Arts and craft-orientated websites are now showcasing a bewildering array of homemade, pop culture-influenced knick-knacks. Craftmania is among us. Why?
It’s a toy mouse clad in leather armour. Complete with shield and sword.
It’s a gladiator mouse and it costs £19. Somebody has made it – and somebody out there is willing to buy it.
This mouse is part of a trend, one of millions of handmade craft objects being made at home and sold online.
There is a subculture of crafters. They congregate on online marketplaces like Etsy and Folksy. They craft everything from bunny-shaped bookends and knitted jam jars to Union Jack radiator covers and shabby chic coffee tables.
Items can be bafflingly niche. Twilight fanatics can purchase anything from blood cup and saucer sets to vampire-fang dreamcatchers.
Someone has collated the 10 weirdest “Game Of Thrones” finds, including a Direwolf handpuppet and a “Dothraki onesie”. There’s a list of the 15 creepiest guinea pigs and someone else gathered together 12 unusual, unexpected, and downright odd crafts.
Etsy says the number of active sellers – people who have listed, advertised, sold an item or opened a shop on the site within a 12 month period – has risen from 150,000 in 2009, to 800,000 in 2011.
Sales on the site have risen from $176.8m (£110m) in 2009, to $525.6m (£328) in 2011, while members have risen from 3.8m in 2009 to 17m in 2012.
Folksy, which launched in 2008 and focuses exclusively on UK designers and makers, says sales increased by 526% from June 2009 to June 2012.
It’s not primarily a professional thing. Students, stay-at-home parents and those with rat race escape aspirations are among the crafters.
James Boardwell, who runs Folksy, says a small survey suggests 70% of sellers sign up to the site because they “like the act of making rather than for any financial reward”.
Another 20-25% make a significant second or third income from the site, while only about 5-10% make their living through their work, he says.
Richard Sennett, author of the Craftsman, agrees crafters are “not just bored people with time on their hands”.
“A lot of people are finding their day jobs pretty empty, whereas learning a craft provides a real satisfaction. It’s a skill – things like carpentry and weaving are mentally and physically stimulating, and people get inherent pleasure out of that kind of work,” he says.
The craft calling also reflects a growing desire to reassert individuality in a culture of cheap mass-produced goods, according to Richard Cope, director of insight at Mintel Inspire.
“In an era where everyone is walking around with Kindles and PCs and the same MP3 player and Superdry clothes, handmade and niche items are a real opportunity to express personality,” he says.
“Since the digital age, things like books, DVDs, records and CDs have started to disappear. It’s eroded people’s sense of having to own physical products because everything is virtual instead, and this is a reaction.”
Shoppers also tend to get more excited by something another human being has put individuality into, rather than something that is factory made, argues Sennett.
“It’s particularly true in food, which people don’t tend to think of as a craft, but is actually the most prevalent craft people practise,” he says.
But if craftmania is in some way a reaction to mass-produced goods, machinery and systems, it is also indebted to it.
“The internet has enabled individuals and small companies to have a global footprint, it allows people to sell all over the world,” says the Work Foundation’s Spencer Thompson.
“Before people would have had to travel or gone to craft fairs to turn crafts into cash – it couldn’t have happened on this scale.”
The craft calling can be seen as an extension of the knitting craze which took off about 10 years ago.
Jennifer Pirtle, who owns the Make Lounge, in London, says craft courses used to be long and expensive. Now basic skills in everything from crochet and paper cutting art to soap and lampshade making can be learned in a few hours.
The internet has also made craft more accessible. Searches for terms like “handmade craft ideas” have increased by 70% in the last 12 months, according to Peter Fitzgerald, director at Google UK, with “crafts” and “handmade craft” searches ranking the highest in the US, Canada, South Africa, the UK and Ireland.
Broadwell says for a long time, much of the professional craft community saw online selling as “cheapening their art”. But he says they are “gradually accepting” the marketplaces.
And with good reason, according to Sian Rees, who has been a creative director within the art publishing industry for 20 years.
She says her customers, which include John Lewis, Next and Heal’s, are always looking for new talent, and she scans Etsy and Folksy on a daily or weekly basis for up and coming artists and designers.
“The resource is hugely useful. You can approach people from your desk rather than getting on a plane or going to a gallery. But you have to move fast, because lots of people are looking,” she says.
However Rees warns the sites are “not an easy fix” for aspiring department store stockists as there is a “tidal wave of content – with lots of copying and mimicking”. People need to be special to stand out.
So is craft going to continue to rise?
Boardwell says although there has been “tremendous growth” in the number of new sellers, it seems to be “plateauing”.
Sennett believes there is a limit to how far consumers want craft to go too. “Few people can afford to buy bespoke cars,” he says.
But Cope says the entrepreneurial side of craft is part of a wider trend of consumers learning to do things, such as cooking from scratch, for themselves. And he says that is here to stay.
Thompson agrees. “Coffee shops and bars are moving towards locally produced, interesting products rather than generic items.
“Craft making was seen as old fashioned but there’s been a shift. Now people want authentic, one-off products, as opposed to going to Primark,” he says.