The Artists

I guess one of the most important points that occurs to me as I read through these “case studies” is that one can be very creative, resourceful, and have all sorts of good qualities as a person, and still be doing work that does not necessarily fit the criteria for workmanship, hand-making, hand-crafting, etc. Carol comments that she now uses the term “handcrafted,” and that is reasonable – “handcrafting” does not require that one is actually making something from scratch, but would seem to imply that arrangement, placing elements together artistically, and so forth, counts; and the fact that ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) is clearly accepted as a fine art would point in this direction as well. But still, one might want to ask: If what Stacy and Mari do is “handcrafting,” then what category should we put what Lian does all day into? Surely Lian is also handcrafting, by this definition. She is painting; she may not be actively designing her mug, but it takes talent and skill to do the kind of decoration that she is doing, and it seems as though that should count for something. Working in a factory to create small items would seem to be a form of handcrafting, however supervised one might be while one does this handcrafting. What makes us think, and perhaps we do think this instinctively, that Lian is not “creating,” but that Stacy and Mari are? Stacy is surely as far away from “design” as Lian, and at times perhaps farther—Stacy is responding to and recapitulating the designs that she sees around her in the commercial marketplace, essentially. Mari does the same thing: she is not interested in going to school to become a jewelry-maker or studying metallurgy; she is having fun and exercising her creativity and making a profit from doing what she is doing. Why shouldn’t we call Mari’s and Stacy’s and Lian’s work “handcrafting”?

Now, there are many significant differences among the atmospheres in which Stacy, Lian, Ai-Shi, Mari, and Sarah are working; there are socioeconomic differences, which have not been emphasized, among them as well. Lian does not seem to be in a good enough economic position to do “stay at home” work; Ai-shi does not get to practice her actual lacemaking skills very often, and does not use them for income—but she does create twine and knotted cord and decorative curtain fastenings as her income-producing work; Mari uses her crafting ability for income, but is not yet working a full-time job as a crafter, although she may, sometime in the future, if she can juggle her home duties and make time for a start-up business and all the stress that entails.

But despite all these differences, we can notice some similarities: all the handcrafters we have discussed make some money from what they are doing; they all have a hand in creating something that is useful, or decorative, or both, and these somethings do get sold. Instead of talking about “dividing lines,” and when someone (apparently) is “no longer making handmade objects,” or is “no longer handcrafting,” perhaps we could use a different kind of standard to help us think about what is going on. I suggest that money is a good thing to consider: not just whether money is given in exchange for the goods created, but in what way the artist in each of these cases, for I would call every one of these women artists, is remunerated for her work.

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Defining Handmade, Part One-Point-Seven-Five…

OK, here’s another scenario: Ai-shi is a macrame and twine maker at a textile mill in Michigan that produces nylon braids, cordage for curtains, and macrame twine, which Ai-shi’s department creates. (The firm is like this one, with around 30 employees: She was hired (she was told) because of her excellent skills (most folks are trained on the job), but those skills were never used, and she rarely has a chance to exercise any initiative on the job: essentially, she sits or stands at a large table or at a wall unit all day every day and either works a complex, automated loom that creates and twists nylon cord, knotted twine, and macrame twine, or does “finishing” (hand-coats or dips the twine and cordage in a chemical finish to enhance the colors and make it more durable). Overall, it is a little dull, but it’s a living; the conditions are not awful, although there have been many layoffs, and the chemicals are noxious (but workers wear gloves and masks). Ai-shi belongs to the union at the mill, which makes sure that breaks and lunch half-hours are observed, that pay is decent, that seniority is observed, and that layoffs are not done in a biased way. At home, Ai-shi (who is actually a lacemaker by training) creates her own doilies and lace tablecloths as well as bibs for her kids’ dresses, and in addition to giving lace pieces away to friends and family she has sold her work online occasionally, but with a 40+ hour workweek at the mill, she does not have the energy to make a business out of this. She does however use the twine and macrame cord to “do arts and crafts,” and she occasionally makes macrame jewelry from salvaged mill cord.

