an essay: a very rough draft of what i might write if i applied to grad school and had to explain what i've been doing the last three years.

A Background

Have you heard the stereotype that men compartmentalize thoughts and feelings and women tend to do the opposite - lumping everything into one ? My failure is that I see the big picture all too often and can't stop thinking about it. When I start to analyze things, I can't help but see everything as one big issue rather than lots of little ones, however unrelated they might seem.

When I first started Rennes three years ago, I was fresh out of undergrad with a fine arts degree in a collapsed economy. In my last two years of school I had started to think about design, sewing, and textiles. Most of what I learned I taught myself. I grew up in a house where making something by hand was an option; in that sense, unlike my grandparents generation where making something by hand was the best and most affordable option. Because of this, I have always had a strong appreciation for the quality, hard work, and love that goes into making something by hand. But at the same time, I have also realized that you can't put a price on handmade, because in today's economy, no one will pay you fair wages for that quilt you hand stitched for a month straight.

Question in Point

Over the past three months I've been reflecting on my business and how it relates to my beliefs. I'm a maker, a seller, and a buyer - but how do these things relate to each other? Is it possible to be non-materialistic but still love to make and acquire beautiful things? And if so, can a shop which by definition sells goods, be non-materialistic?

At what point did a portion of the handmade market place branch off into a platform for exclusive fashion? Large companies are noticing this trend, but can a small one person business fit into the corporate mold successfully without handmade being sacrificed?

Consumerism: Making, Selling, and Buying

I've enjoyed making things for a long time. At some point it occurred to me that I could sell the things I made for fun. Then shortly after it occurred to me I might be able to make a living selling what I made.

I also enjoy buying things. I seem to acquire a lot of stuff. My parents tell me one of the first things I had to have was a pink polka dot dress in a department store when I was two; I screamed and cried until they got it for me. This habit seemed to continue throughout my life - (with less screaming of course) but always maintained a strong sense of life can not go on with this, and most of these items by default seemed to be clothes.

Before we lived where we are now, I lived in a Quaker community of twenty people in downtown Boston. I had more crap than anyone else there. I was super self conscious about it. While I was there I downsized considerably, and even more so where I live now - but I still have a ton of stuff. What has sunken in over the past year is that I don't want any of this stuff - I want things to be simpler than this. I only want a few things - I want them to be simple and well made and last me a really long time. The other night, I filled up a bag of clothes and took it to the goodwill - I didn't even want to try to resell them because I knew someone else needed them more than I needed the fifty dollars I could make off of them. This isn't to say that we are rolling in the money and I can afford to donate everything, far from it, but I think the harsh realities of watching and reading the news everyday makes it sink in slowly.

At What Cost?

On Sunday I spoke with my aunt from Topeka - she is an amazing quilter and quite crafty. Over the past couple of years she started doing fairs around town selling her quilted bags. They are very well made and most of them are in the price range of $15-40. She has a few more expensive items, the highest ones topping at $65. She said a few weeks ago that a lady came up, looked the price tag of the $65 bag and said something along the lines of "Sixty-five dollars for a fucking bag?!"

I'm sure my aunt puts as much time and care into making her bags as I do, if not more! I know there are a lot of factors to be taken into consideration here, but regardless of location, materials, overhead expenses, clientele, etc. - why are we so quick to determine what we think is the best price for a handmade item? That situation is not unique to my aunt, to me, or probably to other makers out there. Is it fair to apply our "getting the best deal" tactic to handmade?

The Best Deal

You may be familiar with a certain Tabi shoe I'm obsessed with. Eventually I bought the beige ones on sale at Totokaelo. Then, after seeing how amazing they were in person, decided it was imperative to get a pair in black, which I tracked down at another shop online, also on sale.

Clearly the full price of $700 was way and I mean way beyond my means, and I was sane enough to know that. Clearly the sale price of $500 was also way and I mean way beyond my means, but I was not sane enough to know that. The funny thing is, unlike other things I own, I've never worn anything so much, or continued to love day in and day out. So the question is, what is the real value of these shoes? Is it the sale price? Is it the full price? Or is it what the buyer is willing to pay?

Ends Justifying the Means

While I ask all these questions, the problem lies in I have no answers to them. We live in hard times where class divisions are becoming more and more visible and we keep hearing that things are looking up, but in my experience we're still looking for the best deal, the best way to get by on a day to day basis. I haven't purchased any fall clothes this year, though I've knocked off a few things I wish I could buy but can't afford too.

