The Milliners vs. Etsy

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Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

Two months ago, I wrote a piece about “The Category Problem” on Etsy. I felt pretty good about the effects it had. After years of radio silence, we actually did get some responses from Admin saying that they were forwarding our concerns to the actual IT people. 

For one moment in time, I thought we might be getting out of the woods. 

But no joy.

Behilda Dolic Millinery
Behilda Dolic Millinery


Things have actually gotten worse. 

The category problem remains. There are simply no options for hats that don’t lead to a screen-full of knitted beanies, mostly for babies or pets. Our fedoras, top hats and crazy sculptural wonders are left out entirely in the category cold.

But not only that, the SEO has changed to the detriment of every milliner (and possibly hand-maker).

SEO is a three letter acronym that holds great power and mystery. It is bandied about often without real knowledge of what it means, so let me make an attempt at explaining. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It’s the algorithm that sorts through all of the information in a given area to show listings that are hopefully pertinent to the search. It’s a constant challenge to keep on top of it’s various moods, quirks and vagaries as the lovely IT people that create the algorithm are constantly changing the game. This is why those three letters strike fear in the hearts of anybody who’s trying to get found. And we milliners are desperate to get found.


Maggie Mowbray Fedora
Maggie Mowbray Millinery



And we are not getting found. If a customer knows which milliner and which hat she is looking for, but does not have the direct link to the shop, it is highly unlikely that she is going to find the hat in question. Since my plea two months ago, there have been major changes to the SEO algorithm on Etsy that have skewed our cause in the opposite direction that we were hoping to head. I can’t explain it. I just know it to be true as I’ve got hundreds of milliners pulling out their hair trying to figure out why their views have fallen to near minuscule numbers.

And then there’s the manufacturers. Within the last year, Etsy made changes in their policies that allowed people to list things that are not handmade. They SAID that this was to allow those sellers that have been with them a while to grow and have employees. If that’s what it was for, it was a dire, dire failure as the place is now filled with generically factory made goods. 

And we can’t compete. 

Go ahead. Amble over to Etsy. Try a search for your favorite style of hat. Odds are that after you wade through a sea of beanies, you’re going to find hats in the range of $50-60. That’s about what you’d pay for one at Gap. We can’t make hats for $50. The felt we use costs more than that. A well-priced handmade handmade cloche should START at about $150. That’s if you use the lower quality wool felt. If it’s made from a high quality fur-felt, the price ought to be about $250. 

And that’s a steal. It takes hours and hours and hours to make these things. We can’t begin to charge for our actual time, it would place the price point nearing $1000. And in fact, if you go to buy a handmade hat in the real world, you may very well pay $1000 for it. But you won’t, will you? You’ll go to Gap and pick up a mediocre but nonetheless stylish floppy brimmed fedora for $52.

How do we convince our customers that you do get what you pay for when your $200 hat is sitting next to an extremely similar but manufactured hat for $52? And since it’s Etsy, the average customer is going to think that the $52 hat IS handmade. Because Etsy is the “handmade marketplace.”


Marcia Lacher Straw
Marcia Lacher



Etsy has lost its way. Trolling through items listed, it looks more and more like Walmart every day. It used to be a community– you’d spend hours on the forums talking about issues you had with the place or just chatting about what you were doing that evening. The sellers used to know each other. We got to be friends on those forums. But the forums, as they existed are gone too. And sellers are pouring in which should be a good thing, except more often than not these days those sellers are actually manufacturers. They aren’t desperate to quit their day-jobs to make their art. They are the day jobs.

It’s so huge these days it’s hardly an entity at all. It feels like eBay or Amazon. Just one big mass of sellers that customers hardly remember. And the milliners feel left out in the cold on a massive scale.

We want something new. 

We have been talking in our team forums about what we are doing about this. Many of us are trying to move into consignment sales in shops. That’s a risky venture as the percentage you gain is so generally skewed. When we sell directly, we’re not getting a wage that fits the work we do. When you get only a percentage of the sale, you end up almost paying for your own sales. Nor can you be sure that your hats are being taken care of properly. There are many tales of damage. Consignment is scary. 

Some have been trying to sell to their communities. That’s not an option for many of us. Our communities are too small. That’s why we went to Etsy in the first place. Oh how we wish Etsy would just return to their roots. Throw all of this other nonsense in the trash and really become The handmade marketplace that it was.

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That’s not going to happen though.

