The Industrialization of the Artisanal Revolution

(Photo: Gregory Han)

(Photo: Gregory Han)

The New York Times reports that Etsy, the website that sells handmade artisanal products, will now allow its sellers to manufacture products. The reason for the shift? It’s too hard to scale up when everything’s handmade:

But last month, Etsy announced new policies that would allow sellers to apply to peddle items they produced with manufacturing partners, as well as to hire staff and use outside companies to ship their goods — all provided that the sellers demonstrated the “authorship, responsibility and transparency” intrinsic to handmade items.

By easing the definition of “handmade,” Etsy is trying to accommodate individual vendors who are having more and more trouble keeping up with their growing volume of customers. But many Etsy users are outraged by what they see as Etsy’s abandonment of its commitment to human handicraft, with some jumping ship for purer artisan sites like Zibbet.

Yet Etsy’s latest move is entirely in line with the history of handmade goods, a history that is more complicated than the simple term “handmade” implies. The artisans have run head-on into the problem that led to the Industrial Revolution: Making things by hand is slow. Really slow.

(HT: Alex Coppock)


Heck, maybe with all these naive consumers jumping ship to something more "authentic", the vendors on Etsy will lose enough customers to not have to deal with demand outpacing supply, and will be able to continue doing hand-made crafts.

Then the same naive consumers will come crawling back, force vendors to threaten manufacturing, leave for more "authentic" pastures, wash, rinse, repeat.


Perhaps they were just taking too much criticism over their practice of closing down shops with handmade goods whose owners complained about stuff, while allowing resellers of Chinese mass-produced goods free reign.

Mary Lee

The fox got into the Etsy hen house a long time ago. While there are still many individual artists who design and make their own creations using Etsy, it is an unjuried site and has been vulnerable to unscrupulous resellers for quite some time now. The Etsy marketplace carries the illusion that the items one finds there are made by artists, and therefore should have a higher price tag than mass produced factory products. Etsy is also a great site for middlemen to find great ideas and knock off artists' designs. What began as a genuinely wonderful effort to find a way for real artists and craftspeople to sell their lovingly made by hand works, has been overwhelmed and is succumbing to a bottom line, sucker born every minute mentality. Etsy makes more money from the larger companies than they do from little artisans.

Steve Cebalt

It makes me think of the really interesting posts on the artist Banksy recently -- his original works, worth $60,000 on the art market, unsellable by him for $60 on the streets; while mere prints of his work sells at Walmart for less than $60.

I wonder what problem Etsy was really trying to solve. Ostensibly, "By easing the definition of “handmade,” Etsy is trying to accommodate individual vendors who are having more and more trouble keeping up with their growing volume of customers."

That doesn't strike me as a problem that such a site should seek to address. What it sells is not "product." It is authenticity. Banksy originals vs. Banksy prints, so to speak -- and the value difference for customers seems vast.

How can they last long with this new business model when any other site in the world can duplicate what they sell, overnight ???

Phil Persinger


Guy Clark says,

"Only two things that money can't buy
And that's true love and home-grown tomatoes."

The NY Times article gets all phenomenological about the issue of the tool or the production line as an extension of the artist/craftsperson, as though that were the real issue here. The basic problem, if authenticity is held to be primary, lies jn the sale of one's product through a remote site or by remote means without eye-to-eye, personal contact in the workshop or studio with an informed buyer.

Etsy is trying to sell authenticity second-hand and authenticity is practically by definition something that money can't buy that way. You'll not always be a loser in the selling, but you'll almost always be a loser in the buying.

By the way, what makes Banksy interesting to this discussion is his not profiting from his "brand" -- he plays "real good for free," as Joni says. That, to my mind, is another way to be authentic.


steve cebalt

Hi Phil: "You’ll not always be a loser in the selling, but you’ll almost always be a loser in the buying."

Well said, as always, getting to0 the heart of the matter -- and the economics.

And I YouTubed your two song references. Both are new to me, and both on point, in very different ways!


I am a seller on Etsy. I have a line of sundials and, more recently, jewellery. All are made in my garage. I cannot compete with vendors whose sundials are half the price of mine and yet priced three times what it costs them to buy from Harbor Freight. HF presumably pay a fraction of that retail price to some poor manufacturer in India.

I doubt that even the new rules will encompass this as a permissible practice yet it will go on in spite of reporting etc.