The reality is I feel torn about sewing right now. I feel like I want Rennes to be about minimalism - about having that one or two perfect things and that's it - but that's barely a business plan is it?

Thanks so much to a few of you who encouraged me to write a bit more about what I was thinking. I really appreciate it.


NICOMADE said...

you've completely nailed it. i've considered selling my handmade items but can't compete with the cheaper non-handmade options out there. why pay for a handstitched quilt for $900 when you can get something for half the price at pottery barn? i love that you raise these questions and so eloquently address the conflict between being both the maker and consumer. my mantra for buying (or justifying those bigger purchases - hello tabi shoes) is to buy for life - buy the things that will last a lifetime and won't require replacing, that also have some significance. and i think this could be applied to making too. while we don't want to feed into the consumerist culture by making purely for profit and creating "stuff", we make things that are hopefully cherished and held onto for quite some time. in other words, those tabi shoes are completely justifiable :)

erica said...

the issue of handmade is tricky for me. for the most part, i assume i'm going to receive something of high quality. i tend to shy away from handmade that doesn't fit within my established style parameters. minimalism, beautiful fabrics, quality construction. when i buy clothing or accessories, i look for things that embody the designer's vision, quirks. these are cliched terms, but i still believe that a strong designer creates things from a unique perspective.

it helps to step back from the blogs. so far i've purchased two things, one per month. is $300 for a cardigan too much? what about a simple linen dress? the reasons behind every purchase are so complex, it would take me pages to explain.

suffice to say, they called to me just like that polka dot dress called to you at age 2. chances are, you probably wore that thing to death and refused to take it off, even to go to sleep. i don't see any problem with that. i feel that way about books, too. what worries me is when we buy and buy, forgetting what we already own, forgetting what it took for it exist (handmade or h&m).

now i'm curious about these hypothetical grad school programs :)

Anonymous said...

some very good thoughts, julia

anglopologie said...

So inspiring and really capture the Essense of what I think a lot of us are feeling regarding consumerism. Bravo x

ilana kohn said...

wow julia, well said. i have all too much to say on this topic to even begin trying to articulate here. i'm just about ready to hop a bus to boston to hash this out with you in person over some good strong coffee....(it's always so hard to be truly articulate in this format i feel...).

Belinda [simple things] said...

Great post, Julia.

I recently read this book and although I already had a pretty good idea about the impact that cheap fashion has on people and the environment, I was not aware of how terrible it really is. We have come to expect our fashion to be unbelievably cheap, no matter what the cost. That story you give of your aunt and the reaction that someone had about a $65 price tag for her handmade, quilted(!) bag (which is far, far too low, in my opinion) is a perfect example of this.

I think we have to ask ourselves a few questions when we buy something. Who made this, and are they getting a fair price for their skills and time (I bet that it is impossible to answer this question for most things out there)? Are they (at least) able to feed and home themselves and their family with the money that we are paying them for this item? Are we going to use it often or is it going to sit in our wardrobe with 1400 other things that are never worn. Is it high quality, and will it last for years to come? Is it classic in style so that we won't tire of it quickly and not want to use it in 2 months time?

Generally, if you answer yes to all of those questions then what you are buying is probably not cheap (unless it is second hand). I don't like using the term 'not cheap' because it is very subjective.

I'm not perfect in the way that I buy fashion, but I try and follow those rules above and practice mindful consumption. I am getting better at it. I don't have much disposable income but I would rather buy one $500 pair of shoes that I can love and keep for a long time than ten $50 shoes that will soon fall apart and go out of fashion anyway.

I'm not a business expert, but I think that if you follow your heart, make high quality, beautiful things and put yourself out there that you will be ok. And in the end, you have to feel ok about what you do, right?

I think that this post will have a greater effect on people that you think. I think people have good intentions but they just don't understand the issues. And you are helping them to understand.

Esclarmonde said...

Dear you,
I really related to you post, feel the same most of the times. But I guess it is difficult to swim against the main stream of one's society. At least some people are conscious of it. Like you, I guess, I shop less and less in supermarkets try to privilege locally grown and organic, traditional foods. For clothes same.... but sometimes I lapse and find myself heaping things.
The important thing is not to be angry with yourself about it but to know what it means and try to limit it .
Courage and maybe someday this world will change.

julia said...

