Thursday, June 11, 2009

Alas, it takes more than a glue gun and Bedazzler for DIY wealth.

I love Etsy for getting cheap pretty handmade earrings and cool fabric handbags. I get things like pure silver earrings for $13 and well-designed fabric hobo bags that would cost more if I were into designer It bags made of leather, or even brand-name fabric handbags. Thus, I would have celebrated Etsy as a way to be thrifty with respect to a few things, especially if you're into unique designs that are handmade. But it's not a great way to make money, given the profit margins and the fact that a tightwad like me balks at spending $35 on a crocheted headband. Keep in mind, I've spent 3 months and $30 on merino wool yarn for a scarf to give to my boyfriend, so I understand I'm paying for better materials (sometimes) and labor and the very idea of craftwork. But even if this is a nifty new way to buy and sell fine craftwork, it doesn't seem, given the economies of scale, a great way to make a living. I hope that the craft makers, artisans, etc. are not relying on my very sporadic (okay, I have only bought from them twice) meager purchases to stay afloat In This Economy. It seems as though that's not a great business model or career plan, and possibly "peddles a false feminist fantasy":

I have a theory, and it begins with the demographics. The average age of an Etsy seller, according to the site’s 2008 survey, is 35—women’s prime childrearing years. Nearly 60 percent have college degrees, and 55 percent are married. The average household income is $62,000—well above the national mean. In other words, the Etsy.com seller is often a married woman with (or about to have) young children, with a higher-than-average household income, and a good education. These should, in sum, be highly employable women. So, what are they doing, often pursuing hobbies, or working only part-time, on Etsy?

I think for many women the site holds out the hope of successfully combining meaningful work with motherhood in a way that more high-powered careers in the law, business, or sciences seldom allow. In other words, what Etsy is really peddling isn’t only handicrafts, but also the feminist promise that you can have a family and create hip arts and crafts from home during flexible, reasonable hours while still having a respectable, fulfilling, and remunerative career. The problem is that on Etsy, as in much of life, the promise is a fantasy. There’s little evidence that most sellers on the site make much money. This, I suspect, explains the absence of men. They are immune to the allure of this fantasy. They have evaluated the site on purely economic terms and found it wanting.

On the site’s user forums, newbies are forever asking if it’s possible to create stand-alone careers on Etsy. They get some encouragement but the answer from most veterans is no. “Technically ... yes,” krugsecologic says, “but I’m a stay at home mom—so REALLY that’s my full-time job. So this is not my family’s only source of income ... thankfully:).” Indeed, many posters admit that their husbands are the main breadwinners, and their work on Etsy amounts to little more than a glorified hobby. (Less than a quarter of the site’s sellers describe themselves as full-time artisans.) Kymsart777 is more blunt: “I would be on welfare! LOL … I wish!” And meringueshop advises flatly: “very few people ... make a full time income from Etsy.” Yet the same thread gets started again and again. (“I'd love to be able to quit my day job and do this for a living” writes beachflowerdesigns, a mother from the Midwest. “I'm going to keep trying though!”) This is the dream that women express over and over on the site.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with women choosing to work part-time or for less than they could earn in other professions. But like those flyers you sometimes see tacked up on lampposts, or late-night television ads, Etsy actively fosters the delusion that any woman with pluck and ingenuity can earn a viable living without leaving her home. Etsy has a business model that’s akin to the lottery’s. It preys on the hopes and dreams of working moms and other women, while delivering genuine financial success to only the very, very few.

After decades of being encouraged to forego the unpaid “women’s work” of our mothers and grandmothers, we are tired of being divorced from our hands and from the genuine pleasures such work can afford. This is the female version of Shop Class as Soulcraft, the recent book by Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-mechanic. Women, too, hunger for concrete, manual labor that has an element of individual agency and pleasure beyond the abstract, purely cerebral work found in the cubicle or corner office. It’s become satisfying again to sew, cook, and garden. But unlike our mothers and grandmothers, who were content to knit booties for relatives, younger women want to be recognized and compensated for their talents. Crawford has mastered specialized motorcycle repair not just because it makes him happy, but also because it’s work that’s embedded in a particular place and context, with a corresponding pay scale.


