Rob Walker | Essays

Handmade 2.0

The declaration from something called the Handmade Consortium materialized on a Web site called buyhandmade.org in late October. “I pledge to buy handmade this holiday season, and request that others do the same for me,” it said, and you could type in your name to “sign” on; within a few weeks, more than 6,500 people had done so. “Buying handmade is better for people,” a statement on the site read in part, and “better for the environment,” because mass production is a “major cause” of global warming, among other things. There were links to an anti-sweatshop site and a Wal-Mart watchdog site.

The pledge echoed the idealistic language of a tree-hugger activist group, but actually the consortium’s most prominent member was the online shopping bazaar Etsy, a very much for-profit entity that bills itself as “your place to buy & sell all things handmade.” Etsy does not fulfill orders from an inventory; it’s a place where sellers set up virtual storefronts, giving the site a cut of sales. While eBay rose to prominence nearly a decade ago as an endless garage sale for the auctioning of collectibles and bric-a-brac, Etsy is more of an online craft fair, or art show, where the idea is that individuals can sell things that they have made. How many such people can there be? At last count, more than 70,000 — about 90 percent of whom were women — were using Etsy to peddle their jewelry, art, toys, clothes, dishware, stationery, zines and a variety of objects from the mundane to the highly idiosyncratic. Each seller has a profile page telling shoppers a bit about themselves, and maybe offering a link to a blog or a MySpace page or a mailing list; most have devised some clever store or brand name for whatever they’re selling.

Maybe you’re interested in a “random music generator” called the Orb of Sound ($80), built by an Australian tinkerer calling himself RareBeasts. Or a whistle made out of a tin can and bottle caps ($12), by loranscruggs, near Seattle. Or the “hand-painted antique ceramic doll-head planters” sold under the name Clayflower22 by a retired schoolteacher near Las Cruces, N.M. Or the “Kaleidoscope Pearberry Soapsicle” ($5), made by a woman in Daytona Beach, Fla., who calls her shop Simply Soaps. Or a porcelain bowl with an image of a skull on it, from a Chicago couple who call themselves Circa Ceramics. Or an original painting from an artist in Athens, Ga., who goes by the moniker the Black Apple.

Browsing Etsy is both exhilarating and exhausting. There is enough here to mount an astonishing museum exhibition. There is also plenty of junk. Most of all there is a dizzying amount of stuff, and it is similarly difficult to figure out how to characterize what it all represents: an art movement, a craft phenomenon or shopping trend. Whatever this is, it’s not something that Etsy created but rather something that it is trying to make bigger, more visible and more accessible — partly by mixing high-minded ideas about consumer responsibility with the unsentimental notion of the profit motive.

On July 29, Etsy registered its one-millionth sale and is expecting to hit two million items sold by mid-December. Shoppers spent $4.3 million buying 300,000 items from the site’s sellers in November alone — a 43 percent increase over the previous month. Thus far in December, the site has had record-breaking sales every day. Only about two years old, the company is not currently profitable but is somewhat unusual among Internet-based start-ups of the so-called Web 2.0 era in having a model that does not depend on advertising revenue. It depends on people buying things, in a manner that the founders position as a throwback to the way consumption ought to be: individuals buying from other individuals. “Our ties to the local and human sources of our goods have been lost,” the Handmade Pledge site asserts. “Buying handmade helps us reconnect.” The idea is a digital-age version of artisanal culture — that the future of shopping is all about the past.

STEP 1: Weave Do-It-Yourself Spirit Into a Community

The path that has led to Etsy begins with a motto — do it yourself — that implies distaste for consumer culture. That notion was front and center last year, when O’Reilly Media, best known for computer-related publications, introduced a magazine called Craft. A

spinoff of Make magazine (a latter-day Popular Mechanics for the hacker-tinkerer set), Craft addresses “the new craft movement.” The issue contained a variety of instructional projects: “Stitch a Robot,” one cover line read. “Felt an iPod Cocoon,” said another. Inside, an essay by a longtime crafter named Jean Railla argued that making something yourself is a form of “political statement” and a protest against chain stores that are turning “America into one big mini-mall.”

This dissonant-sounding juxtaposition — politics and felted iPod cocoons? — is what makes the craft thing hard to pin down. Of course Railla wasn’t saying that stitching a robot is akin to a march on Washington; she was writing about a broader do-it-yourself idea that she has watched gradually permeate popular culture over the course of a decade.