Thanks so much everyone for your thoughts - I'm so glad that you are all happy to talk about this.

Nicole - First I want to say I love your quilts (and your knitting too)! I can only imagine how long they must take to complete. I've dabbled a little bit in quilting, but never actually finished a project. It makes perfect sense that you feel torn about selling the ones you've made - any product, regardless of the price tag, does have a potential buyer out there, the problem is trying to reach that buyer. And if a consumer is just trying to achieve the "handmade" look, they will in all likelihood go to pottery barn to buy a factory made one if it's more in their price range. I do wish more people would consider the option of buying for a long period of time, something that will last them for years to come.

Erica - After reading your comment and re-reading what I wrote I realize that I totally took for granted that I was assuming what handmade meant to me was the same for everyone - how silly of me :p I think I was referring, like you implied, to items which are high quality, and if it's something I'm purchasing or making - fit within my aesthetic. There are definitely times when I visit craft fairs and items are handmade and I think "woah, you just used a glue gun to hold that together...etc". And there's plenty of that on Etsy too.

The reasons behind every purchase are so complex - I couldn't agree with you more. It's insane how much analyzing I will do about certain items before I decide to let go of them or take the plunge.

My relationship with wanting to go back to school is so tricky! I know I wouldn't want to go back for Art - maybe Archaeology or Med./Ren. History or Classics, definitely something more Academic than undergrad. It's something I keep thinking about- let's see if I do something about it!

Caitlin - Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed reading it.

Anglopologie - So glad you were able to relate. I sense quite a few are feeling the same lately - hopefully it's a trend that's here to stay.

Ilana - Sometimes it is hard to write all these things down rather than in a classroom / lecture / or chat over coffee setting - I think that's one of the things I miss about being "out in the work force" or in school - you don't have colleagues to talk about these things with. Thanks for your email, I'll reply very soon - I'm always soooo behind on emails!

Anonymous said...

This was so wonderful to read! You raise so many interesting questions that so many of us who are at all part of the "made by hand" community (whether makers or buyers or both) should be thinking about. The comments so far seem spot on; I also feel that it's worth it to "invest" in goods that will last, that you love, but of course I wonder about where to draw the line and at what point is it just too much "stuff"? I don't have answers either, but all this has been on my mind for sure.

jill davis said...

Hi Julia, I have one of your handbags and a pouch in each size. I use them all the time and love the fact that they are made by hand. In my opinion they are functional pieces of art. Could I run over to H&M and buy a bag for much less? Sure, but it was made in a factory and will probably fall apart. Your prices are more than fair and your work is beautiful. Many "designer" handbags (Alexander Wang, Rebecca Minkoff, Kate Spade...) cost much more and they are made in China. Sorry to hear that you and your aunt get negative comments on pricing. I think some people just don't get it. Thanks for a great post. Glad to know so many people feel the same way I do.

jenny gordy said...

You always seem to read my mind, Julia. And yet your voice is so much more eloquent than mine could ever be. So thanks for this post. I don't think I have anything new to say, but I can't help speaking about something so provocative.

I struggle with the same issues as you of course being a handmade designer as well. I make a living off of my work, but not a great one I must say, although my prices are so high. And because I'm passionate about design and good quality I too buy expensive things (on sale or for wholesale only usually) that I can't necessarily afford. I've given the lecture so many times that I'd rather have one nice dress for the price of three poor quality ones. Some of the people in my life make fun of me for my tirades against f21 and their sweatshops, but I can't seem to help it.

Blogs can be bad because they make us want things we don't need, but at the same time blogs help us get to know each other as designers. I think it's just so special to buy from people you know and believe in. The pouch I have that you made means so much more to me any cheap bag I could buy from J.Crew or whatever. And just knowing that makes me also believe in myself more and in what I'm doing. I know my customers names and get thank you cards in the mail sometimes. My handmade business will never make me rich, but that personal connection makes me feel that what I'm doing is nice, not totally frivolous and silly and worthless.

Like Erica is saying, not all handmade things are quality. I think buying things made by domestic factories that pay their workers well is just as good. I want my purchases to make me feel good about what I'm buying, whether it's because of superior quality, infinite wearability, fair production practices, or supporting a designer I believe in. Not everyone can understand spending $500 on one item, but that doesn't matter if it's worth it to you.

