Etsy's Handmade Hack-a-Thon Is the Perfect Antidote to SXSW Tech-Talk Overload

Lego jewelry, stuffed owls, and hand-screened posters line the walls. In the corner, developers feed sliced up T-shirts through a fleet of sewing machines. A group of web designers swirl bloody marys and talk code and DIY in the same breath. Wait--is this SXSW or the Renegade Craft Fair? Well, both... kinda. During the interactive conference, the growing crossover between craft and and tech was charmingly evident in an off-site pop-up community center for Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods. 

Comfortably ensconced in an erstwhile bar among the strip of clubs on Austin's 6th Street offering two-dollar Jager shots, Etsy offered a popular respite to the interactive overload of the convention center. Hipster-friendly crafts populated the tables, including an "upcycle your swag" center that allowed people to turn the ubiquitous throwaway promotional items into actually usable (and wearable) goods. Open-source sewing community Burdastyle supplied patterns and instruction as sewers (many of them first-timers) joyfully turned a bad T-shirt into a decent grocery bag. 

But it wasn't all stitching and sketching per se. A developer conference called Code as Craft held Saturday featured Etsy's design and engineering team sharing their deployment tips for managing Etsy's massive community and marketplace, including several new features that allow sellers to network better with each other.

And there was interactive programming as well: A panel on "people-powered communities" featured Etsy friends like Kickstarter and NeighborGoods. "We like to make what we do more visible," said Etsy's design director Randy J. Hunt, who mentioned that the pop-up was also acting as a recruitment center for potential designers and developers. "We're definitely hiring."

In Austin it can often feel like SXSW runs the local population out of town, but Etsy made a concerted decision to engage the Austinite makers, one of their most active city communities. Local Etsy members who volunteered at the event could have their work showcased and get their business cards included in a kind of lookbook for attendees. The local team also created a city guide to Austin.

"This was so people can come and see what Austin is all about," said Anastasia Gregoire, a creator of silver jewelry for Wild Moon Design, who noted that Etsy was especially responsive when it came to soliciting their opinions. "They're very willing to listen. They've implemented things that we've suggested like changes to security and PayPal." 

On Sunday afternoon, robotic cries echoed throughout the cavernous two-story space as attendees wired circuit boards to tiny amps in order to make an electronic symphony. Nearby, a foot-powered sewing machine was wired into another soundboard for that night's musical performance, Quintron & Miss Pussycat. This "handmade music" thread was the perfect example of bringing Etsy's values to life, said Vanessa Bertozzi, director of community and education. "We're all about doing real-life events and face-to-face meetings," she said, noting how their Brooklyn-based headquarters had events like Etsy Labs and visiting artist programs that were all about educating the community.

The SXSW pop-up was easily the biggest event that Etsy has ever produced, but the size provided some interesting challenges, namely the fact that the event itself had to be completely handcrafted. Everything they produced to promote it had to walk the walk. "We have to make everything by hand," said Bertozzi, noting the hand-screened t-shirts, laser-cut posters that ringed the space. There was a point as employees filled 500 "hangover kits" with handmade goodies that they realized their ambitiousness in keeping everything DIY. "We were like, "Oh my god, we're becoming our own sweatshop labor!'"

Quips aside, Bertozzi hoped that the pop-up might give some deeper context to the consumer-driven flurry of gadgets and apps being unveiled a few blocks away (and at the pop-up Apple store in between). "This isn't consumption in a vacuum," she said. "We want to create mindful consumers and give them a way to connect with people."

As the space prepped for a fashion show featuring local designers modeling their own designs, a crowd was happily sipping cans of domestic beer and painting designs onto shot glasses using special vitrine paint that could be baked on at home. The crafters were presided over by Etsy's Julie Schneider, who produces the popular How-To videos for the site. Wearing a wide yellow belt over an apron with a sewing machine graphic, Schneider said that attendees had thanked her for the chance to escape the monotony of panels. "Here they can sit down and have a moment to do something with their hands," she said proudly, as attendees compared their work. It felt miles, not blocks, away from one of the biggest tech conferences in the world, yet somehow it felt far more interactive.

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