My partner Anna is a contemporary jeweller. Everything she makes is handmade. Apart from a few power tools and a gas torch Anna only uses hand tools. What she lacks in precision is made up for with touch, and an eye for the less-than-perfect ‘ideal’. Even using the same design, no two pieces are the same and yet they are made with the same love and attention (and if truth be told, a modicum of frustration and angst).
All handmade goods have something of the maker in them. When a handmade object is acquired, an invisible human bond is created between the maker and the user. You simply don’t get this bond in mass-manufactured ‘whatevers’.
Anna really gets a kick when someone buys her jewellery. She usually doesn’t know the purchaser but she is still very grateful. As the purchaser you may not personally know the maker but you do know they are person and not a faceless, heartless machine owned by a faceless, heartless business.
‘Handmade’ implies slow and deliberate. If handmade goods are made in a rush, it shows. With very few exceptions, handmade objects are not disposable. Disposability is for cheap junk. Why go to all the effort of making something beautiful by hand just to throw it out?
Many people think that handmade means second-rate and unaesthetic. This is probably a response to the amateur, unattractive hobby crafts practiced by proud but untalented family members. However, being handmade has also always implied the highest quality goods made by master craftspeople who have enormous talent, training and experience. Whether it’s clothes, shoes, pottery, furniture, knives, tools, jewellery, even beer, or anything else, there are master craftspeople making the highest quality objects by hand.
From a sustainability point-of-view there are many benefits inherent in handmade goods. They lend themselves to local production for local consumption. Also, the craft production process tends to be less wasteful of materials and other resources. Handmade goods use much less energy, both in the actual production and in the tooling. Handmade goods are more likely to use natural materials; plastic is not a common material! Recycled or repurposed materials are more likely to be used too. As mentioned, handmade goods are well-made to last, their durability being both physical and emotional.
It is shameful that in the so-called developing economies of world, many goods are handmade in factory-sized sweatshops. These hand workers are being used like machines. Marx’s criticism that the worker is used like a cog in a machine, alienated from his or her human nature and self-determination, is being lived out by millions of workers in developing countries.
However, prior to the industrial revolution, and subsequently kept alive in arts and crafts enclaves, and now making a big comeback, professional handmaking is the opposite of alienation. It allows artisans and craftspeople to determine and express their individuality, their skill, their love and their passion. These are real, sustainable aspects of human well-being, and we should all strive for them, both as makers and as patrons.