Ten years ago, Etsy brought the local craft fair into the e-commerce age when it created an online platform for artists and craftspeople to sell goods on the Internet, charging them 20 cents for each item listed and 3.5 percent of each sale. The company racks up $2 billion in annual sales.
Amazon.com jumped into the market in October, launching Handmade at Amazon. At launch, it listed handmade goods from 5,000 sellers in 60 countries. It charges nothing for listings but collects 12 percent of each sale.
Other sites, including Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, provide new opportunities for artists and craftspeople to display their creations, connect with customers and steer them to websites and online shops.
Meanwhile, sites such as YouTube, CreativeLive, Skillshare and School House Craft offer anyone with a hankering to make stuff a seemingly endless supply of DIY videos and advice. There are “shopping cart” applications such as Shopify that artists can add to their websites to cut out the middle man, and inexpensive paid promotions on social media to help crafters “build a brand.”
Internet expands the market
“It’s quite a bit different now,” says Marlo Miyashiro, an artist who has been selling her jewelry and handmade goods full time since 1993. “The Internet makes it possible to build and manage your shop online. That allows hobbyists and professional artists to reach farther out into the world. They don’t need retailers to carry their work any more — or at all.”
As a result, thousands of artists and crafters, most of them women, have turned hobbies and passions into small businesses or, in some cases, large ones. Miyashiro says the community of “makers” selling their goods in Seattle easily exceeds 1,000.
Some do it for fun, others out of necessity. Many keep a foot in three worlds, selling online, in person at craft fairs and festivals, and through wholesale.
“People want to branch out,” says Cathy Pascual, a 42-year-old Bellevue, Wash., mother of two who hopes to turn her needle arts into a small business called Catshy Crafts. Already, 1,400 people follow her work on Instagram.
“A lot of people know they want to be an online business,” says Pascual. “I started as a hobby business. I’m getting a divorce, and I want it to be a full-time business.”
Even artists who started in manufacturing jump into the craft market. Bedrock Industries of Seattle, which produces glass tiles and other products from recycled glass, survived the Great Recession in part by making art to sell with tiles and other mosaic materials for other artists and crafters, says Bedrock owner and artist/crafter Maria Ruano.
“There are more crafters than ever,” says Ruano, whose company operates a retail shop. “I realized that if I made the same amount of Little Starlight drops as I did tile, I would make three times the money.”
Ruano says selling at farmers markets and craft fairs is physically tough and time-intensive. But she prefers it, having given up online sales after too many people started stealing her ideas.
Others say the farmers markets and fairs are a key part of their online businesses because they help connect artists with customers who not only appreciate, but seek out, handmade goods.
Miyashiro says there is more demand than ever for slots at high-profile, juried shows that attract customers willing to pay more for an item made by another human being.
“The problem now is that there are so many makers applying for the shows, it’s been harder for people to find a slot for holiday sales, the most important time of year for most makers,” says Miyashiro, who runs IMakeCuteStuff and consults with other crafters looking to start or expand their businesses.
She and two other women opened the Handmade Showroom, a pop-up shop that sells handmade goods from 60 regional makers. The mall where the showroom is located approached the women about the shop.
Pike Place Market, which Miyashiro describes as “the longest-running craft show in Washington,” is also adding to its stable of craftspeople: 47 new slots are being reserved for makers of handmade goods when its waterfront expansion is complete.
Technology has made it easier to reach customers, but has forced artists and craftspeople who use it to spend as much or more time selling as they do making, leading some to burnout. Etsy reported that only 32.3 percent of sellers who sold an item through the service in 2010 were still selling on the site three years later. Those considered “power sellers” were pulling in an average of about $13,000 a year from sales there.
“It’s a hard way to make a living,” Miyashiro says.
Yet a surprising number says it’s worth it.
Ups and downs
Two years ago, Ashley Espinal decided to start Ash+Ember, a company built around her “obsession” with scarves and her longtime love of sewing.
She took an eight-week business class at Ventures, a Seattle-based not-for-profit that provides training and loans to entrepreneurs with limited income. Then she began sewing infinity scarves like a mad woman, first at a studio and then at her dining-room table in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband.
Espinal worked part time for several months while launching her company and then hit her stride in fall 2014, the peak gift-buying season.
“Winter was super-busy, and then January 1st came, and it was like, ‘Whoa!’ The retail industry and e-commerce industry come to a screeching halt after the holidays. And that wasn’t something I had prepared for,” she says.
She took another full-time job but quit in the spring to give Ash+Ember another go. This year, she added a line of tote bags she handprints with pithy sayings. They’ve been good sellers, especially during the scorching summer, when no one is interested in scarves, she says.
“The hardest part is staying in it, and being consistent and having the confidence and determination to stick this out, and maybe have to make sacrifices during those (slow) months with personal finances.”
Still, she says, if she’s going to work as hard as she does, it might as well be for herself.
Selling handmade to a new generation
It’s early on a weekday, but the corridor lined with crafters in the north end of Pike Place Market is already crowded enough that you run a constant risk of bumping into the person in front of you.
People float by, stopping occasionally to examine and buy the handmade goods that have been a staple at the market since the 1970s. Artists and crafters helped save the market when food vendors began gravitating to supermarkets, leaving empty stalls. Now they’re an essential part of the market’s vitality, says David Dickinson, who oversees its vendor operations and arts programs.
Some of the craftspeople have sent kids to college. Others scrape by. Some have been there decades, others mere months.
Top rent at the stalls is $36 a day for peak time, and vendors approved to sell there must personally commit to selling their wares.
Today, Erica Gordon, a blacksmith who runs Steel Toe Studios, is settling in after setting up a display of necklaces and belt buckles that she hand-cast or forged in her studio.
Gordon draws on traditional blacksmithing techniques to create her wares, many of which are from recycled or repurposed steel. She also designs pieces for casting and makes the leather straps for the belts she sells at the market, online and in retail shops.
“It’s a horrible, stressful, incredibly frightening and tenuous financial life,” she says, then smiles. The upside: “I enjoy what I do. It’s challenging, and it showcases my skills, and I get to be here.”
When Gordon started 12 years ago, there seemed to be a shared knowledge in the community that the price of handmade goods reflected the time and skill required to create them. In some cases, those skills are honed over decades and, like Gordon’s craft, require years of apprenticeship and trial and error.
The infusion of younger residents — many of them raised in an era when things were bought, not made — has changed the nature of the conversation with customers, she says.
“There’s a big shift going on, a real push to educate younger folks about handmade,” she says. “The further we get away from people making things in our homes, the further away we get from understanding how things are made in general.”
Still, Emily Crawford, Pike Place’s marketing director, says it doesn’t take much for people to recognize that the handmade items they’re seeing are unique and connected to a human being.
She lifts a ceramic mug from her desk. It’s glazed in pearly rose and etched with a sweet drawing of an otter.
“Do you know who made your mug?” she asks. “I know who made mine. His name is Phi.”