Yesterday I had a chance to get away from the shop for a bit and reflect. I attended a conference called Craft and the New Economy at OCAD, presented by the Ontario Crafts Council. I came away with much food for thought, and fodder for a whole bunch of blog posts. For now, I'll share some ideas on the rather vast and complex question of how to make handmade goods accessible to the average consumer, rather than available exclusively to an elite group of shoppers.
I always urge handmakers to charge fairly for their work. Underpricing only undervalues the craft and quality that go into the product, and in the end, serves neither the maker nor the client well. There is no doubt that this means some products will be priced at a level out of reach for many buyers. It's why you'll rarely see handmade socks. At two days' labour per pair, they'd have to cost $200 just to cover yarn and pay the knitter minimum wage. Typically only the close friends and relatives of devout knitters have the pleasure of receiving such socks as gifts.
Pricing is something of a feminist issue as well, given that most handmakers are women, and that traditional women's work continues to be undervalued. Sometimes I hear older visitors to the shop sniffing at the prices, arguing they could make the same items for a fraction of the cost. I want to ask (and sometimes do), why they feel their skills and time are worth so little. One of yesterday's speakers mentioned her discomfort with marketing messages along the lines of, "Not your grandmother's ________ (embroidery, sewing, knitting)," and I absolutely related to her comment. If it weren't for my foremothers' skill and passion for craft, I wouldn't have embarked on this journey. I want to honour their work, not dismiss it as hokey or old-fashioned. Design tastes evolve, of course, but appealing to hipsters in this way seems both disingenuous and short-sighted to me.
Let's look at a sweater like this one made by Vintage Baby Revival:
At $60, it's obviously more than a baby cardigan you might find at a major retailer. But let's assess the value of such an investment:
1. It is designed to expand with the baby, fitting for a good 9 months.
2. It is made to last, out of quality yarn. Cared for properly, it could be worn by half a dozen babies.
3. It travelled a block, on foot, to get from the maker to the retailer. Can't beat that carbon footprint.
4. The maker's earnings will circulate in the local economy.
5. The retailer's earnings will also circulate locally, and bring tax earnings into provincial and federal coffers.
Quite apart from the loftier questions of economic and environmental sustainability, this sweater starts to make sense in purely mathematical terms when you you consider that $60 divided by 6 kids is $10 each. Not even a big box store selling goods manufactured in developing countries can compete with that.
At the far end of the spectrum, you've got something like a Hermes scarf. One of yesterday's presenters (speaking about the marvels of technology) showed how an intricate and beautiful hand drawing is digitized and printed onto luxury fabric to create this example of wearable art. It is a thing of beauty that only the 1% we've heard so much about this year can possibly afford. But it's an art object we can all appreciate and admire, albeit in a book or museum.
Another speaker lamented the "H&Mization" of such items, and I started to bristle at the elitism of her argument. I obviously agree that designs shouldn't be stolen, and I feel strongly about fair labour practices, but why shouldn't everyone have access to a garment that lifts the spirits because it's lovely to look at?
This is where things get murky. There is a conflict between the ethos and reality of handmade that can't be simply or easily resolved. Making things yourself is satisfying because it is both creative and resourceful. DIY can even be seen as an anti-capitalist resistance movement, but that's a blog post for another day! Selling what you make, however, does open a whole economic can of worms. Handmade doesn't have to be expensive, but it does come loaded with values that require some awareness-raising.
I welcome your thoughts!
Ok, first a confession and some context... I watched a TV with 3 channels encased in a huge wooden cabinet as a child. I thought computers would never catch on, the first time someone in my creative writing class at university brought his story printed in barely readable dotty letters on perforated paper. I never want to read a book on a Kindle-thingy. I only tolerate my computer screen because it's gigantic. I like the real world - the one I can experience with every one of my senses. I never even understood Stairmasters; I thought, unless you live in a bungalow, why not just find some actual stairs (ideally outdoors) and climb them? Of course, the simulation craze has gone way beyond Stairmasters now, with tennis, bowling, guitar playing, painting and virtually every other activity known to humanity replicated on screens of every size, around every corner. Oh, woe is me!
Even at the conference I attended last weekend, entitled Craft and the New Economy, there was a huge emphasis on technology, such as the digitization of patterns and designs that can produce gloriously complicated fabrics or ceramics. It's all very impressive, and no doubt exciting if that's what you're into. But for me, the point of craft is to manipulate the materials I'm working with, not to manipulate images on yet another screen. Basically, if I don't end up with something on my shirt - paint, threads, fluff - I don't want to do it.
My kids are grown, so I don't even know how little kids spend their time. For sure some of them are getting messy making quirky, lopsided objects of their own design. But I still fear the extinction of the scribble. Perhaps I have a paranoid perception that all this virtual living will make kids colour within the lines (literally and metaphorically speaking). If there is one thing my mother taught me, (much to my initial dismay when she got her hands on my colouring books), it was never to colour within the lines.
An MBA grad recently told me that there was a course in the program on “how to be an entrepreneur.” When the students arrived for the first class, they were told, “If you signed up for this course, you’re not an entrepreneur.”
So does that mean entrepreneurship is conducted entirely by the seat of one’s pants? No. But I see the point that book learning won’t go very far in preparing you for this life.
I found this quote in a business article:
Successful entrepreneurs are people who are fully committed to their business ventures. You have to be prepared to put your heart and soul into what you’re doing. You have to truly believe in your product or service, and be prepared to work long hours to get others to believe in your product or service, too. You have to be ready to go without treats such as holidays, and even necessities such as salary, for what may seem like an endless stretch of time. And you have to do all this without the safety net that salaried employees are used to, such as benefits and pension plans.
It’s scary, no doubt about it. Unless you’ve got backers, you’ve got to be ready for some short-term but potentially terrifying downward mobility.
The author of this article went on to describe entrepreneurs as “Type D” people – D for desire, drive, discipline and determination. True enough. The discipline part is just as important as the rest, and I suspect may be the weak spot for some indie business people. All the passion in the world isn’t going to keep you on top of everything. In fact, too much passion can be an obstacle to getting things done, or foster the illusion that other people should simply fall in love with your magnificent product or service. Alas, customers need to be wooed. A lot.
It also helps enormously to be a Jill of All Trades. If you can do your own bookkeeping, graphic design, content writing, and maybe a bit of carpentry and plumbing, you’re off to a good start. You can’t avoid tasks you don’t like or aren’t good at. Social media is a prime example; it requires constant attention, and only you, as the spokesperson for your brand, can attend to it. The job of spokesperson for your brand is a critical one. It’s you who will leave a positive or negative impression on someone, forever associated with your business.
I still remember how much it hurt when an anonymous respondent wrote on a customer survey, “It wouldn’t hurt the owner to smile.” I couldn’t believe I’d been caught not smiling. Sometimes my face hurts from smiling so much. And I usually want to smile… I’m delighted to see people come into my shop! I have to assume I had a headache or something, but it was a reminder that I’m on duty every minute – even outside the shop. There’s another “D” for the list!