Website buoys make-to-order artisans

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Posted: Saturday, December 21, 2013 12:00 am

Not every holiday gift springs from a catalog or off the retailer’s shelf. If you’re in the market for handcrafted goods, there’s no end of options, from the local crafts fair to online Etsy-like websites.

But what if you want something custom-made — like a hand-stitched quilt, a teak coffee table, embossed leather boots or vintage earrings?

Leave it to the Internet.

In a twist on traditional handmade crafts, there’s an online marketplace, CustomMade.com, that lets you post an idea of something you want, then find “makers” — woodworkers, stitchers, jewelry designers, ironsmiths and others — to create it. The site, based in Cambridge, Mass., recently hit its fifth year and has a stable of more than 12,000 U.S. and Canadian artisans.

One of them, quilter and crocheter Mary Crain, works days as an office manager for a Sacramento, Calif., glass company. But in the evenings, she revs up her scissors, serger, and sewing machine and starts piecing together quilts and pillows for her paying customers.

Since joining CustomMade in April, she’s done projects for customers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Texas and New York. This week, she’s shipped a quilted Christmas wall hanging to a Rochester, N.Y., woman who posted a picture of exactly the pattern she wanted.

Crain likes the personal touch with a custom project, even if she never meets the buyer in person.

On sites like Etsy, where artists post photos of things they’ve made to sell, she said, “You’re making something, putting it up there and hoping it’s what someone wants. Here, they’ve already got an idea of what they want.”

Two of her recent commissions: a Disney castle bedspread and a couple’s embroidered pillow, which read: “Only one of us is in charge.”

The website is a way to “help and empower” small artisan professionals while fighting back against big-box retailers, said CustomMade CEO and co-founder Mike Salguero.

“Retailers let people be lazy. You walk into a store, point to something and buy it. It’s factory-made, and you know exactly what you’re going to get,” said Salguero. “We want to offer something a little more creative, a lot more meaningful and at better quality for a similar price.”

As such, CustomMade is part of the so-called “maker movement,” a contemporary army of do-it-yourself enthusiasts. It embraces local events that bring together local designers of custom clothes, jewelry, art and pottery.

Perhaps the biggest venue is the two-day Maker Faire, started in the San Francisco Bay Area as a giant “show-and-tell” for tinkerers, inventors and do-it-yourselfers. This year’s eighth annual fair, held in May in San Mateo, Calif, reportedly drew 120,000 attendees. A similar event is held each year in New York City. And there are handful of mini-fairs across the globe.

Salguero likens the current custom craze to the growth in demand for organic food.

“People want more sustainable products in their life,” he said. “Instead of going to a store and buying off a rack, custom is a viable alternative to regular shopping.”

The 32-year-old entrepreneur and his co-founder, Seth Rosen, met as Boston University undergrads with an affinity for custom-fitted shirts and finely crafted furniture. Restless to start their own venture after post-college careers in real estate finance and development, the pair bought up the tiny CustomMade website in 2009.

Started more than a decade earlier by a custom furniture maker, the site had grown modestly to a roster of about 350 woodworkers and fine carpenters. Today, with $25.7 million in venture capital funding, including a recent infusion from Google Ventures, CustomMade has branched into dozens of categories and more than 12,000 makers.

All of CustomMade’s artisans are vetted, based on a 10-point system that looks at their personal website portfolio, Better Business Bureau rating and social media presence, plus a credit check. Most but not all are full-time professional craftspeople.

Buyers can browse among dozens of categories for thousands of individual items, large and small: embossed-leather messenger bags, designer baby cribs and doggy beds, personalized pendants, inlaid ballpoint pens, hand-forged fireplace tongs, indoor wet bars. You can also search for artisans by city.

Or you can post an idea and wait for artists to respond.

With 40 employees, the privately held company is not yet profitable, said Salguero. One of the biggest hurdles: most people underestimate the time and expense in custom-crafted goods.

Crain, the quilter, said she doesn’t jump at every potential customer’s request. If they’re looking for a queen-size quilt for less than $100, she usually doesn’t respond “because the materials alone would cost more than that.”

But most customers understand that custom-made items often cost more than store-bought.

“They realize it’s custom, not something sitting on your shelf ready to mail out,” said Crain, 45, who’s converted her small living room to a quilting center. “They’re coming into it with a little more respect for the value of the work being done.”

For a “stacked presents” Christmas quilt, which took about 15 hours, she made about $275, after shipping and CustomMade’s 10 percent fee.

Sarah Troedson, a south Sacramento jewelry-maker and crocheter, started this year on CustomMade. She agrees that pricing is tricky. With a master’s degree in geology, Troedson works full time as a digital mapmaker for a Rancho Cordova, Calif., engineering consulting firm. Her fledgling side business — Rocks, Maps and Crafts — is “a creative outlet to balance my technical day job.”

Whether it’s earrings or crocheted caps, Troedson employs a standard pricing formula: doubling the cost of her time and materials. But it doesn’t always work.

“Nobody realizes how long a handmade sweater, cape or shawl really takes. It’s really hard to sell it for what it’s worth because clothes are so cheap to buy,” said Troedson.

For instance, a triangular shawl may take 10 hours to crochet. If paying herself a modest $10 an hour, that’s $100, plus $25 for yarn. Double that, the shawl should sell for $250. But in three years, she’s found that kind of pricing “just doesn’t fly” with customers.

Instead, she finds it easier to make crocheted beanies that take an hour to finish and $4 in yarn — and can sell for $28.

Although she gets more traffic on the Etsy website, Troedson, 34, likes the personal connection with buyers via CustomMade.

That includes as a young Texas man who urgently needed a hand-knotted, freshwater pearl necklace — in a week and a half — to surprise his bride-to-be. She helped him figure out the right length, even asking him to secretly measure the bride’s other necklaces.

“There’s a story attached to that piece and I love that,” she said. “It’s so sweet to get those details, to be part of someone’s special day.”

It’s not just about the money. After CustomMade’s fee, Troedson pocketed about $51 for the 18-inch wedding necklace.

The best moment, Crain said, is “when the customer says, ‘That’s just what I wanted.’’’

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