25 April 2011

The ethics of selling handmade

After reading this article on handmade originality on the Contemporary Handmade Alliance blog, I felt compelled to join in the discussion. If you're interested in just how original what you're buying actually is, please do read the article and get involved in the discussion, as ultimately all that we do is for the buyer!

Claiming your products are 'hand made originals'. This is such a tricky issue, for nearly every handmade artisan. Does using someone else's fabric in a dress mean it's not totally your original design? If you were inspired by the way a doll's face was painted and used a similar expression on a totally different looking doll, is that still copying? Where is that elusive line between 'inspired by' and 'stolen from'? And do buyers care?

I started my online business porkchop in late 2009, just before Holly was born. She was baby number two, I was still adjusting to baby number one, and I was hankering for something to nurture my creative side and give me focus away from bottles and poop and snot and baby spew.

I was nesting, and wanted to make things, but then had nowhere to put them or nobody to give them to, so I decided to sell them. I've always loved craft, and after going to a craft expo and picking up a book of simple things to make for bubs, I thought I would give it a try. I started on Etsy, then later on madeit. My first products listed were simple rattles and bibs made straight from a book of patterns. I tried a few different things. I didn't know what my shop was about, I didn't know where it was going. I was just enjoying learning to sew things and seeing myself get better as I went along. I admit too that I used patterns that were available online in the public domain, but were marked as copyright protected. I felt low. I didn't do that for long, and I no longer make those things.

From these humble beginnings, I've finally been able to find my feet and establish a small but strong footprint making two quite different but totally original products; my fang bunnies and my vintage doily garlands. Both sell well. My garlands have been featured regularly in online blogs and treasuries, and in I have had an article written about them in Frankie magazine. My bunnies are very popular with kids and adults and have also been featured and written about by some lovely people.

It has taken me two years to find and define my creative voice, and not just be someone who makes something from a pattern in a book and sells it. Not that there is anything wrong with that - I have trouble with anything other than basic patterns! - but I think for the whole world to expect every person selling handmade to have a totally unique idea is a little unreasonable. There will always be a fine line between inspiration and copying, however we needn't jump to the conclusion that someone has copied someone else maliciously. It may just be a case of someone having a yearning to make something; the need to create is there but not the original idea. Hence, the Copy appears. There will always be copiers, but they're not all horrible ogres. Many may be totally out of touch with the online handmade community and not have an inkling of the furore they are creating. It's about the intent behind it. If someone has studied someone's product, copied it, listed it for sale at a lower price point hoping to undercut the original maker, and lives in fear of the original maker finding out about their rip-offs, then that is copying and goes against everything the handmade movement stands for. I've seen bunnies that look very similar to mine for sale online. And I've seen doily garlands too, and even saw one on display earlier this year at the very craft show that started it all. Visit YouThoughtWeWouldn'tNotice - big corporations do it too.

I believe it's also a case of buyers becoming more educated and well-read about the vast amount of handmade products available these days. From a buyers perspective (as I am quite a big buyer of handmade myself), it's not hard to spot the difference once you've been browsing online for a while. If you look for silver bird necklaces, there's a stack that are all a bit different, but the little bird is the exact same size and shape on all of them. So either the birds are sold ready made as a craft supply item, or the jewellery makers have all bought the same stamp or cutter. Look a bit harder and you'll find different shaped birds, ones obviously hand cut by the maker. If this is what you're after, that's great. But, for me at least, it's hardly ever solely about the product. It's about the connection with the artist. The personality and feeling they convey through their store. The coherence of their range. Their photography. The personal details they share with the online community. Where they live. Their feedback record. The product itself, as well as the price, is often way down the list for me when it comes to making a buying decision.

Maybe I am just a sucker for good marketing. Or, being a marketer myself in my 'day job', maybe I just appreciate the enormous effort that goes into crafting a brand. Copying only the product and not providing a supporting story is very poor form in my book and whilst there will always be people who make a decision based solely on price, there will be a greater portion of the online handmade shopping community who find themselves drawn to a brand in the way that we traditionally like to wear a certain label, or buy certain brand of cereal, or listen to a particular type of music or whatever. It's carving out our own definition of who we are, and handmade brands that are well marketed are a shining example of brands that people want to attach themselves to.

What draws you to handmade? Do you enjoy the connection with a handmade brand? And does originality even matter anymore?

No comments:

Post a Comment