What's Your Handmade I.Q.?

Hand Painted Scarves
Sure, handmade is hot, but can you spot it in a lineup?

In fact, handmade businesses are so awesome, companies want to look and feel handmade, even if they're not. But, actually creating things one at a time and managing business as a one-person operation - well, it's not for everyone. Even the "big guys" covet the warm and cozy feeling shoppers get as they imagine the makers at home in their creative lairs, following their dreams.

And the definition of handmade is so wishy-washy that more people can get by with using it than you ever imagined. Even among handmade makers, we can't always agree on what it means, and we don't always have to. As a shopper, though, you would like to know what you're really getting and who you're really shopping with. In a world where you get most of your shopping information from photos, and money is exchanged in cyberspace, there are some built-in pitfalls you would like to avoid. So here are some thoughts to get you on your way:

Allegheny Hearth
Handmade Soap by Bonnie Bartley
Start with the shop, not just the product.

No doubt, you've found a whatchmabob that's shiny and perfect. But before you push that button, take a look at who you're doing business with. You've probably already seen the product page, but if it's important to you that your thing is truly handmade, go straight to the Bio Page.

You want to know: How is it made? Who is making it? Where is the business located? Why does the artist create this, and not that? Who will respond to my questions?

The Bio Page (Profile Page, About Page, etc.) often contains some basic information such as a name and picture of the person who is selling. You can also search for the city the business is from, and read what the seller has to say for him or herself regarding their art and their process. The other reason to read these is that sometimes there are really interesting life stories embedded on these pages.  Look at a few different product listings, not just one, and try to get a sense of whether they really know all about their product, or are just slapping pictures up with little explanation.

Hand Crafted Woodworking by Kevin
The venue is not the seller.

Just a little reminder: if a seller sells on ArtFire (for example), ArtFire did not sell you the product. The seller of your product is really Katie X (or whoever), and the company they own and operate will be clearly identified. Sometimes customers will say things like - "this item was never delivered from Zibbet.com so I'm never shopping there again." I would just like to make it clear that all sellers on a venue like this operate completely independently - there are some good ones and bad ones everywhere you go. Just think of Ebay or Amazon and you'll see what I mean. Don't imagine that everyone on the entire venue is going to give you the same experience.

Even sites that make a credible effort at maintaining an "all handmade" inventory, cannot actually police all shops and make sure they are all who they say they are. Some sites began long ago with the lofty goal of being "all handmade," but have strayed over time, not monitored quality well, or completely changed the rules they began with. So many people still believe that Etsy "is" all handmade (for example) when Etsy only acts as rental space to some handmade sellers. They also rent to a lot of commercial sellers, and unfortunately it falls to the buyer to tell the difference. What is it they say? Caveat Emptor.
Bracken Designs Studio Art Jewelry
Handmade Jewelry by Laura Bracken

Also, whether a site is in a marketplace setting, or is a stand-alone site, whether it looks fancy or plain makes no difference at all. Don't be wowed by fancy graphics, and don't overlook homespun goodness, even though it's nice to have both.

Policies. No, really. Read them.

When I'm checking out a site for credibility I do click on the policy page. I rarely really stop to read much of it, or I may just read certain points that interest me. If you like to comb through these pages in detail, go for it, but I'm afraid many shoppers avoid them entirely until there's a problem of some sort. It's important to at least put eyeballs on the Policies page before there's a problem, and even before you've bought your Shiny Thing. I would mainly look to make sure that someone has put some thought into them, and has made a reasonable effort to anticipate a return policy, shipping, or that sort of thing. If the policies page is completely blank, I would just walk quickly and quietly away.

A Fair Maiden Jewelry
Handmade Jewelry by Betony Lee

Is it well-made? Do the descriptions help you understand the photos better? Are there variations available that would make the item more interesting to you? A full shop with many items is reassuring, but not always necessary. By the way, there are many beginning handmakers out there who sell fabulous stuff, who would love your business, and would give you amazing service.

If you're in doubt about a particular item, you can even do a quick Google search for it, and if the very same photo pops up on several different sellers' sites you'll know it definitely not handmade. It is certainly possible for the same seller to have a couple of different shop locations on the web, but if there are other sellers and companies selling the exact same item with the same photo...? Uh-uh.