Shirley said...

I see the beginnings of a thesis. Or even a book!

I too think that many of us are grappling with same/similar issues. I definitely have a "stuff" problem (partially due to consumerism and my mother's hoarding rubbing off on me). Hopefully I too will be rid of that and lead the simpler life I now crave.

As for handmade... I generally think of handcrafted as the word to refer to those who use a hot glue gun to stick some materials together to make something and then try to sell it. I reserve handmade for the work that was mostly made by hand, with care and attention. I haven't yet tried to sell my own handmade goods yet but the thing I always think about is pricing. What price will be fair to both seller and buyer? Is it ever fair?

I like my designer goods and I don't feel bad about trying to find the best deal for those goods. But for handmade small business items, I never apply the same logic. It just doesn't make sense. I feel no remorse for paying the cheapest price possible for some designer shoes because it's all mark-up. But for the same shoes made by one individual? No way. How would this person eat/sleep/live? Gotta pay full price for that. Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates quality handmade items. Not everyone thinks the way we do.

I'm no closer to answers than you but I thank you for sharing and causing me to take a long pause and think some. Gotta use my noggin' now that I'm not really in school anymore. :)

julia said...

Belinda - That looks like such a great book, thanks for the link. I haven't done a lot of research on the topic as a whole, and I'm sure there are a lot of good resources out there. One thing I wonder is whether we've started to expect things to be so cheap because there are less and less makers, and more and more buyers. What if we all woke up one morning and had to start from scratch? Build our own houses, grow and raise all our own food - it's interesting to think about.

Like you, I would rather have one good item rather that ten poorly made items. I'm trying to get better at what I buy - Now I always ask myself, will I wear this a month from now, a year from now? Will it sit in my closet? I'd say it's about a 50/50 split for me, hoping to change that.

Esclarmonde - Thanks for your note and your thoughts. I like what you said about not being angry at yourself - it's important to remember that and realize that as long as we're thinking about the issue, that's a good start in and of itself.

Shara - I've also really enjoyed reading what people have to say. I think as so many business' opt to be online rather than a brick and mortar shop, there's less room for discussion, which is something I miss.

Jill - Thank you so much for your feedback, I'm so happy to hear that you love your duffle and your pouches :) It's even better to hear that you want to keep using them and using them for a long time, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

I'm so glad you mentioned too about so many designer items being made overseas in large factories. It's funny because in my head I always figure that these $1000 bags must be made in high end workshops, etc - but in truth they're probably made in the same factories who make things for H & M, etc. (I don't actually know that, but I'm just guessing).

Jocy said...

This is such a wonderful post. It speaks to me, as a consumer, about paring down and the need to practice mindful consumerism.

Before my move to Cambodia, I had a lot of stuff - actually ,still do, boxes and boxes of clothes, shoes and other items I've accumulated, but those boxes sit at a friend's house in Portland.

My move to Cambodia forced me to simplify. I brought two suitcases. That's it. There are virtually no shopping options here, and hardly anyone ships to this country, so while I can look and lust through blogs, my clothing consumer habits have dipped considerably within the past year and a half. The old me would have thought purchasing one item of clothing every month or two is insane.

Realizing that I have maybe 15 boxes of clothes in storage that I do not use and have not used for this time abroad makes me reconsider what I really need in life and what I truly value in the long-run.

I crave beautiful clothing - my Mayle pieces are some of my favorites and, while expensive, I'm so glad I invested in them when I had the salary.

But now, I struggle. My Cambodian colleagues think I am insane for not wanting to buy a cheap $10 dress at the local markets(taken from H&M, or F21 factories in Cambodia). I know it would provide a temporary fix for my cravings, but there's absolutely nothing like beautifully made clothing that supports artisans. With very few exceptions, those are the items I keep for years and years.

Thanks for this reminder.

julia said...

Hi all! I've been responding to the comments for this post slowly because I really want to think about what everyone has contributed, so thanks for your patience :)

Jenny - Thank you, that's so sweet of you to say. I can't remember the last time I sat down and wrote something - I don't know, something that I edited so much? Haha.

