The craft cult of Etsy

Published:  November 19, 2013


Words — Leanne Prain

Illustration — Julian May


In the days prior to the burst of the dotcom bubble (or the second rise of the internet as we know it) there existed many empty spaces in the internet. It was an innocent playground awaiting the arrival of the really big kids. Around this same time, being ‘crafty’ as a designer meant using a household iron to apply gold embossing foil to an inkjet mock-up. Craft and design were not said in the same sentence, but of course this was all before we could even conceive of Etsy – an ecommerce site, otherwise known as the world’s biggest craft fair.

‘The cult of Etsy’, a satirical referral to its devoted users, has become an online giant. The mega-site launched in 2005 with $50,000 in seed money, bearing a resemblance to a mash-up of Antiques Roadshow, Dwell magazine and eBay. Etsy has placed handmade goods and those who create them at the centre of its business model. By August 2013, the site had 30 million users who generated over a billion dollars in sales. It is the ultimate example of author Chris Anderson’s ‘Long Tail Theory’ about Amazon – where a niche product line will find a dedicated following among a select few, where multiple small sales result in a greater yield.

Etsy’s appeal is simple – it provides a global audience for small, artisan-led businesses, and this has changed the scene for craftspeople. It used to be solitary, a primarily localised activity – potters, carvers and weavers worked in their studios and sold one-to-one at craft fairs. The lucky ones might be carried in a gallery or gift shop. Etsy circumvents this by providing individual craftspeople and designers with the ability to host their own virtual storefront for a nominal fee. No longer restricted to the local community hall craft fair, makers of handmade goods can upload images of their items, create a look-and-feel for their shop using a customisable banner, and engage in a wide variety of promotional transactions.

Etsy purposely ensures that the goods that sellers promote stay niche, with a focus on the retail of handmade goods, vintage items (20 years or older), and the sale of art and craft supplies. Contraband goods can, and often are, reported in order to keep the Etsy vision intact. ‘Sellers’ (that’s the company’s official terminology) rely on grassroots marketing and positive feedback ratings from private interactions with buyers.

On Etsy, one can buy all of the goods that would normally be found at a rural craft fair: log pattern quilts, tooled leather belts, crocheted toilet paper covers and egg-starched doily angels. But amid the traditional, contemporary-looking work, the site is ripe with limited edition silkscreened posters and prints, vintage letterpress type and the work of fledgling product designers. Where the crafters are, the design-conscious have followed.

Just as the efforts of Target, Martha Stewart, Dyson and Apple have educated the general public about the value and principles of great design over the last decade, this design awareness has spilled over into the craft community and Etsy has been an instigator of this transition. As a site, Etsy doesn’t just host storefronts – it educates. As its mission, the company encourages sellers to get better at what they do – by providing them with tips to make their work distinctive from others, the presentation of goods more marketable, their photography more desirable. In addition to hosting ecommerce, Etsy houses an introspective magazine-style section full of craft tutorials, site tips and the ever popular ‘Quit your day job’ series – focusing on sellers who have given their nine to five gig the heave-ho in pursuit of making handmade soap or jewellery.

What makes a seller successful on Etsy is the same skill- set that most graphic designers have in their repertoire – the ability to create a unique product, the skill to describe this product succinctly, and the knowledge to have the object art directed and photographed well. With the relatively low listing costs of US 20 cents to list an ‘item’ and a 3.5 percent cut of sales, Etsy provides a platform for designers to test their appeal in the online marketplace without investing in stocked product, storefronts or long-term commitment. A seller can choose to sell one item or 1000 items. Etsy provides the opportunity to not only reach new audiences through the internet, but to sell niche product lines directly to them.

“Etsy was an experiment that has since turned into a smart business investment. You have access to millions of shoppers,” says Mélanie Kimmet, a graphic designer, who opened her eponymous Etsy shop and greeting card line in 2011. “I saw Etsy as an unbiased community that appreciates small business. It was a good way to test my work on a wide and curious audience.”

For Kimmet, a designer who was looking for a creative outlet from her rigorous day job, Etsy provided the opportunity to get feedback from those purchasing what she made – something she would not likely have experienced if she had taken her business through the traditional channels of selling her work through wholesale arrangements or licensing agreements.

“I loved being part of this community,” Kimmet says, “for its real-time honest feedback.”

It is not just freelancers launching small product lines – some design firms have even used Etsy to sell goods from their studios. New York designer Agnieszka Gasparska, of the celebrated New York design firm Kiss Me I’m Polish, started an Etsy shop to sell a line of hand-crafted felt ornaments to adorn children’s t-shirts. Amanda Schultz of Canada’s Woodward Design sold overrun prints of the studio’s seasonal client gift – a typographically-themed cookbook.

Illustrator Kate Bingaman-Burt, author of Obsession Consumption and an assistant professor at Portland State University, holds ‘KateConsumed’, a shop well-stocked with her zines and illustrations.

For some, Etsy has proven to be a way to test out a product or line of goods before launching to a wider spread business model. Gasparska’s Etsy shop evolved into a successful Kickstarter account, yielding $12,000 for further product development.

Etsy has also encouraged a resurgence of design specialities. A quick search for ‘letterpress printing’ yields 24,000 product listings. Sam Bradd, a Canada- based designer, who runs Sam Bradd: Drawing Change – Illustration and Letterpress, says, “Etsy definitely contributed to the revival of well-designed modern letterpress. The types of available paper products is expanding, you now see calendars, books and cards – much more than invitations or broadsides.”

In an era of big box office supply stores, which have ended the work-for-hire creation of wedding invitations, Etsy has offered a niche way for designers to create their own product lines. And though Etsy is providing great opportunities for individual artisans, the website is not without controversy – whether it be by the tongue-in-cheek lambasting of tasteless goods by humour blog Regretsy (which closed earlier this year) or sellers expressing on forums that Etsy’s listing rules are too restrictive. Critics pondering how successful Etsy sellers should react to the traffic spikes brought by endorsements is a subject of much debate. Some critics have raised alarms that some successful artisans have been outsourcing labour in order to keep up with demand when success challenges scalability; others have been concerned about the sheer number of knock-off designs on the site and a sudden surge of goods appearing from China. Then there are the makers who do their best to protect their original design infringements. With the speed of the internet, IP (intellectual property) can be hard to enforce and, with Etsy’s custom search engines, sometimes it can be hard to deduce one bird or fleur-de-lys adorned item from another.

In a small way, this massive internet marketplace has played a part in art history. It is significant that the idea of craft has changed within its walls, from a hand-made item made and sold within a tiny radius, to one sold worldwide… to one designed, made, marketed and resourced worldwide… to something made and sold completely digitally. It has made craft a transformative term at the click of a button – it’s not just the object that is for sale, but an idea. Craftspeople, designers and artists can co-exist together, as the same practice, joined by a dose of back slashes. Commerce encourages mergers, even in the arts. This is the cult of Etsy.



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