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March 11, 2022

What qualifies as ‘handmade’? UK law and industry rules for describing hand-crafted products

By: Peter Gregory

Are you selling hand-made goods? Are you sure they’re handmade?Handmade means “made by hand rather than machine” … so can you still legally say a product is handmade if you use a sewing machine, for instance? Is it a legally protected term, and what do customers expect when they see a product described as ‘handmade’?

In this week’s article, we’ll sort through all of the confusion that surrounds the ‘handmade’ claim. We’ll explain the legal and moral obligations that come with the word, and show you what other industry figures have to say about it. 

If you’re not sure whether you can hold your head high and say ‘hand made’ then this article is the one for you!


Describing goods as handmade: what’s the law?

The official dictionary definition of ‘handmade’ is “made by hand rather than machine” (Oxford Dictionary, 2001). In theory, therefore, anything that involves machine power cannot be described as ‘handmade’. In practice, if a small businesses in the UK mainly makes products by hand, but relies on a few pieces of machinery at different stages of the manufacturing process, then the business can still use the ‘handmade’ term, as long as it is transparent with the customer. 

Here in the UK, the word ‘hand made’ has no special legal status. Small businesses don’t need to apply to any trade association or governing body to use the term ‘handmade’ when labelling or advertising a product. They do however need to make sure that customers are not being deceived in any way. Transparency is key:

  • In the UK, by law all advertising must be ‘legal, decent and truthful’, and the manufacturer should be able to prove what they say if challenged (source: gov.uk). 
  • UK product labelling law states  that labels “must not be misleading about how, where and when a product was made”. (source: gov.uk). 
  • The Consumer Rights Act 2015 also says that goods sold to consumers must be ‘…as described’ (source: legislation.gov.uk).

All of this means that, before a manufacturer labels a product as ‘handmade’, they should make sure that ‘handmade’ is indeed the most accurate way to describe their product.

If in any doubt, it may be worth changing the handmade term slightly on your label so that it offers a better description of what it is that you do. For instance, you might want to say ‘hand made with Scottish tweed’, or ‘finished by hand in the UK’, if this gives customers a better idea of what you’re selling.

What’s the industry standard?

The handmade products sector doesn’t have a single industry body that represents its members, but it does have a very very big shop! Etsy.com was founded in 2005 with an exclusive focus on handmade, craft and vintage items. Etsy has its own handmade policy which describes hand made as a ‘spectrum’: hands-on makers on one end, hands-off designers on the other, and most sellers falling somewhere in the middle (source: etsy.com). 

As far as Etsy is concerned, everything made and/or designed by you, the business owner, can be listed as hand made. You can’t resell items through their handmade category, so for instance if you bulk-buy hand-made goods, you can’t list these as handmade on etsy.com yourself. If you work with a third party manufacturer, you can only call a product hand-made if your joint design and production process leads to “the creation of a unique item that would not exist without you, the designer”. You also have to be transparent with your customer about how these kinds of goods are made. 

Prove your goods qualify as handmade

If you want to show your customers what makes a product handmade, then one way to do it is to prove it to them! Film yourself at work in your workshop or studio, then share the footage on social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. If you get a lot of interest in the crafting process, you can even run some evening classes as a side-business, like they do at Aylesford Pottery in Kent

It might also be worth documenting your production process in a formal document. Some hand-made markets won’t allow you to trade unless you have a PDF describing exactly how your products qualify as hand-made. It’s worth keeping this sort of a document in a folder with your risk assessment, public liability insurance certificate and any other paperwork so that you have everything you need to book a pitch at a market or trade show. 

Making goods feel handmade … even if they’re not

You now know the basic UK law for selling handmade items, and you know how Etsy.com feels about ‘handmade’. What if your products don’t qualify as handmade? How can you achieve that handmade feel without deceiving your customers?

When shoppers hunt down handmade items, they’re very often looking for a product with a human, heartfelt touch. They want something that has been made with love and attention to detail. You might not be able to use the word ‘handmade’ in your sales pitch, but you can still echo the feel of handmade. 

You can’t tell a lie, but you can cast a spell. Make machine-made products feel just as good as handmade alternatives by choosing…

  • Organic & natural materials. Avoid petroleum-based materials like polyester and nylon, and focus on cottons and silks instead. 
  • The right label weave. Your label is one of the strongest messages you can send the wearer about the values and qualities of your product. Taffeta-woven labels feel chunky and homespun, but there are other weave styles which could work better for your project (see our guide to choosing the right label).
  • Sustainable packaging. Take a little extra time when packing and sending your products. Choose sustainable, considerate packing materials and add a few personal touches where you can. Your customer will be in no doubt that they have bought something unique and individual from a business that cares. We have more ideas on sustainable packaging here.

That’s it! I hope we’ve solved some of the mysteries surrounding the ‘handmade’ description for you. In our experience, the personal touch is so important in the clothing and accessories business. We’re selling to people — not robots — so anything we can do to make clothes, shoes or bags feel better for the wearer is worth the effort. Just make sure you’re telling the truth about how your products are made, and if in doubt, have a look at the links we’ve shared in this article. 

… and when it’s time to get a batch of woven labels made up, you know who to call!

Thanks for reading!

Pete

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