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05 February 2012 @ 11:55 pm
What Is "Hand Made"?  
When I think of factory-made, I picture an assembly line where a chain of different people and/or a series of human-replacing machines performs each step required to make a product. When I think of hand-made, I think of 1 person doing the majority of those steps by themselves. Makes sense, right?

So... is a pair of Levi's handmade?
Our natural response is to say "no", but technically there are hands that do some of the work. A series of machines makes the fabric, a series of machines does the dyeing, and a series of machines cuts out the pieces. Human hands do the sewing and some other tasks (with assistance from machines), but it takes serveral people and machines to finish a pair from start to finish. One person sews the leg pieces together, another person sews the zipper in, another person sews the pockets on, another person puts on the rivets, etc. Making one pair, from sketch to pattern draft to finished product, probably takes 10 people/machines or more. Across the board, people do not consider this type of production as hand-made. We call it "factory-made" or "mass-produced".

So what does it take for something to be hand-made?
In order for your grandma to call the sweater she knitted for you hand-made, should she have to shear the sheep, spin and dye the wool, make her own knitting needles, draft her own original pattern, and do all the knitting herself? Automatically we think "no", because she, as one lone person, took a handful of pre-made supplies (which serve no other immediate function on their own) and created something new by combining them into one new object by herself. In our books, that's good enough to be called hand-made.

In my own work, don't weave the ribbon, I don't cast the metal, and I don't cut the glass that makes the rhinestones. Yet because I take all those bits and pieces (often painting them or cutting them apart first) and combine them to make a single new object, what I do is considered hand-made. Even if someone helps me, like if a friend comes over and helps me dye feathers or cut ribbon or starch lace, it's still considered hand-made.

So where is the line drawn?
How many people/machines is too many to be considered hand-made? And why does it matter?

It matters because selling venues like Etsy.com have turned a spotlight on it (their mandate being "your place to buy and sell handmade [goods]"), and Etsy generates a lot of business for a lot of people. And they're serious about their policies. If they find you in violation, they'll ban you. Yet they aren't terribly specific about where that line is. To quote their policy: "all items listed in the handmade Categories must be made by the Etsy seller"; although it doesn't say if the Etsy seller is allowed to have had any help in making them.

I see a lot of items on Etsy that, quite frankly, took a factory (as defined near the beginning of this post) to make. There is no way the people listing those products made them all by themselves, or even with the help of a friend or two. The general cost of the materials, complexity of the item and the potential labour involved grossly outweigh the low asking price; they reek of mass-production. Even so, some get around site policy by calling these goods "craft supply items". But how is a fully functional pocket watch or laser pointer a craft supply item? Just because you can hang it from a chain, does that make it a "charm" or "pendant" and therefore a jewelry making component? I think it's high time that we as artist/designers and consumers, as well as Etsy, thought about this in more detail. I see a lot of people pushing the boundaries who aren't getting kicked off that site, while other people who are trying to play by the rules are vanishing (for example, clothing designers who have a couple of people handy who help them sew). There is no clearly defined line, so the policing of Etsy's rules seems to almost be random at times. In fact, sometimes it almost seems like a blind eye is being turned. Case in point: I actually saw a necklace watch listed for sale with the words "this is hand made by me" in the description. That watch, chain and all, was identical to one sold by one of my wholesale suppliers. The only thing that could have been hand-done by that person was to have changed the battery.

Why, what's the big deal?
Etsy has become a massive retail venue, and has provided a lot of work for a lot of independent artisans, folks who live near you, who use it to make a living. Yes, it's that big. Because of the site's sheer size (and scope of influence as a result), it's made "hand-made" a very big deal out there in the arts & crafts world, as well as the business world. It has become a money magnet. Merchants knows this. Etsy knows this. Etsy should know, because with such a large user base they must be raking in a decent annual profit from sellers' fees. Perhaps enough that a blind eye is sometimes worth turning?

Much like "vintage", the word "hand-made" has now become the new marketing buzzword, thanks to sites like Etsy; people are (ab)using it to sell all sort of things. And when people do this, it makes those of us who actually do make things by hand look bad, because we can't spend 16+ hours knitting a sweater and sell it for only $5.99. I mean seriously, would you? That would barely cover the cost of the yarn. So please think carefully the next time you want to buy something and it's labelled as hand-made: is it, really?

Blogger's note:
I used to sell some hand-made items on Etsy when they first started up, but haven't done so in years. I currently de-stash odd craft supplies like beads and scrap ribbon and such there, and re-sell some popular sewing supplies to supplement my fees, but that's it. Over the years I have watched the site grow, and occasionally considered re-stocking my jewelry shop. But frankly, I refuse to lower my prices to compete with some of the "hand-made" stuff there. Doing so would kill my business. Besides, without Etsy's policies on what precisely constitutes "hand-made", I could potentially find myself banned if even one person thought my work looked "too good to be true" and flagged me. Which is funny, because outside of Etsy, such a suspicion would be a compliment.
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