Railla, who is 37, founded a Web site called Getcrafty back in 1998, when renewed interest in traditional crafts among young women was still something of a curiosity. It wasn’t as if such skills and hobbies had ceased to exist; from Martha Stewart to nationwide chains like Michaels, major businesses catered to a range of quilt makers and scrapbookers. But the new wave of crafters infused uncool-sounding domestic skills like knitting and sewing with a postpunk attitude that revolved partly around mall-rejecting self-sufficiency. Railla wrote about how to make your own soap and lip gloss — and also about how to knit a bikini. “I really came to it from more of an indie-rock, do-it-yourself kind of political place,” she told me recently. “Sort of married with making peace with feminism.”
 Getcrafty was filled with project ideas and how-tos as well as discussion forums, which played a crucial role in building the craft-as-community idea that Etsy would later tap into. “Knitting is part of the same do-it-yourself ethos that spawned zines and mixtapes,” Debbie Stoller, editor of Bust, a pop-culture-meets-feminism magazine, declared. Stoller wrote a series of “Stitch N Bitch” books, which became part of a trend toward the formation of social-crafting groups across the country. More Web gathering points emerged, like Craftster and SuperNaturale. Offline, a communal make-stuff group called Church of Craft formed chapters in several cities.

Crafting had attained a subculture status by 2004, when Railla hired a New York University student named Robert Kalin and some friends to redesign Getcrafty. Kalin had been studying philosophy and classics, but, he told me, he was pessimistic about the job-market value of his degree and was looking for something more entrepreneurial. While he had a bit of woodworking experience, he and his friend Chris Maguire were basically techie types; they hadn’t known much about the handcrafting movement that was bringing so many young women to Getcrafty. “We were the only guys around,” Kalin recalls.

Soon he had an idea for a different kind of site that this burgeoning craft community might find useful: an online marketplace. By that time, plenty of crafters were not simply doing it themselves — they were selling what they had done. There’s nothing surprising about people who enjoy doing something (playing guitar, writing poetry, knitting a bikini) wondering if maybe there isn’t a way to make a living at it. But the scene that Kalin stumbled upon turned out to be brimming with entrepreneurial spirit.

Consider, for instance, the Austin Craft Mafia. This group of nine indiepreneurs traces its roots to a 2001 meeting of young women who hoped to leverage their craft skills into a way to quit their day jobs. Each member built her own business and helped the others do the same. They continued to offer advice and connections with others in Austin and, eventually, beyond. There are now 42 officially sanctioned Craft Mafias, in cities from Omaha to New Orleans to Anchorage to Glasgow. (The Austin Craft Mafia, like Etsy, is a member of the consortium backing the Handmade Pledge.)

For some years now, crafters have been selling on their own sites online. Craft boutiques have opened as fast as independent book and record stores closed. And a new wave of fairs has come to life, not of the country-craft, “Bless This Mess” style, but venues for a younger, more indie-punk aesthetic. These happen all over the country now — the Bazaar Bizarre in Boston and other cities, the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago, the Girlie Show in Oklahoma City — and each one seems to get bigger every year.

So it’s no surprise that when Kalin suggested something akin to an online version of a craft fair but infinitely large and open all the time, to everyone, everywhere, Railla thought it was a “brilliant” idea. She was happy to consult on the new enterprise but gives Kalin and his partners credit for spotting the business opportunity and making it a reality. To her, crafting remains more of a philosophy, and its satisfactions are in participation, not consumption. She reiterated that idea in her Craft magazine column, arguing that the practice satisfies the urge to create, values feminine art forms, provides relief from the digital world and, yes, is a form of “political statement” against the dehumanizing global supply chain.

