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Will we return to craftwork?
Our hobbies used to be jobs—in many parts of the world they still are—now we're turning them into jobs again.
In the summer of 2020, Collette Bice started making candles.
She’d been commuting an hour to work every day, but when the pandemic forced her to work remotely she suddenly found herself with a lot more free time. Her friend started making candles, so she did too.
“I really just thought it was going to be a hobby—I made candles for myself, then I started giving them out to friends and family, then people were encouraging me to open an Etsy shop.”
She launched WickryCandleCo in September of 2020 and, after a landfall holiday season, quit her job in January of 2021 to run her candle business full-time. She earned $100,000 in revenue her first year, and $150,000 her second.
From Craft to Work
Platforms like Etsy have made it possible to turn almost any hobby into a business. According to Etsy community manager Isabella Diaz, the company hosts 5.4 million sellers globally and one in three cite their creative business as their sole occupation. And Etsy sales more than doubled during the first year of the pandemic—from $4.9 million in 2019 to $10.2 million in 2020—and grew another 25% in 2021.
Leatherworkers, woodworkers, ceramicists, and candlemakers are commonplace on the platform, and they often start as hobbyists before they become full-time merchants. According to Diaz, Sixty-four percent of Etsy shop owners cite supplementary income as a motivation for starting their shop, but 44% go on to use that income to cover core expenses such as food and rent.
“With 20 cents and an idea, anyone can start a business out of a hobby they love,” Diaz says. “Whether it’s a side hustle or their sole occupation, Etsy sellers work on their own terms: they can start a business from their home, make their own schedules, and do something they’re passionate about.”
This commodification of our hobbies might seem like a recent phenomenon—all over the internet we can find articles about “the golden age of entrepreneurialism,” “the rise of the side-hustle,” and the “the future of the passion economy.” But the idea that we might earn a living from our hobbies is not a new one, in fact, it’s a return to a very old one.
The very first work was craftwork—things we might consider hobbies today. According to World History, in the 7th century BCE, weavers made and sold flax fabrics in Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, metalsmiths forged bowls, vases, and swords. In ancient Greece, ceramicists made and sold elaborate pottery. For most of world history, these tasks were not considered hobbies or leisure activities, they were trades. In many parts of the world, they still are.
“Handcraft is the second largest industry in the developing world, second only to agriculture,” says Melissa Sevy, founder and CEO of Ethik. Her company works with textile weavers in El Salvadore, leatherworkers in India, ceramicists in Vietnam, basket weavers in Rwanda and Ghana, and felters in Nepal, and sells their artisanal crafts in the United States. “There are hundreds of millions of crafters who are making traditional craft,” she says.
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For modern handcrafters, as for ancient ones, these trades are work—often their means of survival—but that doesn’t exempt that work from also being a craft. “Handcraft has been passed down to them for generations, it’s more than a job to them. It’s their culture, it’s an important part of their personal and regional identity, their hope is wrapped up in their craft,” Sevy says. “There are many artisans who are like, ‘I love where I am and what I do.’”
For the handcrafters Sevy works with, everything might be considered a hobby just as easily as everything might be considered work—the line is sufficiently blurred for them. “It might be parallel to our gig economy,” Sevy says. “It is this more informal sector where people are just hustling—they might be doing crafts and have a garden on their family's land and they're selling stuff—a lot of times it's a hodgepodge of work.”
Now that she’s making candles for a living, Bice feels this way about her work too. When she was working 9-5, she created a workspace in the loft of her house but got to the point where she couldn’t stand being up there during nonwork hours. “My work was very stressful, my manager wasn't the best, and it just spilled into my personal life,” she says. “I would think about work and it would make me stressed and anxious, even outside of work.”
Now that Bice uses her loft for candlemaking, she loves it again. And she doesn’t mind spending her personal time working on it because she’s passionate about it. It is work, but it is also pleasure. “I'm always thinking about my business,” she says. “I'll get messages at night, and I usually try to reply to them. But because I love it so much, it doesn't bother me. I spend my weekends working but it's because I really want to.”
It has only been the last 200 years, with the dawn of industrialization, that our jobs shifted away from tradework. We went from being farmers and merchants to being miners, railroad builders, manufacturers, and factory workers. Then, when labor work was replaced by automation, we shifted to office work. In his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon points out that 79% of work in the United States is now office work.
In the process, work became devoid from craft. In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber says this drew a line in the sand between work and a hobby. “If the value of work is in part the fact that it’s ‘something we’d rather not be doing,’ it stands to reason that anything we would wish to be doing is less like work and more like play, or a hobby, or something we might consider doing in our spare time, and therefore less deserving of material reward. Probably we shouldn’t be paid for it at all.”