And yet another scenario: Mari buys small charms and cheap but pretty gemstones, feathers, and charms from a local Vietnamese party store as well as from various flea markets around Omaha, and uses them, along with pre-made fishhook earring wires that she buys at Michael’s or from an online supplier, to create cute earrings. She is a stay-at-home Mom, and she sells her earrings on Etsy to help out with the home finances. She has never taken a jewelry-making course, and really isn’t interested in doing anything fancy, but her friends love her creations, and so do her Etsy customers; and she enjoys mixing and matching colors and charms, and finds the work relaxing. She has looked at a few online sites to figure out how to create necklaces and bracelets, and may branch out soon. Her business is so brisk that she’s actually considered hiring her daughter’s friend on a regular basis to help her with assembly and packaging.


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Defining Handmade, Part One-Point-Five…

Now let’s meet Stacy.

Stacy is a stay-at-home mother of three boys. Stacy lives in suburban Ohio, and she has always been considered the “creative one” in her family. Being energetic and capable, she has been not only running the household from day to day, but also maintaining an active crafting regimen, beginning with the knitting she did to prepare for the birth of each of her children, and continuing through the many cross-stitching projects she completed to decorate their rooms, the sewing she did regularly to keep down costs associated with school clothing, and her crazy appliqué and ink-stamping and paper craft obsessions, which make holidays festive for everyone.

To keep up her crafting, Stacy happily relies on supplies from Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Wal-Mart, Etsy, and on-line venues of every kind. A few years ago, a friend told her about a site online where she could download pictures of her craft items and sell them for some extra cash. To her surprise, this really worked well: Stacy uses several such e-commerce sites now, and sells several items per week, which brings her great satisfaction and some pocket money, which she generally spends on the kids’ needs.

Stacy’s main online sales have been of cards that she creates by stamping and folding machine-made paper; she also sells quite a lot of barettes and girls’ hair combs, to which she adds beads and plastic decorations with thread and plastic wire. The beads and plastic decorations she buys in small packs from Hobby Lobby or another hobby store. During the holidays, she often sells wreaths made on the same principle: she buys pre-fab wire wreath skeletons, and adds pre-fab plastic components to create colorful decorations. When she picks up some nice appliqués at the hobby store, she often goes to Wal-Mart, picks up some inexpensive t-shirts, adds the appliqués, and sells those, too. She loves scrapbooking, and sometimes sells her extra scrapbook stickers as “destash.”

Is Stacy doing “handmade”?

Hmm. None of the materials that Stacy uses are anything other than machine manufactured. Stacy assembles these materials cleverly and attractively. But is she “making” the objects that she sells? Etsy says so; other “handmade” sites tell her “yes,” too. She can sell her “destash” under “supplies” in many venues, and no worries.

But is she really making things by hand in the way that a carpenter makes things from raw materials? Not only are her materials machine manufactured: they are already finished designs. When Stacy irons a brightly colored fish appliqué, made on an assembly line in Malaysia by hands, most certainly, but not by Stacy’s hands, onto a pair of turquoise shorts she picked up on sale at Kmart, which were assembled in the Dominican Republic from cotton cloth processed and dyed and cut elsewhere … is she “doing handmade”? When Stacy uses beads produced in a small factory in the Philippines, and plastic wire produced in a factory in southern California, and decorates plastic combs that were mold-made in a large plant in Taiwan, what exactly is she making by hand? And should we be worried about the workers who created all those pieces that Stacy buys so cheaply and uses in her creations? Should the designers of those beads and appliques get credit, or more money, or…?

So, you see what I mean…

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Defining Handmade, Part One

It’s not as easy as it looks. Let’s start with the idea of making actual concrete items with one’s hands.

