Thursday, March 5, 2009

mass producing the handmade

Ever since founding inleaf six years ago, I have been conflicted by the rigor required when making handcrafted work for a larger market, and the spontaneity that I normally crave when creating my art. I am often approached by store owners who want to purchase my work for resale and I am always flattered by these propositions. The idea that my pieces are available in shops throughout the country is exciting and over the years I have developed wonderful relationships with many of my retail customers.

But the reality of selling work wholesale is complicated. My fabrics are hand dyed and I print with real leaves, some of which are available only part of the year. I often use vintage fabrics and components in my work. None of these methods lend themselves easily to mass production. The dye batch of my favorite aqua blue color will inevitable be slightly different each time, the shape of the geranium leaf will vary, and the pretty cotton print used for purse linings will run out. Then there is the price discount that is expected for wholesale orders, which doesn't always take into account the amount of work or cost of materials required to complete each piece.

I love what I do, and I am fortunate, especially in these difficult financial times, to create work that is still in demand. My solution, for now, is to offer a limited wholesale line, consisting of items that are still handcrafted, but more easily reproduced and multiplied. I am also exploring possibilities to expand, by hiring a seamstress and developing screen printing techniques for some of my designs.

The reason for this post is not to complain and whine, but rather to start a discussion and share ideas. I don't think I am the only one harboring these thoughts. How do we create a viable market for handmade goods, without loosing the handmade touch? How do we sell handcrafted objects in a way that works for everyone – the store owner, the maker, and the consumer? I would love to hear from all of you!


  1. This is such an interesting discussion. Sometimes I don't pursue a new idea simply because I know that it will not work on the wholesale market..too time consuming to mass produce, but I like your idea of choosing a few things to sell to market while still pursuing more complicated designs...

  2. Something I think about all the time! I'd love to be able sell more things, but I also want to keep the spontaneity of handmade items. A solution I'm thinking about is to have some parts of the process done by someone else, for instance screenprinting parts of a design, and then blockprinting over it. It still won't entirely solve the problem of retailers who want to order carbon copies, though.

  3. Your work is absolutely beautiful... I think anything that is handmade will always be unique and special. I also think if people like what you are making and you have the passion to keep making it then your on to a great thing!

  4. i think your work is so beautiful and the attention to detail is impeccable. anyone with whom you work to expedite the process will have to share your same values.

    i've been working with an accessories company for the past couple of years, which is relatively small compared to coach, kate spade, etc. they own a factory in india where most of the product is manufactured. it's all handmade with the finest attention to detail by people who are paid a fair wage.

    since working there, my attitude towards the use of the word 'handmade' has changed. i'm not sure what it means, anymore. does handmade mean small quantities? or, made in the us? i think about it more, now.

    i also wonder how designers like orla kiely deal with similar issues to those you are considering when they create lines for target?

    i'm afraid i have more questions than answers.

  5. What interesting questions, and answers. I'm always wishing I had people to discuss these issues with (and all the other dilemmas of having a small art business). I find wholesale pricing and consignment really tricky areas. Especially as I feel we already wholesale when we sell our own work.
    I know that's not how it works though.
    I think that however one goes forward that you have inherent standards and aesthetics, which will naturally be maintained throughout what you do. That your 'gut' will tell you what seems right.

  6. my kindred spirit. a wonderful conversation. the same dilemma here as i don't meet many minimums to bring down my cost of goods. difficult to make any profit via wholesale. a 'catch-22'. i do like your idea of offering certain manageable pieces wholesale. it also seems there are new venues online that will help promote independent studios with smaller percentages. i'm finding trunkshows to be an interesting route as well, esp. if hosted by a retailer. doesn't cost them anything and offers great exposure for both.

  7. I don't have a handmade business, although I have bought alot of handmade things. I'm usually inspired by the amount of work that has gone into a piece, so I might not be as inspired to purchase something that I felt was just trying to emulate handmade. At the same time, there are a lot of people who purchase purely for the style or fashion of something and they don't care about how it was made. I think a lot of hand crafters take the route you are taking, setting up two lines of products, one more exclusive and the other more "mass produced". It keeps your different types of customers happy. Does this make any sense? I hope it is helpful.

  8. I forgot to mention, you do beautiful work!

  9. Thanks you for bringing this up, I think about this a lot too. When I first started selling on Etsy, I thought that I would offer more one of a kind items there and then develop other lines that I would try to find retail outlets for. I'd still like to do that, but I'm coming up with some of the same problems you are. Limited stock of fabric, items that are inherently difficult to replicate exactly, and struggles with wholesale pricing. I've been thinking a lot lately about limited editions of products, much like painter or printmaker would do with prints, and making it clear to retailers that the nature and beauty of handmade items is that they will never be replicated exactly. I have hope that they will understand this.
    I'm glad that this conversation has begun and hope that it will continue.

  10. Thanks to all of you for your comments so far!

    Anja and Ros, your encouragements are worth everything! You are the reason I want to make beautiful things. And your comments are also a reminder not to compromise too much. It is important to stay true to our hearts.

    Cindy, sometimes questions are just as important as answers, and it is so true that the term "handmade" has become fuzzy.

    Inklore, jesse, flowerpress, tyler, and jules, we are all in the same boat. Thank you for your insights and thoughts. I love jules limited edition idea, and tylers suggestion about trunkshows.

    I hope to keep this conversation alive. If any of you have ideas, questions, or even frustrations, I am willing to listen! I'll get back to you with any future thoughts as well.

  11. yes, lotta, i've had a similar issue with selling wholesale. my items are in a few smaller shops currently. upon initial wholesale inquiry i let the buyer know that some items are available in limited quantities due to paper supplies, etc. the buyer then lets me know which items they want and quantities and i respond with what's doable at the time. fortunately i've been able to meet all requests so far. but this doesn't seem like a "professional" method.

    this is an issue that weighs heavily on my mind... although i want to stay "handmade" i also want to get my product "out there". and how is the best way to do that? i'd love to hear more of your thoughts and others on this. (and yes, again, wholesale pricing is always tricky. sometimes after completing a large order, i think "was it worth it?")

    please keep me in the loop if you hear of any great ideas! and of course i'll continue following your lovely blog for further updates on this subject.

    ps i've featured an item or 2 of yours in my etsy treasuries. they always garner such lovely compliments.


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