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Comments Posted 12.16.07 | PERMALINK | PRINT | SINGLE PAGE

Rob Walker

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.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are
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