For more articles about the history of the crafts industry, visit the
CRAFTS INDUSTRY department.
For Barbara's research on the home-business industry, see
Home-Business Industry Research and Reports.
Copyright © 2000-2013
by Barbara Brabec
All Rights Reserved
Barbara Brabec's World
A Brief History of
the Crafts Industry
Adapted from Creative Cash, by Barbara Brabec
THINKING ABOUT STARTING a crafts business at home?
Before you begin to make a plan for the crafts business you'd like to start,
you will benefit
from some perspective on the crafts industry. Statistics on the number of
crafters in business are hard to come by, but some of the best information has
come from the Hobby Industry Association's (HIA) annual surveys.
The HIA is
concerned solely with the trade hobby, craft, and needlework markets and,
according to Susan
Brandt, assistant executive director of HIA, there is at
least one crafter in four out of five U.S. households, or about 70 million
"Our research shows that about 14 percent of these crafters are selling what
they make," says Susan, "which translates to around 12 million people." With few
exceptions, most people who now sell handmade products began as hobbyists; thus
the larger the hobbycraft industry becomes, the more professional crafters it is
likely to spawn.
It All Started in the 1940s
People have been making and selling handmade goods since the early days of
America, but the burgeoning handcrafts industry that we know today would not
exist at all if someone hadn't started the craft supply industry back in the
1940s. Until I began the sixth edition of Creative Cash, I never noticed before how
closely connected these two industries really are, and how one industry's growth
automatically fuels the other.
The craft supply industry that began in the forties on the West Coast gradually
spread across the country in the next ten years as how-to instruction books
prompted the sale of supplies nationwide. In the 1960s the first magazine for
hobbyists and craftspeople was introduced, along with all kinds of new art and
craft techniques, pattern books, and supplies. At the same time, hobby and craft
manufacturers and publishers began to show their wares at trade shows and the
industry began to receive media attention. How-to craft projects began to appear
on television shows, and national attention was drawn to craft fairs and the
thousands of individuals who were selling at them. To assist such people in
their businesses, new art and craft guilds and organizations began to form.
It was good news for the craft supply industry when a Lou Harris poll in the
mid-1970s revealed that two out of three Americans then participated in the arts
and crafts, and many more wanted to get involved. New craft supply shops
continued to be opened, book publishers were releasing new titles by the
hundreds, and new magazines aimed at craft consumers were thriving. In 1971, my
husband, Harry, and I noticed the growing number of people who were trying to
sell their arts and crafts and decided what the world needed now was a
marketing-oriented publication for crafts professionals. Although neither of us
knew anything about writing or publishing, we successfully launched a quarterly
magazine called Artisan Crafts that served an appreciative audience for five
years before it led both of us in more interesting and profitable directions.
Then Things Just Exploded
During the 1980s an explosion of television how-to shows and the phenomenal
craze for Cabbage Patch® dolls drew added attention to both sides of the crafts
industry. Like mushrooms in a forest, new art and craft fairs and consignment
shops were popping up everywhere, with some of the latter going out of business
almost as quickly as they opened. Clearly, both sellers and shop owners needed
help in learning how to successfully run their businesses, so when a publisher
asked me to write a crafts business book, I jumped at the chance.
When Creative Cash was first published in 1979, it was only one of a dozen books on the topic
of how to sell arts and crafts. None of these early books are still in print
today, but many other crafts marketing and small business books have since been
published for individuals who want to succeed as artists, designers, or "craft
entrepreneurs." They populate the Web today, along with a wealth of free
information and advice on how to make money in this industry.
The growth of both the craft supply and handcraft industries in the 1980s was
amazing, but something much bigger was happening then. This was the decade in
which thousands of individuals bought home computers not just to play with, but
to run businesses from home. As millions of people joined the new home business
industry on the Web, many did not realize they were merely joining all the artists,
crafters, mail order dealers and independent publishers who had been working at
home for two decades or more, but just hadn't been noticed yet.
In 1981 the U.S. Labor Department predicted that within the next 10 to 15
years, between 40 to 50 percent of the American workforce would be working at
home. A year later, the IRS reported that ten million taxpayers had listed home
addresses for their businesses, stating that many of these businesses were being
operated by women. (Interestingly, women also started the craft supply industry
in the forties and more women than men have launched homebased craft businesses
In 1986 the White House Conference on Small Business placed the concerns of homebased businesses high on its list of issues and the U.S. Small Business
Administration predicted that, by 2000, small firms would be producing a major
share of the nation's goods and services. By the late 1990s, we were seeing
these predictions come true as market research firms confirmed that more than 50
million people were working at home, and more than half this number were
believed to be self-employed individuals (the rest being telecommuters and other
homeworkers). Industry watchers at that time predicted that the home-business/home-office industry
would continue to grow well into the 21st Century, and it did.
question, computer technology sparked the phenomenal work-at-home revolution of
the nineties, but I've long maintained that art and craft businesses provided
the cornerstone of this industry. America had a large and well-established arts
and crafts community long before it had home computers and the "home office
revolution," and I am happy to have been part of its history.
The Industry's Future
Between 2000 and 2008, the crafts industry continued to thrive. The Internet
was making it easy for individual sellers to find new buyers on the Web who
wanted their art, handcrafts, and related products and services. Those in the
retail crafts supply industry also found plenty of hobby consumers to buy their
various supplies and materials.
But both parts of the industry took a hit in
early 2009 when the
Safety Commission introduced
a new law requiring that all toys, dolls, garments, and other children's
items (even self-published books) be tested for lead. When that law took effect,
countless thousands of individual sellers of such products probably just
gave up and closed their home-business doors because they couldn't afford the
expensive lead-testing procedures now required in order to sell. Because of this
law, which also affected retailers the world over, Amazon automatically
the sale of 2500 items on its site. Etsy sellers had
quite a discussion on this topic, and those comments still remain in the
site's forum archives.
Of course, toys and dolls are just one segment of the huge
arts and crafts industry. Millions of sellers are still out there offering their
wares while trying to effectively deal with the economic effects of one of
the worst recessions in America's history. Although the crafts industry has been hard hit by the current
economy, I believe it will bounce back in time, just as it has done after various other
recessions in the past.
The Crafts Industry
and Its Importance to the Economy
[Back to top]