Monday, September 1, 2014

Kristen: Ethical Selling Practices of the Reenacting Community

If you haven't probably guessed already, I own a business attached to the blog. This year I formed my own little sutlery at the Jackson, MI event. The Victorian Needle had a lovely weekend with Jewels Victoriana, and I learned so much! It was an amazing experience, but I found myself put-off by some things I saw. I thought I would share them in a (hopefully not ranting) post that results in a discussion within the reenacting community.
By Ken Giorlando

Farby. It all started with farby. But then I started thinking, and this problem has its roots much deeper than a few rainbow snoods. It relates to ethical selling practices. I find it hilarious how easily I could spend my life savings on gear for my impression, though I am not alone in this passion. Unfortunately I have noticed some sellers (online too) that have made an effort to cash in on this obsession, without properly researching or creating a decent product. I'm not talking about inexperience-there are actually well-known, knowledgeable sellers within our hobby who are more than happy to keep little secrets from the consumer. Well, enough of that. I want improvement, transparency, and most of all, respect for everyone in the reenacting community. 

Most reenactors will get this speech some point early in their career. A mentor will gently advise as to the overcharging/farby sutlers, with the advice not to go shopping without an experienced reenactor. This is usually whispered, so as not to offend any business. I will not name any in my post, rather I hope they will read and consider their selling practices from a different perspective. If I offend you, I apologize-perhaps you need to reevaluate your business, as the writing of this post has inspired me to do so. There is always room for improvement, and when you feel you know it all, well that thought is perhaps the most ignorant of all.

What does the final product price reflect?

A good seller will always be upfront about research. Not to toot my own horn here, but I framed printed fashion plates from Godey's and placed them next to my product. Liz from Jewels Victoriana brought originals to our event to prove authenticity. The Dressmaker's Shop stocks books with fashion plates at their events, so I could sneak a peek if I really had a question. Why does everyone love The Couture Courtesan? Because she writes posts like this that talk about research (also, gorgeous sewing). I could keep going on and on, but seriously I need to sleep sometime (alright two more: Glenna Jo Christen and Ken Giorlando at Passion for the Past). 
Isn't research pretty?

The point is that they will back up their words with a tangible bit of history that contributes to the interaction. If you buy from any of these people, the cost will reflect their years of research. Keep that in mind when you go shopping. If a seller can't cite a source (other than "all the reenactors have it") then you may want to ask more questions!

My time is very special to me, as I am in the unique moment before children yet finished with many other obligations. With that said, I will spend countless hours researching/creating the perfect thing...and will tear it apart if I don't like what I see. I am skilled at activities I would have laughed at in my teenage years. Sewing? Ha! Jewelry-making? In your dreams! Cross-stitchery? Loser!
I was soooo cool in high school

It took many many many mistakes to get where I am today. The only difference is that I kept going! My first sewing basket was so frustrating that I threw it away and fumed for two weeks. Luckily I am my own worst enemy/greatest ally, so I figured it out. When you buy one of my baskets, you pay for the research-developed pattern, the hours to make it, and my own blood, sweat and tears.
Pictured: My terrible attempt at gauging

If you really want to know the labor entailed with a product, ask the seller. Of course you should be polite-"This ------ is so lovely! How did it evolve to the finished product?" If a seller refuses to elaborate at all, take that as a red flag!*

***An exception to this would be a business owner protecting a particular formula/process/pattern that he/she developed. Even still, most will give a basic outline.

Surprise! Most materials for products you see are not made in America. I could write an entire blog post on that alone, of course mentioning how my father would disown me if I parked anything foreign in our driveway (in his defense, he works in the auto industry). With that said, even those products entitled "100% American-Made!" might still be created with something made in a different country. Do your research. Make responsible spending choices based on your income and beliefs. After all, many things are just not made in the United States anymore, and you are still supporting an American business!
Thank you America for your general awesomeness

This is especially important when dealing with clothing. I know someone who had an entire ensemble made, and bits fell apart way too early. I can't say whether it was the materials or the skill of the maker, only that a person spent a small fortune only to spend more later. Ask the right questions!

You should beware...

