Sunday, 22 August 2010

Stick to your Knitting Needles

This week, thanks to Twitter, my attention was drawn to an exchange between the UK Handmade Industry and Mary, who is somehow seen as the Queen of Shops. Since I don't really watch TV (do I hear shocked gasps?), I have no idea who this Lady is, but the whole issue did clarify a few things for me on a day I was yearning for a 9 to 5 (help!):

In the Open letter to Mary Portas of UK TV Fame, the UK Handmade team and other handmade fabulous-ses asked said Queen to support them, since

"much of the mainstream public are still unaware of its existence or the fact that there are abundant opportunities to acquire bespoke, unique, quality hand-crafted goods for high street competitive prices"


"We need to truly show the mainstream public that handmade is a viable, affordable choice. This means taking handmade into the high street."


As a designer-maker, I was unaware until then that hand-crafted pieces are able to compete with high-street competitive prices. Isn't there a major difference between high street shops, especially the cheap end ones, which sell mass-produced goods often made in developing countries where labour is cheaper than here, and hand-made products designed and made individually by small, often one (wo)man businesses? Is buying hand-crafted not a choice made in favour of one unique good quality product that really suits you versus blowing your money on a few cheaper items that soon become meaningless pieces in your wardrobe? Although some hand-made products are not that expensive - mostly because the designer-maker doesn't charge for their time - you make a conscious choice to spend your money on something different that costs more.

Wondering and now curious, I was then reading Mary, Queen of Shops' reply. Basically it said,

"If you want to compete with the big boys, you need to step up your game and act like sophisticated retailers who just happen to sell handmade products:
If you’re selling online, look at Topshop, Asos and Liberty – these are your competition for
share of £'s spent. Then look at Etsy. Spot the difference."


Ouch! Or is this just 'huh?'

First of all, why should I compete with the big boys (and girls)? There isn't really a comparison between huge businesses and a small one woman show? Yes, if you are in fashion, you are always prodded to follow trends, and trends can be inspiring, but isn't handmade supposed to be an alternative to, and not some kind of lemming of the 'big boys'?

And when I look at Etsy, I see such creativity, it just dazzles me! I look at the websites of the high street retailers and apart from the odd nice item, I get bored. I could spend hours surfing Etsy, and if I had the big £s, I know where my money would go!

Mary says: "PR – if you’ve got a product that deserves space in magazines, you’ll get it.
Write a list of the ten magazines you want to appear in. Then call them. But add your point
of difference. Tell the press why you are unique."

Well, if that were so easy...usually, you have to take out expensive advertising space. But yes, maybe we designer-makers and other creatives should keep ringing and ask for free plugs. We might be too timid. On the other hand, we blog, we tweet, we facebook, have our friends and families and cousin's granny instructed to pass on our business cards and tell their teacher, dentist, MP, specialist, and hairdresser that we are unique. A well-orchestred networking campaign. So there you go!

"Think about product adjacencies on your sites." advises Mary. "Yours are all over the place. I noticed an absolutely gorgeous necklace that was placed next to an odd glass painted tile – what is that saying about the necklace? Segment the range to lifestyle and end use."

Maybe it's saying 'I'm quirky and bohemian'? But yes, product photos are tricky. Most of us are learning photography on the job, and again, we have to make do with cheap cameras, use our homes and gardens (and neighbour's dog) and if we're lucky, our friends might model for us. It would be lovely if we would have a big mansion, experienced photographers, models and staff who fawn about us to get the perfect picture and create the perfect image of our products.

But we don't, we are designer-makers, photographers, models, our own PR staff, market stall holder, social networking gurus, hold down other jobs and also manage to squeeze in a life.

We have to convince our customers by the quality of our pieces. Not a bad thing either in
a world where everything is image, and less and less is substance.

"Pricing" muses Mary "– you say in your letter that you’d like handmade to be a “viable, affordable choice”. If I am honest, at first sight some of the pricing seems quite premium."

As I said before, handmade can't compete in pricing to most high street shops, unless we compete with the very upper end. We spent time on our designs and time, the most valuable commodity on earth, making our products. And our pieces reflect this - hand-made is unique, not mass-produced, and the only people exploited in that industry are we ourselves. We take the decision to create, make, run our own shops and lives as best as we can on small budgets, and be individuals who cater for individuals. Of course we want to sell, but we want an honest price for creative work. Often we can't even pay ourselves all the hours we spent on our work. So many of our handmade pieces can't or would never be mass-produced, because it wouldn't make enough profit for the big boys. But we make them, because we follow our own inspiration and creativity, and basically because we want to!

"However if under the product there was a beautiful design, fabric and source story which I as a customer can pass onto my friends, then I might not shirk at that cost", states Mary. "Remember Status Stories are the new Status Symbols replacing logos, brands and general bling."

We do create beautiful products and the process of creating produces beautiful stories, which we are happy to pass on, but these stories are not not to create an inflated image, bling or blah, but are part of the beauty of the item. Our products are real like the people who design and make them.

"I love handmade products and I think they have a real place in the future of retail, but I
want handmade in a modern, sexy environment, not handmade in a Church hall."

Church halls can be very sexy, especially the smell of cake and coffee...
Seriously, hand-made can be many things, but one thing is for sure, it's authentic!

"Take a trip to Liberty" advises Mary, "they sell handmade products in a premium, fabulous environment and make the perfect case study for you."

Not for me. I rather go to our markets and fashion souk, which is far more real and individual than any high street shop can ever be. This is the fabulous environment I want to be in.

Thank you Mary or any other Queen or King of Shops who I shall read about, for clarifying why I chose and love this handmade life, especially when I have a grumpy day and wonder what the heck I've let myself in for...

Designer-makers are an alternative for people who want authentic local pieces that enhance their individuality. There is really no comparison to nor need to play with the big boys. We don't have to be followers. I rather be a pioneer with my own ideas in a Church Hall, than to stand in a large white hall of a high street shop, hand-knitted cap in hand, feeling that I have to copy or fawn to mass-produced goods.


  1. Well done
    Great article. Should be on our blog and also think about replying to Mary - she needs to hear this.

  2. Thanks Mo :)

    I'm thinking of replying, maybe a short reply and a link?

  3. Thank goodness someone else was not in awe of Mary Portas! I used to have a big business in the 80's and even made clothes for Princess Caroline of Monaco at one point, however unexpected bad health forced me to give it up and I now handmake leather bags from home, alone! Really enjoy it! It is not easy to get into magazines, they ignore small busnisses in favour of ones spending a massive budget on advertising with them, they favour certain PR companies, usually the ones willing to entertain and ply editors with freebies and champagne flowing events...we are not playing the same game, let alone batting on the same field. I think Mary Portas has jumped on the handmade bandwagon with her last TV series because it is having a brief fashion moment, and TV is a lucrative platform for her. I would really like to know what happens to the makers she has worked with 6-12 months on, not just when she has a TV crew with her!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Karina. I feel the only way designer-makers will be getting anywhere is when they work together. But even then, it's difficult, because there is so much work involved in running a small business, that not everyone can spare the time to help out in a team. Also, it is really expensive to run a market - this year a new monthly market was set up in Belfast for second hand clothes and designer-makers, but it takes time to get established, and now funding for the market has been cut, so stall prices are going up.
    Luckily, we are enthusiastic and keep going :)

    I am also curious what happens to the makers in 6-12 months time. I guess, when they are not fashionable any more, they'll be just dropped, but maybe they have at least established a customer base who will support them, or met likeminded people who will work with them. I hope they will not end up being totally disillusioned...


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