For example, you may own a mug that was produced by Lian, Guan-yin, and their friends, who are workers in the Kedali Ceramic Factory in Fengxi, Chaozhou, China. These women produce ceramic forms by means of mold injection and roller and ram press die, and some of them have the task of decorating them afterwards with wholesale solid pigments ground on location. They are some of the 250 workers who work at this plant. A woman who has the job of decoration paints the molded shape of the mug by hand with specific designs that she has been trained to sketch and color; or sometimes she dips or sprays a mug, and applies decals & glazing; the colors will be fixed by firing later.

The company ( ships in quantity to “Europe, America, middle east, and some developed countries and regions” [sic], and to judge from the generic but pleasant and proficiently executed designs you see on its website (check out the four tall mugs labelled T058), you might well have seen their products in a local Hallmark, WalMart, Kmart, or other store that sells porcelain ware. Your mom or friend might have given you one of these once, maybe with candy added. You may even have picked one up at a Dollar Store, or seen one in a tourist shop on the German Rhein.

You may also own another mug, made by your friend Sarah in Brooklyn who works in her studio every day, teaches ceramics at a local college, is a member of a pottery collective that sells its members’ handmade wares at Holiday Markets around the area, and finds and grinds her own pigments. Sarah uses good quality clay to throw her mugs and pots, and she also decorates her mugs by hand. She uses a wheel, and sometimes presses designs into the wet clay to create textures or patterns. She usually works alone. Very few of her mugs are intended to be similar to other mugs; she does not design for “sets,” and she tries not to duplicate her own patterns, although she works in a certain “style.” She gave you this particular mug as a gift, and it is intended to be one of a kind, although you often see similar shapes and colors produced in her workshop.

If we are being literal about our definition, Sarah’s mug has been handmade in both formation of the mug’s shape (she uses a potter’s wheel) and glazing and decoration; the mug by Lian and her friends at the Kedali Ceramic Factory has been hand painted and possibly hand glazed (and it may have been dunked by hand into glaze before firing). The formation of the actual mug was done before Lian ever saw it (although one of her friends may have been responsible for this part of the process), through pouring ceramic into molds, or by mechanical extrusion. If the equipment at the Factory is of the more sophisticated kind, most of the pouring, processing, and molding will have been able to be done through the flip of a switch.

Neither Sarah’s mug nor Lian’s mug has been handmade in the sense that the materials used in their creation were made entirely from scratch: Sarah does make her own pigments, but she does not excavate her own clay and refine it for use in her kiln. Lian’s pigments are in fact ground fresh on the factory site. Sarah may use chemical additives to enhance her colors’ lifespan, or their ability to withstand kiln firing. The liquid porcelain used in Lian’s mug is equally pre-fabricated; but she does not shape it by hand.

If we extend the definition of “handmade” to include intellectual property (i.e. design), we can add that Sarah’s mug was designed by her. The mug created and painted by Lian was most likely not designed by her, but may have been designed by some graphic artist employed by the factory in its “design development department,” and influenced strongly by workers in its marketing research department, who might be comparing the output of Kedali with buying patterns on the market. Sarah, on the other hand, has also had to find her “niche,” and she has many repeat buyers, whom she depends on for her living; she has done market research, in effect.

True, Sarah probably learned her design techniques through courses with pottery experts, and most of her designs, although they are hers, also belong to the tradition of pottery-making in Brooklyn and the US and perhaps Europe or England. The items she makes – mugs, bowls, plates, goblets, etc. – are the traditional items that potters in these regions make. But the same could be said of the designing of the shapes and designs of Lian’s mugs, although since these are aimed at an export market the designers may have been working more from research on the “international market” than from traditional ways of Chinese potters and ceramics experts. There may be some overlap, however: Chinese porcelain has historically had an immense influence on the shapes and kinds of pottery used in Europe and the US.

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Should Art Be Free?

Recently, a very thought-provoking series of blog articles and responses on the “new” concept of “Free” as a way of networking in the internet crafting community has arisen; here is my response to an interesting one that I found by way of an Etsy posting; the original discussion is at the blog “Make and Meaning,”

I’m really enjoying reading this discussion, so thank you for starting it up! (and thanks to all for continuing it!)

