With the rise of websites like Etsy, handmade and DIY culture has become mainstream. Handmade culture has brought a swirl of debate about how products should be made. “Artsy” culture tends to eschew machine made and mass-produced products as cold and soulless. Others see buying expensive “artisanal” items as a wasteful artifact of wealth. Words like “hipster” get thrown around, human rights and the environment get dragged in, and the debate rapidly turns to chaos. So how did this whole thing start? The culture of handmade has existed since the beginning of recorded history. Humans have always been the “tool species.” Our ancient ancestors adopted new tools and technology as a survival mechanism. They spent their waking moments constantly working to feed and shelter themselves. Anything that could lessen the drudgery was incorporated immediately. They didn’t have the luxury of eschewing new technology, because it could mean the difference between life and death.
From this struggle has come the incessant innovation that sets humanity apart. In the beginning, what we would call “handmade” was the only option because there were no machines. In this way the culture of handmade objects was both all-encompassing and obligatory.
As manufacturing technology improved, the range of machine made products grew. Tasks that would have been slave or peasant labor were simplified and done by machines. Machinery became more capable of making things that previously could only be made by hand. In the last few hundred years, machinery has improved exponentially, and today the range of products that must be made by hand is small and shrinking. We have machines now (like 3D printers) that can do wonderful and fantastic things, and the future of technology is only going to get more awesome.
To those of us immersed in handmade culture, the increasing capabilities of machines can seem like a threat. This isn’t a new threat; for every new technological development, there have been lives upended, livelihoods lost, and cultural wars waged. Greek philosophers were said to be suspicious of the newfangled technology of writing, claiming that removing the need for rote memorization would turn the youngsters’ brains to mush. This pattern has repeated with every labor-saving device invented.
Today, the claim is that machines and mass-production extract the art and personality out of everything to line the pockets of CEOs. To a degree, this is an illusion. Today’s mass production does have a lot of problems with human rights and the environment. These problems are real and urgent, but it is not mass production and machinery itself that is causing them. To the contrary: Technology allows us new ways of being human and to reach places and ideas we could never have before. It was never the physical tools we made that made us different, it was our capacity to imagine and create.
Mass production and machines do not destroy our creativity. Instead, machine made and handmade operate on different scales. The seeming conflict is in choosing what manufacturing method to use for what items. Natural variation is desirable in suncatchers but undesirable in gears. Mass-production is essential for car parts but not for wedding gowns. Shoes can be personal. Condoms? I’d rather not. We need both machine made and hand made; there is space for both in the land of products.
We could say that handmade is valuable because it creates a different range of products that machines cannot. This is true, but not the point. Only today is handmade now a cultural choice instead of a survival problem (and only in the developed world). Today we can afford to buy items that are made carefully by hand while a cheap mass produced version is available. Instead of obligatory, handmade is now artisanal. Buying handmade means supporting a degree of attentiveness and quality.
Long ago, the obligatory handmade space was the entire cultural space. People, no matter their intelligence or creativity, were stuck just trying to survive. But now machines do the simple things while artists and makers create exceptional high-quality or customized things. The difference between obligatory and artisanal handmade is one of quality, necessity, and respect. For the makers themselves, handmade is a fulfillment of their creative urges and potential.
There are still places in the world where technology is the border between life and death. The people there (the poor of all places and countries) are caught still trying to survive. Valuing their handmade (their creativity and resourcefulness) through websites like Etsy and Kiva are ways of giving them the capital to invest in the technology they need. Hands freed from drudgery free minds in turn. How many hands are there now in the poor places of the world, turned to survival that could be creating new art and science and knowledge?
Handmade does not literally mean made by hands. It means attention, care, dedication, and freedom. It means personal fulfillment and creativity. It means waking up and wanting to go to work. It means connection to your sources and customers and awareness of the world.
That is the true value of handmade.
This essay comes with some notes.
First Note: I use the word artisanal in this essay to mean a good of exceptional quality. Despite great effort I failed to find a satisfying word; neither luxury nor artisanal really means what I want here. This probably says something about our society that we have words for “frivolous expensive item” but not for “high quality genuinely good item.”
Second Note: I can’t overstate the unimaginable amount of labor saved by machinery. Survival literally took the entire day. Without power and machines, tasks that take the push of a button today were hours of back-breaking labor or just straight-up unavailable. This goes for everything from washing clothes to grinding corn to calculating logarithms. There has always been a lower class that did the work while “high class” people thought of ideas. Historically, women, slaves, peasants, servants, and graduate students were all various forms of “low class labor” that got the tedious yet essential tasks. The problem with that social model is that all people have the potential for great art and discovery, and arbitrarily deciding that 50% of the population is made for cotton picking means 50% of the potential art and knowledge is gone.
Third Note: I don’t claim to know the magic button to solve the problem of there being poor and disadvantaged people. Clearly the problem is complicated. What I do know is that there are a lot of creative and resourceful people who are stuck; all they need is to become unstuck, get their foot in the door, and they can manage the rest themselves.
Fourth Note: There are still a lot of things machines cannot do, or at least not without direct human oversight. I suspect that this will continue to be true for a long time.
Fifth Note: As stated, “handmade” does not literally mean “made by hand.” It means having the luxury to give something proper attention, be it raising pigs or making jewelry. It’s the difference between grinding corn because if you don’t you won’t eat tonight and grinding corn for your high-quality cornmeal you can sell at a premium.