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Arts and Crafts Find New Life Online


Web sites are building communities—and businesses—on the growing do-it-yourself craze

It's an overcast December afternoon, but the Pop Up Community Center in downtown Manhattan is buzzing. Spread along a white wooden table, a half-dozen people are ironing plastic bags together to create a fabric made of recycled material. Others are bent over sewing machines, turning the plastic into colorful tote bags, wallets, even pillows. Occasionally they turn for advice to Anda Lewis Corrie, who is leading this workshop on transforming old plastic bags into useful objects.

Just another community service project? Not quite. Corrie works in marketing for Etsy, an online marketplace where people sell their own handmade crafts. And this workshop is all about sharing the do-it-yourself (DIY) experience—an impulse that Etsy and a number of other companies, large and small, have converted into a sizable business. Etsy won't reveal its revenues but expects to turn a profit early next year on what it takes in from a 20 cents-per-item listing fee and the 3.5% commission on goods that merchants sell through the site. In 2007 those merchants sold 1.92 million items worth a total of $26.5 million, according to Etsy. The 2 1/2-year-old startup produces online videos, hosts virtual town halls, and runs workshops with the goal of persuading more folks to teach each other to create and sell crafts on Etsy. Since it's a sort of eBay (EBAY) for handmade crafts, the more people who sign up to sell their handiworks on the site, the better the company does. Says Corrie: "We want to help people make a living making things."

COLLECTIVE KNOWLEDGE

Although the craft craze is well-established, with sales hitting $31 billion in 2007, it's taking off with a vengeance online. Hubert Burda Media, Germany's 58-year-old sewing-magazine and pattern giant, relaunched its English-language BurdaStyle Web site in July to share sewing patterns that can be modified to make new designs by the site's visitors. Sebastopol (Calif.) publisher O'Reilly Media launched Make and Craft over the past three years; they're print and online how-to magazines that pluck examples from the intricate videos and design blueprints that readers submit online. At the site of British startup StyleShake, users design and work together online on their own cocktail dresses, which they can send to the company to have turned into clothing for them.

Many of these companies say they trace their lineage to the open-source technology movement formed in the '90s by computer programmers who wanted to create software anyone could build upon. Rather than one expert teaching people how to do something, the open-source movement underscored how groups of people could share expertise and build on that knowledge. Now this mindset is rapidly spreading. Says Elizabeth Osder, a visiting professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California: "There is this resurgence of interest in DIY and then the desire to bundle up pieces of information and share them in an open-source way."

For Burda, the timing couldn't be better. The company wants to create a virtual DIY community beyond Europe. It's the biggest pattern seller there, yet it claims less than 2% of the U.S. market. So while Burda doesn't profit from the patterns that are pulled from its Web site, it hopes word of mouth will boost sales of its other patterns in the U.S. Each week Burda publishes a different pattern online, for items such as wide-leg trousers or a pencil skirt with pleats. They appear as PDFs that visitors can copy to their computers or print out. Sewers can alter the patterns as they fancy, and there are no restrictions on selling finished clothing.

The BurdaStyle community gets into full open-source swing after each new pattern is posted. Members swap written tips and post photos in the digital forum and group blog on how to alter the designs. They even create detailed, step-by-step slide shows demonstrating how to change the collar on a jacket or turn pajamas into maternity wear. Relaunched five months ago, BurdaStyle has about 29,000 members and clocks 1.5 million page views a month.

It has a loyal fan in Mirela Popovici. The 28-year-old spends hours on the site downloading patterns, getting advice in the forums from other members, and creating how-to slide shows. A computer programmer by day, the Hollywood (Fla.) resident spends her evenings and weekends whipping up skirts, dresses, and tops. Last January she created a shop on Etsy. Popovici signed up for free to register a Web site on the service under her name at mirela.etsy.com, paying Etsy only listing fees and sales commissions. Now, in addition to lingerie and jewelry, she sells some of the clothing she makes using Burda's patterns. "I love to alter their patterns," Popovici says. "And having the community makes it so easy to figure out how to make different alterations."

Etsy was one of the pioneers of turning sharing into good business. Early in 2007 it created Etsy Labs, a community space at its headquarters in a warehouse near scruffy downtown Brooklyn. About a dozen times a month, Etsy sellers and other craftspeople hold evening classes where they teach others in the Etsy community how to be handy, showing them how to design and sew stuffed animals, build their own musical instruments, and bind books. The company, founded by three twentysomething friends who met as undergrads at New York University, now has 50,000 active sellers and 600,000 registered members.

POWER-TOOL DRAG RACERS

The online DIY movement is hottest among people under 30. Using the Internet is second nature, and they already share almost every aspect of their lives on the Web. It's just a step to sharing that knowledge in the real world. Last year, 45,000 people crowded the San Mateo (Calif.) Fairgrounds, where Make was holding its second annual Maker Faire. It brought together 300 innovative DIYers and featured power-tool drag races (belt sanders and weed whackers on wheels can reach 60mph) and a life-size mechanical giraffe.

Eric Wilhelm's experience reflects the urge to be more hands-on. While earning his PhD in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the then-23-year-old took up kitesurfing. He didn't have thousands of dollars for equipment, so Wilhelm built his own boards and posted detailed designs on his Web site. Readers asked for more information and help building other projects. So two years ago he launched Instructables.com, where anyone could contribute how-tos and get reader feedback.

Now, Instructables has 7,500 directions for everything from making a pinhole camera to sculpting a chair out of wood. "My grandfather had a bunch of baby-food jars with screws and nails in the basement, and after ignoring the skill it took to use those, people are now seeing that that's valuable," Wilhelm says. "They're afraid of losing touch with how to do stuff. That's why it's hip and cool to knit now."


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