If we have come to define work as something we don’t want to be doing, the journalist Geoff Shullenberger responded, “the flipside of that logic seems to be: if you actually like doing X activity, if it is valuable, meaningful, and carries intrinsic rewards for you, it is wrong for you to expect to be paid (well) for it; you should give it freely.”
Today, this seems to be the central difference between work and a hobby: you’re supposed to hate the former and make money doing it and love the latter and do it for free. When this piece was first assigned to me by Insider, my editors even asked if I could find someone who turned their hobby into a job and then lost their passion for it—the expectation being that once something becomes work, something someone gets paid to do, they’re supposed to hate it. The introduction of money is supposed to change the dynamic from something you love to something you don’t.
There might be those who lose their passion for a hobby once they start making money doing it, but Bice loves her job. “There are negatives with every job, but I would say that the positives outweigh it,” she says. “I love it, I just find it pretty rewarding.”
After a century of desk jobs is it any wonder we crave a return to the craft? And maybe that’s why, in developed economies, it is not uncommon to find remote tech workers “quiet quitting” their desk jobs so they can spend time pursuing more satisfying handcrafts. “People are having hobby farms because they want to return to that,” Sevy says. “There’s a subculture where you come home from your tech job and do your craft.”
That we have the leisure to do so turns it back into a hobby. “It's like the very poor and the very prosperous can engage in those things,” she says.
From Work to Craft
In his 1890 utopian novel News from Nowhere, William Morris imagines that by the year 2000, humanity has eliminated all industrial work and replaced it with handcraft.
“A craving for beauty seemed to awaken in men’s minds, and they began rudely and awkwardly to ornament the wares which they made; and when they had once set to work at that, it soon began to grow,” he explains. “Thus at last and by slow degrees we got pleasure into our work; then we became conscious of that pleasure, and cultivated it, and took care that we had our fill of it; and then all was gained, and were happy.”
Morris worked as a textile designer and he clung to his handcraft even as London industrialized and turned toward mass-produced goods. “Think of wrought iron railings versus cast iron railings,”, professor of English Literature at the University of Mississippi, told me. “Wrought iron was made by hand, cast iron was made by a mold. Morris hated cast iron fences because they were mass-produced. Wrought iron, though, was made by artisans—it was an expression of the worker’s soul and an expression of his aesthetic sensibility.”
This is the work Morris hoped we would one day return to. First, we were gardeners and crafters, then we would industrialize and spend a couple hundred years making money and becoming economically prosperous, all so that we could return to being gardeners and crafters. And maybe now the future he once envisioned is coming to pass.
Bice says her work as a candlemaker has allowed her more space and flexibility for her other hobbies—like gardening. And here she has reached Morris’ utopian ideal. “When I worked my nine to five, I had like an hour commute. By the end of the day, I'd be like ‘ok, I'm just going to veg out and not do anything,’” she says. “But now I have more energy to do my hobbies. I have a ton of indoor plants, and I have an outdoor garden where I'm growing strawberries, blueberries, and flowers.
“Even if I feel overwhelmed or just need to take a break, I can just go into my backyard and tend to my garden.”
Thanks for reading,
Postscript: This article was a commissioned piece meant to be published in Insider. However, after receiving the draft back from the editors it was completely rewritten and came to a completely different conclusion. I ultimately decided to pull it and publish it here instead. This goes with my work & leisure series. (Thank you to everyone who shared your advice with me as I was deciding whether I should pull it!)
Here are a few notes from the margins of my research.
Jenny Odell’s Saving Time feels like we’re out of time with nothing we can do about it, which has been a bit exasperating, but maybe I just haven’t gotten to the conclusion yet. There have been a few gems though:
“In early 19th-century America, which was still largely rural, self-employed people outnumbered wage earners.”
“Pre-industrial or pre-colonial societies were and still are imagined to have been inherently leisurely, or even ‘without time,’ in part because they were task oriented—a way of working that follows the contours of different tasks rather than a rigid, abstract schedule.”
I’ve loved following Sahil Lavigia’s journey from founder of a VC-backed company to individual creator. Like Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company and No Meetings, No Deadlines, No Full-Time Employees. He also shares some of his thoughts in his book The Minimalist Entrepreneur:
“Taking writing and painting classes in Provo reminded me that my community wasn’t just the people in front of me; it was also a wider group who wanted, like me, to ‘turn their passions into livelihoods.’”
“The real communities I was a part of didn’t care about growth at all costs; that kind of accelerated expansion would have cracked them into a million little pieces. Instead, their priority, like mine, was connecting to each other in ways that allowed for the space, time, and freedom to explore their interests and to eventually transform their passions into businesses in meaningful ways.”