Monday, January 09, 2012

What is Handmade?

Nope, not the age old debate about "my handmade is more handmade than yours", but a deeper look into what it means to me and my view on society's take on it.

Recently, the topic of 'resellers' invading the handmade artisan community has come to point where some of us feel that something needs to be done about it.

What is a reseller?  well, generally speaking, just about any store you can think of is a reseller.  They buy inventory from a wholesale source and resell it to the public.  In and of itself, it's not a bad thing.  It's the way commerce works.  From Wal-Mart to Macy's virtually everything comes from a factory of some sort and is produced in mass quantities.  Some things carry a 'handmade' label, such as embroidered slippers from Indonesia.  We're not talking a few women in their homes, we're talking whole villages of people cranking out X number of items per day. Their weekly salary is often less than our hourly minimum wage.  The conditions are not always sanitary or safe, and very often young children have to work under these conditions in order for a family to make ends meet.

I don't tell you this to get you riled up, or start a movement to boycott these products or companies, but to point out the different definitions of handmade.

Recently, within the last 5-6 years the "Handmade Movement" emerged onto the scene.  It really isn't such a new concept, lots of people have been making their own clothes and their children's for many years.  People have been raising livestock such as sheep, rabbits, llamas and alpacas for their fiber for commercial purposes for hundreds of years, many of them kept a portion for their own use to spin into fiber and then construct into garments for their friends and family and to sell to local folks.  Co-ops where groups of people grow their own fruits, vegetables, grain and meat to trade, barter or sell.

Craft shows and flea markets have been around forever, where people make and sell their own furniture, soaps, clothing, accessories, jewelry, as well as items they've collected over the years.

To those who don't belong to this segment of society, handmade is a novelty, or a completely unknown concept.  With the introduction of the internet, handmade has gotten a lot more attention, mostly by other crafters as they can now gather from across the world and converse with others who share their handmade ethos.  They can gather in virtual markets and sell their wares.  Undoubtedly, this is the largest market for handmade products, as very few can fully appreciate the time, skill and quality of handmade like another crafter or artisan.  The added exposure has increased awareness, certainly, but I think it's still a novelty or an unknown to the general masses.

Education has helped, but education is a double edged sword.  It might convert a few non cratty types to appreciate and purchase handmade products, but it also gives the do-it-yourselfer the means to try their hand at crafting and selling.  I think the crafting pool has grown larger, faster than the buying pool.  And then there's that reseller issue.  Finding a formerly untapped market, resellers begin to label their things as handmade, and due to their lower prices, sometimes lower quality, and their ability to flood the market with their mass produced goods, it is squeezing the crafters and artisans out of their market.  Now we're faced with what to do about it.

It's pretty obvious that we're never going to escape the resellers, they will encroach on every market they can, using whatever tactics they have to in order to compete with us.  It's a dilemma that handmade marketplaces are now facing.  It's not just that resellers are encroaching on our territory, but that they are misrepresenting their items as handmade when they're not, undercutting our prices, copying our pictures to represent their items and often duplicating the exact items of some handcrafters.  I think most of us can accept competition when both sides play fairly, but not when one side cheats. 

It not only hurts us by taking away business, but the deception to the customer is just as serious.  Certainly there are people who don't really care whether or not something is handmade, as long as it's what they want at the price they want to pay.  That's fine, commercial items have their place and their market.  But what about the person who wants to support handmade and they are fooled into thinking that they are purchasing a handmade item only to find out it is mass produced in another country?  How do we protect them?  How do we educate them before they make that purchase?  And if they are fooled, how do we repair the lost trust?

There aren't really any magic solutions to this problem, it will be an ongoing project for us to educate the buying public.  And there will always be those who don't care.

If I can enlighten one person, or give them pause, or encourage them to be a more informed consumer, then I have done my job.  It's more than I expect, but everything I hope for.

1 comment:

cctexan3 said...

I forone, Love the handmade movement and am proud to be part of it. I buy handmade whenever possible because I know the sellers, and I feel I am getting a quality product without the "factory " feel. I support the Arts!