*A week after this post Etsy changed its definition of handmade. I wrote a second post about the new policies which you can find here.
**After I wrote the post about Etsy's new policies, Etsy got in touch with me and that led to a podcast interview with Etsy which you can find here.
It takes me two or three hours to make a stuffed animal. The process involves me cutting and marking the fabric, pinning and sewing the pieces together, turning the toy right side out, and then stuffing it and adding eyes and details.
Given how long it takes I find it difficult to put a price on the finished toy. A price that would fairly compensate me would be so high that very few people would likely pay for it. It’s difficult to build a profitable business selling handmade stuffed animals.
If you love to design toys, but you also want to have a successful business, you need to come up with some solutions. I sell patterns, like many of you do. But another option is to hire help. With someone, or a few people, to help you cut and mark, pin and sew, stuff and detail the toys you can fill bigger orders. You can sell wholesale and you might be able to turn a profit, but it will still be difficult because you have to pay your employees before you pay yourself.
If you send the design to an overseas factory and have the toys manufactured where labor costs are low, you can increase your margin. I’ve spoken with several plush makers who have pursued this route with success. And look at Ugly Dolls, right?
When I imagined the factories that manufacture plush toys I envisioned lots and lots of machines. These would be machines that could somehow do all the work of making a stuffed animal. Even though when I make a toy I have to carefully cut and sew each part by hand, I assumed that in a Chinese factory there was some kind of machine that could do all of that. How? Well, I never really got that far.
My assumption was blown to pieces the other day when my friend and fellow plush maker, Laura Stantz, shared this video with me.
Here we see a Neopet plush toy, Flotsam, being manufactured at the Dong Guan Gain Charm Toys., Ltd. in DongGuan City, China. The Flotsam was made as a prize in McDonald’s Happy Meals a few years ago. I know the video is 14 minutes long, but watch it. I think you’ll find it fascinating. When Laura showed it to me she said, “It was so intriguing to me how similar their workflow is to my own. You know, minus the metal detectors and the 4,000 workers.”
She couldn’t be more right.
At 4 min. 5 secs. I think you’ll begin to see what I mean. This woman is sewing a toy EXACTLY how I sew toys. Look at her tweezers. She is making that toy by hand. At 5 min. 34 secs. you’ll see the toys being turned right side out. That man is turning the toy right side out exactly how I turn toys. By hand. At 6 min. 50 sec. the toy is stuffed just like how I stuff toys. In fact, I need that tool!
But it was at 7 min. 20 sec. that I really began to rethink my assumptions. This woman is ladder stitching Flotsam closed by hand. Just like me.
Because, of course, it’s impossible for a machine to make a stuffed animal like this one. It’s got gussets. It’s tiny. It has to be handmade.
Me and Laura and these factory workers are all doing the same thing. It’s so striking!
If we use Etsy as a meter for what counts as handmade in our current culture, though, Flotsam not included. In fact, for a long time Etsy required sellers make each and every item in their shops themselves. More recently, in an effort to hang onto creative businesses that needed to expand and hire employees in order to meet demand, they changed the policy.
Etsy’s expanded definition of handmade now includes “hand-assembled." The policy states: “Handmade items must be created by the seller operating the Etsy shop (or a member of that shop). Selling commercial or mass-produced items on Etsy’s handmade categories is not permitted.” So the stuffed animal can be made by a member of my shop, but it can’t be mass-produced. If I have four employees sewing for me, my toys are handmade. If I hire 4,000 factory workers, though, they aren’t, even if the process is exactly the same.
The same day last week that I watched the video I also read this post by Kevin Morris on the DailyDot entitled, “Why Etsy’s Brave New Economy is Crumbling.” The article focuses on Etsy resellers, a topic that’s been discussed at length many times in many places. About Etsy’s new definition of handmade Morris says, “According to Etsy's rules, that might look like this: one artist screen prints fabric, then another artist sews clothing from the fabric. The finished product is listed in a collective Etsy shop. With Dickerson's changes a store can also now outsource its designs to a machine cutter, which makes a larger collective sound more and more like an assembly line, with each ‘member’ simply being one step in the assembly process.”
Morris' point is that this is a slippery slope toward condoning shops selling factory made goods on Etsy, a site that's supposedly a handmade marketplace. He shows us how resellers corrupt Etsy’s mission, driving down prices to the point that the real handcrafted items can’t compete. I get it. Resellers that scan Japanese craft books and resell the pages as PDF patterns, patterns they certainly don’t have the copyright to, drive me insane. It makes me just as mad as everyone else. I’m not arguing that it be allowed.
Neopet Flotsam on the left. My Shark on the right.
But I’d like to point out that what “handmade” means is complicated. I would arue that the woman who sews and turns and stuffs Flotsam is making that toy by hand, just like me. And I’m guessing she’s earning small wage from doing so, just like me. At the same time, there’s no way I’d pull a stuffed animal out of a McDonald’s Happy Meal and say it should be sold as handmade on Etsy.
I'd like to ask you this question: where do we draw the line? How much hand making is necessary to call something “handmade”? Are my toys more handmade than Flotsam, or not?