Work In Progress

a critique on the “buy handmade” movement
February 10, 2008, 4:33 pm
Filed under: craft, Design & Visuals, economics, trends

About 7 years ago I began trawling the web looking for people who who made and sold handmade clothes. It was then that I knew I was witnessing the first glimmers of what is now the enormously popular craft “revolution”. And up until recently I was pretty convinced that it was indeed revolutionary. People making their own soaps and hand-towels! The spirit of Che had descended on the US at last! When I discovered a couple years ago it was love at first click. I bought a felt brooch that looked like a fried egg.

But lately the whole thing is beginning to wear thin on me. Every time I see a “buy handmade” sticker or button I feel a little irritable. What really irritates me is that the movement has essentially just spawned more crap for us to buy. Its still at its heart, an exercise in consumerism. And like anything that starts out cool and unique, it becomes quickly gobbled up by the mainstream (or just urban outfitters) and re-packaged back to us with faux hand-stitching. Go on Etsy now and its just all this STUFF. A lot of it is pretty terrible too–but that’s to be expected in a creative field. Deep down inside we still love shopping, and we like to feel cooler than our peers. For the moment, buying handmade satisfies these desires extremely well.

Beyond the stuff aspect, I also dislike that there is a sort disingenuous idea that it is somehow a moral better to buy handmade. Especially when you take into account the enormous amount of waste that goes into handmade. When something is ethically manufactured (ie lean–for a great blog on lean manufacturing in clothing please go here), the whole process has been studied and analyzed down to the number of stitches that go into a hem. This actually greatly reduces material waste. As someone who does do handmade–I can honestly say it is extremely wasteful in terms of materials and labor. I make too many mistakes. I have more scraps than I know what to do with. I waste thread and time because I am probably unknowingly doing it the “hard way”. Also of note is the fact that almost all the materials used to make homemade things are coming from places like China. There are very few textile mills in the US now. There are some in Europe but they mainly cater to the couture set. Things like buttons and zippers are manufactured in Asia. Not to mention that many of these shops do not buy their materials wholesale–which adds to costs. A homemade commodity does not get to neatly escape these problematic manufacturing issues.

That said I love the homemade stuff. I am a slave to Etsy. I love the personal feeling customer service and the creativity and Shops like anti-factory, use second-hand scraps which greatly cuts down on material costs and waste. But I take issue that buying homemade is better. Its just another form of consumerism.


21 Comments so far
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Hearty back slapping and high fives from this craftisan oft consumed with guilt! Why do I make stuff, where does it go, do people need it or simply want it? I am constantly fighting the battle with myself whether to stay small, or expand in to shops. I’ve had offers to go in to shops, but something always holds me back. I think you’ve just hit it on the head. I don’t want to add to the burgeoning wardrobes and cupboards of peoples homes as some sort of impulse buy, or because handmade items are the items du jour. I make stuff because I love doing it and because it makes me feel useful and because it helps to use up stuff that’s lying around. (Yeah, I’m a re- crafter. You know, reuse, recycle, restack the wobbling piles of reclaimed and rewashed fabric!)
The handmade craft movement has been around for a long time. I think the internet has been the catalyst in turning it into ‘the next big thing’. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I just hope that people buy a handmade product that has been made with care and genuine enjoyment and not constructed in the hope of making a buck or two.
And I certainly hope that they don’t buy it JUST BECAUSE it has been handmade. That’s akin to claiming to be green and driving a monster truck!!

Comment by Joy

Mmm, very thought provoking post!

Personally I don’t buy handmade because I think it’s ethically superior or environmentally friendly, but more because it gives me a chance to support local artisans and crafters who are just starting up, and trying to get a name for themselves. For me the whole craft/handmade movement is about leveling the playing field, and giving everyone an opportunity to get their wares out there to the world, and develop as creative individuals.

Perfect example, the handmade movement has allowed myself and a bunch of other Australians to start businesses that produce limited run, hand printed textiles, so now NOT ALL materials used to create handmade things are made in China anymore 😉

Comment by Lara

I don’t think the ‘buy handmade’ movement was ever about consuming less. I believe it was about buying something from someone who loves making their product. I also feel it is a rebellion against mass produced products. People who have online stores on websites such as Etsy are filling this niche.

I for one want something that is unique or has a least been produced in a short run. That is why I love handmade.

Comment by Jason

I think the handmade movement is all about inspiring people to be creative.To allow them freedom to express themselves and continue crafts and techniques that were beginning to be lost.It fights back at people like my daughters textile teacher who told her that if someone asks you whether you made something then that is an insult! That if something looks handmade it means it is shoddy and inferior to factory made products! I think the the handmade movement is much more that a moral stance it is a cultural and heritage stance too.We need to show our future crafters and artists the importance of their creativity in our society. xxx

Comment by Kristy

I agree with Jason’s comment to a degree. There are certain elements within the “hand made movement” that are all about recycling and refashioning, however I don’t think it universally covers the ethos of all crafters / Etsy sellers.
I personally buy handmade for the reasons stated by Jason – having something unique that has been made by someone who loves what they do.
I try to buy from small “cottage” (for want of a better term) suppliers for my own crafting wherever possible. It may be another form of consumerism and I may be somewhat idealistic in doing so, but I like to think that “small” means anti corporate and fair traded product.