But she also understands the appeal of the handmade to those who might not have the inclination to do the making. Readers of the first issue of Craft magazine might have eagerly followed the instructions to stitch a robot. But surely others gravitated to a related article about the popularity of a style of hand-stitched robot that you could buy on Etsy. The article discussed how one doll maker’s creations were so popular that every time she posted a new one, it sold within 20 minutes. It was hard to read this without wanting to visit the site immediately and see what the fuss was about. And perhaps to participate in the idea of D.I.Y., at least by buying D.I.Y.
STEP 2: Emboider With Webbiness  

This summer I visited the Etsy offices, in downtown Brooklyn . The company that Robert Kalin and his pals founded now has about 50 employees. (They remain jokily cryptic about what the name they chose for their enterprise means. It has been variously suggested that it is a play on the Latin phrase “et si” (“and if”), or that the secret can be found in Fellini’s “8 1/2.”) I got a tour of the rambling warren, spread over about 6,000 square feet on the sixth floor of an old building on Gold Street. It had a clubhouse feel that was equal parts venture-backed start-up and D.I.Y. enterprise: Here was the skateboard ramp; there the homemade greenscreen for Web casts. I was introduced to a number of young women at work silk-screening Etsy promotional materials onto bandannas, and also to the company lawyer. 


Kalin is 27 and seems even younger, with boyish features and reddish hair. Serious in a way that could be read as either earnest or deadpan, he told me the stories behind a stuffed animal and an interesting metal sculpture on his desk, both from Etsy sellers. He then handed me a piece of crocheted bacon. In order to explain his company, he offered me a seat and reached for a book. It was a children’s book, about a fish named Swimmy. He pulled his chair closer and read aloud. The upshot was that a whole bunch of little fish gang up and begin swimming in a formation that resembles one huge fish, thus warding off predators. In their formation, the fish named Swimmy assumes the position where the eye would be. Kalin closed the book. “We want to be the eye,” he said, in case I’d missed the point. “Like Swimmy.”

Tilting back in his chair, he spoke for some time, with the supreme self-confidence of the college bull-session raconteur, referencing Marshall McLuhan, beginning a discourse about the problem with central banks with the phrase, “If you read the Founding Fathers . . . ,” and so on. He wasn’t so much making arguments as patiently spelling out the way things work. He informed me, for instance, that young people today are different, having grown up with the Web and all. He had sought guidance from his grandfather about making Etsy a reality but ignored the tedious advice about writing a business plan, figuring the site itself would serve that function. Later he wrote a “fan letter” to one of the founders of Flickr, the popular online photo-sharing site, and she became an investor. A founder of del.icio.us, the social-bookmarking site, invested, and so did a New York venture-capital firm. Kalin’s grandfather was flummoxed.

All of which is a familiar-enough Internet-start-up story line. I was more interested in what made Etsy seem different from so many current efforts to “build community” online: the luck or genius of the site is that Kalin and the other founders encountered in the D.I.Y./craft scene something that was already social, community-minded, supportive and aggressively using the Web. It seemed to me that the company’s future would depend not only on the success of its sellers but also on its reputation among them. Nor could its reputation simply be for business acumen. If all Etsy did was channel D.I.Y.-ism into a profit machine, it could easily be seen as monetizing — exploiting — the creativity and hustle of 70,000 indiepreneurs. There was a cultural dimension, too.

Kalin clearly understood all this. The company does not, for instance, demand exclusivity. Indeed it seems to want its sellers to market themselves aggressively on their own sites, in stores, at fairs. So in its idealized role as Swimmy, Etsy constantly holds entrepreneurial workshops (how to build your “global microbrand”), pointing to “best practices” among Etsy sellers, offering shop critiques, advising how to “write a killer press release.” Its magazine-videocast, The Storque, often feels like a D.I.Y. business school. In addition, Kalin has hired about a half-dozen of the best Etsy sellers to work directly for the company, in jobs meant to spread their skills to as many sellers as possible. Some help run Etsy Labs, a community-centric program held at the company’s headquarters, teaching craft skills.
 On some level the Etsy idea is not really techno-progressive at all. It’s nostalgic. The company is host to a book club, which Kalin participates in, and when I visited, the most recent reading assignment was “The Wal-Mart Effect,” a book that assesses the societywide impact of that mass retailer’s success. Kalin seems flabbergasted that anyone would shop at Wal-Mart to save 12 cents on a peach instead of supporting a local farmer. Buying something from the person who made it is “the opposite of what Wal-Mart is right now: just this massively impersonal experience,” he told me earlier. “When you get an item from Etsy, there’s this whole history behind it. There’s a person behind it.” I asked whether Wal-Mart was really the right comparison, given Etsy’s eclectic, artistic merchandise, and the more workaday product mix of a big-box discounter. He brushed that aside, noting that Etsy sells clothes, which everyone needs.