The reason I started a blog was to have a place to document what I made, and, like you said, to have a place to get to know other designers, which to me is the most fun part of it all. I would love to be able to do that in real life (and when there are small events I love to go or be a part of them) but for the most part working from home can be contained, and therefore am so thankful for the community of makers that has formed through blogs.

I like what you said about having that personal connection with customers - I think it's a really important thing to remember, and a very inspiring one. There's nothing like getting a card in the mail or an email saying how much they love what they got - it makes me remember why I do what I do everyday.

Shirley - I like what you said at the end about needing to use your brain now that you're not in school anymore - I know exactly how you feel!

Like you said, I can tend to hoard things, mainly because I want to somehow "capture" the beauty of what I find inspiring - but lately I've been trying to tell myself that a picture of that thing or just an inspiration board can work in the same way - I don't have to have everything I want and that's okay.

It's hard to know the right words to use to differentiate between different levels of handmade - because the words don't exist yet. A month ago I was explaining to my friend why I made a new website off of Etsy and she totally understood - Etsy is great for so many reasons, but she said she thought of Etsy as a place where you sell what you made in your living room. And so many of us so work from home, so in so many ways it's true! But there's so many of us that do so much more than that.

Jocy - I really enjoyed hearing your perspective on this - I think it added another layer to this discussion which I haven't been able to speak to because I haven't experienced it.

I think it's a wonderful thing in many ways to leave what's comfortable with only two suitcases - it must be quite liberating in a way. Lately I dream about something quite similar, though I'm doubtful I would be able to pull it off, thought I wish with all my heart I could :)

la casita said...

I think it doesn't really matter where you create: it can be from your kitchen or living room, a studio or a small factory. What matters to me, is how you create: the purpose, the quality, the thought that goes into your creation, the materials: where you source them, the use of the money you earn from your creations (see big corporates of fashion like Gucci group , Prada and so on). The durability. To me, no one has to justify the money spent on handmade, locally produced and sourced items. To buy incessantly cheap stuff (mind I say cheap but lots of the cheap high street/designer stuff are not cheap at all and see this please ) made from companies who have only five workers, that make huge profit and have no other ethics than money is to me wrong. I don't have the means to buy all the beautiful handmade clothes, shoes, accessories, home stuff etc I see around in the blogs, but that doesn't make me a consumer for cheap stuff. I buy less, because the world is already full of junk, I say to my daughter that she can't have plastic toys because of her future (watch this:
and share please if you like)
I always read label before I buy, because I want to see where my money will contribute to. That's why I never question a price for handmade stuff, even if it's something that I don't like, I simply try not to judge.
Said that, I know that I'm not going to save the world for not buying plastic water bottles, refusing plastic bags, buy organic food or local produce and so on. But at least, I won't feel part of the disaster our children will inevitably face.
I thank bloggers and I thank this trend for handmade. I believe we should stop and think more often as you did and then get into action: whether you buy a $700 handmade for life shoes or you produce the finest organic vegetables in your garden.
Thank you for this post.

Sherisa (lelephantrose) said...

Julia-- no matter what, someone somewhere will always think that what we make costs too much. I've had this same moral questioning myself--what's the line between being non-materialistic and being a business owner. It's moments like this that draws that line. Allowing others to see your vulnerability, your questioning. Your wanting to contribute more than just a bag. I'm sure all of your customers feel that as well. I'm trying to feed that other side of me while still running my business.

You're doing great. Sharing your thoughts is so the key to life. :)

Wishcandy said...

Precisely. I've been giving away and throwing out a lot of my belongings. I feel like a curator now, only keeping the best quality. Or the things I love most. Only the things that enhance my life.

Everything else keeps me feeling weighed down. I've never owned much, but now I own much less. Still shrinking and feeling free-er. Tempted to do the 100 item challenge (excluding my art supplies which are my love/ bread and butter).

I hope to keep saving money to buy bare essentials to last me a long while. I tend to keep things until they are worn down with holes anyway.

Maybe selling quality items will help "word of mouth" marketing. Great quality is worth spending on, and telling others about. I'd rather spend a lot on one bag or one sweater, that I'll love for many years than to buy one that falls apart in 6 months.

Love your bags, and looking lovingly from afar.

Wishcandy said...

Also, I do have trouble. I've gotten comments about how much I sell my art for. But I pour many hours, my life, my passion into pencil marks and paint. Art that will last a lifetime or several.

How do you put a price on that? Something that makes you feel good.