Handmade Tale: The Booming Revolution Reaping Rewards for Australia’s Regional Economy
By Amanda Woods
Initiatives such as the Seasons of New England Expo are helping drive a revival of rural-based artisanal businesses.
When Tara Toomey gave up city life to return to the small town of Uralla in northern New South Wales, she came across many creatives who handcrafted their products yet were sharing market space with those selling mass-produced, imported items for a lower price.
Her solution was to create a movement that platforms truly local artisans, and since 2014 the Seasons of New England expo has taken place at Uralla in autumn.
Rural-based artisanal businesses benefit from Buy From the Bush and “buy local” campaigns, but initiatives such as Toomey’s are driving a renewed handmade economy that draws a clear line around local manufacturing.
The Seasons of New England expo in Uralla. Photograph: Simon Scott
“Consumers, particularly in the past two years, have levelled up in terms of quality,” Toomey said.
“They are tired of buying imported things and they are tired of buying things that are second-rate. There’s a much stronger groundswell towards valuing the handmade.”
Toomey believes the economic impact of Seasons of New England was up to $1.4m for each event, pre-Covid.
According to its recent impact report, Buy From The Bush (handmade-heavy but not exclusively artisanal) has sent about $9m worth of sales to country businesses.
After launching an online store in 2019, the demand for New England-made products was so great that in late 2021 Toomey opened a bricks-and-mortar Seasons of New England store in Uralla’s main street.
Support for manufacturing
Jo Sweeney from Glen Gowrie Distillery says the past two years have been the business’s best to date. After using pandemic downtime to rebrand and rebuild their website, Jo believes Covid has helped change the way people buy.
“They’re more focused on where their produce comes from, and more keen on the money going straight back to the community,” she said. “I think people are seeking out authenticity and want to buy regional produce made by regional people.”
The Glen Innes boutique distillery is a Seasons expo regular, known for Australia’s first beer liqueurs made in collaboration with Uralla’s New England Brewing Co.
Shoemaker Kath Caddy of Sole Purpose. Photograph: Michael Taylor
Uralla shoemaker Kath Caddy started the sustainable, eco-friendly shoe brand Sole Purpose with her friend Em O’Connell after learning how to make her own wedding shoes.
At the 2022 Seasons expo, Caddy is prepped for customers to watch their new bespoke shoes being created. She once saw a lot of hesitancy around paying more for handmade.
“The first question we used to get was ‘what’s the price?’ and that would be the end of the discussion,” Caddy said. “These days, people are more curious about how things are made, then the pricing comes later and it’s not necessarily a conversation killer.
“I think the pandemic has been an eye-opener to the fact that we don’t have much of any scale of manufacturing in Australia, and people are starting to recognise that could be a problem; that maybe we should start supporting our local artisans and manufacturers.”
Along with increased interest in handmade products, Toomey believes consumers have gained a better understanding of the time and skill that goes into them, which in turn helps makers.
“I think they’ve learned slowly – and it’s a hard lesson to learn – to value their time and price accordingly,” she said. “They’re still very price-conscious, and I’m sure they’re still offering extremely good value, but there’s been a terrible problem with undervaluing their work.”
Despite around 10% of Australians engaging in crafting activities at the time, in 2011 the Australian government’s principal arts investment and advisory body the Australia Council decided to defund the country’s national craft body, Craft Australia. No government has provided a craft policy since.
Instead, country towns are relying on people like Toomey to take charge.
“Uralla has the most amazing community at the moment and Tara is really instrumental in bringing that together and really pushing our council and everyone to get involved,” Caddy said.
Along with increased interest in handmade products, Toomey believes consumers have gained a better understanding of the time and skill that goes into them.
“If every community had a Tara we’d be worlds ahead of where we are now.”
Big impact on towns
In 2023, Toomey is hoping to take the Seasons expo on the road.
“I think that might be the beginning of running it in other locations,” she said. “That would help us connect better with other parts of the New England, and that’s very important to us. I know we bring a lot of value to the region and it has a big impact in the town where we hold the expo, so we’d like to share that around.”
Whether at an expo or through the physical or online store, Toomey hopes to continue to connect people who make quality, handmade products in the bush with the people who will appreciate them.
“It’s hard for them to get to the customer, but once the customer finds them they can’t believe they didn’t find them before,” she said.
Country handmade events 2022
Here’s a taster of what’s on offer:
Lost Trades Bendigo, Victoria, 19-20 March
Seasons of New England, Uralla, NSW, 26 March
Murwillimbah Arts Trail, Northern Rivers, NSW, 28-29 May
Margaret River Region Open Studios, Western Australia, 10-25 September
Hahndorf Handmade Handcrafted Handpicked, South Australia, September
Cooroy Handmade & Artisan Festival, Noosa, Queensland, 30 September – 2 October
Maleny Handmade & Artisan Markets, Sunshine Coast, Qld, 11-13 November
Bush Christmas Exhibition, Toowoomba, Qld, dates TBC
Craft Markets Australia, regional Victoria, year-round
Love Local Makers Market, Springwood, Blue Mountains, year-round