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Defining Handmade on Etsy

Mar 1, 2012

by Lauren Engelhardt handmade and vintage goods

Imagine an artisan who raises his own sheep, shears the sheep’s wool, spins the wool into yarn, dyes the yarn, and then knits it into a spectacular sweater of his unique design. The materials, design and production are wholly owned and managed by the artist, allowing for complete creative control and artistic ingenuity. Amazing story, right? No doubt, and there are people on Etsy doing just that.

But it’s not the only handmade story.

When we originally developed the criteria for handmade goods on Etsy, we set the boundary to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. We find we still get a lot of questions about what kinds of goods are allowed, so today we’re going to further clarify two key aspects of handmade on Etsy. Our Marketplace Integrity Team recently encouraged you to help us maintain the marketplace by reporting shops or listings that don’t meet our standards. We find that listings are often reported based on differing definitions of handmade, so going forward it’s important that we all have the same understanding of the rules.

The marketplace criteria for handmade goods in the DOs & DON’Ts say: “On Etsy, the term ‘handmade’ can additionally be interpreted as ‘hand-assembled’ or ‘hand-altered.'” We recognize that artists and artisans are imaginative and resourceful with varying skills, expertise and aesthetics. We don’t want Etsy to be in the business of regulating or defining the limits of creativity. There is room in our community for a broad range of creative expression and techniques.

Though there is something incredibly special about the story of the artist who single-handedly turns raw sheep’s wool into a sweater, we certainly don’t expect that every Etsy seller is able to own the entire production process from raw materials to finished product.

Often an artisan starts with materials made by someone else, like beads, fabric or other supplies. Taking part A and joining it with part B to create item C is one of the simplest ways to create something new, and this type of hand-assembly is acceptable for items in Etsy’s handmade categories. Hand-assembled items range from simple construction of just two parts, to more elaborate items that contain several components and incorporate multiple techniques. Many artisans intentionally select innovative or rare materials to create something reflecting their personal style. Alternatively, others might prefer to use more trendy, popular elements, which can lead to different shops offering what appear to be very similar items.

Jewelry made by assembling commercial components.

To be clear, when we talk about “hand-assembled” on Etsy, we don’t mean simply putting together a kit where all the pieces are already chosen and provided together. For example, if someone bought a flat-packed bookcase from IKEA that came with all the pieces pre-cut and all the necessary hardware included, and then put it together as directed by the enclosed instructions, that assembled bookcase would not qualify to be sold on Etsy as a handmade item. “Hand-assembled” on Etsy also does not include gathering commercially-produced items and repackaging them in a gift basket.

Another kind of handmade story is alteration. “Hand-altering” a piece means modifying an existing object in a way that reflects the artist’s creativity. Embellishment is a form of altering an item’s surface appearance. Common methods of embellishing include painting, printing, dyeing, embroidering, decoupaging, attaching decorations — and yes, even the time-honored tradition of bedazzling. Alteration can also mean changing the physical shape or structure of an object, like through carving, melting or deconstruction/reconstruction.

Headband embellished with decorative elements.

We are continuously inspired by the incredible variety of handmade items created by our community. We hope these explanations and examples help you better understand how we define handmade on Etsy — and push your own definition of creativity. With this in mind, we appreciate you reporting items you think fall outside our definition of handmade. If you have questions about our marketplace criteria, you can always contact us. Our team is now better equipped than ever before to address these important issues; we’ll provide more news on that front in our next Marketplace Integrity update.

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