I am a little worried about thinking about “Free” as a “new concept,” actually. I see what’s happening right now as a return to crafting as a serious endeavor, as we all kind of recover from having been washed over by the huge sea of “manufacturing” that took crafting and homemade items (clothing, kitchen utensils, toys, sewing equipment, all the way up to outhouses and barns) out of our view and replaced them with “store-bought.” This started maybe in the 19th century; and the beginning of the 20th century saw, in reaction, an incredible RISE in respect for folk arts and the handmade, namely the “Modern Craft Movement” of the 1900-1920s, even 1930s during the Depression when artists were funded to do and teach crafts by the WPA.

In the U.S. at least, manufacturing took over again during and after World War II, obviously, and made us all dependent on frozen food and such; crafting played a small part in the 1960s-70s counter-cultural movements, but it has really hit its stride as a market phenomenon only now.

In those contexts, “free” was the default for all crafts. No one got paid, pretty much for a very long time, for doing “folk art.” If the intelligentsia loved something that was “folk art,” and wanted to put it in a museum, they often paid nothing or very little for it from the “folk artist” herself, then turned around and ran it up to New York, and charged people to view it, and exorbitant prices to buy it. There’s always been a fight against this, but it’s also always happened, mainly because handcrafted items are incredibly devalued in the “manufacturing” world in which we live. So “free” was not something particularly good about the 20th century craft movement–it was due to devaluing of the crafts. Remember jokes about people taking “basketweaving” classes in college? with the joke being that they were taking something that took no brains, no work, nothing like what you would need to take a “real” course.

So I see our post-modern craft movement (if that’s an ok term to use) as a good way of countering the devaluing of crafts and “folk arts.” The fight, obviously, is with huge manufacturing concerns, in all countries of the world, that have a mechanized production process for goods that used to be only handmade, and pay the workers on their soulless production lines extremely little to produce a pretty sophisticated product. That product would need many, many hours of labor if done “by hand” by one person without the manufacturing process speeding it along through breaking down the steps in production into idiot-proof bite-sized chunks. The other option, also used by these sweatshops, is to abuse and threaten and “train” workers until they will do even sophisticated artisanal work faster and faster, and for less and less pay.

I’m not trying to argue that doing things “for free” is bad, and the folks in this discussion have shown that it can be in the long run good for a business — although it can be overdone (”The other thing is that when customers get used to getting things [ideas, advice, support, etc.] for free, it’s very hard to get them to pay for that later”). BUT: I think everyone should keep in mind that “for free” has historically meant “not valued.” If we’re going to use that concept to build a world in which capitalist hyper-production and exploitation of people’s work in sweatshops ceases to exist, and every worker gets a chance to have their work valued, then that’s awesome, and we should take steps to proselytize in that direction! (I can imagine really great leaflets handed out in sweatshops in different languages, handmade-workers supporting monetarily & otherwise a bunch of people banding together to refuse to work at certain kinds of soulless jobs, and prosecutions and boycotts of sweatshop overseers aimed at getting them to adopt different modes of manufacture!).

But if we think of “free” as something that’s just internal to our little part of the market, and continue to imagine that handmade items by *us* should be valued highly, but that 14-year-olds in China who work in gigantic sweatshops are outside the realm of “handmade,” then I think we’re going to be congratulating ourselves on achieving community without having actually taken up and publicized the real issue of handmade & craft, which is that it represents a challenge to the way that manufacturing has been carried on for centuries.

For me, handmade is really the dreams of labor activists come true–if you’ve ever read the utopian novel News from Nowhere (written by William Morris–yes, THAT William Morris, the furniture designer! mentioned and quoted before in this very blog!), you see what I mean: that utopia is predicated on a rediscovery, after a terrible calamity of capitalist greed, of beauty in handiwork as done by all members of society. Everything is free: the distribution system is responsive to need, and also everyone has an awareness of how things are made. You barter with your own skills for the services of others who have the kind of skill you want at the moment.

