What is handmade? A response to “Etsy’s Industrial Revolution”

Recently, Elizabeth Wayland Barber wrote an op-ed piece for the NY Times in which she questioned what the term “Hand-made” means. It was born out of Etsy’s new policy to allow factory made items to be sold. Ms. Barber starts out by showing historically that technology has always followed craftsmanship as production needs exceeded the time available. This is a good point, but then she goes off the rails by stating:

Etsy’s Industrial Revolution

In the piece she states:

“The truth is that almost none of the objects that we think of as handmade truly are. And that has been the case for thousands of years — long before Etsy announced this latest change to its website.”

I have held Ms. Barber in high esteem. I have and have read her book and though you can tell that she isn’t a craftsperson, she seems to at least respect the crafts and people who master(ed) them. Now I wonder where she stands. Does she feel that the women of the last 20,000 years were more skilled and ingenious than those today who, after all, only mimic what the original women created? I’m not sure.

The key point is the question: What is handmade? By the first quote, Ms. Barber is implying that anything that is produced using technology, no matter how recent or outdated, no longer qualifies.

By this logic, any meal cooked on an electric or gas stove, from ingredients purchased from another grower is no longer home cooked. I mean, you used technology in the production. You didn’t grow and/or kill your food. Maybe even cooking over an outdoor fire would disqualify this as homemade, I mean, really the creation and control of fire is technology, even if it is the most ancient. Those women and men who slave for hours in a kitchen to produce a fresh and hand crafted meal are no better or worse than the people who slap a frozen entrée in a microwave. The food is the same quality, neither meal is handmade, right?

Maybe there is a different perspective that can differentiate the handmade from the mass-produced.

I take fluff straight from an animal or plant and transform it into clothes, rugs, or other useable items using only my hands and a few basic tools. In fact, I can do that with a couple of sticks. Three to be precise, one to make the yarn on and 2 to knit it with. Three sticks, surely that would qualify it as handmade by even Ms. Barber’s definition right? Nope. The use of sticks in making string/yarn a technological invention. The first example of knitting is from around 1000 CE. Why that is recent technology. In reality, all cloth, everything everywhere that we have and use is a product of technology of some sort.

I started by thinking that maybe handmade is items made using techniques that existed before the industrial revolution. “Everyone knows” that before industry, everything was handmade, right? That is the impression I was given in my schooling. I also can easily draw this line because my craft is one that existed before the revolution and in fact is one that drove industrialization. The manufacturing of cloth had always been an important part of any society. My spinning wheels are functionally the same as those build hundreds of years ago. One of my spinning wheels actually was build hundreds of years ago. My loom(s) operate very much the same way they have for hundreds of years as well.

This leaves out a huge range of goods that I, and others, would consider handmade. The wood turner that makes such incredible items from an electricity powered lathe is a handcrafter. Anyone who has ever tried to use a short arm quilting set up knows, that even though the thread is going through a machine, there is an immense amount of skill and craft needed to make anything other than a huge mess. Back to the weaving loom, which was the first computer, is always right up on the edge of technology, but a computer assisted hand loom is a very different creature from an industrial power loom. My further reflection leads me to conclude that the use of technology, no matter how modern cannot be used to determine what is considered handmade.

I offer an alternate definition. I say and item is handmade if its creation requires the oversight and participation of a skilled and knowledgeable person. Industrialization has moved to take more and more of the requirement of skill and knowledge out of the process and is moving to remove the participation of humans as well. Skilled and knowledgeable labor is expensive, but if you can break the process down into a series of simple tasks that do not require study and training, you save a lot of time and money. In most factories, the employees could not make the item from start to finish on their own. They are really good at making one specific part of that item and/or operating the machine that does so. The process is sterilized and decentralized.

A handmade item is directly made and overseen by a person who has the knowledge, skill and vision to see it through to completion. From picking materials, through creation, to completion each step is chosen and executed based on the craftsperson’s intention and process. With this definition, new and emerging technologies are not excluded from the available tools. Handcrafters have always been at the edge of technology and remain so today.

One final thing I take umbrage too is the closing paragraph.

“Just because an object includes manufactured parts doesn’t mean it can’t reflect the touch of an individual creator’s hand: the subtly uneven knit, the finger-marked clay, and all the other happy unmechanical surprises of human quirkiness.”

This seems to imply that handmade goods are inferior to factory produced. I find it insulting. I stated earlier that knowledge and skill are required to differentiate handmade from mass produced. Unfortunately, not everyone has a high level of skill and those that don’t have tarnished the reputation of all handmade goods. It is a stereotype and slur to state that handmade goods are inferior or less perfect than factory made.

Handcrafters do not try to reproduce the quality and style of factory made items, in fact, quite the opposite. Industrial produced goods have long tried to replicate the hand made. The hand spinners didn’t spend thousands of years trying to achieve the perfection of the spinning jenny prior to its invention. The spinning jenny was invented to try to make what hand spinners made. There are still many things that even the most advanced industrial processed can reproduce, or can’t reproduce efficiently.

That wood turner can make creations with his “primitive” processed that can’t be easily made by a CNC machine. I can make yarns that the spinning factories can’t.

A great weaver, who weaves on a computer assisted loom, recently developed a line of fabrics using a specially treated fiber. She had woven many samples using many different weave structures on her technologically advanced loom. When she started talking to the industrial weavers, she had only a limited option of weave structures she could choose from. You see, the industrial process relies on making a lot of the same thing quickly. To do so you lose flexibility. It is not practical to set those looms up for anything less than hundreds, if not thousands of yards. The hand weaver was able to make cloth of the same, if not better, quality and much more diversity than the factory process.

So, in conclusion, I see the line between handmade and not to be a bit more cut and dried than Ms. Barber. Handcrafting is an important part of our heritage. Handcrafters are innovators and creative thinkers who push and develop technology and industry. Handmade and hand craft deserves to be respected and not trivialized or we run the risk of losing the driving force behind out biggest accomplishments, past and future.

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