It was the Vernal Equinox on Tuesday and despite all the wintery and bitterly cold wind (a short visit from Mini-beast last week, the cousin of the Beast from the East) it is officially spring and just a little bit warmer today. And, furthermore, with impeccable timing the UK Handmade Spring Showcase went live on Tuesday too.
I have been lucky enough to be selected for this showcase and two of my scarves have been featured.
I think the two photos chosen are bright and colourful – hopefully capturing that optimism associated with spring. Who doesn’t need some bright cheeriness after the winter?
It is now the season of Christmas Fairs and the ‘British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn’ weekends are already in full swing.
I shall be joining a host of other crafters selling their work at Blackthorpe Barn on the weekend of the 25th & 26th November and the following weekend of the 2nd & 3rd December. If you are within striking distance of Bury St Edmunds turn of the A14 and come and see all the great work on display . . . . And, say hello!
Every inch of my silk scarves are hand painted by me. It’s obvious, I know, but that means like other artisans who craft all their own pieces, I can’t compete with mass-produced work. I’ve written several posts about my experiences of selling on Etsy and last May commented on the relationship between crafters and Etsy. More recently it has been reassuring for me to read that I am not out of step with many of my fellow artisans who like me have found that Etsy is no longer the platform for their work.
Interestingly, earlier this week, the American business magazine Forbes interviewed Gil Luria, director of research at the investment firm D.A. Davidson, concerning the state of the online marketplace Etsy. And, in his commentary he opines
. . . . . the biggest change in the run up to Etsy’s 2015 IPO — [was when] the company removed its requirement that all goods sold on the platform had to be handmade. This gave big manufacturers access to Etsy’s loyal customer base. When Etsy started listing $10 bracelets from Chinese factories right next to $100 bracelets handmade by homemakers in Wisconsin, the homemakers could no longer compete.
Initially you may think that perhaps hand painted silk is not as easily copied and mass-produced as some jewellery appears to be, but a big manufacturer simply takes original artwork for a scarf, scans it and then laser prints it onto silk over and over. This state of affairs doesn’t merely affect solo crafters. Within the luxury brands sector companies often have their work copied, and, as I am sure you have noticed, fake versions are found at street markets all over the world. One feature which frequently adds value to handmade work is when there is only one of its kind and consequently even a limited ‘print’ run is unacceptable let alone approving mass production. When Etsy permitted mass-produced stock to be listed directly side by side with handmade they effectively undercut and devalued handmade and at the same time diminished and diluted their own brand!
Over the last couple of months or so I’ve spent a fair chunk of my time revamping my Etsy shop in preparation for their latest online changes. I know that plenty of folk are resistant to change if change appears to be pointless. What’s the expression ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ However, considering making changes can prompt you to dispassionately scrutinise the status quo. The Etsy new look for their shops has certainly made me tidy up and redesign the look and feel of both my Etsy outlet and my own online shop.
Okay, so that was all well and good, but then, on the back of a few other gripes, came the final straw. Etsy introduced an easy to use template for a shop’s policies. Just bear with me here for a sec. Etsy has ‘found’ that customers don’t like reading lots of words, particularly about boring issues such as time to send out goods, delivery details, buying from another country, insurance and what happens should wish to return an item. Yes, I agree, I don’t want pages of legalese, but when I’m buying I do want to know what to expect especially if I’m buying a special gift for someone and time is crucial.
Etsy has been around for over a decade now and should know that the ‘world of handmade’ is not a homogeneous place where ‘one size fits all’ solutions are going to be the answer. Like many of my fellow Etsy artisans who create one-off pieces, I spent sometime writing my policies to give my customers as much information as possible. As Etsy sellers, who are not all based in the US (Etsy is a US listed public corporation), we are subject to our own, quite specific, national trading laws regarding online commerce. I would have thought that this fact alone would suggest that a policies template for everyone was going to be inappropriate. It transpires that you don’t have to use the new template, but there’s a hint that if you don’t comply you are less likely to be ‘found’ when customers search on Etsy.
So, is it time I left the Etsy platform – the end of the affair? I’ve only been an Etsy seller since 2013, a relative newbie, but during this time Etsy changes have meant a broader acceptance of work for sale that is neither vintage nor handmade. Of course, digitally printed silk scarves spring to mind – what can I say! This issue, coupled with a general race to the bottom pricing as some crafters flood the Etsy market with cheaply made offers, means I feel that perhaps it’s no longer the place for me. Remember the film depicting the short reign of Anne Boleyn, ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’, well I’m ‘Agnes of 947 days’.
Update – I have now closed my Etsy shop. All my hand painted scarves and textile art is available from my own Agnes Ashe boutique/gallery which is run through a professional eCommerce platform based in the UK (most of my sales are to UK customers). I may have left Etsy, but I do still ship internationally to Europe, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan and accept major debit/credit cards.
That’s it – end of the moan and end of all those boring . . . words.
“Who buys craft in times of austerity?” The answer, according to the UK Craft Council, who produced a report in 2010 just two years after the global financial crash, is older, educated women. Below is an extract from their report giving more details about the types of people who buy craft.
