I own a small home operated business and have been attending markets for a little over four years now. By small, I mean really small. It’s just me! I design, pattern make, cut, sew, craft, attach labels, package, use social media, market, post. Everything. This is the reality for so many tiny handcraft businesses in New Zealand (and across the World!). I’m just a mum trying to supplement our income to lighten the load so we can send little Miss to weekly gymnastics classes that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend. Literally, that’s it. I’m not trying to take over the world.
I’ve always enjoyed attending markets – one or two a month – to interact with customers, to show off my products that I have spent hours labouring over and to meet and make friends with fellow makers who are there for the same reason I am. Like minded people… or so I thought.
What makes handcrafted products have a niche market is that they are unique. You can’t just go to the store and get the same thing off the shelf. These items are laboured over. So with this, comes one of the biggest challenges, which is to make sure your items stand out; that we are offering something that isn’t mass produced and isn’t going to be seen on 5 other kids at Kindy.
With that also comes mother bear protecting her cub. When you see someone else doing something similar (or the same) as you, you feel crushed. Your baby has been ripped off and your uniqueness shattered. On the other side of the coin of this, however, is that when an item isn’t really all that unique. If you are designing baby harem pants and have made your own pattern, they are still going to look like other baby harem pants hanging on the rack. Nevermind that your harems have an extra centermeter across the back to allow for cloth nappies. Added to that is the limited places to buy organic fabric. Ultimately there comes the time when you excitedly make your harem pants from expensive fabric that you took hours deliberating over and next minute you see another maker proudly showing off her harem pants made from exactly the same gorgeous fabric. Your heart sinks. And so does theirs.
Now of course I’m not really talking about harem pants here because as small as the pool of places to buy our GOTS certified organic fabric is, the New Zealand mum-made business is even smaller. And the cliques people make are even smaller still.
Over the weekend I attended a market, THE market in fact. I was having a wonderful time – greeting customers, proudly showing off my designs, talking to fellow stallholders, buying bottled artisan water from a three wheeled vintage cart-bike, life was grand. Until the unthinkable happened. Towards the end of the day I suddenly saw a stallholder beeline it towards me. Oh she’s coming over for a friendly chat I thought naively. Turns out she also sells baby harems (*still not talking about baby harems). And she just saw (and questioned!!) a customer who had bought my harems that looked just like her harems. Shock horror.
This is not an item that I professed to have invented. Nor could she possibly profess to have invented it either. The basic concept of it has been around for many years in various shapes and sizes. I had laboured over making this item, made my own pattern, designed it, trialled it, made errors in it’s initial planning, fixed them, made more errors. Fixed them. Decided on a final product. Hand made embellished fabric. Unique right? Well….not according to fumey angry face McGrumpy stallholder having a go at me. Never mind I think I have had this particular item in my collection for longer than she had. Never mind I wasn’t making these particular baby harems* anymore because they were becoming too mainstream so was simply selling off exisiting stock. Nevermind they were each our own handiwork and our customer bases weren’t quite the same market.
BUT, shouldn’t she know better? Even when you get a bad seed amongst the group literally copying you, it’s no reason to think you have any right over making and selling said item over another person. It’s competition and the nature of any buy-sell business. Isn’t she just a one person mum-made business trying to make a bit extra to better her family too? Shouldn’t we all just get along?
I’m sure this won’t be the last time I have a stallholder think I have copied them and tell me all about it. And it certainly won’t be the last time I see another stallholder making and selling items distinctly like mine and have that pang of “you copied me.” But I certainly won’t be that person to go and make a song and dance about it and ruin their day. Because I have no right whatsoever to do so. We are not in the business of creating items so incredibly unique that we could patent them. We are just mums creating useful handmade items in the hope that others will also see their merit, buy them and enjoy them.
I’m going to put on my big girl knickers, slap a smile on my face and do it all over again next weekend. And put the harem pants* back into production. A little competition is healthy for the soul, afterall.