I know, woo-woo! But if that’s the kind of world we’re trying to build, then I think that we have to look WAY beyond “free as a marketing tool” and also way beyond “free as a way of connecting with others-of-our-own-social-class-and-general-lifestyle,” and start thinking of broader changes that the craft movement, our movement, could fuel.

Sorry this was so long–been thinking about this a long time!!


Oops! I see now that Patricia also wondered about the newness of free; and that there is a book about how the internet’s immenseness has fueled changes in our culture through easy sharing. Still, I think that a lot of people in the world, and in particular those whose handiwork is devalued to the point of wretchedness (i.e. sweatshop workers in all areas), are not able to participate in this newfound “easy sharing” of resources. That’s something for us all to tackle, I think, unless we want to become a kind of fortress of 1st world crafters! 🙂

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Craft is Art

As the title says… and it’s a tough thing to think about, of course, because of the way that the term “art” has gotten bandied about in its lifetime. Maybe it would be useful to go back to the ancient Latin term from which we get our word “art,” namely “ars,” which meant essentially “method” or “technique” or even “theory.” It was so strongly connected to the idea of technique, in fact, that the word was frequently used to mean something like “handbook,” as in the phrase “ars rhetorica,” rhetorical handbook (containing all the tricks you need to speak successfully in public), or “ars amatoria,” a handbook of love.

Even though “art” does not bear this meaning for us in English, it’s definitely worth pondering the origin in this case: you could say that the ancient Romans, at least, thought of “technique” as being essential in human-made items. Stretching a point, you might even want to translate “ars” as “craft” in some cases. Carpentry, for instance, is not recognized as a fine art, but it is certainly an “ars” in the Roman sense.

Looking toward the Greek world, one finds a similar phenomenon: the ancient Greek word that “ars” translates is “techne,” very literally “technique” or “method,” or “craft.” We get our words “technique,” “technical,” and “technology” from Greek “techne,” as fans of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are only too well aware.

Of course, just because the Greeks and Romans said a thing was something, doesn’t mean we need to think it’s the same thing. That would be a big fallacy. And yet, they may have had a point in this case. The modern realm of “fine art,” with its underpinnings of refined and honed style, gallery exhibitions, incredibly valuable oil paintings and sculptures, and (let’s face it) high finance and aristocracy, as has been pointed out many times but perhaps almost first by John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing (1972), was created during the European Renaissance, and embodies the beginnings of capitalism. Berger puts it this way: “[A] way of seeing the world, which was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange, found its visual expression in the oil painting, and could not have found it in any other visual art form. Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.” (Berger 87) Berger argued that intense realism, and in particular the attempt to capture on canvass the surface of the people and objects represented, was a sort of by product of the obsession of the ruling classes from 1500 on with their own possessions – and a sort of culmination of that obsession. For “To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house.” (Berger 83)

Robert Henri (Robert Henry Cozad, 1865-1929,, the famous anarchist artist, teacher of Edward Hopper, and leading light of the Ashcan School who got his artistic start in Atlantic City, New Jersey, reacted to the whole idea of this tradition succinctly: “What we need is more sense of the wonder of life and less of this business of picture-making!” What he meant was, I think, simply that all art is craft: that Morris was right about human nature, that human nature expresses itself in the creation of all kinds of beautiful works by hand, that the term “Great Masters” is at best questionable and at worst a kind of propaganda in favor of the landed aristocracy and the upper classes generally, and most of all that all human creation of beauty based in a “sense of the wonder of life” was in fact good art. It stood apart from the market, and value as determined by the capitalist system. It could even challenge that system, and with some luck overturn it and replace it with a set of systematic and teachable principles that anyone and everyone could and should grasp, use, and reorganize and reform, in order to realize their own artistic potential. Grassroots craft, freed from its capitalist roots, could awaken and change the entire world.

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What’s Art?

