Why I’m Skeptical about Making Money on Etsy


November 6, 2015 by kittynh

I’ve always been an artist.  I also enjoy doing crafty stuff.  I’ve done everything from quilting to origami, and had great fun with any hobby I take up.

The problem comes though when someone says to me “You should sell what you make!”

My standard reply is “But if I made my hobby my business, I’d need to find another hobby.”

That brings us to ETSY.  We all know Etsy as the online shop that sells hand made crafts.  Only it isn’t that “online craft market”it claims to be.  Sadly the success of Etsy is dependent on people willing to underpay themselves, those willing to rip off designs of others, and people willing to sell things they have imported from China.

China has brought many cheap goods to the United States.  Sadly, even the Chinese are unhappy that much of their economy is based upon producing cheap goods.  An aging population is not happy with the same jobs taken by the young and desperate.  Making cheap crap for the world is not a career choice for the newer more educated and aging Chinese.

The really cute $2.99 gnome.  I can't compete with this.

The really cute $2.99 gnome. I can’t compete with this.

What do I mean by cheap?  I mean so cheap that you can not possibly compete if you are a craftsperson. I bought a little gnome at a local store for $2.99.  I bought it for holiday decor, and was thrilled to get such a cute gnome for such a low price. But, I had to do the math.  Store markups are usually around 50%.  This gnome cost the store less than $1.50.  Obviously, someone had to make this, and it also had to be imported to the US from China where it was made.  I can’t imagine this gnome cost more than 50cents to make, or no one is making any money.

I thought it was so cute, I decided to make a gnome using my wool felting skills.  The China gnome is cotton, stuffing and some sweater like fabric for the hat. There is also a wire inside to keep the hat upright.  It is far more detailed than the gnomes I made.  My gnomes do not have hands or hearts. I have no clue how the Chinese could make it so cheaply, as it is quite nice.

My gnomes.

My gnomes. The little ones have angora rabbit beards that are super soft. The others have naturally curly wool beards from sheep.

My gnomes are made from 100% wool, and that wool was hand dyed.  The beards are various materials, including expensive angora rabbit wool.  The wool is all from local farms.  I use a small hooked needle to shape and bind the wool.  There is no glue involved.  This takes time.  I don’t even try for a totally smooth finish as that would take much longer.  This is a very simple shape, but it still takes hours and hours to create.

all local wool, and some angora rabbit wool also.  hand dyed and a $8 stump for them to gather on.

all local wool, and some angora rabbit wool also. hand dyed and a $8 stump for them to gather on.

Often my little wool creations accidentally become cat toys (trust me I own a cat).  I like to attach the creations to wood bases, as it tends to discourage the cats and stabilize the very light felted works.  I purchase the bases, as ones I cut myself often have bugs or mold.  These I purchase from Michaels craft store are very nice and clean.  However, the larger wood base cost $8.00, the smaller is $3.00.

so he's not lonely, a squirrel friend and a base that costs exactly what the China gnome cost.

so he’s not lonely, a squirrel friend and a base that costs exactly what the China gnome cost.

This brings us back to Etsy.  I can’t sell my gnomes on Etsy.  Not when someone could import a bunch of these Chinese gnomes and sell them for $5 and make a profit.

I have first hand experience with Chinese imports, my neighbor sells jewelry on Etsy she imports from China in bulk. When I asked about her site she gladly shared how “You even get the photographs to use on your site! It’s so easy to make money, you just list stuff and ship it out!”  She then showed me boxes of Chinese made goods sitting in her garage. Hand made perhaps in this case means “writing the address by hand” on the shipping boxes.

Also, as for copying, you can’t enforce your image or design, it just doesn’t work in reality.  Once something is up on the internet, it’s pretty much free use unless you have enough money to defend your work. (I admit I used the Chinese gnome for inspiration for my gnomes!)

I do purchase from good Etsy shops that I feel I can trust.  Crafters that I know are designing and selling works that they have made.  It’s fairly easy to tell once you start looking at the site.  If 25 people offer a “Bangle with Eiffel Tower”, it’s probably an import.  You can purchase the product of course!  Just don’t be fooled into thinking it’s unique.  Also pay more if you want something truly hand made.  We’ve become addicted to cheap goods, including cute $3 Chinese gnomes.

