TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, April 28, 2008

Etsy: The Handmade Revolution

I have a store on Etsy called Rayela. I also have one on eBay, Rayelart. Everybody who shops online knows about eBay. They love it, hate it, use it or ignore it, but they definitely know it's there. Not everybody knows about Etsy.

Etsy, now in its third year, is an online marketplace with an agenda. Its founders want it to become THE place to shop for handmade goods through a community of small businesses who may offer a real shopping option in opposition to the corporate world. The founders, staff and most of Etsy's sellers are on the young, under-thirty side. Robert Kalin, known as Rokali around Etsy, co-founded the venture and acts as spokesperson for its vision:

The Etsy culture grew out of the Indie movement: young artists, designers and crafters who have re-defined fashion, function and design in the last ten years. The Indiepublic website is a starting point for many young sellers venturing into this marketplace. Etsy, Indiepublic and others have taken the handmade pledge, vowing to buy handmade whenever possible as an effort to support small-scale production and ventures.

Etsy has been growing by leaps and bounds. My store is one along 8280 others at the last count. Etsy allows three types of product to be sold: handmade by the seller, supplies and vintage (over 20 years old). This means that the range of products found there is huge, especially since many sellers don't read the rules and sell other things that are not allowed. My focus on Etsy is handmade textiles from around the world, vintage or remnant pieces that can be used as supplies. And, when I can, I have things I make on there, too.

Etsy is a marketplace packed full of eye candy. Sure, there is what I would consider "junk", but there are also oodles and caboodles of wonderful things in all three categories. Jewelry is the most competitive category, but fiber enthusiasts will find excellent sources for raw materials such as yarn, wool, and fabric along with finished textile products from wearables to decorative pieces. I have some of my favorite Etsy fiber artists linked in the right hand column of this blog. Explore them and you will see some of the wonderful treasures I am describing. Several have already written articles on their work for this blog. You will find them under the Etsy label, also in a column on the right. Fiber artists on Etsy can be found in many categories: hats, bags, pillows, sculptures, textiles, and quilts are some obvious keywords to use in searching for them, but many others abound. I distinguish within a category what I consider "art" apart from its normal function. This is a big can of worms, but in my opinion, not everyone who makes a bag is an artist and not every bag is art. I make bags and most of them are just bags. Fun ones, but nothing to knock you socks off. Dreamwoven, however, knocks your socks off with her hats:

The hats go beyond function and become art, transforming the wearer into a sculpture. I think she is my all-time favorite hat maker. Someday, I hope to own one of her pieces!

Fashionknitwear is another knitter making accessories into art. She doesn't have much in her shop, but she challenges the boundaries of what a shawl, neckwarmer or wrap should look like. This piece obviously keeps one's neck warm and it can be pulled up on the head as a hood.

Then, there are lots of fiber people making home accessories. Some use traditional techniques while others also explore the edge. Hedgehoghillcrafts of Maine does some nice felt work using blanket stitches:

A Stitch in Dye of Austin, Texas uses color explosively. She quilts, makes accessories and sells her hand-dyed fabric on Etsy. She also has a wonderful blog, http://stitchindye.blogspot.com, worth visiting.

IVANandLUCY, another Southerner from Louisiana, transforms pillows and bags into altered art pieces. The artist's Montessori training shows in her pieces which are dominated by earthy colors, vintage images and buttons.

Several international fiber artists reinterpret their heritage in a new way. Saffronmarigold takes traditional Indian designs and incorporates them into her line of interiors: bedspreads, curtains, table cloths and pillows.

Finally, there are those who play with fiber, traveling far in the world of imagination. SCRAPdannymansmith is a wild Chicago artist. He describes his process: "I TRY TO MAKE THINGS IN AN ENVIRONMENT OF CONTROLLED LUNACY". His work is prolific, exploring the limits of both fashion and sculpture.

Etsy welcomes all of these varied fiber artists. Some have become quite successful there, while others struggle to maintain visibility in a highly competitive market. Selling on Etsy is pretty accessible to most people: the process is quite simple (although there are many kinks that still need to be worked out), the listing price at 20 cents an item for four months is affordable, and the staff have made seller education a top priority. There are many ways to connect with other sellers, network, learn business skills, ask questions, and grow on Etsy. I use the forum regularly and have found most of the other sellers on there helpful and usually courteous. It's open to buyers as well and there have been heated posts about different topics in the year that I have been there. Only an estimated 2% of Etsy members use the forum, so it does not reflect the main body of sellers, but it is still reflective of experiences most sellers and buyers think about.

There are also virtual labs (live workshops and online classes), chat rooms, street teams (members unite by craft, location or interest) and the Storque, Etsy's newsletter which is packed with articles on products, special focuses, announcements, and so on.

Rob Kalin (Rokali) explores Etsy's first five years in a Storque article:

"In early April of 2005, I sat in an orange chair facing an open window. It was nighttime and the lights were off. I was back in Brooklyn after a brief residence in Paris, and I was about to sketch the initial ideas that would become Etsy. Working with three friends – Chris, Haim and Jared – Etsy went from these ideas to a site live on the Web in about two months.

Now, thirty-three months later, Etsy is a company with fifty employees, a community with over 650,000 members, and a marketplace with over 120,000 sellers in 127 different countries.

We launched in June of 2005, which means we're right in the middle of our first five years. Where are we headed? What do we need to get there?"

The book Swimmy by Leo Leonni represents Rokali's vision for Etsy:

Together, Etsy sellers can hopefully revolutionize product development, merchandising and the purchasing process around the world. Already, a sizable number of Etsy sellers have indeed become self-sufficient through their Etsy shops and have thus quit their daytime jobs. But, is this indeed a revolution? Recent forum posts have been questioning the ability of small businesses to stay small once they are successful. Some sellers have been talking about how hard it is to produce, photograph the product, list everything, provide customer support, do all the shipping, attend to marketing and grow without hired help. Etsy's rules stipulate that sellers can only represent themselves or a collective of family members and friends. I work about 60 hours a week on my business (which does include this blog!), which leaves very little time for creative endeavors, socializing with friends, reading or pursuing other interests.

On the face of things, Etsy seems like a simple solution to the home-based business. It is an excellent point of entry for beginners or hobbyists, but for the serious artist or seller who wants to grow their business into a full-time job that provides a decent salary, health insurance and benefits, Etsy can only be one egg in the basket. This is especially challenging for artists producing all their own products. The top sellers on Etsy tend to be supplies vendors who sell inexpensive beads and findings and can replicate their photos and listings with the same product over and over.

However, on the product development side of things, Etsy does provide consumers with a true alternative to mass-produced items of the Walmart standard. I do believe that everything helps. There are many, many sellers on Etsy who make wonderful products out of recycled items. Along with the green and fair trade movement, all of these little fish can somehow band together to fulfill the Swimmy model. We are still swimming with discordance, but in time, perhaps the ripple effect will grow into a true revolution. I invite you to join in and take the Handmade pledge!

1 comment:

  1. thank you for the wonderful article (and thank you for the wonderful plug... i am truly honored). It was nice to see some of my favorite artists listed here and you have such great artists shown along in your links.

    the other rachel


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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