The Maker Fakers: As Etsy Scales, the Definition of ‘Handmade’ Gets Slippery

Etsy's Dos and Don'ts have evolved into a "giant hairball."
matt stinchcomb etsy The Maker Fakers: As Etsy Scales, the Definition of Handmade Gets Slippery

Etsy’s Matt Stinchcomb. (Photo: a.k.a. Jared)

Around this time last year, I developed a nervous twitch around my right eye that made me look like a Bond villain. Instead of getting more sleep or drinking less coffee, I decided to buy an eye patch—but, like, a cool eye patch. My eye patch should be unique and stylish in addition to being functional, I decided, and reflect that I am quirky and confident.

There are some things you can really only buy on Etsy.

The Dumbo-based purveyor of all things twee is turning seven next month, and my, how it’s grown. The site contains more than 875,000 virtual shops—“VintageStylez,” “Crochet Concepts,” “Palimpsestic”—with new ones popping up every day. The company just announced a $40 million round of funding, bringing its total outside investment to more than $90 million and its estimated valuation to around $600 million.

I selected a patch made out of yarn that looked like a green-and-yellow snake eye—just one of a few dozen options in yarn, leather, lace and plastic. The $22 piece was knitted by Krisztina Lazar, a 30-year-old designer in San Francisco, who modeled it in the photos on her Etsy shop. It arrived in a reused box, wrapped in plain tissue paper, with a hand-written thank-you note. My friends all remarked on how funky it was. It was the perfect Etsy experience.

Etsy, which sprang to life as a more artisanal alternative to eBay, built its reputation around interactions like this. Rob Kalin, the site’s founder and former CEO who famously makes his own underwear, wanted a place to sell the computers he built from scratch and fitted with acrylic cases designed to look like wood. But as Etsy grows, it’s starting to stray from the cult of DIY. Increasingly, Etsy shoppers are stumbling across factory-made watches, non-descript dresses from Shanghai, and even a Coach bag or two.

The headquarters for disenchanted Etsyites is Regretsy, the blog comedian April Winchell launched to call out the ugliest items on Etsy. At first the site was merely a catalog of items Ms. Winchell thought were lame, but the “not remotely handmade” category really struck a chord. Regretsy gets more than a million views a month, said Ms. Winchell, whose track record of Etsy-shaming could qualify her as a handmade activist. “I got an email from a woman who said her husband had saved up like $200 to buy her some steampunk watch, and she saw the same thing on eBay for like $2. She was just heartbroken,” Ms. Winchell told Betabeat as an example of how Etsy has been corrupted by cheaters.

Sewon Chung, a 23-year-old photographer living in Bed-Stuy, was so excited when she first discovered Etsy that she wrote a college paper about gender and e-commerce. “I was really into looking into all the Etsy shops,” she said. “I remember feeling like there was sort of a tangible community and sort of a culture.” Since then, she said, Etsy has changed a lot. “One thing that I’ve been noticing a lot these days are those shops that are just filled with ‘craft supplies.’ The supplies in the past were like yarn or twine or something. Now you see a lot of like, really cute stickers and things from Asia.”

Perhaps more insidious than the obvious cheaters are those who walk the line between handmade and factory-made. The majority of items on Etsy are unique, but the sheer volume of sellers coupled with Etsy’s convoluted terms of use have led to an influx of more common items, like mass-produced trinkets restrung on mass-produced chains, “vintage” T-shirts from the early aughts, and furniture sourced from a wholesaler in Indonesia. The trend is discouraging to crafters and it’s turning off some customers.

Ms. Chung recently revised her Etsy essay for her grad school applications, taking a more critical line. “I realized it is a corporate entity and it’s run like any other company. It’s not just a bunch of creative girls hanging around,” she said, adding, “I definitely don’t go on Etsy as much anymore. We’re all waiting for the next big thing to come out.”

That’s not to say that Etsy is in trouble. Etsy processed $525 million in sales in 2011 and has been profitable since 2009. Still, it’s based on an internal contradiction—it’s a 21st century dot-com defined by a pre-industrial ethos—that represents an increasingly difficult straddle.

The discontent among devotees came to a head in late April, when 30-year-old furniture designer Mariana Schechter struck Etsy gold. The company selected her as one its official Featured Sellers. In an interview on the site’s blog, Ms. Schechter was asked a standard question: How do you define handmade? “There is something personal and unique that occurs when you craft something with your hands,” she replied. “Mass production makes it easier to sustain bigger profit margins, but it takes away from the individuality of each item.”

At the time, Ms. Schechter had 240 pieces of rustic-looking planters, mirrors and benches made from reclaimed painted boats, for sale in her shop, EcologicaMalibu. She seemed the perfect Etsy poster girl.

But Regretsy’s Ms. Winchell immediately posted an entry tagged “Bullshit.” As it turned out, Ms. Schechter, was importing Balinese wood through a wholesaler called All From Boats, and some of her pieces were listed on its site and at She also employs eight California workers who assemble her designs, which some of the Etsy faithful considered a breach of Etsy’s terms of service.

The ensuing fury in the Etsy forums and the comments on Regretsy sparked Protesty, a virtual walkout during which hundreds of Etsy sellers went into “vacation mode,” disabling sales on their shops for a day in the name of “genuine handmade.”

“This particular woman pays carpenters to build this stuff,” Ms. Winchell told Betabeat, drawing a distinction between handmade and “handmade aesthetic.”

“When you have eight employees, that’s a business,” she added. “I have nothing against reselling at all. I just think that people who buy mass products and merchandise to sell at a profit are really allowed to do so anywhere except Etsy.”

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