Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Art of Handmade

A quick google search for the term "handmade" brings up as first pick on this search engine.

Lately, there has been a pretty big furor around the term "handmade" and especially as how it relates to ETSY.  

Handmade: Handmade items have been made or prepared by hand rather than by machine.  - Applies to: all products made by hand.

Googling ETSY displays this announcementBuy and sell handmade or vintage items, art and supplies on ETSY, the world's most vibrant handmade marketplace.

It would appear to the common person that ETSY therefore sells all things HANDMADE and that items purchased on ETSY are indeed made by artisans who use the old fashioned art of making their items by hand.

So, what's the rub? Why all the fuss? and who cares?

"We care", say the ETSY artisans who labor quietly and alone in the little corners of their homes designated for their crafting.  "We are concerned", say the ETSY artisans who spend many additional hours preparing delightful things by the old fashioned process of doing it by hand.  "We want satisfaction", say the ETSY artisans who hawk their wares on a site they believe is dedicated to giving them a venue for their lovely hand fashioned fare.

The buyer wants to know that when they spend their hard earned cash for an item labeled "handmade" they are not getting snookered.  A knitted hat that can be easily purchased at Wal Mart for less than $5.00 keeps their head warm, but a knitted hat purchased at ETSY can cost up to many dollars more, still keeping their head warm, but has an inner satisfaction of something like, grandma might have lovingly made for me.

Machines are such sterile things and the number of items that whirl off their ends can account for hundreds, if not thousands of items per hour.

Not so long ago, I worked in a leather shop.  The raw leather was imported and came on large bolts.  It was laid out on long tables where the pattern cutters made themselves busy applying their scissors to the material

The patterns were then handed to the seamstresses who stitched the items to each other creating the lovely jackets and coats that would become the end product.  Each seamstress was given a specific duty according to their expertise.  One seamstress was well versed in applying the sleeves to the material and another was excellent at stitching the button panels to the fronts of the items.

Finally, the finished product was treated, pressed and folded into larger containers that were made ready for shipping by yet another employee.

As I look back at this process, I am perplexed about the term "handmade".  Officially, one could call these lovely items of apparel "manufactured" as they were assembled by the many machines and employees who did piece work on them. 

Yet, I knew the people I worked with.  They were common folk, just like me, who took satisfaction in their end product.  They laughed and cried together everyday and gossiped and clapped when they were shown the final item their hands had made.  It was called a factory but it felt like home to me as we all took a collective pride in our handiwork.

All too often, when we label something "manufactured", we forget that there are real people running the machines (just as I run my own sewing machine at home)and they too take pride in their work.

In the forums on ETSY, the concern from ETSY artisans appears to be in the numbers, i.e. how many people touched the item while it was being created?  How many? is the key... to them.

ETSY needs to reevaluate their their policies (IMHO) The argument should be "Was the item made by one person, from start to finish?"  That is a better definition of "handmade" rather than how many people have done the work? 

The age of manufacturing was rushed in when automobiles were put on assembly lines, one job for each person and as a collective viola, a finished product. 

Manufactured : A business engaged in manufacturing some product  through the organized action of making of goods and services for sale. 

and that's my opinion... 

So what do you think?


  1. i really don't spend much time in the i'm not as aware of the turmoil as you are. i think you've made a valid point about 'handmade' and it's one that will continue to haunt the handmade world. but what if you introduce a partner to the first person? or a third? or maybe there is a team of printers/sewers/crafters. I recently went to see an Andy Warhol exhibit. My friend is a docent at the museum and explained that many of his print editions were done by teams of 'assistants.' So is it art? Is it handmade? ...

  2. Wow that's a really good point, I've never considered that. I don't lurk in the forums much either, but I know it's an issue. Where do you draw the line? I just don't know. And that's why I stay out of the forums haha!