You may have noticed I sneakily switched from ‘handmade’ to ‘craft’ in my opening questions, which then begs the question “What is the difference between craft and handmade?” Now this report is essentially concerned with what people consider as ‘craft’ as opposed to simply handmade. Obviously, you can have handmade pastries, but I think most people frequently do consider handmade and craft to be interchangeable. However, if you dig a little deeper ‘craft’ appears to suggest a range of connected perceptions. This intriguing radar (spider) chart below shows how different words are more or less associated with craft particularly with relation to art and design.
And in the chart we see that the term ‘handmade’ features strongly as does ‘workmanship’ which is hardly surprising, but also ‘rural’, which, in the 21st century struck me as rather odd. Handmade ceramics, handblown glass and handwoven textiles are all very popular these days and don’t necessarily call to mind a rural aesthetic. For me, it transpires that my painted silk, though handmade, is often not considered craft. Also from my own experience it is not ‘older, educated women’ who are my customers in these times of austerity. Interestingly, it appears to be their husbands, sons and daughters who are buying my work as special presents. It’s heartwarming to know that even during these challenging times mums are still regarded as exceptional and merit a quality, genuine, handmade gift.
There was once a world before Amazon. I remember having to hurry to the university bookshop to get a recommended textbook before they sold out. If I wasn’t fast enough I’d have to wait, sometimes a couple of weeks, for my local bookshop to obtain a specialist book for me. Amazon and the Internet changed all that. Naturally, in this ‘Age of the Internet’ there have been plusses and minuses. There have been some winners and, unfortunately, some losers, not least those who make a living from cultural production. Musicians, writers and photographers have all had to find new unique interactive ways to sell their work to their respective markets. We’ve seen the rise and rise of live music events, literary festivals and even some professional photographers moving to live shows to exhibit their output. Authentic experiences are valued and traded which is perhaps one of the underlining elements fuelling the renewed interested in original handcrafted work.
The world moves on and you know an alternative trend has gone mainstream when a company like Amazon sets up an online retail service called ‘Handmade’. And, it’s already old news at the point when the UK Sunday Times Style Magazine publishes a feature on the new Amazon Handmade offer as a challenge to Etsy the online marketplace for artisans. There’s been quite a fuss in the world of artisans and crafters on various forums discussing the pros and cons of changing one’s selling platform, but not much discussion about why an enormous, global company such as Amazon thinks there’s serious money to be made out of handmade, artisan goods. As far as I can see Amazon used to be the go-to site for a mass produced product at a very good price if not the cheapest. And, it’s easy to have a “pile ’em high sell ’em cheap” attitude if you’ve got scale and muscle and a good just-in-time relationship with your suppliers. But surely all that is the antithesis of the artisan/cottage industry model.
Each handmade item takes a real person skill and time to create. Most crafts involve specialist knowledge and honed skills together with that all important essential- creativity. Artisans have experience working with raw materials and understand the precise associated processes that will culminate in a unique handmade piece. Within any specific area of artisan production there is a range of abilities, quality of materials used and standards of finish attained, but there is always more time involved to produce ‘handmade’ items. And, as they say, ‘time is money’ therefore handmade should not equal cheap.
If we just step back for a moment, one of the primary outcomes of the Industrial Revolution was the saving of time and the increasing of productivity through machine manufacturing. Machines were faster and more consistent producing thousands and thousands of identical versions of any given object. Nowadays, we take mass production for granted, it is the norm.
So what’s Amazon doing getting onto the ‘handmade’ bandwagon. Let’s face it there isn’t any real possibility of scaling up for most artisans as by the very nature of your work you are making things that require intense, time-consuming human activity and not machine/technological production. So if there’s not profit to be made by scaling up production what is the big business model? Well, that would be scaling up the makers – that is vast numbers of people listing and selling a few pieces. But what of the individual makers – perhaps a working life similar to that of the medieval weavers of East Anglia. Oh joy!
Perhaps the inquiry ‘digital prints versus hand painted’ appears at first glance a non-starter as a challenge. After all, whether digital or any other kind of print, the notion of prints is that there is more than the single original. The collection of images here is considering the original inspirational flowers and how they have been worked into textile designs for either multiple print use or one-of-a-kind hand work.
A print is a copy of the original and the more copies there are somehow changes the value of the original – or does it? There are many reproduction copies of, for example, the ‘Mona Lisa’, but the original is almost priceless. The arrangement of a ‘limited’ print run is the intermediate solution between an expensive original and cheaper mass produced copies. In many cases it obvious the difference between an original and a print – Monet didn’t paint his many different water lilies on the side of shopping bags, but large canvases.
However, in the world of silk painting a digital reproduction on a scarf is sometimes termed as a ‘limited edition’ and then labelled as ‘hand’ made if a square of digitally printed silk has had the edges sewn by hand.
There is something uneven and unrepeatable in the process of hand painting silk that gives a finished piece a unique appearance. Even when you have an original drawing, watercolour or oil painting translated into a digital form and then printed on to silk the accuracy and consistency of the technology somehow reduces the irregular, fluctuating effect of the hand painted original. Obviously, I’m used to working with silk and examining it closely and I’ve found it hard to put my finger on precisely what the difference between digital and hand painted is, but a difference there certainly is and it is more than just knowing there is only one like it!