I think that the adage applies here: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If it's really too cheap to believe, it's not handmade.

Now I will contradict myself, because in fact many small business owners selling their own efforts for the first time are seriously underpricing their work. In fact there is no general agreement about what price is too high or too low for a given item, and that goes for buyers as well as sellers. I would hope, though that handmade artists of all sorts would have the confidence to charge at least what it takes to stay in business, and that includes having something to live on. As a buyer, you can help by shopping where the price is at a level that would reasonably sustain the artist's work.

Also, if the price just seems far too high, take a minute to understand it. If the maker really creates every piece from scratch - sourcing their yarn from the raw wool of Bolivian Alpacas, crafting and firing their own glass beads, carving their sculptures from the repurposed wood of sunken Pirate ships, it would be worthwhile to know that. It might even cause you to look a the price a little differently too.

Double S Jewelry
Handmade Jewelry by Sharon
Track Record

If there is a star-rating system, go ahead and take note. If there are reviews read them. These things are tools of a sort, but they are also not going to tell you the whole story. Find out, if you can, how long the business has been around. Does the seller enter into professional organizations that help them hone their craft or build their business? Do they teach, share, or act as a leader in some fashion? Are they a productive group member as they communicate with peers and customers? Do they have a presence in their local community?

In my opinion, this is more or less where social media fits in. It's nice to see that a seller does have a social presence on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, just as examples. The popular places for involvement will necessarily change over time, and already varies a little for different age groups and audiences. But hopefully there is an active page where customers will feel welcome to interact.

Ametista Designs
Handmade Jewelry by Keely
Check out the seller's blog and see if it is at least consistent with the communication style they have established - you may even learn something valuable from it, too.

Ask a Question

Well, you should always be able to ask a question if you have one. But in particular, if there are any red flags to raise your doubt, and you still want the whatchamacallit - ask a question, even if you have to make one up. Test the communication flow - do they answer their email? Is anybody home? Are they still in business? The response may reassure you or confirm your doubts, and the lack of a response can do the same thing.

"Handmade" is the process, not the product.

I really want to say this loud. You can have a handmade object, assembled by factory workers in a third world country. The question then becomes - who really benefits from this item? Did the maker of the item ever benefit from the sale of it? Were the designer and the maker the same person? Who was harmed simply because of the way it was assembled or produced? Unfortunately, "handmade" is ultimately a very flimsy term, because in fact someone's hands, somewhere, made most of the things we use every day.

What we hope to do is to support sustainable business models that support the maker / designer / artist, and the communities we all live in.
Naturally Nickel Free
Handmade Jewelry by Donna Jo Wallace

Do you like the thingy-ma-bob?

Just to keep things in perspective, the final judge of what you like and who you trust with your money is you. I'm really not even trying to convince you that everything you buy should be handmade. It's just not feasible for most of us to consider that, and it doesn't quite take into account other creative small business concepts that are out there. But in a complicated online landscape, it's good to have a few tools in your pocket to help ensure that what you believe you are getting is what you really are getting.

Let's wrap it up.

It's just part of the new Media Literacy that we need to get wise to shopping online. As soon as we think we've got it, the rules change. But I think a great deal can be accomplished by looking closely, thinking critically, and caring.


  1. Donna Jo, fabulous blog post on handmade - so informative! Sharon of Double S Jewelry on ArtFire.

  2. Thanks for supporting handmade, Donna Jo.

  3. Enjoyed reading. Lots of great information. Shared on Facebook to inform and educate my buyers. :) - Connie - The Singing Beader

  4. Well written and considered post about shopping for truly ha made items online. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed the workshop pics from some of my favorite handmade sellers.
    Pamela - PebblesatmyFeet.com

  5. great blog post very well written!!

  6. Practical guidelines for those who get confused about what is or is not handmade!

  7. Where can u buy NIOBIUM WIRE? If anyone has the answer to the question, that would be awesome. Your work is beautiful and your blog has a lot of info i have been looking for. Thank you


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