Comment by Stacey

Whether it be a well-calculated mass production of goods, or a small run of experimental hand made items, there will always be wasted expenditures. There is no way the entire hand made market could surpass the waste produced in just one area of mass production.

Comment by Nikko

I hardly buy anything that is new – whether it is handmade or factory made. My reasoning is that if it is used twice (at least), that probably outweighs it’s manufacturing methods. I don’t know if I’m right at all on this, just a hunch.

Comment by bigbinder

[…] A critique on the buy handmade movement. Asks the questions that regardless of the fact that it is handmade, is it just “more crap for us to buy”? […]

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I guess I don’t look at handmade quite the same way you do. I have an etsy shop, and I buy from other etsians as much as I sell. I’ve always considered the pieces I buy (and most of what I make) to be unique artwork, no matter what medium it is in. Many of these items are one of a kind works that someone put a lot of time, thought and passion into. I’m not saying we’re all Picassos, but I don’t think anyone criticized him for wasting paint, canvas or brushes.

Comment by Stacey

It seems to me that a buyer’s “stance” is indicated by the questions they ask, if any, before making a purchase. Perhaps those that ask, “Is it handmade?” are supporting the creative process or maybe they are anti-mass-market. Everyone will have their unique reasons. However, to make a “moral” purchase, I believe we would have to ask more questions than most people are willing. Here are just a few: Do any of the raw materials come from oppressive states… especially those engaging in child labor? How far are items shipped? (some might say it is more moral to buy locally) Are items made from recycled or recyclable material? Is any pollution generated by the process? (is it better to buy a painting from someone who washes their brushes in water, than those who use petrolium products?) Do the raw materials come from animals, in any way? If so, are they ethically obtained? I think a person could drive themselves crazy with the volume of questions that need answers before considering a purchase ethical. Can a line be drawn? Is a person being less ethical if they ask less questions? Hmmm.

Comment by Dave

Especially when you take into account the enormous amount of waste that goes into handmade.

As someone who has helped coordinate manufacturing in both the US and China, I can tell you that factory work usually wastes a similar amount of material (at best slightly less,) and on a larger scale. This isn’t a reasonable claim to make.

Comment by perianwyr

Oh, no doubt. Traditional maunfacturing pracices are typically wasteful, not to mention cause larger scale pollution issues. This is why I mentioned more ethical “lean” manufacturing processes that try to tackle these problems.

Comment by LT

I agree that etsy represents more consumption, more stuff, more future garbage and more resources spent. The idea that by consuming more stuff we can help save the planet is certainly an odd one! We need to STOP consuming if we want to help the planet, but most of us (myself included) love shopping, so we buy something “green” like a hemp skirt or an organic handbag and tell ourselves we’re doing our bit! Somehow (maybe because etsy appeals to grow-your-own-organic-food-and-knit-your-own-teacosy types of people) “handmade” had gotten muddled up with “green”. Etsy, a giant on-line shopping mall, is certainly not “green”.

What it is, however, is a wonderful opportunity for creative people to have an outlet for, and possible income from, their creative energies, and to be put in contact directly with buyers, and that, in itself, is a great thing.

Comment by Helen

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

Comment by sandrar

Laura thanks for your thoughtful perspective. I appreciate your ability to shed some light on an otherwise unspoken topic of the handmade movement. I wondered if I might link your shop and this article to my facebook fan page, here is the link It is a new fan page where I am featuring Etsy artists and articles on the handmade movement. Yours would be a great addition. let me know… Deb

Comment by Deb

Sign: zdbrw Hello!!! adgxa and 4153adkxgmtvgr and 9263 : I like your blog. cool post!

Comment by celebrity fuck you

consuming is a state of being ,no store no manufacturing can persuade you into it if you are conscious in your life.societies always trade their goods in one way or etsy store and no one can persuade me in feeling better by buying a skirt or in any ways buying my happiness.those kind of stores give a chance to people who dont want to mess with the system of the big cities to work from their house and keep their privacy and a kind of freedom since they produce only when they want to.i can make you some questions too..
do you live in a big city ?
do you work for a big company?
do you drive a car?
do you buy things when you feel sad?
do you watch television?
do you have credit cards?
how old is your mobile phone?
You are all about saving the world i guess!!!and you expect from the market to contribute to your consuming ethics!!!
goodnight and good luck

Comment by akra

[…] there is a downside to handmade and that is waste. As this blogger notes: ‘As someone who does do handmade–I can honestly say it is extremely wasteful in terms of […]

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I love having my store for a creative outlet!

Comment by Rachel

Should we continue to allow big manufactures and mass media to tell us what to buy, or do we take this opportunity to take back our culture?

The supply chain will change with time to favor reclaimed and locally made raw materials, but we gotta start somewhere.

Comment by Jay Wiese

Great reading about this stuff! I hate consumerism myself, but also want to create and make ‘beautiful’ things that would also be useful. You’ve raised some really good points about the whole process!

Comment by maya5622

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