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Toward a definition of handcrafted

The English author, artist, designer, and social theorist William Morris (1834- 1896) was a devout believer in the need for art and utility to go hand in hand.

Time was when everybody that made anything made a work of art besides a useful piece of goods, and it gave them pleasure to make it.

The emphasis is Morris’s, not mine, but maybe there should have been another emphasis on everybody that made anything.  Without the preceding phrase being highlighted, part of the meaning is lost.  It’s not just that people derived pleasure from making useful items that were attractive but that everyone did so.  Art and utility were one and the same, and it was . . . good.

Industrialization changed much of that, and Morris accordingly deplored industrialization.  He was, of course, wealthy enough not to have to labor for a wage.  He had the means to indulge his creative bent and to associate with others who were similarly positioned.  Even so, he understood the desire that lurks in many to put their personal mark on whatever it is they make.

William Morris would have loved Etsy, and it would have driven him up the freaking wall.


The dream is there.  Whether Rob Kalin had ever heard of William Morris, I don’t know, but as one of the founders of the original Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris would have agreed wholeheartedly with Kalin’s vision of a marketplace for all things handmade.  Morris would have recognized the enthusiasm of those artisans who work full-time day jobs and plunge into their second jobs making things to sell on Etsy.  Morris and his contemporaries would have supported the “quit your day job” philosophy, and would probably have sponsored lecture series to help crafters achieve that goal.

What Morris would not have understood was a redefining of handmade to encompass industrial mass production.

When a marketplace begins redefining the essential terms of its business, one has to look at the reasons.  In the case of the redefining fo handmade, the reason is clear:  Money.  But money was not supposed to be either the motive or motivation behind Etsy; the art, the revolution, the transformation of the marketplace was what mattered, or so they said.  Once the terms and their definitions became fluid and subject to radical change to fit circumstances, the philosophy no longer mattered.  It was all about the money.

So let’s use that as the basis for walking the definition back

If it’s all about making money, it’s probably not handmade.

No product is completely handmade.  Even if the knitter shears her own sheep and spins her own yarn, she doesn’t grow the wool herself.  Setting that argument aside, is there a point at which handmade begins and a point where it ends?  And if there isn’t a hard and clear line, is there at least a range in which consensus reigns?

Sadly, no, there isn’t.  The marketplace devoted to handmade has so thoroughly changed the definition that they have even changed the culture of handmade:  If it makes money, it’s handmade. Even if by no other definition is it handmade, even if its maker admits it’s not handmade, it’s handmade if it makes money.

Fortunately, away from that marketplace, more traditional meanings do reign.  Words have meanings, after all.

How can a marketplace determine what is and isn’t handmade?  What criteria can it use, what limits can it set, who will make the decisions?

Let us start with some other questions, to be asked of the potential seller.

Would you make it even if you couldn’t sell it?  Is it about the making or the selling?  Which is more important to you?  Would you give it away and claim it as handmade?  Would you take pride in your contribution to its making?  Do you take pleasure in making the item, or in the selling of it?  Which is more important to you?

I grew up in a family of handcrafters.  Great-grandma Daisy Andrews made yo-yo quilts and felt booties.  I have none of the quilts, but I have two pair of the booties, sewn together with featherstitch embroidery and made before I was born.



Her daughter, my grandmother Mom Helene Mueller,  seemed to make everything.  She knitted and crocheted and sewed.  I have several hand-knit sweaters she made me and an afghan.  My mother’s father, Pop Dick Mueller, was a self-taught carpenter and taxidermist and rock garden landscaper.  He made doll furniture, too, and Mom Helene made the quilted bedding.  I still have them.

My mother, Elaine Wheeler, sewed.  I was so proud to wear one-of-a-kind dresses that she had made; I never felt ashamed of handmade; I loved it.  Though all those little dresses and skirts and jackets are long gone, I’ve kept the doll clothes.  The dolls were often purchased on lay-away long before Christmas, and the clothes made using remnants and scraps from the clothes she made for herself.  Yes, I still have them.

My dad, Don Wheeler, didn’t have a fancy workshop or even a lot of tools, but he loved fixing things and making things with what he did have.  The black wooden cabinet started out as just a bookcase, a simple frame with some shelves.  Nothing more than pine boards and plywood.  The bottom doors came next, and then the upper glass doors.  It’s in my family room right now.

Why the genealogy and litany of crafts?  Because that’s what it all means to me.  It’s not the money.  It’s the making.

I can no more stop making things than I can stop breathing.  I can no more stop writing than I can stop eating.  This is what I am, and if I am a rather extreme example, I think there are many others who aren’t far from it.  We are delighted that we can sell some of our creations and make some money from them and share our enjoyment with others.  For some of us the revenue is more than just welcome; it’s needed.  Without it, we would have to find real jobs — or seriously cut back on our spending (even if it’s just spending on our craft).   If we have real jobs, we look forward to the day when the crafting income will replace the paycheck,  because it’s all about the making.

Are there people who get a creative high from hanging an inexpensive mass-produced charm on an inexpensive mass-produced chain and calling it a handmade necklace?  Are there people who fill album after album on Facebook with pictures of their imported-and-embellished headbands to share with friends and family?  I suppose there probably are, but I’m going to believe that they are few and far between.

I suspect there are far more of us who have secret stashes of crafting materials we don’t dare reveal to spouses or even friends.  We can’t help ourselves.  We make things compulsively, not because we think there’s a market for them or because we believe we can sell them, but because there’s a part of us that demands we make them and because it feels so damn good when we do.

Does this mean there is no profit motive at all?  No, of course not.  For some of us, as I mentioned above, the money is needed.  Crafting is not the only possible source of income, but it supplies both the revenue and the creative pleasure, and thus it is highly referable to the day (or night) job.  For many of us, that pleasure so far outweighs the advantages of a day job that we are willing to work longer hours at lower pay and put up with a whole bunch of annoyances, nuisances, and inconveniences rather than trade for the dependability of a weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly paycheck.

We do it because we believe in putting a part of ourselves in our products.  If the item that goes into the shipping box is something that anyone else could make without special talent, without special training, and most of all without special desire, it’s not handmade.  Whether it’s soap or jewelry, a purse or a necktie, a greeting card or a candy dish, a wedding dress or a coffee table, the defining characteristic is not in the product but in the producer.

El ojo que ves no es ojo porque tú lo veas.  Es ojo porque te ve. – Antonio Machado.

(The eye that you see is not an eye because you see it.  It’s an eye because it sees you.)

The marketplace can redefine handmade all it wants.  Mass produced in a slave-wage factory may be acceptable under the site’s Terms of Use, but calling it handmade or even selling it as handmade does not make it truly handmade.  Only the maker can do that.