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 (http://www.xing-can.com/index.htm) 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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