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Crafting a Future: Part One

We have been reading a lot about the rise of the profitable DIY-ers—those who turned hobbies into successful, thriving companies. In order to get a big picture look at the trend, we set out to answer this question: could small-scale makers have big impact? This is Part One.

Meg Roberts (pictured above) was too afraid to get the humpback whale tattoo she wanted in college, so instead she crafted some wire into the form of a whale necklace.

Soon her friends wanted one too, and after she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, she kept making jewelry for whomever she could.

But there was a problem. No longer having the school’s equipment at her disposal, Roberts would have to craft the pieces by hand. She wanted to scale up production while also somehow keeping her prices down.

So Roberts began contracting with a small family-owned company to manufacture her pieces. She formed Zuu Studio and set up a shop on Etsy, the vast online marketplace, and demand for her creations has steadily grown.

“If I made all of my pieces by hand, only millionaires could afford them,” says Roberts. “I wanted to make things for people like me, who didn’t have a lot of money who appreciated cool design.”

The Rise of the Maker Movement

Roberts is far from alone. She personifies a growing trend in which entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, crafters and creators are making a living making things for customers. Those who bring that DIY mindset to technology make up what’s been dubbed the “Maker Movement.”

To help its 1.5 million sellers meet rising consumer demand, Etsy two years ago changed its policies to let sellers work with manufacturers to make their goods. This fall Etsy will take that evolution to another level, launching Etsy Manufacturing, a service that will link sellers with contract manufacturers.

“We found that many sellers were choosing to work with smaller local manufacturers who could do smaller runs with faster turnarounds,” says Etsy spokeswoman Nikki Summer. “But finding manufacturers is often a roadblock.”

Etsy hopes to launch the new service sometime this fall for four types of sellers:

  1. Apparel/textiles
  2. Machining/fabrication
  3. Printing
  4. Jewelry/metal work

Etsy’s move seems to signal a growing trend, says Phil Mintz, associate executive director of the Industry Expansion Solutions program at North Carolina State University.

“We are seeing this type of expansion as more customers shop for unique items through Etsy-type models,” Mintz says.

Mintz points to two such examples in North Carolina: Spoonflower, the Durham-based startup that prints fabrics that customers can either design or choose from designs submitted by others; and the Carolina Textile District, which operates primarily as a matchmaking entity ensuring designers are able to identify and partner with small-scale manufacturers.

A Trend Boosted By Demand

Mintz says it isn’t yet clear how transformative such initiatives might be for the Carolinas economy, but it’s an area of focus for the university’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership as it works to understand the needs of very small manufacturers in order to develop programs that support their growth.

“It is easy for these small businesses to have hidden impacts as many can be run from homes or garages,” says Mintz.

Joey Von Nessen, research economist at the University of South Carolina, agrees that it’s too soon to gauge the economic impact.

“Unfortunately there is not much specific data available on the size and score of craft manufacturing,” Von Nessen says, “but by helping small, in-home designers connect to contract manufacturers, Etsy is helping these designers to grow and expand into full-scale small businesses. Encouraging small business, in turn, is incredibly important for economic growth, as small business drives a majority of all job creation both in South Carolina and the U.S.”

While the broader implications for the economy might be uncertain, the factors boosting demand for craft and small-scale manufacturing are easier to understand, says Scott Swain, assistant professor of marketing at Clemson University.

Swain sees their appeal as a response to consumers’ increasing concerns about how industrialism and capitalism can leave them feeling alienated, anonymous, disembodied and estranged. With craft makers, consumers enjoy feeling like products are the outputs of identifiable, genuine, thoughtful persons who have applied specialized skills and knowledge..

“They do not want to think of products as the result of the mechanized algorithms enacted by cold machines,” says Swain.

Read on with Part Two!

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