Friday, November 21, 2008

The Handmade Perception

There was a forum post on etsy recently that discussed, in part, the difficulty we sometimes have battling perceptions about the value of our time, the idea that because we are "just artists", we don't need to get paid, that we're doing it out of some altruistic need to fill the world with crafts, and the fear that in the current economic crisis, we will be hard hit. Many are considering lowering their prices, others are thinking about jumping ship, and a lot of us are just continuing to work hard, promote hard, and having nightmares about playing basketball in a swimming pool against Diana Taurasi (or maybe that's just me).

One person, about 100 posts in, said. "Guess we will never get rich at this game. It's done for love, most of the time."

Those of you who know me know that I wasn't going to let that one slide by. My response to her went like this:

"Yes and no. I do what I love and love what I do, but I fully intend to get rich doing it. I mean "rich" may be relative, but still -- I'm not doing it because I just want to spread my love for the world by making beautifully designed and carefully crafted handmade objects -- I'm doing it because I'm good at it! And I expect people to appreciate that, and show their appreciation by paying me what I deserve!"

It's hard sometimes, when you put something up on etsy, something that you've sweated and cried over, something that you've put everything you've ever learned about color and rhythm and line and balance and then you try to put a price tag on it and realize that no price is going to reflect your worth, and you battle with what you think it's worth and what you think people will actually pay for it, and it's tempting sometimes to jump on the latest trend (I'm talking to you, steampunk) just to make a quick buck, and maybe you don't even care if you're gluing crap together if you could just put new tires on the car and maybe even buy that shampoo you like.

It's hard, when your art is your living, and you're sitting there with your needles and yarn, or your paintbrush and a mask, and doing battle with yourself because what you WANT to do, what your inner artist is TELLING you to do, may not bring in the hundreds of dollar that it should, and you have to find that delicate balance where you're not selling yourself short, but you ARE making more than oh, say, 50 cents an hour. And you have to remind yourself that even if you CAN put the tires off for another month, you're still going to need gas. And then you sigh, and knit garter stitch instead of some fabulous lace pattern, and you applique instead of doing intarsia, and you use a die-cut shape instead of creating your own. And you hope that you're still being true to yourself. And the day suddenly seems very long.

I hate to use a basketball analogy again (actually that's not true, I love using a basketball analogy, and the college basketball season is finally starting, so it's on my mind) but we were watching UConn play (it was really more of a slaughter) San Diego State last night. There was never any doubt that UConn would win. They are, quite simply, the superior team, in both experience and content. I asked Jules, "How do you go into a game knowing that you're going to lose? What does the coach say to you in the locker room when the other team has exactly twice as many points on the boards?"

She explained that you can't, you don't, look at it like that. You don't focus on winning or losing, you focus on your goals. You focus on how many shots you can block, on how many possessions you can overturn, you -- and here's the crux of it, I think -- you "play every possession."

This does actually relate to the above discussion. I think as artisans, we sometimes get lost in the big picture. I know that lately, as I've been madly sewing and knitting, I'm so worried about getting enough "product" on my site in the hopes of off-the-charts sales this coming Black Friday and Cyber Monday, that I've lost the joy of what I'm doing. If I do that, then I may as well go back to selling "heads in beds" (hotel slang for occupancy), or answering phones. Because at least then I would have health insurance.

And when I've spent so much time on an item that I would have to price it far, far above what the market will bear, I take a good hard look at what it is that's taking me so long, and whether I could achieve that differently, and whether if maybe I should not be making that particular thing. As I mentioned before, it's a delicate balance.

For a few brief minutes last night, when I was beading an ornament made from an upcycled snowflake sweater, I was just in the moment. I was admiring the sheen of the czech glass beads, and marveling at the lovely symmetry of the snowflake, and enjoying the sensual feeling of the needle slipping into the bead and then through the wool, and simply enjoying what I do. And it was kind of great.

As I contemplated pricing on this little lovely, I bounced around from $24 to $8. My roommate thinks I should "price it to move" and there is that temptation to slash prices in order to make sales, and I understand that urge, really I do, but in the long run, it doesn't just hurt you as a business, it hurts every artisan who is trying to make a living and charging what would equate to a living wage.

And it's a constant struggle. There are always the people who are going to sell something cheaper than you. They don't realize that when they sell something for $9.50 and it took them 3 hours to make, they're selling themselves short. And maybe the people for whom it is "just a hobby" -- that's ok.

But for me, it's a business. That means that not only am I constantly monitoring my prices, other people's prices, my return on investment, the cost of supplies, and the relative sanity of my brain from monitoring all of this on any given day, but I'm also constantly striving for perfection. I want that basket/mask/pincushion to be PERFECT, and not just because I want to be able to charge the big bucks for it, but because I want to be able to take pride in what I do. Sure, I could jump on the steampunk bandwagon, or make something with owls/birds/scrabble tile pendants. But more importantly, I need to be true to myself.

So I'm making hams out of recycled sweaters and shibori fabric. I'm making little bracelet pincushions out of someone else's "trash". I'm making christmas ornaments out of beer bottle caps. I don't know if anyone will buy them. But they're beautiful, and I am proud to stand behind them. I look at my little shop on etsy, and I'm proud to say, "I did that." And I'll keep doing it. And I'll see how it goes, and I'll be flexible. But I'm still going to be true to myself.

This all goes back to what I was talking about a few weeks ago: believing in yourself, and fear of failure.

So my fellow etsians, don't lose heart! I really do believe we are at the forefront of a revolution in changing peoples perceptions about what they buy and where it comes from. It's up to us to set the standard for that, and then defend that standard. And I believe that part of that is educating our consumer about what we do, how and why we do it, and why they should support us doing it!

Because I believe in us. I really do.


Nancy said...

Sing it sister! My mantra all along this etsy train ride has been: Who cares what or if I sell, i'm just happy, finally happy, because I've been making things that I love again. It rings true, when you look at your work and you just stare because it is so beautiful to you, that's when you know you're doing the right thing. And lets start a campaign to PRICE AS ARTISTS, not as hobbyists on etsy.....

km said...

Hear hear! Maybe we should start a team ;)

Nancy said...

P.S.- I hope this is ok: My blog scheduled for tomorrow is linked to this posting, and it's another rant about pricing.