Is it a good idea to start a craft business?

Many people draw inspiration from making crafts. There are many hand crafted things that you can do with your hands such as beaded jewelry, knitwear, swags, greeting cards, hair clips, handmade soaps, dolls, stain glass painting, silk painting, etc. A crafter can spent many hours immensed in one own’s world – totally engrossed and not knowing any tiredness. As such, nothing feels more satisfying for a crafter than to try to earn a living making and selling creations that came directly from the heart. There is a saying, ‘there’s a bit of the crafter that goes into creating every pieace.’

Craft business was once profitable back in the 70s and 80s when personalised and quality work is valued. Shops selling embroidery and wools normally provide free knitting class and you can see many women sitting in the shops, happily chatting away while knitting sweaters and blouses. When you visit craft shows, all you can see are authentic individual pieces of handmade items- and many people that time were willing to pay a high price.

However, when mass produced products hit the market, the craft industry all over- America, Europe and worldwide had seen a progressive decline. This is something that a crafter would really need to be aware about.

Today, if you go to any craft shows or so-called craft malls, you will find about 80% if not more of the items are buy/sell items- these items are mainly imported from China.  Even in Malaysia, it is often difficult to find more than 5 stores selling fully handmade items- even if they do, you will find that buy/sell items are often added to the list. The time and effort goes into producing a craft piece requires that the item to be highly priced- at a price that many people are unwilling to pay for. Take for instance, beaded jewelry with semi precious stone- at the price of one individual made necklace, a buyer can probably buy 10 mass produced necklaces using imitation stones. And with 10 different designs and colours, there are many more ways to mix and match.  Also, there are such a rich variety of mass produced items that it is very unlikely that one will go out the street and find another person wearing exactly the same piece. Therefore, many people are now buying mass produced custom jewelry. The same it is for a lot of handmade items.

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If a crafter starts a craft business, he or she may watch as her dreams crushed and the term ‘starving artiste’ may apply. It is not that the creations are not good enough- it is because there is difficulty competing in terms of price and cost. But most of the time, when the pieces failed to sell, the crafter is left with feelings that ‘my creations are not good enough.’  For instance, it takes months to come up with a beautiful quilt blanket but a reasonably nice one are only sold for a little over RM100 (I saw that at a sale in a local mall).

Many crafters become bitter and defensive against the mass produced buy-and-sell items that are flooding the market.  And in order to survive, crafters are forced to even sell cheap imports- it is honest living and one do need to put food on the table. It is tough to fight a losing  battle- one cannot expect mass produced items to be completely banned from craft shows- as where there is demand, there will only be supply.

If there’s any consolation, consumers are also becoming smarter buyers. Many consumers get duped into buying imports (especially at craft shows and boutiques) thinking it is individually made- and it does not take long for them to know that the items are mass produced and identical items can be found all over the place. After a while, they become more careful and discerning and better at spotting an import.

Mass Production of Handmade Pieces

A crafter is still able to turn their creations into a profitable business provided the crafter is able to cut down the following cost:

  • labor
  • raw materials
  • other fixed costs such as rental, maintenance, etc

The solution will be to mass produce individual created pieces. A crafter can adopt the knowledge of operation management- using technology to cut down the time and in the long run, cost to produce an item.

An example will be with specially designed Tshirts- a painter can produce 10 or 20 different designs- and then arrange for the designs to be mass printed as Tshirts. I remember when I was in Chiang Mai, I got so tired of seeing stores selling identical TShirts- all with the same print. My Singapore friend and I were hunting for better quality TShirts to buy back home as souveniors.

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Then as we walked around the Chiang Mai night market, a store selling an eye catching TShirt design caught my eye. As I flipped at the designs, the man told me that he designed the Tshirts himself- and that I cannot find the design anywhere else (which I know because I literally recognize the design of mass produced Tshirts).

The selling price was only slightly higher than the mass produced Tshirt- the reason given by him is because he had printed the shirts using good material (it’s true, the material is softer but more durable). So we paid for his TShirts- that carried his own brand.

Through a craft forum that I’ve joined for years, I also known of a crafter in US who earns comfortable income because he was able to custom made and yet have house plates mass produced- he was able to make one at a short time (but he did not share his secret though).

The mass producing concept above is also a subject of hot debate amongst crafters- does an individual item that is reproduced many times considered a craft or it is mass produced? Custom orders are far and few in between but meanwhile, one have to find a way to make ends meet.

Choosing an Industry that Has Demand.

It also depends on the industry that a crafter wants to get into. If it is an industry with fast moving consumer items, a crafter maintains the level of creativity can still earn a very confortable living. And you may not even need a high end boutique to make the sales- many successful business actually operate from home or the internet (much lower overhead cost).

For instance, in Malaysia, the industry of making ‘hantaran kahwin’ for Malay weddings is a profitable business. I love looking at those items as each item is individually designed. During weddings, both the bride and bridegroom’s families will order trays of these items to send to the parents’ house. And normally, each guest who attend the wedding also have a crafted door gift- sometimes the door gifts are made by the bride’s family members or it is sometimes ordered from shops selling the supplies.

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To view the source of the picture on your right, please click on the link on the picture- the picture had been taken from Google image.

Another profitable industry is the food industry. Decorated cakes can be made to order- example children’s birthday cakes or recently- with the emergence of cupcakes served at weddings (they are fast replacing wedding cakes) and special events.

Years ago, I remember seeing a woman browsing a catalog of at least 50 cake designs in the train. The catalog had very simple design- basically, all the cake designs were printed using colour printer and then it was laminated.

You can find very interesting themes such as cakes designed with characters from Sesame Street, Spiderman, Walt Disney characters and other customed made themes.  It was obviously a home based business. Her friend asked her about the cakes and I heard the lady mentioning that these cakes are made for custom order and she was deciding which cake to order for her son’s birthday. The business spread through word of mouth recommendation.  I’ve also read in newspaper articles (unfortunately I could not find the source now) of homemakers earning good income making decorated cakes.

In a nutshell

A crafter who wishes to follow his/her dreams of turning crafts into a full time living may do so but it has to come with proper planning. As the consumer buying power had been greatly reduced, many people are choosing to spend only on what is necessary- and craft items would probably be considered as luxury items. If a crafter is able to exert his/her creativity, like a business who is able to effectively cut and reduce cost, a crafter will have a good business of succedding. Aside from exerting their artistic side of the brain, a crafter would need to use their left brain- logic, planning, costing in order to succeed.

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