His real point, it seemed to me, was not about Wal-Mart or any other particular retailer. It was far more expansive. If the marketplace today has become alienating and disconnected, then buying something handmade, from another individual, rolls back the clock to an era before factory labor and mass production. That’s a lot of clock-turning, if you recall Adam Smith’s excitement about the efficiency of an 18th-century pin factory. Really, Kalin has a problem with the entire modern marketplace. “Everything since the Industrial Revolution has been so fragmented,” he told me, sounding more like a character in Slacker, wasting time in a cafe, than a guy running a briskly growing business.

Kalin is nothing if not grandiose about what he thinks Etsy can accomplish. For example, he knows that individual crafters face a problem of scale: there is only so much one person can produce. (Hence the Industrial Revolution.) So he mentions creating “co-production” sites across the country, where groups of crafters would band together in a co-op-style model, ideally occupying space in distressed areas and offering training to people who want to learn handcrafting skills. Handmade isn’t a fad, he told me, it’s a resurgence, one that is of a piece with the booming interest in organic food. In 25 years, he said, Etsy would be both worldwide and personal, a global-local marketplace, a Web version of the Athenian agora.

The business proposition behind this extravagant vision is rather more straightforward. Etsy charges 20 cents per listing and 3.5 percent of the final sale price; this is generally lower and certainly less complicated than eBay’s fee structure; it also charges up to $15 if creators want to highlight a particular item on the site’s high-traffic showcase pages. More competition may be mixed news for individual artisans as newcomers keep flooding in to peddle their wares, but it’s all good news for Etsy. The company makes money from successful crafters, but it also makes money from wishful thinkers who never get beyond the hobby stage. The entrepreneur who makes something by hand might face a scale problem. Etsy doesn’t.

That said, what’s surprising about Kalin is that his interest really does seem to transcend the profit motive. It’s pretty clear that he not only respects the values of the D.I.Y. world and the earnest idealism of the Handmade Pledge; he also really believes in them. The quasi-libertarian certainty of the Web entrepreneur and the equally confident ex-philosophy-student discourse about the alienating nature of mass society seem contradictory. But to Kalin, they are intertwined. “In a way,” he said when I met him in Brooklyn, “I see Etsy as an art project.” And after a brief recap of art history through Duchamp, he suggested that Etsy could “disturb” the way people see the world, rethinking what makes their possessions important or trivial, leading us to re-evaluate the way we consume. Surely plenty of crafters see what they are up to as a mix of art and business as well — although they may be coming at that from a somewhat different angle.

STEP 3: Stitch Together Ideals and Entrepreneurialism

This past March, I went to Pittsburgh to attend the first-ever Craft Congress, which was made up of about 60 of the best-known and most established figures on the D.I.Y./crafter scene. I had heard the agenda would include a discussion of how their movement ought to be defined and thought about by participants. This is what makes crafting feel distinct from a garden -variety consumer trend: It’s hard to imagine the leading figures in, say, the premium-denim fad or the limited-edition-sneaker craze getting together to hash out what those things are really about, what participating in them really means.

I wondered if the discussion would be translated into some sort of manifesto. Would they lay out rules for who is a crafter and who isn’t? Would they determine where screen-printing on bulk-ordered T-shirts, or working with factory-made beads, falls on the continuum of “handmade”-ness? (I had read some spirited discussion in Etsy’s forums about the definition of “mass produced.”) I was also interested in the Craft Congress because I’d heard that someone from Etsy would be there, and I wondered how the company would be perceived. 
 The congress participants (almost all were women) included organizers of fairs in Atlanta, Toronto, Washington and elsewhere, as well as crafters from all around the country. Many had met online but never before in person. The discussions and presentations, spread over two days, began with an attempt at “defining the craft movement” and ranged into politics and recent corporate interest in D.I.Y.-ism. But there was little interest in rule making and manifesto-writing. Jenny Hart, an Austin Craft Mafia founder, went out of her way to make the point that the congress participants should be careful not to come across like self-appointed leaders.