We’re looking for a venue online that doesn’t yet exist. We want a new “Etsy”, a handmade marketplace that’s truly for the handmade. One that is friendly to milliners, addressing our needs for categories and understands our process enough to help us be found in the slippery business of SEO. 

Or maybe even a website that is just hats. One massive hat store that gets the attention of the ladies who are going to the races, the men who want to look dashing, the women who are off to the weddings. Wouldn’t that be magical? Oh what a wonderful place! A hat store of global proportions!


Rana Hats Cloche
Rana Hats Cloche


For years, when people have asked me about joining Etsy I have told people that it is a great place to house a shop. You don’t have to set up the e-commerce site. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to take payments. But you have to work that shop like crazy. 

Now, I’m not certain it is a good house. At least it doesn’t seem as if it’s a good place for hats. I wish someone out there would be inspired to find a way to help us. We’ve got over 500 members in our team and there are hundreds more on Etsy. All left out in the rain. 

Handmade hats aren’t so good in the rain.


Update: Most of these things are true about all handmade makers on the site. We are all in a sinking ship. We need a brand new Etsy that sticks to its mission.  Milliners are just sort of at the bottom of the barrel about all of this as we were locked into steerage long, long ago by The Category Problem. But I agree with all of you that we do need a new handmade marketplace. If anybody has some deep pockets and the knowledge to set one up, please let us know! You’d have massive immediate business!

Emily Moe is a milliner who, since 2007, has slowly been taking over the world of Millinery and captains the Milliners of Etsy, a collective of artistan hat-makers from around the world. She lives with her husband in Minnesota and gets up to all kinds of creative mischief.

View Comments (10)
  • Well said! And it’s not just milliners affected: as a corset-maker I face exactly the same problem of suddenly being in competition with cheap mass-produced items. In fact I have been so disillusioned of late that I have put my Etsy shop in holiday mode whilst I consider its future. Definitely time for a new marketplace with genuine high standards.

  • Agreed! And i am not a Milliner. I haven’t recommended Etsy to other makers and artists in a long time because of all the things you just wrote about. It isn’t a handmade market place any longer. I feel like if you put your shop up on Etsy you are simply pointing out your competition. And the thing is, of course a beautifully made hat isn’t the same as a knitted one, but our customers can’t see that. All they can see is all the other options. And we get lost, as makers we are simply lost in the Etsy sea.

  • Sigh, I’ve heard this from all fronts. And it headed towards rock bottom almost exactly 2 months ago. My own views have plummeted. Even makers who WERE popular no longer are. I know soap makers who are down by 10s of thousands of dollars this year on Etsy (They’ve removed soap from the main categories on the front page). Vintage sellers have also seen sales drop.

    I sell cross-stitch which has, thankfully, always been a small category with a relative handful of sellers and still is. Yet my views and sales have plummeted. I can only imagine the struggle with millinery!

    Since my friends know that I grew my business starting on Etsy, I’ve had many ask me recently. I want to buy “such and such”…can I even trust sellers on Etsy anymore? And even as a seller, I say, I don’t know. There’s SO much underpriced Chinese crap on there to wade through. I’m lucky my category is still pretty clean, but I’m in the process of moving my store to an independent website. Unfortunately, I still can’t match the views on an independent site as those with Etsy so I still feel tied to it. It’s a sucky situation. I’m wondering if Etsy will ever acknowledge just HOW unhappy it’s original base of sellers are or simply be happy making selling fees from Chinese resellers.

    I should mention, as a not-super-techy person, I’ve found Squarespace to be really intuitive and setting up shop on it is REALLY easy and straightforward. Now I just have to get people there.

  • So sad to read this! I am a milliner and have never put a hat on Etsy because I can never find handmade hats when looking and could not find a category for millinery! I won’t even try now but would love a site to sell millinery world wide with other milliners, like Etsy.

  • Well said. I have come off etsy as I didn’t find it easy to sell. My hats were priced according to my skill level and to make a small profit. But still, hardly any sales.

    I am looking for an alternative place to sell, but just can’t seem to find anywhere. I might just set up my own!

  • Even if Etsy got rid of manufacturers and let millinery have categories to separate out knit/crochet, you still have “handmade” items where somebody bought a $5 felt hat and glued a ribbon and/or flower onto it.

    I think Etsy is long past being a worthwhile place to find handmade goods, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. Too much junk in the mix.

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