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Etsy crochet buyers say AI-made images are being used to sell disappointing patterns 

Cute crochet patterns on Etsy are sometimes advertised with AI-generated images, Etsy users say, resulting in unhappy customers and 1-star reviews.
Three Etsy sale boxes with images of crochet animals split in half by coding ones and zeroes
Etsy users say they think AI is being used to create images associated with crochet patterns on the site.Kelsea Petersen / NBC News

A yarn-woven Garfield, a highland cow and a baby dragon are just some of the cute plush items displayed in the Etsy stores of crochet-pattern merchants. But shoppers at the online store, which specializes in handmade, vintage and unique goods, say the polished final products that appear in the Etsy images aren’t anything like the final products made with the patterns, and that they think the images might be made with artificial intelligence. 

Crochet, a practice of making clothing items, fabrics and collectibles out of yarn, has a thriving community on Etsy. And many enthusiasts, rather than buy the finished product, buy the patterns, which typically range from $2 to $10, that instruct them in crafting the items themselves.

An NBC News search for “crochet patterns” returned more than half a dozen storefronts with crochet pattern product listings that appear to feature dozens of AI-generated images. Etsy broadly allows AI-generated content, to the dismay of some sellers. However, Etsy requires sellers to accurately depict their products in listing photos.

In response to NBC News’ request for comment, Etsy said that its Purchase Protection Program allows buyers to receive refunds for products that don’t accurately reflect what was advertised on the platform. It also said it takes action against sellers who have been the subject of multiple complaints.  

“We want our buyers to know we have their backs — so in the rare case that a shopper receives an item that does not match the listing image or description, they can open a case and receive a full refund through our Purchase Protection Program,” Etsy said in a statement provided to NBC News. “We are deeply committed to maintaining the integrity of our marketplace and want to uplift the sellers and items that reflect the best of Etsy, which is why we take action against sellers who misrepresent their items.”

The tell-tale signs that the images showing the real crochet products are not actual photos include lighting and shadows that don’t appear photorealistic, hands and arms that are clearly computer-generated imagery (as opposed to photos) and fantasy backgrounds, like a forest setting that looks just a little too perfect. A similar result could be obtained with tools like Photoshop, but a flood of AI-generated images online has put many people on alert for potential AI-produced creations. Photoshop requires money, skill and time, while many AI generators are free and can turn a text prompt like “crochet Garfield” into an image in a few seconds. 

“The pattern looks nothing like the picture that advertised the pattern,” a one-star review on the Garfield crochet pattern said. “The image is an AI-generated image and I will never purchase from this seller again.” 

Some of the buyers wrote that they found that they could still create items that were similar to what was pictured in the product listing, like the highland cow. But others said that the instructions they received were for different patterns entirely. Even the final products that appeared similar to the listing photos contained major discrepancies, according to 48 reviews posted on 17 crochet pattern listings since August 2023 that were viewed by NBC News. Eight of the reviews speculated the listings were likely AI-generated. Six reviewers attached images of partially created crochet projects with features that didn’t match the product listings.

As companies of all sizes grapple with whether or how to use AI-generated media in advertising, consumers are left to figure out what’s real and what’s not on their own. NBC News found more than a dozen Reddit posts with hundreds of comments since May 2023 discussing the rise of suspected AI-generated images used for misleading advertising of crochet patterns on Etsy. 

AI image generators are free to use and available from major social media platforms, like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram and recently launched its Imagine AI generator tool. With text inputs like “crochet baby yoda in a forest,” “simple crochet highland cow,” and “crochet cute fox,” NBC News was able to make near-replications of some of the pattern images on Etsy. 

Left, an image used to advertise a crochet pattern on Etsy for a store that is no longer present on it. Right, an AI-generated image of a “crochet cute fox” NBC News created with Meta’s Imagine.
Left, an image used to advertise a crochet pattern on Etsy for a store that is no longer present on it. Right, an AI-generated image of a “crochet cute fox” NBC News created with Meta’s Imagine.Etsy; Meta Imagine

But while AI-generated art can be sold on a real T-shirt or as a print, the AI-generated images of crochet items identified by NBC News are never made into real products. In reviews across multiple storefronts displaying AI-generated crochet, dismayed buyers wrote what happened after they downloaded the patterns.

“The first picture in the listing is what makes you want to buy the pattern, as it’s AI-generated,” a highland cow crochet pattern review said. “The pattern is easy to follow, but it doesn’t turn out like the picture which is very disappointing.” 

Part of the problem is that the crochet images that appear to be AI-generated look great to the unassuming eye, leading to the products becoming popular and being listed at the top of Etsy search results for “crochet patterns.” Some of the stores reviewed by NBC News had hundreds or even thousands of sales.  

The average review ratings of stores with reviews that mentioned AI-generated art fluctuated. Most had ratings above three stars. Some appeared to use a mix of authentic and AI-generated art in product listings. 

Some of the images that appeared to be AI-generated were used in product listings from multiple Etsy stores, even after previous stores using the same images were taken down.

Alex Chapman, a data scientist studying AI, first wrote about the issue on Etsy with crochet patterns in a Medium post in December 2023. She focused on the same image of a crochet highland cow, which at the time was being sold by a store called YardleyYarn. Chapman wrote that she believed the highland cow image was AI-generated, because it looks “too polished.”

The storefront was removed before Chapman published her Medium piece, but NBC News found a new store selling a pattern using the same highland cow image in April. It was displayed as the fifth Etsy search result for “crochet patterns.” The store in question has almost 7,000 sales to date. The store didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On one of the earliest Reddit posts about suspected AI-generated art used by an Etsy store that is no longer present on Etsy, a crochet hobbyist wrote that they were initially fooled by the images. 

“I myself have been crocheting for over 15 years,” the user wrote. “These AI generators are so good I didn’t even notice until I was flipping through images and realized some of these were impossible and started looking closer for stitches that weren’t there.”