The topics of discussion often weren’t ideological at all, but more practical matters like marketing tactics, taxes and health insurance. Etsy was represented by Matthew Stinchcomb, its 32-year-old marketing chief. When he met Kalin, he was in a rock band. Tired of touring, he got involved in Etsy, applying the sorts of underground promotional ideas he picked up as a musician, like creating Etsy “street teams.”

Gregarious and easygoing, he gave the Etsy pitch. “I think there’s a larger story that we are selling,” he said, presenting Etsy’s goal as recreating the marketplaces of old. Marketing has “crass connotations,” he allowed, but to make those one-on-one connections, sellers had to promote themselves. Later he added that the craft movement needed to keep “providing resources for each other, so we’re not all working against each other.” In other words, he fit right in: his presentation — like the congress in general — was equal parts entrepreneurial seminar and subculture colloquium.

Somehow all the talk made that most conventional American path — small business — seem like an instrument of radicalism. I talked to another attendee, a 29-year-old crafter named Faythe Levine, about the motivations of craft artist-entrepreneurs. She had told me about the thrill of discovering the craft scene: “No corporate backing — it was people doing things, full-on D.I.Y.” Last year she began working on a documentary called “Handmade Nation,” and by the time of the Craft Congress had videotaped 80 hours of interviews with crafters in a dozen cities. Some of her subjects were making a living, but some were still trying to quit dull day jobs, and others were stay-at-home moms. “I didn’t necessarily ask people if they were making stuff and selling it to be political,” she said. But many told her that “running a small business yourself, and trying to separate yourself from the masses — it’s a political statement in its own. That was kind of interesting, and it did come up repeatedly.”

It’s still tempting to characterize anything that looks edgy and has an online component as somehow a function of youth culture. But the age of the average Etsy seller turns out to be 34. Many crafters no doubt feel passionately about the ideals suggested by the Handmade Pledge a horror of sweatshop labor and corporate conformity, concern about the environment and would be pleased to see the broader consumer culture embrace them too. Meanwhile there is also the more salient matter of how to make a rewarding, meaningful and satisfying living without having to give up on those ideals. The women who have led the craft movement don’t want to work for the Man. But many are also motivated by having reached adulthood at a time when the Man is slashing benefits, reneging on pensions, laying people off and, if hiring, is looking for customer-service reps and baristas. This is not a utopian alt-youth framework; it’s a very real-world, alt-grown-up framework.

Listening to the discussions at the Craft Congress, it seemed to me that while there’s a case to be made that this is an art movement, or an ideological movement, or a shopping movement, it is also — and probably fundamentally — a work movement. At one point, talk turned to corporate interest in D.I.Y.-ism, and in particular how companies like Toyota were sponsoring craft fairs. Some argued that “megacorporations” trying to burnish their hipster images had no legitimate role on the scene. Others suggested that corporate money could be put to beneficial uses. No consensus emerged, but toward the end of the discussion one crafter articulated the precise commerce-and-ideals dilemma of the crafty businessperson. “If we can’t have a job where we make enough money,” she observed, “then this movement isn’t sustainable.”

STEP 4: Sell

It is worth noting another element of the Handmade Pledge: “The ascendancy of chain-store culture and global manufacturing has left us dressing, furnishing and decorating alike.” It’s a shrewd pitch, because the consumer craving for novelty, for the unique, the special, seems unquenchable. It has spawned, for instance, a number of blogs dedicated specifically to ferreting out the exciting new thing, usually with a helpful link to a potential transaction. (One of the most popular such sites, Design*Sponge, is another backer of the Handmade Consortium.) Buying something from an indie craft artist can result in a buyer-seller connection, but it can also make consumption itself feel like a creative act. This is the crucial element fueling the craft boom: People show up at the fairs, the shops and the Web sites. And they spend money. 

One afternoon last summer, a young artist based in Athens, Ga., unveiled her latest work. Emily Martin is 24 years old. She graduated from art school about two years ago and has never had a gallery show. She announced the date and time of the unveiling on her blog, so at 2 p.m. on Aug. 28, I clicked over and watched as she posted the new work to her Etsy shop: Six original paintings priced between $160 and $250, and nine hand-sewn dolls, for $37 to $65. They disappeared faster than I could click “refresh.” By 2:02 p.m. most had been sold, and Martin had made about $1,400 (minus fees). Martin fully expected to be working as a waitress and confining her art-making to her off hours at this stage of her life. Instead, the Black Apple, as she is known on Etsy, is a full-time artist and perhaps the site’s most famous success story.