I have seen at least one seller charge about $100 for a set that is made in under 10 minutes with about $10 worth of supplies. How do I know? I found the materials, replicated the original (found quickly on pinterest) and currently have it for myself. I wonder how terribly angry I would be to find that I paid $100 for a piece that required no skill/little research (and cheap materials). Paying a bit for greed, I would think. So I don't do that. 
The rising cost of reenacting forced Kristen to show her ankles for money!
Photo by Ken Giorlando

There is actually a formula for this, one that crafters have used in the past. Obviously this depends on many factors, including product demand. According to the Launch Grow Joy site, here is a basic formula for pricing:
(Labor + Materials) x 2 = Wholesale price

There will be elements to this equation that cannot be foreseen. For example, a particular set of beads may be inexpensive but extremely rare, driving up the cost of the finished product. Also, if a product is underpriced, a buyer may wonder why it is cheap and hesitate to buy. An obvious balance needs to be applied to such endeavors, but not one that would bankrupt our fellow reenactors!

On that note, I will add that I have a friend making a personalized item. It will be a one-of-a-kind piece that only she knows how to make. She will spend hundreds of hours creating a masterpiece. Her price will be fair, given the time, skill, and research invested. Those are the type of people who should be contributing to the reenacting hobby! While I understand that navigating pricing is a difficult task, trying to make a fast buck off fellow reenactors is abhorrent. 

We are all guilty of it at some point or another, so I can't begrudge a seller for this. We go with the best information that we have at the moment, and sometimes it is not the best. Forgive yourself for your farby transgression, as it is a rite of passage within the reenacting community.

Yet there are those sellers that deliberately ignore even the most basic facts of the 19th century. Zippers, rainbow snoods, and polyester, oh my! My first season I bought a cotton "ball gown." That was one of the first things out of the rotation, though luckily I did not spend that much. 
Why did I buy this dress? *Sigh*

If a seller knows he/she is selling something inaccurate to a newbie without proper explanation, how does that reflect on the reenacting community? They're at every event-why do we turn a blind eye to their obvious inauthenticity? The Greenfield Village event in Michigan has a very select process for sutlers to attend its Civil War Weekend. How do we demand accuracy? With our wallets...

False Advertising
Everyone is guilty of this at some point or another. Perhaps a dress doesn't look "quite lovely" on that buyer, just pretty enough and it needs to be sold. I suppose that isn't so much false advertising as it is good retail technique. In any case, it is defined as a misrepresentation of a product that may have negative consequences on the buyer. Sometimes it is not so black and white; sellers may use confusing language, another pet peeve of mine. While technically this is not considered fraud, I do find it a little off-putting. These phrases include:

Wool/Silk/Cotton! (No mention of content amount/weave)
Specialty Imported! (Check ebay...from China)
Includes many time periods! (Few items fit this, especially not clothing)
Interpretation! (Without research)
Victorian! (Without listing a date within that period)

Personally these are red flags for me. Of course I have found many sellers behaving perfectly honestly, with just a slight mix-up in word choice. It's all the more reason for sellers to spend as much time as possible gaining knowledge about his/her product. If you see these phrases, don't assume fraud: ask more questions before buying!

Lack of Competition
Remember earlier when I mentioned that seller who charged an arm and a leg (and hopefully nothing else)? Well, the reason that seller can get away with overcharging is that no one else offers that exact product, even though it takes no time/skill to create it. I am very tempted to offer those products at a reasonable price in my own shop, as I hate seeing this happen to my fellow reenactors.
 Why can't we all just be cool?

Competition is a double-edged sword. As much as it keeps prices reasonable, it can also flood the market, forcing prices to be too low. In my opinion, when the reenacting hobby becomes too expensive for the average person to join, it's time to reevaluate selling practices. This hobby will die if it becomes a leisurely activity of only affluent people.

Unfortunately, there are those sellers whose livelihoods completely depend on their sutlery, and their product falls into one of the aforementioned categories. I'm lucky enough to have a day job; if I don't profit from my business, then I go home and continue with my current lifestyle. As much as it pains me to say this, if a seller is trying to make money without actually earning it, then he/she does not deserve your money. The reenacting community is such a niche market that not everyone can make a living from its members. Using any of these tactics to swindle money from reenactors is just bad business, and if your income depends on you doing so, you might want to find a second job.

What can you do about it?