A modern version of the 19th century to early 20th century Arts and Crafts Movement is being created right now, in the US & Canada, and around the world. I think this is a good thing. I’d like to talk about it.

What is “arts and crafts”? In particular, is it the same as “art”? or “Art”? Many people seem to have been introduced to the concept of arts and crafts as children, in the form of elementary school participatory creativity, occasionally using grown-up, “official” artists’ materials such as paintbrushes, pastels, or watercolors, but most often using household items that come to hand: milk and egg cartons, tin cans, string, yarn, paper plates, bits of fabric, clothespins, paper lunch bags, … the list is almost endless, and I can associate each of these things with a particular “craft” project that we kids completed “in Art.” If we had been grown-ups instead of children, we might have called what we were doing “folk art,” and perhaps called the class we were taking to learn how to create it a “Folk Art Workshop” or “Craft Workshop.” As it was, we mostly just called the class in which we did this sort of thing “Art,” as in “Look what I made in Art today, Mom!”

But although many of us had the kind of childhood I just described, many other people out there were ahead of the curve. Just check out: California College of Arts & Crafts, Oregon College of Art and Craft, Madras College of Arts and Crafts, affiliated to Madras University, 31, E.V.R. Periyar High Road, Periamet Park Town, Chennai – 600003 Tamil Nadu, phone: (44) 25610878 Basically, I have had to re-examine what I thought about art, workmanship, and the work that goes into creating things generally. One theme from my childhood that I recall is wanting very badly to be able to make things–many things, like shoes and cards and quiche and dolls and hats and necklaces and skateboards and stationery and radios–that were typically “manufactured” and “supplied” to one in exchange for money. Kids have no money (we never even got “allowances” in my family); I figure this was my main motivation. But I also remember being intensely irritated by commercial products, especially ones that involved or were made from plastic in any way.

Plastic was not a natural material, and I knew it; anything made from it had been made by machine. Moreover, I knew that not all things were born wrapped in plastic. I knew that price tags were not a natural part of things, either. I ruthlessly removed any plastic wrapping and price tags from all our household and grocery items the minute they were brought inside. I was obsessed. I knew from books that cheese was not created sliced; I also knew that maple syrup did not contain anything but maple syrup, in real life. I knew that bread could be made from flour, water, and yeast, and that diglycerides and preservatives and whatever else was on the label of the plastic bag our bread came in were not really the basic bread ingredients that, say, Heidi’s Grandfather would have used while baking bread on his hearth in the Alps. I didn’t know how that bread might have been stored, but I knew it would never have been sold, most likely, and none of its life, certainly, was spent in plastic.

Even the word “product” annoyed me, implying as it did a mechanized manufacturing process that was out of the direct control of human hands. I don’t think it was just me, although maybe I had a stronger reaction than some others do to our world that takes “manu-facture,” literally “making by hand,” and turns it into the Fordian exercise in disintegration of personality and work that it has become.

At the very beginning of the modern age, before computers but not before the perversion of “manu-facturing,” there lived many brave souls who faced the mechanized future with open eyes, and who tried to improve it. They relied chiefly upon the idea that there really are some things that machines cannot do; that human labor and artistry would eventually be required in order to create many desirable and civilized things that humans cannot really do without. They believed that art is based deep in our human gene pool, and is not a talent residing in the occasional super-artist, but rather a deep human urge and need that surfaces relentlessly with no dependence on the spark of genius.

William Morris, for example, explains in his utopian story News from Nowhere that art and artistry are, in fact, the highest form of craftsmanship. If humans suffered through a kind of annihilation of their handiwork brought on by the use of machines, and survived the inevitable revolution that would follow in its wake and recapture leisure time for workers, they would naturally begin once again to create art–that is, to make “the work in hand… excellent of its kind,” and finally to succumb to a natural “craving for beauty.”

Check out Katherine Tyrrell’s wonderful blog to learn more about some aspects of William Morris’ art: You may also want to just check out Morris on to find out about his amazing erudition and savvy political and economic views.

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