And-So] sells handmade jewelry by putting together Tori Spelling kits. The bookmark thing doesn't bother me that much, but most stamps are sold for personal use only, so someone selling at crafts fairs might want to carve their own to avoid any icky copyright karma.

    1. Thanks!

      There are lots of things (such as patterns from McCall's, etc.) that can't be used for commercial purposes and only for personal use. I don't know whether the bookmark maker, still makes her stuff, but I know there are lots of copyright infringement in the handmade world.

      My philosophy is that I have more ideas of my own than I have time to execute. Why copy what somebody else has done?

  3. Couldn't agree more - I do love my Etsy shop but there is a huge range of mediocre items on there!!