Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What does 'handmade' mean to me?
photo and styling credit: Tyler Payne and Francis Chan
Lately I have been reminiscing about my childhood as I often compare it to my own kid's, mostly because I grew up without devices, video games, computers or the internet.  Outside of Saturday morning cartoons on a black and white telly, the most device-oriented entertainment I had in my childhood was the double tape deck I received for Christmas one year that allowed me to play dj and make up my own radio shows.   I did a lot of making as a kid, and my mom, aunts, and grandmas' all gave me hand-made gifts or sewed me dresses to wear for special occasions.  With my family's modest income, handmade was a necessity, not a privilege.  Handmade back in the late 70's/ 80's meant truly 'made by hand from scratch', and conjures up images of funky weaving, rustic pottery, quilts made from old dresses and aprons, baskets, and blue ducks.

Fast-forward to today, where the term 'handmade' is thrown around to add value to an item and ultimately make it more expensive than a mass-produced item.   Handmade terms are added onto items found in big-box stores to add value to items made overseas; words like 'woven', 'hand-blocked', 'hand-loomed', 'hand-crafted' are all used interchangeably.  Etsy has started changing it's policy and definition of what 'handmade' means to their site, adding that sellers can now out-source production and ship from manufacturers both local and abroad as long as they can verify that the original design is their own (see this article for more info).  I see this really changing how 'handmade' is perceived, creating even more confusion to the average person, who is already not quite sure how things are made. 

Over the past few years of being a full-time maker I catch myself judging items I see marked 'handmade' as somehow not quite 'handmade'- depending on if they were made 'from scratch' or whether they were put together with parts manufactured elsewhere.  I realized recently that my judgement wasn't really fair and that ultimately I am searching for what handmade means to me and to what I make.  A few years ago I began to make some of my pieces using slip-casting moulds made from my own designs, making my work look more refined, and less 'handmade'.  A frequent comment at the Crawl this year was how I get things to look so uniform- although most of the time, the comments came when people were holding a wheel-thrown piece of mine.  It's interesting to think through how comments from people at the Crawl kind of sit with me over time.  A few years back it was a comment I over-heard saying that my work was 'a bit too handmade looking' that had me scrutinize my glazing method to really clean up my designs.

I don't want to simply react and make changes within my handmade business solely based on the shifts within the handmade industry, but I can't ignore what is happening to the ever-evolving idea of what handmade means.  It has had me re-think how I want to make in the studio recently and I can't quite say for sure how this will change my work.

Recently I have started working with a couple of new clay bodies.  One is a beautiful but pernickety porcelain that is double the cost of my previous porcelain.  The other is a stoneware tan clay body that has a lot of flecks in it.   I have spent more time on the wheel and hand-building (like the porcelain herringbone platters above), attempting to get back into a rhythm that could perhaps allow me to make more of my mugs on the wheel again.  I've changed some of my glazing methods with some simpler glaze designs that loosen up my work in the glazing department.  I think there is a shift I'm working towards within my work, and I'm not sure what will become of it.   I started painting again and that feels really good.  It's informing my ceramics in a different way so I'm pretty excited to see where that can take me.

I think at the core of handmade is the notion that the hand of the maker creates an intrinsic value in what her or she creates.  Maybe that's thinking too highly of one's ability to make or the skill or craftsmanship of an object, but I think the story of handmade goes so much further when it comes from the hand, because it's closer to the heart.  As I see other makers move into becoming designers and there-by removing themselves from some of the making process, I wonder whether this is a direction I should be planning to take myself.  Then I get lost in throwing a bowl or hand-building a platter with my hands full of clay and somehow I want to re-discover the handmade spirit that got me started on this path in the first place.

I'm curious to hear what you think about some of the changes that are happening with Etsy, or with makers turning more into designers and outsourcing production.  I think the viability of a handmade business creates bottom lines for people who ultimately need to find ways to make their work more profitable.  Clearly there is no right or wrong, just a ton of different paths and options of ways to grow or sustain one's work.  I think those of us who are studio makers and full-time at it are constantly wondering how to make it a little easier financially or easier with making/production time. I welcome the notion that 'handmade' isn't going to mean the same thing to everything, however at this moment I feel like a truly handmade mode of making still resonates with me and my work. 


Tami said...

To me "handmade" should literally mean that. That the "maker" is indeed constructing that object. Its a concept I respect and seek out and value highly. In a world of mass production having things in ones home that indeed was made by the person who envisioned that item to begin with seems powerful. I understand why some would seek to become designers and therefore become more profitable, but I'll still be the person valuing the vase I know you made vs one that was manufactured elsewhere.

dahlhaus said...

Thanks for your input Tami- I do really appreciate that there are still people who week out work that's purely handmade still.
Ps my comment feed got spammed, hence the deleted comments.

arianek said...

I grew up around a large and well-valued artisan community in Saskatchewan. My mom and my godmother were part of the spinning and weaving guild when I was younger, and we always bought locally handmade pottery for ourselves and as gifts.

This valuing of handmade and "slow" made goods is so important in this global economy of more, cheaper, faster. And as far as Etsy, I love what they stood for (and I do have a tiny shop there), but I really do fear that with the new changes they are watering down the commonly accepted definition of "handmade". I think it's important to be clear and transparent about what really is handmade, rather than what has a "handmade" look or feel, but is really just designed by a single person instead of a company.

jeanette said...

The changes etsy has made is disheartening but not unexpected. Something so large and perceived as profitable is bound to be co-opted by larger companies/corporations. And the makers/designers that have found success are looking to make more profit. And they perceive manufacturing as a way to do that. Or manufacturing companies are looking for a way to gain a market share in a niche that they don't belong to.

For myself, I understand the desire to streamline the production process. But that isn't enjoyable to me. Sure, I could hire someone to do this step or that step. Or hire out form production. But I like that part. A lot. I have no desire to manage others. I have a desire to make. And so I have chosen to live within the boundaries of what that means economically to my life.

It is a shame that the word "handmade" has become so diluted.

dahlhaus said...

Thanks for piping in arianek and jeanette!
I agree that the changes on Etsy aren't exactly unexpected. For a while now I have wondered how some small Etsy shops grew so fast, or have been a bit surprised that some shops remain on Etsy's site despite seeming and being larger entities, so I'm glad Etsy is acknowledging this.

I have done a lot of soul searching in the past few years about the level of my production in order to be profitable and have come to the realization that making measures to being more profitable would change the core values I have about what I do and how I make.