Welcome to the Holiday of the Handmade.
Smartphones and sweaters from the mall are OK, but when it comes to this season’s hippest gifts, it’s all about handmade jewelry, scarves, home furnishings, all-natural soaps, beard balms and, well, you name it.
Interest in high-quality handmade goods – we’re not talking crochet doorknob covers or tuna can pin cushions – has gone from an indie movement showcased at urban craft fairs and maker markets to a full-blown shopping phenomenon. And that’s especially evident now because, just in time for the holiday shopping season, handmade products are everywhere – including on Amazon, which began selling them last month.
“We’ve just had a huge increase in interest,” says Brandon Mitchell, a 37-year-old soap maker from Plymouth, Mich., whose business is up 25 to 30 percent over the last year thanks, in part, to a growing wholesale business. In addition to local independent shops, the West Elm furniture store in Birmingham, Mich. – which is owned by the same company as Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma – is now stocking Mitchell’s $7 bars of Cellar Door soap.
But why now? Why are we ditching high-end designer products in favor of gifts created by crafters who are largely unknown?
The answer lies with millennials.
Saving the planet, 1 gift at a time
With roughly 83 million members, millennials – born between 1982 and 2000 – make up the largest generation ever. And their strength in numbers means they wield an astounding amount of influence on other generations.
“The baby boomers and the Generation X generations were primarily influenced by their parents in making their shopping decisions,” says Steven Barr, retail and consumer leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Millennial shoppers are making their own choices, and millennial shoppers, unlike prior generations, are influencing the buying patterns of the generations before them.
“This is a generation that cares deeply about the planet and people and doing good personally,” says Barr. “They can show that through their own shopping behaviors and their own gift-giving behaviors.”
Quality over hype
And when it comes to that, research shows millennials aren’t wooed by label alone. They aren’t fans of designer hype. They are a thrifty generation that values quality and will spend money on experiences such as travel and entertainment and the making of memories. They prefer to buy from makers with small footprints whose business practices are ethical beyond reproach. They like things that have been recycled or re-purposed. They like local products. They like products that are made in small batches.
And all of that is why millennials love handmade products. They love them so much that, according to a Nielsen study, they are 57 percent more likely to visit Etsy, the popular online craft bazaar, than people from other age groups.
“I can’t knit or anything, but if someone can knit me a really nice scarf for someone, I’m all about it,” says Mallarie Gainer, a 23-year-old Detroiter who shops Etsy and art fairs for handmade gifts because she feels they are more “heartfelt” and “a lot better than going to a department store or buying something everybody has. Their quality is better, and it helps support someone’s talent and art. If people are doing it because it’s their passion and because it’s what they love to do, it’s really nice.”
Shaylen Franchini, 25, of Southgate, Mich., echoes that sentiment.
“I worked for a DJ company for a little while. I was on Etsy, just kind of scrolling through. It was around Christmastime. I saw that this person took old records and cut out city skylines! I was, like, ‘Oh! That would be an awesome idea if I had the Detroit skyline handmade from a Motown record.’ I gave it to my boss. … He absolutely loved it.”
Not your grandma’s craft show
People under 35 make up the bulk of the $29-billion, do-it-yourself market, and their generation’s easy familiarity with technology is one of the reasons the quality of handmade products has improved so much since the pin cushions made from tuna cans, bad macrame and other crafty atrocities of even just 10 years ago. And one of the reasons indie craft continues to grow.
Millennials are especially savvy about using technology as a learning tool. Research on the Internet is a snap. So is keeping in touch with other crafters who can offer advice and tips on technique, which keeps product quality strong.
Millennials’ social media savvy has helped publicize the handmade movement – they pay attention to Facebook and Instagram. “Social media changed my life because I was able to get my work out to more than just family and friends,” says stained glass artist Carey Gustafson, 44, who makes nightlights decorated with stained glass likenesses of rock stars at her business, Glass Action. “I could never have foreseen what a huge difference it would make.
“I started out working side jobs and bartending to support my glass business, and now it’s full-time,” she says. “Now there’s so many places you can sell.”
In addition to indie craft shows, local retailers are upping their stock of handmade merchandise. Even upscale Nordstrom has partnered with Etsy to offer handcrafted items at its stores.
“It all goes hand in hand with social media,” Gustafson says.
1 million of a kind?
But how big can the market get?
And if everything is handmade, is anything really special any more?
“I think if the marketplace gets too big and the marketplace doesn’t edit the participants … the lower the standards go, the less people appreciate it,” says Ken Nisch, a retail design and branding expert from Southfield-based JGA. “On the other hand, what you like and what I like may be two different things. What you like might be someone else’s nightmare.”
“Too much of any one thing is going to decrease the appreciation for it,” he says.
For now, though, we’re OK.
So again, welcome to the Holiday of the Handmade.
Find local handmade products
A selection of stores and markets where you can you find local handmade products. Also note that lots of local makers sell their goods on Etsy.com. Once you enter a search on the Etsy site, you can refine the search in the “Shop Location” field.
Rebus Works: Saturday market features wares from farmers and craftspeople. 301 Kinsey St.; rebusworks.us/rebus-works.
Gather: Shop features handmade and local items. 715 N. Person St.; shop.gathergoodsco.com.
Raleigh Makers Market: Pop-up market is open every first Saturday from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; 402 Oberlin Road; raleighmakersmarket.com.
Edge of Urge: A collection of goods from independent makers. 215-110 E. Franklin St.; edgeofurge.com/collections/shop-handmade.
DECO Raleigh: Downtown shop offers goods made by local artisans. 19 W. Hargett St.; decoraleigh.com/local-products.
Quercus Studio: Downtown shop sells locally made jewelry, leather goods and knives. 201 S. Salisbury St.; quercusraleigh.com.
Ramble Supply Co.: Home and lifestyle boutique carries locally handmade items. 123 E Martin St.; ramblesupplyco.com.
Flight Raleigh: Pop-up shop open through December features some locally handmade items. 17 E. Martin St.; flightraleigh.org.
Raleigh Flea Market: A great place to find handmade goods every weekend (except during the N.C. State Fair). 1025 Blue Ridge Road; raleighfleamarket.net.
Durham Patchwork Market: A monthly market with local makers and vintage vendors. Usually at the Durham Armory or Fullsteam Brewery. facebook.com/TheDurhamPatchworkMiniMarket.
The Makery: Specializing in N.C.-made and curated goods. 401 W. Geer St.; themakeryatmercury.com.
Perch Studios: The co-working space hosts handmade markets throughout the year. 106 S. Greensboro St., Carrboro; perchstudios.net.
LIGHT Art+Design: The art gallery features some locally handmade jewelry. 601-110 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill; lightartdesign.com/shop.
Note: Perch Studios of Chapel Hill-Carrboro hopes to bring their Perch Handmade Market back in the spring.
A number of holiday craft markets sponsored by schools and churches take place in December. Browse the holiday event list here: nando.com/2-6.