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Handmade in the Pandemic

Lydia Partridge explores the unexpected bloom of independent, online businesses and the cottage industry during the pandemic.

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Image Credit: Karen Penroz

Many students entered into the strange new world of the coronavirus pandemic post-exams. During a time of the year when some students gear up to work all summer without their maintenance loans to assist them, some move back in with parents and enjoy the small luxuries this can provide. I fell into this latter group. I had to face my last few assessments of the academic year, gave up my beloved pub job, left my friends scattered across the country, and returned to my family home to spend time with my parents. Without a job, without the routine of uni life, and with a lot more time to kill due to lockdown, I found myself pining over beautiful things. Beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful objects - all over my social media. Coronavirus hadn’t stopped TikTok. If anything, it felt like everyone being forced into their houses had given every talented twenty-something all the time and, somehow, money they needed to become a social media sensation. Many of the accounts that crossed my “for you” page were small, single-person businesses.

You name it and someone on TikTok, or Instagram, or Depop is selling it. Looking for some earrings that look like miniature painter’s palettes? How about with tiny, bloodied period pads dangling from them? No, don’t panic, they’re made with gorgeous glittering resin! You could buy these period earrings for $7.50 (around £5.80) on their store linked in the TikTok account bio - or you could if they hadn’t sold out (see @gayastronautjewelery). The product description reads: “the original pad earrings that got over 20 million views on TikTok, complete with sterling silver hooks!” The popularity of small businesses online has skyrocketed in the past several months. The dots seem to connect very easily; thousands upon thousands of people are suddenly out of work, out of their standard social routine, and can finally commit the time needed for their passion projects.

By the looks of things, it’s a dream scheme. I was intrigued. I knit, crochet, sew, and have made my own jewellery before. Had I known I could have been monetising my product as a teenager, I could have been a few years ahead of the game. To gain a better understanding of how running an online cottage industry business works, I spoke to Carla of Fun Femme Jewellery (@funfemmejewellery on Instagram).

Carla launched her Instagram account in May 2020, after finishing her third year of study at Glasgow University. I came across her account during lockdown, when my interest in the cottage industry peaked: if it was made of acrylic, had shimmer in it; if it was handmade, or hand-poured, then I wanted to see it. Her business has gained a huge boost in popularity through the social media platform, where she posts pictures of all of her products, promotes bundles and deals, and links to her online storefront.
In her words, “when I started my page, I described it as ‘fun, feminine and unashamedly queer’, and I’d say that still accurately represents my style and the kind of jewellery I make. I love making things with cartoon boobs on them, making jewellery that reclaims slurs, like my ‘dyke rights’ hoops or just making fun things like bright pink Venus symbols or green glittery aliens. I want anyone who shops from me to know it is a safe queer space.” Carla’s account currently has over 5,500 followers and her store lists around 30 available products. She also makes earrings to order, and offers ‘mystery packs’, where she curates a selection of her handmade earrings to the buyer’s aesthetic based on a short quiz. I asked Carla how she thinks the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted her business. She responded:

“I think it’s given a lot of people more time to practice hobbies and from that people are realising they can monetise things they enjoy doing. I don’t get a student loan during the summer, so I work full time in retail to try to make sure I have enough money to live off of. For me, Covid gave me a huge chunk of unprecedented free time to learn a hobby.  I probably wouldn’t have learned how to make jewellery if this had been a normal year of me working full time as I’d of [sic] been too shattered from work to put in all the hours it took to learn how to make earrings, keep a very active social media presence and keep up with all the messages and orders.”

This outlook seems almost utopian for the average young creative. Carla also pointed out that Fun Femme Jewellery has become a key source of income during her furlough period. While the arts have taken a definitive hit, with theatres shutting down and TV and film production grinding to a stop, this shift to supporting artists directly by buying their artwork seems like a fundamental upside for creatives trying to support themselves in a period when the government and the economy seem to want to leave them behind. I can open up Depop and buy a handmade crochet skirt custom-ordered to fit me for less than £30, cheaper than some fast-fashion retailers. If buying from small businesses and artists is not only better for the environment by reducing spending on fast fashion, but also supports individuals who are suffering during the pandemic, allows artists to earn from their passion projects, and makes me look good in clothing and accessories designed with me in mind, why wouldn’t I shop the cottage industry every time?

The simplest answer, the one that probably popped into the average student’s mind as they read the above, is that it will never be cheaper than the cheapest option online. And, of course, that while we must try and support our local queer artists and activists as much as we can, many of us, as the buyers rather than the sellers, are also out of work and out of furlough. I asked Carla what she felt the pitfalls were of running a cottage industry through social media. She offered this insight:
“Social media has had a dangerous consequence of suggesting that every task you could enjoy doing for free must be made into a ‘side hustle’. I see a lot of people turning to small businesses not out of a passion for them, but because social media can make it look easy, like quick money, or even a necessary route... in order for it to be valuable and profitable.”

Despite the pitfalls, the handmade industry has been on the up-and-up for several years, with Facebook Marketplace and the handmade craft behemoth Etsy offering similar platforms, if less youth-oriented. Wunderlabel, a blog primarily dedicated to selling clothing craft supplies, provides some interesting statistics about the craft industry as of mid-2019, pre-pandemic. A few numbers jump off the page; the average Etsy handmade seller is only 39 years old. While older than some of the rising TikTok DIY stars, this is much younger than the average US business owner, who is around 50 years old. The handmade industry is also primarily led by women and predominantly maker-owned, meaning the person crafting is the person who owns the business.

Again, my ears are pricked. I started to get the same feeling I had when I briefly thought I could dedicate my life to making crocheted face masks. A field spearheaded by young, creative women is where many young people would like to be. And the same pitfalls catch me out. The blog also points out that only 12 per cent of the average Etsy seller’s total income is a result of their crafting. Then, around 50 per cent of this income is reinvested in the business. What does this tell us about the spike in popularity of crafting and DIY, and monetising these hobbies, during Covid-19? It seems that time is more valuable than money when it comes to our passions; in a world where we are primarily in our homes, away from the average workplace, the creatives can shine.

We probably won’t see how cottage industry is impacted by this spike in popularity in quantifiable terms until the pandemic passes. But there is something to be said for the pleasure of wearing earrings that I know have been made with love, by someone who cares deeply for what they do, and for the pride in wearing a face mask I have sewn myself. All of the dominoes are lined up to create an image of a bright artistic future for cottage industry and handmade goods. It will take some time to see how they fall.

Image Credit: @funfemmejewellery

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