“That’s wonderful! You should open up an Etsy business! What about a bridal shop?!? You would make SO much money!” This is a typical response from most people when I tell them I used to work in costumes and I know how to sew. With the rise of Etsy, the ultimate marketplace for handmade goods, and fair trade and social enterprises, the term “handmade” has taken on many meanings. Some think handmade items are poor quality and inconsistent, others see it a unique and quaint profession. Whatever the notion may be, despite the rise of handmade items, I refuse to start an online Etsy business or sew for others, and I’m finding I’m not the only one. There’s certainly talent for it, so why are there craft artisans who leave their talents behind? How big is this boom in the handmade marketplace and are people actually beginning to value the work that goes into these handcrafted items?
When I first considered making clothes or accessories to sell online, I went through a multitude of ideas. I first started out with burp rags and baby blankets, then it was onto aprons, and then hats. Each idea sounded great, but eventually fizzled out. Why? Because as I started to add up supplies, the amount of hours it was taking, and adding in my hourly rates into the mix, I realized no one would want to buy any of these items compared to prices at Target or Wal-Mart. Add in the fact that everyone expects your work to be flawlessly and quickly executed without having to redo anything along the way, and the pressure is on. After all, if I know how to sew (and it’s rare when people do), I should know how to sew everything, right? Anyone who knows how to sew knows this is a tall order and if we really charged a garment for what it’s worth, no one would think to ask us to sew them something. If you want to know what we’d really charge for a handmade custom dress, ask Caroline of She Can Sew in her post “How much for this dress?!? (or what I wish I could tell people)”
But aren’t there companies working towards preserving cultural handicrafts? Yes, but there still exists the idea that their handmade talents are only for tourist souvenirs you hassle for at local craft markets. It also doesn’t help that artisans are typecast as fulfilling a specific role like “seamstress,” “potter,” or “weaver.” This causes some artisans to believe they won’t amount to anything else and could never sell their own products, so they leave it to a middleman salesperson who fails to follow through on giving them pay for their work. How can I be so certain of this? Because I’ve seen it from artisans I’ve worked with in sustainable and ethical fashion companies who tell us how the marketplace and exploitative companies don’t value their work, and because I’ve experienced it myself. Working in costumes, some people expected costumers to crank out a period ball gown like the fairy godmothers in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” without any problems. Telling those outside of costuming that I sewed for a living, I ran the risk of fitting into a certain category. People assumed I constantly sewed for myself, even after long days at work, and that I knew absolutely everything about sewing. This could not be further from the truth since everyone I used to work with in sewing had different levels of experience and knowledge. It was frustrating at times to think that the world only saw me as “Brooke the Seamstress” or “Brooke the Dresser,” all the while wondering if there was more I was capable of or if this was all I would ever be.
The problem, I’m finding, isn’t necessarily that handicrafts need to be produced with more quality or that artisans aren’t capable of selling their work. What needs to be changed is how people view traditional craft work and the value they see in it. Without having people actually sew in a zipper numerous times, hand sew beading on a wedding dress, or put together the front and back pieces of pant legs over and over again until they figure out how to make the crotch seam one continuous seam, it’s hard for people to understand the amount of work that goes into a garment. It’s a different way of thinking and working and I find my knowledge of sewing is always changing and growing. Like anything in life, you can’t know everything about it and you can’t be perfect at it either. It takes time to make anything accurate and work properly, especially when your materials have a mind of their own. More importantly, it’s vital we have these handmade items to remind us just how much work and effort precision and accuracy require. Owning a handmade item with a traditional technique reminds me that there was someone behind this work. Someone who wants their techniques to be respected, valued, and preserved for years to come. Someone who wants to be seen as more than a stereotype and may possibly want more options beyond their current state, they just aren’t sure where to look. I like to think my purchase for a sustainable or ethical fashion company will lead to more training and workshops to help them decide where to look, wherever that might be.