It's interesting that the author of this article frames this as a problem endemic to those seeking work/life balance. I don't disagree with her characterization, but that's because I'm not looking at a particularly rigorous study of Etsy's sellers and their motivations. The author at least supports her argument with some statistics about the gender composition and age and occupational status of Etsy's sellers, but for all I know the author cherry-picked the quotes about how the sellers are only able to break even/sustain their avocational livelihood because of their spouse's income. In any case, if we take this theory of Etsy's economic ghetto of SAHMs, it's kind of sad that in the quest for work/life balance, one part of the equation gives too much ground to the other. At another site under the Slate umbrella, telecommuting is disparaged as being too hard on small businesses, and because:

I firmly believe that you should expect employees to show up for work, whenever possible, no matter what kind of company.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with checking that people are actually working. It's about efficient communications, building company culture and camaraderie, and sharing the daily bits of work and personal experiences that create a shared sense of purpose.


Academics have the benefit of more flexible hours than most, with the ability to work from home if necessary (even if the vast number of meetings, service/committee work and the general value of being in your office and roaming the halls talking to your peers and students generally make it so that you're usually at school). But much research by the likes of Joan Williams and the Work/Life Law Center shows that people are not generallly more productive the more hours they spend at work beyond a certain number, and this over-valuation of "face time" hurts women, particularly young mothers.

Still, if this article is to be believed, the solution to institutional problems with family leave isn't to quit your job, become an "artisan" and break out your glue gun, hoping that you can sell your crafty wares and become a self-supporting hipster. If anything, I'm not even sure that the vision is a "feminist fantasy," as the article argues. Is it every feminist's fantasy to spend hours doing traditional women's work and getting paid for it? Keep in mind, I spend hours upon hours baking, knitting, and craft making (or at least I used to, then I realized that no one needs yet another decoupaged photo frame or pencil cup). I like my hobbies, but I don't think it is or will be my fantasy to knit for a living as I stay at home with my baby (I guess one never knows though, this academia thing often feels wearying, and so occasionally knitting does sound better). If that is your feminist fantasy, great! But feminist fantasies are not monolithic. But in general, despite the pleasures of flow and working with one's hands, the time it takes to knit a scarf or handmake something, and the cost of good raw materials, it seems that the most one can expect is to break even, given the low profit margins. That's not exactly my fantasy of a livelihood, mainly because it isn't a sustainable one. And yes, I am sort of annoyed by the tweeness of it all, that such a fantasy about the best career centers around beads and yarn, which seems to be a fantasy limited to hipsters of a certain socioeconomic class and education level who supported financially through other means.

A better perspective on women and work and making it In This Economy: the American Prospect's series on "When Opting Out Isn't An Option."

8 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

I wonder if it matters at all that most of the people selling on Etsy actually suck at their crafts? I remember looking for dresses on it not too long ago, and about 50% of the "dresses" available were converted pillowcases whose main claim to "hand-crafting" was that they had been hideously tie-dyed by the maker. Another 30% were screen-printed American Apparel tunics. The screen-printing was fine, but it wasn't exactly an achievement of design and tailoring. And that's not even taking into account the people who are using Etsy to re-sell raw materials like buttons and fabric and paintbrushes, or as an alternative to Ebay for selling their acquired but not handmade junk. The stuff that really was impressive cost upwards of $150 and was clearly not the work of amateurs messing around with their sewing machines.

I suspect that, with the exception of a small number of relatively easy to make things like screen-printed t-shirts, most of the worthwhile stuff on Etsy is made by people who are running at least a part-time art/craft business and using Etsy as just one outlet among many for their goods. They don't seem to be erstwhile corporate lawyers who decided to drop out of the high-powered executive track and take up ceramics instead.

But that's just my anecdotal impression. Also, I totally just bought a pair of those earrings. Cheapness FAIL.

Anomie said...

I went through a phase where I wanted to sell crafts for a living. It was after I quit teaching art but before I found sociology. I have an aunt and uncle that did the art fair circuit.

So, from my personal history, this analysis speaks to me. I eventually decided that, even if I could make enough money to justify it (I'm one of those women who has a husband's income to fall back on), the work would get monotonous and tedious after a while. I wanted intellectual stimulation with a side of working with my hands, not the other way around.

Sarah said...

I'm not sure I'd use the word "hipster" to describe a 35-year-old woman staying home with her two young kids. Indeed, one might think of such a woman as the antithesis of same. I'm not sure such women even have hipsterdom on their radar, much less aspire to it.

Anomie said...

Hipster parenting was a trend a few years ago. I remember reading about it.

Too Cool for Preschool

Mosh Pit Meets Sandbox

I mean, what do you think happens when hipsters have kids? They throw in the hipster towel and become "normal" for the sake of the kid?

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