Crafting a new way of life

Clark County residents confront tough economy by turning hobbies into income-producing ventures

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Jesse Alvey spends his days building furniture to sell since he was laid off from an office job early this year.

“Working with my head and hands — it’s very gratifying,” said Alvey, 34. He always enjoyed carpentry, but he ended up working in human resources because he had to pick a major in college.

“It did not match what my soul is to handle the problems all day, even though I care about people. … It wasn’t like I looked up and told my wife, ‘Honey, I’m going to leave this corporate job.’ The layoff — it compelled me to get better at this,” he said, gesturing to the wood shop in the carport of his Vancouver home. The economic downturn has propelled people such as Alvey to turn to handiwork as both a way to make some money and find solace. The Internet makes it easier to connect with customers, who demonstrate a growing demand for handmade goods.

Even in a rotten economy, sales on Etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade items, have climbed. Sales reached $133.1 million from January to October this year, 52 percent more than for the entire year in 2008.

“People in this economy are looking for value. They’re really choosy about how they’re spending,” said Adam Brown, a spokesman for Etsy.com. “Handmade items have a higher intrinsic value than a pair of pants you buy at Macy’s. You’re buying directly from the person who made it, so it’s more meaningful.”

Unique items

Customers are looking for something unique, said Kerianne Christie, a 39-year-old Washougal resident who sells her work on Etsy.com as TitaniaBlossoms. She creates new clothing from used material — girls’ dresses fashioned out of pillowcases are big — as both a hobby and a source of income.

“I think it’s so rewarding to watch something transform from something that has lived its life already and breathe new life into them,” Christie said. “I’ve been doing crafts shows on and off my entire adult life. I used it as a supplementary income through college.”

These days, her handiwork helps offset a cut in her hours as an early intervention specialist at the Washington School for the Deaf in Vancouver.

family’s income by sewing I Spy bags for children and selling them under the brand name ainsleyandoswald on Etsy.com. She was laid off from her job in the mental health field when she was pregnant with her 6-year-old daughter. Now she’s considering her next step.

“Do I try to make more of the business? Or do I try to go back to work? It goes back and forth all the time,” Maki said. “Do I really want to go back to an office to do what I was doing before? It would be hard to be in the routine, and to do something that’s not creative.”

Balancing act

Yet using a craft to make money can suck the joy out of the work, she said.

Maki gets a thrill out of trying something new, as when she made a Waldorf doll for her daughter as a Christmas gift last year.

“It took me a lot of time, and it was hard. I had never made anything that complicated. But it was really fun knowing I was giving something I actually made,” Maki said.

She contrasts that feeling with churning out items for sale.

“The problem with the craft thing is, to make a lot of money, you have to do wholesale,” she said. Her I Spy bags don’t lend themselves to that, she said.

“I’m finding selling the same thing all the time makes you feel like a one person factory,” she added. “It’s not really that fun.”

Adirondack chairs were Alvey’s big seller this year. He sells his furniture on Craigslist and through word of mouth, but it’s difficult to compete with the low-cost items people can find at the store.

“So much is made in China for nothing,” Alvey said. He notices that some of it is fashioned to look distressed or handmade.

“It’s kind of silly to me that someone would put a chair through a factory and then tear up the finish to make it look worn,” he said. “That’s where the postmodernism of mass productions starts to come in.”

Still, it demonstrates demand, he said. “Logically, the customer who buys that kind of item going to be interested in a real handmade one as well.”

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4541 or erin.middlewood@columbian.com