Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A word about "Handmade"

For the past few years, a grassroots movement has swept the country, endearing people to its principles of community and a personalized connection between artisan and patron.  What used to be an annual summer or holiday craft event has become a day to day retail experience for the mainstream.  The spirit of handmade is alive and well.

But it's the notion of what handmade means that has changed.  At one time, the word handcrafts would conjure images of little spice pillows, embroidery and homemade country jams made by grandmothers at harvest festivals.  Nowadays, with the help of the online store, Etsy, twenty-something suburbanites are on the verge of quitting their day jobs to go full time into their preferred line of work - making cool looking industrial desk lamps from found objects, or hand-bound journals from recycled leather scraps.  They're selling silk screened t-shirts with fun clever phrases on them and metal jewelry hand stamped with affirmations of hope and love.

And, it's not just on the internet where "handmade" is thriving.  Brick and mortar stores like ours have been sprouting up around the country in places like Boise, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Los Angeles.   Becky and I follow them on facebook and read about their success in our favorite magazines.  By the way, we're trying to get our store in a magazine, too.  So, don't hesitate to hook us up with someone you know.  We're shameless about that sort of stuff.

But, here's the rub.  It's hard to fill a store entirely with merchandise locally made by hand, for two reasons.  There's either not enough quality work being produced to stock the shelves, or not enough people willing to spend what the artisan needs for his time to make a product.

It's hard to compete with Wal-Mart.        

So how are store owners and marketing experts coping with this dilemma?  They're faking it.

Becky and I would love nothing more than to use the word "handmade" or "co-op" labeling our store, but we don't, because we can't.  We represent over 30 products made by people who live locally, and we encourage anyone to show us what they've got.  But we also sell books and cool things that make us smile.  Some of those cool things are made in China.  So, technically, we're not a "handmade" store, but we do sell things that are handmade.

We couldn't help but notice that some store names with the word "handmade" or "co-op" in the title carefully skirt the issue by adding a descriptive sub heading, "locally designed."  And, we've seen a trend in the large wholesalers that represent many product lines claiming "locally designed" when describing their merchandise.

My MacBook Pro is locally designed, by the way.

While "locally designed" may be a truthful statement, there's nothing unique about the claim, considering virtually everything we own is locally designed yet made in China.  And, I certainly haven't heard of anyone griping about whether or not something was designed locally.  I believe the gripe lies in where something is made.  Let's all keep the good intentions in line, and refrain from watering down "handmade" like we've done with "organic," "green," and "eco-friendly."  Just a thought.


  1. I was just talking about this! Great post.

  2. Thanks, Cath! As we emerged from the elevator on the 4th floor of the L.A. Gift Show, the welcome agent cheerfully reminded us that the merchandise we were about to consider was all "Designed in the U.S.A." My jaw dropped at the audacity.