People lined up around the block and then filled the atrium of Toronto’s MaRS Centre yesterday. The attraction?

Etsy, up close and personal.

A clever business card by FlowerPot Designs

A clever business card by FlowerPot Designs

The paramount online marketplace of handmade and vintage goods has more than 1 million active shops around the world. But while the experience of buying beautiful things online can be fun, even addictive, there’s nothing quite like discovering new treasures with your eyes and your hands.

(For sellers too, by the way, even though it’s wonderful to wake up and find you’ve received a batch of new online orders while you were sleeping, there’s nothing like meeting your customers face to face.)

So in an attempt to promote its Canadian sellers, on September 27, Etsy Made in Canada presented a series of pop-up craft shows in 23 locations across Canada featuring Etsy sellers in their home cities.

At the MaRS Centre I set out with a mission; to discover things that I had never seen before. I squeezed through the crowds searching for things exquisite, quirky, or clever. With 120+ vendors, there was a lot to see. These were the less conventional creations that stood out the most for me:

SISTER VALENTINE hearts & crafts

The charming Francie of Sister Valentine displayed an eclectic collection of handmade goodies, including crocheted fingerless gloves, fabric pouches fashioned like envelopes, fabric dolls, and these wonderful 3-dimensional animal portraits. Every piece she’s crafted is utterly charming. You can find more of her work here.

Whimsical 3-D animal portraits by Sister Valentine

Whimsical 3-D animal portraits by Sister Valentine

FLOWERPOT DESIGNS

Flora Cheung stood behind her knitted cacti knitting nonchalantly, her warm contagious smile welcoming visitors to her table of treasures.  The softest gloves, scarves, booties and accessories beckoned to me with their promises of cosiness. I easily imagined her creations as treasured gifts. I will definitely be treating myself to a pair of her travellers’ mitts pronto! If you like, you can peruse her lovely website here.

Flora of FlowerPot Designs

Flora of FlowerPot Designs

KIRIKI PRESS

Printmaking grad Michelle Galletta spent three years working in Italy before returning home to Toronto in 2012 to create Kiriki Press. The attention to detail she puts into her embroidery kits is simply stunning. Not simply craft kits for children, the beauty of these projects (with varying complexity) makes them attractive to grownups, too. You can see Kiriki’s kits on her website.

A few of the creatures you can make with an embroidery kit by Kiriki Press

A few of the creatures you can make with an embroidery kit by Kiriki Press

APFELSTRUDEL

Lest you think (heaven forbid!) that I am strongly biased toward textile art (I am), I wanted to share the work of a paper/collage artist who loves to use maps and vintage books in surprising ways. A world traveler with a huge collection of vintage maps and ephemera, her work is loaded with humour and adventure. “Up and Down the Thames,” a piece that combines an original 1920s map of London with tiny cutouts of Buckingham Palace guards from a 1940s picture book, was attracting loads of attention on Saturday, and it’s easy to see why. Apfelstrudel is a popular Etsy shop, and you can find it here.

A detail from 'Up and Down the Thames' by Apfelstrudel

A detail from ‘Up and Down the Thames’ by Apfelstrudel

CGMONSTERS

I would like to leave you with a stuffed toymaker who in my opinion has exceptional taste in fabric and makes lovely little monsters for children. But rather than show you her work, which you can see here in her Etsy shop, I share with you a photo of my 4-year-old nephew Benji holding one of her seasonal pieces, a soft skeleton perfect for Halloween! Please don’t be afraid of Benji’s very scary face, it is just for the photo.

Trying to be scarier than the monster

Trying to be scarier than the monster

Thank you for joining me in supporting handmade!

Sincerely,
Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design

p.s. If you want to see all of the vendors at the MaRS Toronto Etsy event, you can check out this nifty lookbook created by Etsy:

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On April 24, we all heard about a factory building collapsing in Bangladesh. Dozens of people were declared dead, and it was horrifying to hear about this tragedy unfolding from afar. Photos of the scene showed a garment labelled Joe Fresh, and Canadian consumers suddenly felt they had played a part in this tragic event.

Now twelve days later, the death toll tops 600. Terrible grief has come to countless people in Bangladesh, and journalists around the world have grappled with the questions raised – some searching for solutions, others laying blame. Many shoppers have been questioning their role. Major retail players whose clothing was known to have been made in the building, namely Joe Fresh in Canada and Primark in the U.K. (with overlapping corporate ownership), have announced plans to compensate the victims and to change the way they work in Bangladesh. In this they were recently joined by a few other clothing retailers whose garments were also found in the rubble. Would they be doing so if their connection to the building had not been exposed? We have no way of knowing.

What next? The scale of this tragedy is enormous – I hope it will turn out to be a defining moment that changes the way we all think about where our clothing is made, and under what conditions. The Facebook page for Joe Fresh is packed with comments expressing outrage at the company’s abuses, and vowing to shop elsewhere. But where?

I am a huge advocate for buying local, but I know that Canadians cannot live on Canadian-made products alone. Our manufacturing sector is simply too small. Trade barriers are one challenge: Canadian manufacturers pay high duties on raw materials (such as cotton, which needs to be imported), while clothing made in Bangladesh arrives in Canada duty-free. And as we all know, vast wage differences have changed the geography of manufacturing, with clothing production often relegated to the poorest countries. We don’t want people to be harmed making products for us, but we don’t want to pay dramatically higher prices.

What is a conscientious consumer to do?

If you are concerned about the people making products for you being treated with respect and human dignity, you may wish to support an organization that’s committed to improving labour conditions overseas, or petition for stronger regulation of imports to Canada. You may choose to pay closer attention to where the products you buy come from. Many companies describe their policies on their websites, and some only use certified factories. But be aware that unless there is direct oversight in the producing country (not just occasional inspection visits), there is a great deal of subcontracting — and standards are difficult to control. Boycotting a company that has not adhered to decent labour standards will send a message, but be aware that others may be worse offenders. And if a garment is dirt cheap, you can be reasonably certain that that the person who made it is dirt poor. If this matters to you, pay closer attention to your buying habits. The cheapest, most exploited labour is often used for the cheapest garments. A higher quality garment will last longer and may save you money and effort in the long run, regardless of where it is made.

If you want to buy Canadian, there are a lot of excellent Canadian-made products available if you know where to look. Websites such as www.buycanadianfirst.ca, www.livinglocal.ca, and www.farmersmarketonline.ca  list thousands of products that are made in Canada. Retail craft shows such as the One of a Kind Show and smaller shows across Canada showcase Canadian-made products (both functional and decorative) and list them on their websites. And some independently-owned stores across Canada search for Canadian-made goods for their customers. If you want more local products, let your local retail businesses know, so that you can influence their buying decisions.

Have the garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh, and the recent discussions about worker safety and exploitation encouraged you to change your shopping habits? Do you feel empowered to influence the way our clothing is made, or overwhelmed? I’d love to know how this rising awareness has affected your decision-making, as well as the strategies you employ to shop with a clear conscience.

Devorah Miller
Red Thread Design