As a Seller
Take a deep breath. If I angered you greatly in this post, ask yourself why. Do you also feel it's time for a change? Or did you find yourself in one of these categories? While I have your attention, reflect on your own selling practices, rather than simply lashing out at the messenger. After all, most of the things I've said here have been whispered around the camp for many years. I'm just the one silly enough to put my name next to it.

As a seller, writing this post helped immensely. I am currently doing a HUGE overhaul of my shop, including rewriting my product information and attempting more transparency of my products. It takes much more time, but the end result is something I'm proud of. When I make big statements, I tend to follow them up with action!

As a Consumer
Please don't lose faith in all of the business practices of the reenacting community. There are some pretty amazing people who have dedicated their lives to this hobby, and they deserve our respect and money. With that said, if you think a product or seller falls into one of these categories, definitely ask! If a person is rude or does not answer questions, then you might not want to spend your hard-earned money. Here are the types of questions to ask:

What original is it based on?
What fashion plate/primary source did you use as inspiration?
What materials were used in the making of this product?
How labor intensive is this product?
Will you service the product if it breaks?
What impression will this product give?
What type of person used this product?

Your decision to buy determines whether or not the sutler continues ethical business practices or perpetuates bad ones. In the end, you as a consumer can change how much farby you see at an event! It's a drastic change that would vastly improve the quality of our reenactments.

In conclusion...

I am not expecting this change overnight. Earlier this summer I commented in a Facebook group that certain hairwork pieces were actually filled with silk fabric. What a ruckus! Experienced members of the reenacting community rushed to say I was wrong, without an iota of evidence. Granted, I didn't have much evidence either, but it felt that those people were not willing to converse about the topic; even to remotely suggest that their previously-held assumptions could be wrong seemed somewhat treasonous. A person even commented that I was "putting myself on the line." Oh yes, that good old status quo, the reenactor's greatest foe.

The comments prompted a full-scale research assault on my part, with a very detailed post entitled: "Does your hairwork piece have real human hair in it? Maybe..." I'm sure I ruffled a few feathers with my research, as I know that more than a few members in that group have bought/sold pieces that they thought held human hair. Unfortunately, such a negative attitude towards new research or even comments only weakens the reenacting community as a whole. The lack of openness creates an elitist group, one that cannot be challenged. We need challenge, arguments, discussion. A closed mind breeds ignorance.
The future of reenacting, and I have no idea what to do with her

Change is uncomfortable. If we as reenactors want to see this hobby thrive, we need to be willing to leave our assumptions at the door. We should be able to propose a differing opinion from the status quo. We should demand that sellers provide a quality product. We should stop henpecking new members who have valid questions. Perhaps the Golden Rule could be useful here:

"Do unto others as you would have done unto you"



  1. Well said. Hence the rise of makers. With all the information out there electronically, there is really no excuse to sell undocumented anachronisms...or make them.


  2. Kudos Kris! There were good laughs amidst very on point comments about the role of sutlers. Too many are just trying to make a buck, buying goods on the cheap they can sell dear or make shoddy, inaccurate goods they can crank out and sell fast (but still probably only make minimum wage for their time and effort.) Many don't know and even if they do, they don't care.
    There are a few exceptions that you mentioned (Betty Loba's James River and her wonderful antique jewelry and textiles comes to mind too), but to my knowledge, none of them (including me when I was a merchant) could come close to making a living at it.
    It was a labor of love for me as it clearly is for you. It is what kept (keeps) me researching to improve my accuracy as well as to be able to offer others good advice, even if it meant losing a sale to someone because the item wouldn't be accurate for them.
    Anyone who tries to make a real living working full time a CW merchant has to either have elves to do all the work or rip people off. Some may not be making a living, but they are (intentionally or out of willful ignorance) still ripping people off by selling them things that are simply NOT appropriate for the period. That has always annoyed me, but you have offered the best solution. Reenactors need to 'vote with their wallets', but to do that effectively, they need to educate themselves and each other so they know what they are buying and can avoid the inaccurate things and inaccurate merchants.

  3. Good to see, that many of the sellers are selling with ethical rules.

    thanks for the tips.

    I recently wrote an article on how to calculate wholesale pricing, would love to hear your feedback, Kristen.



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