Chinese gnome with my home made gnomes. It's a really cute gnome!  Mine don't have hearts!

Chinese gnome with my home made gnomes. It’s a really cute gnome! Mine don’t have hearts!

I of course enjoy my hobby.  Would I like to make a little money on the side by selling my work?  Of course, but instead I donate happily to charity auctions and friends get these things as gifts (like it or not, John Stewart, you and Bobbie are getting a gnome!)

I can’t suggest a solution to this problem, if it is indeed a problem.  We all like cheap goods, and I even enjoy my little Chinese gnome.  But, don’t ask me to sell my work.  I enjoy being able to take as long as I like with my design and spend as much as I like on materials.

Also when you receive that hand knit scarf or hat or quilt or cross stitch, think about the hours your friend or family member put into creating that gift for you.  It’s not “just a hat” it’s hours and hours of time.  A gushing “Thank you” is always welcome!  That’s payment enough for me!

5 thoughts on “Why I’m Skeptical about Making Money on Etsy

  1. Kitty Lapin Agile says:

    Reblogged this on Two Different Girls and commented:
    A blog post about those holiday gifts we’ll all soon be knitting, crocheting and crafting. Wonderful gifts that should be appreciated, but worth selling online? Probably not.

  2. binarynico says:

    Yes. I was with Etsy shortly after their inception, and for a few years, I did quite well. Then…they stopped enforcing much of the handmade ethos, especially with volume sellers, and started turfing out “un-savory unfamily friendly sellers.” Then…with the change to allow third party manufacture, i can go on the site and within a few clicks find hundreds of shops selling the same merchandise that can be found via the chinese mass market sellers. My work, handmade, is steamrollered under mass made bargains. I buy from the sellers i know and trust, but finding them? good luck.

    And yes, the chinese don’t want the massmarket work. On a trip to china, our guides were “we have a thriving artisan industry of our own and we should be proud.” (rightly so, the handmade work we brought home is awesome.). The north american appetite feeds the demand for mass market goods that the chinese don’t want to make either.

    I don’t expect much to change. I can’t work as cheaply as a factory worker in china, but truthfully, they shouldn’t be either.

    • kittynh says:

      such a good point. Selling undercost and in bulk, lessens the work of the artisan of the country where the bulk products are produced. We are a trained to respond to a “good deal” but what I keep seems to be what I’ve paid more for. We have living room furniture that is over 30 years old. It’s still in terrific condition. Our movers commented on moving people with nothing but IKEA and other box furniture, and it literally collapsing as they put it in their truck. When we went to find a new bed, we wanted real wood, and had to purchase from Vietnam to get a price we could afford (that was still more expensive than IKEA) and REAL WOOD. Because our daughter bought an IKEA bed that molted (it’s the only way I can explain it) in less than a year. My other daughter has learned to look for real wood used furniture (and paint is cheap). It’s fun to redo your home every few years I suppose, but it’s a tremendous waste also…

  3. jcstewartmit says:

    My mom was once offered a hundred dollars for one of her decorated eggs. Of course she declined. My little sister sells her hand-made dog leashes and humane collars on the interwebs. The big difference is that she needs the money, but there isn’t much profit in it.

    Someone suggested that I could earn money as a handyman after I installed a new dishwasher for her. I don’t think I could afford it. Hers took 3 or 4 hours. (In my defense, a lot of that time was fixing the ghastly wiring. It’s poor condition was shocking!)

  4. S. Madison says:

    People keep telling me I should sell my “Time Flies…” calendars but there is no way I could make money doing so. I can’t get the bulk printing I would need to make the calendars cheap enough to compete with mass produced calendars.

    Moreover, I prefer to do my calendars as gifts only for friends. Making them for friends is what gives the calendars value to me. Trying to make money by selling the calendars would make the calendars of less value because the effort to make them would no longer be done for friends I care deeply about.

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