Martin’s paintings often depict cartoonish girls with unnaturally wide eyes, and her shy voice sounds as if it were emanating from one of these innocent figures. “You’re told in art school, ‘O.K., well, one out of a hundred of you is going to make a living with the training that you’re getting here,’ ” she said. While sweet and appealing, Martin’s aesthetic is more thrift store than Chelsea gallery; she was “really intimidated” by “the whole capital-A art thing.” But at a local craft fair, someone told her about this new site called Etsy. “The idea of a shop online, being a more democratic thing, really appealed to me,” she says. As of early December, she had sold more than 10,000 items through her Etsy store — mostly 8-by-10, open-edition prints priced at $13 apiece, but also postcards, buttons, hand-sewn dolls and original paintings.

It’s a feel-good story of Webby empowerment and the triumph of a niche-culture underdog. Martin recognizes that what the Web in general, and Etsy in particular, has done for her is to make a market. It has exposed her work to more people than ever would have seen it in Athens, without any auditions for capital-A art power brokers. Just as important, though, is that her aesthetic turned out to have unusually broad appeal, and she doesn’t know quite what to tell the aspiring crafter-artists who besiege her with requests for advice. “I had no idea that my work would appeal to grandmas, 12-year-old girls, hipsters, guys buying things for their girlfriends and wives,” she says. The real lesson of the Black Apple may be not how many Emily Martin stories there have been (not many) but how many people figure that they, too, can achieve what she has (lots).

Inevitably, not everyone can, and it’s no surprise that Etsy has detractors. Some point out that for all the talk of consumers wanting to escape mall-fueled conformity Etsy’s online-mall format amplifies market-driven trends. (Images of birds, especially owls, are inexplicably popular. One crafter told me she was sick of making the same owl over and over — but that’s what her customers wanted.) Others grouse about another side effect, price pressure: The competition is so intense on the site that new crafters can’t break out, and some established ones feel they cannot raise their prices. That’s a particularly thorny problem if part of your sales pitch is that you’ve made a thing yourself; a careful artisan can’t respond to lower prices with greater volume. The most extreme version of this critique practically makes Etsy sound like Wal-Mart in its ripple-effect power through the broader D.I.Y. business community.

 These aren’t really Etsy problems; they are consumer-marketplace problems. An enterprise founded on its creator’s passion still has to satisfy consumer demand if it’s going to be a profitable enterprise. Consider another Etsy seller story, one less splashy, but perhaps more representative, than Emily Martin’s. Circa Ceramics is two Chicago-based potters, Andy Witt and Nancy Pizarro. A few years ago, their work had a fairly traditional aesthetic Southwestern color schemes in stripes, flower shapes and other patterns. They sold these pieces at traditional fairs, or to business customers like coffee shops.

More recently they stumbled across some design blogs and learned about Etsy and the apparent demand for pottery work with an edgier look — which the potters themselves happened to prefer. At the Renegade fair in Chicago, their booth was full of porcelain pieces of all kinds — cups, magnets, wall-hanging tiles and so on — decorated with images of manual typewriters, skulls, vintage cameras and bugs. It was their first time at Renegade, and they seemed enthusiastic about how it was going. Their gradual move toward the “indie community,” and to a customer base they describe as 25 to 35 years old, rather than 35 to 75, has been good for business. A year ago they opened an Etsy storefront, and while they weren’t sure how many people would go for $30 coffee mugs ordered via mail, it turned out that hundreds would. Recently Circa Ceramics helped form the Etsy Chicago Street team. Etsy sales now represent 25 percent of their business, with orders going to customers as far away as Spain, Belgium, even Australia.

For Circa Ceramics, and for crafters in general, Etsy is another manifestation of how D.I.Y.-ism has evolved. Its motivation may still be the independence from capitalism that Railla wrote about. But it can also be about a form of independence economic independence within capitalism. Many of the artist-entrepreneurs opening up their virtual shops on Etsy want what Circa Ceramics or Emily Martin or the Austin Craft Mafia have achieved: Making a living from what they love to do. It’s a goal that reconciles ideology and self-branding, not so much to change the world as to stake out a place in it.


This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, December 16, 2007.  

Jobs | March 03