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Is Handmade Really Better? August 23, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.
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You’ll probably think this is a strange question coming from someone who owns no less than a half-dozen glue guns, over 100 sets of rubber stamps, and has enough yarn in the house to open my own shop, but I’m not sure that something being handmade automatically makes it better, or worth more, than something commercially produced.

I mention this because in the world of handmade things, there seems to be an over-reaching assumption that an item made by one person with his or her two hands has more inherent value than something produced by many hands on an assembly line, or–God forbid–a machine.  The general consensus is  that handmade items should be priced higher, and in some cases way higher, than what is available commercially.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but if I allow that being made by human hands increases the perceived value, I reserve the right to assert that there are different degrees of handmade and many levels of skill and not all of them are worthy of the higher price tag.

I’m thinking about a conversation on the Etsy forums recently.  A seller was upset at negative feedback she received on one of her products.  The buyer bought some of her handmade lotion for his girlfriend and she didn’t like it, and he said so, basically saying her handmade-with-love lotions were sub-par.  And the responses were…odd.

I mean, I’m sure they were just trying to be supportive of the poster.  But the comments were things like “Some people just don’t value handmade.” I came away with the feeling that if you prefer Oil of Olay to a batch of lotion someone whipped up in their kitchen, you’re some sort of a Philistine.

What does thinking a handmade product is crap have to do with not valuing it as a handmade item?  I mean, I’m sitting here possessed of a couple of containers of handmade lip balm that I’m not crazy about.   Compared to my Avon mass-produced lip balm, they suck.  I’m not a Philistine.  I appreciate handmade stuff.  But these products are waxy, kind of gritty, and feel weird on my mouth.  I’m glad I was able to support a fellow crafter and all, but I could have bought twice as much Avon with the same amount of money.  Sorry, but the Avon is better.

I’m not one of them, but I know people who don’t buy handmade because to them it’s synonymous with “home made” and that has connotations of amateurishness about it.  I always think about the Little House books and how a premium was put on things that were “store-boughten”.  Almanzo coveted a friend’s earflap cap and considered his own hand-knit wool cap to be inferior.  Laura loved her handmade rag doll because it was hers, but Nellie’s baby doll with the eyes that opened and closed blew her pioneer mind.

Now, of course, just about everything can be made by machine.  Store-bought brooms are the norm, rag dolls are museum pieces, and what of the perceived value between an ear-flap hat from some Big Store somewhere and a hand-knit wool cap made by a skilled knitter?  It’s still there, but the tables have turned.

That earflap hat was mass-produced on machinery by stitchers whose sole goal is to make as many as they can in as short a time as possible.  Perhaps they get paid by the piece, which is entirely likely, so the more they sew, the more money they make, and the more hats they make, the more go to market.  They’re not a luxury item anymore.  Everyone can afford a hat from the store.

But that knit wool cap is still being made the same way Mrs. Wilder made her hats all those years ago: by hand.  After her long day’s work was done, Mrs. W. would relax in the evenings with her family and what amounted to still more work for her.  She’d have her knitting basket and be making hats, mittens, and stockings to keep her family warm through the New York winters.

Later on in the books, Laura talks about how by the time she was a teenager she was working for a seamstress, even though she loathed sewing.  At one point she worked making buttonholes on men’s shirts.  She hated it so much she learned to do it as fast as possible and was able to work 60 buttonholes in an hour.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t even do a buttonhole a minute on my sewing machine.

That was then, of course, and this is now.  Since then, we’ve had an industrial revolution, and the way we make things changed forever.  The earflap hat from the store is commonplace, and a hand-knit hat is something special.

Usually.

I find that even on Etsy, there’s still a mindset of “make as many sales as you can”.  To that end, there are sellers who claim to embrace the handmade aesthetic, but are still making what I’ve come to think of as Laura Ingalls Buttonholes.   There is a top-seller on Etsy who knits and crochets hats by the hundreds.   She works 12 hours a day and can make many of them a day.  She uses bulky, inexpensive yarn and simple patterns and sells a ton of them, and makes a ton of money.

But I wonder, even though the hats are made by hand, if that’s the kind of thing I think of when I think of “handmade.”   What makes that hat any more special than a similar hat hand knit by a woman getting paid by the piece in a factory somewhere?  Setting aside the human exploitation of buying sweatshop products, and taking out the consideration that if you are an American, you are supporting an American business, and just looking at the item itself on its own merits, why is that mass-produced hat any better than the one made in China using the same techniques, cheap yarn, and oft-repeated pattern?   What really makes something “handmade”?  To me, and this isn’t snobbiness in any way, the hats themselves that are being churned out by the Etsy seller are not inherently more desirable than the ones being made by a nameless, faceless knitter in a far-away place and resold at a Big Store because there’s no real heart in the final product.   It is, in the end, just a product, a way to make some money, and nothing more.

I guess for me it’s the idea that each handmade item is original in some way because of the inspiration behind it.  Maybe it’s knowing that a crafter made a certain thing on a creative whim, or maybe it’s seeing detailed and intricate work that just can’t be cranked out.  So I confess that I find myself underwhelmed by shops that have “best selling items” in their inventory.  It means they’re making what sells, and for me, that’s when the perceived value goes down.  My “how much would I pay for this” total goes down.

And we’re back around to perceived value.  “How much would you pay for this?”  I think it’s the question everyone asks himself before making a purchase.  How much is this particular item worth to me?  We do our mental calculations on the spot, taking into account all kinds of factors we might not even be conscious of considering.  I realize that my price ceiling varies on where I’m shopping.   I realize that if I see something that’s not unique, my perceived value of the item drops.

And the degree of handmade is important to me, which I’m finding out is a sensitive topic among some crafters.  “Craftier than thou” is a favorite slam among Etsy sellers, but the truth as I see it is that yes, there are some people who are craftier than thou.  Some crafts can be done by anyone with opposible thumbs, where others can only be accomplished by an artisan with years of experience.  I value skill.  I will pay more for it.   Maybe it’s why I find myself aggravated by crafters who have figured out how to mass-produce their items with minimal skill, time, and effort and charge premium prices because they can call it “handmade.”   But hey, caveat emptor, and all that.

I think that there’s a limit to how much value is added by being handmade.  I think that all handmade is not created equal.  I think there are things that I’d rather buy commercially-produced from a big company than from an individual artisan.  I think that because something can be both handmade and mass-produced at the same time, the one rather cancels out some of the value of the other.

Of course, that idea is not popular in the handmade community, so let’s just keep it between ourselves, okay?

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Comments»

1. Trillian42 - August 23, 2011

Honestly, I agree with you. There’s a big difference between “made by hand with attention, care, and love” and “cranked out without a thought”. Should people be paid fairly for their time? Sure, which means that the handmade hat that is cranked out in an hour will cost more than one fom a factory, but the carefully handcrafted one should cost still more to my mind.

2. Jenn - August 23, 2011

I agree with you on this one. The plushies that I make are all in some way unique, and I don’t just sit down and go “I’ll make X of pink octopuses today, and tomorrow I’ll make a blue dragon” and so on.
I put a lot of time and effort making my patterns and experimenting with my designs, and I expect to be fairly paid for it, versus using a commercial pattern and lower quality materials.

3. Weeza - August 26, 2011

Poops, you and Trillian hit the nail on the head. Mass produced is mass produced no matter who did the making.


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