Craft vs. Perfection

When mom was here over the holidays, we got to talking about “The Craft Revolution” and the recent increased popularity or perceived value of hand crafted items. She observed that the New Hand Made crafters aren’t as interested in tradition: they don’t necessarily strive for the appearance of perfection that traditional crafters achieve. As an example, she described sewn objects with large, visible stitches instead of invisible hand stitching.

At the time, I suggested this might just be a rejection of tradition, since the Craft Revolution has largely grown out of counterculture movements such as punk. (Who knew that knitting would become cool?)

Since then, I’ve revised my opinion. I now think Hand Made must distinguish itself, even in ways which might be considered negative, in order to survive and retain its value in our mass produced world.

Mass produced goods are often derided as either cheap knock-offs of finely hand-crafted items, or as ugly, poorly designed, inhuman objects. This is sometimes true, but it’s not the whole story. There are now many products which are well designed solely for the purpose of mass production. And not all mass production is done by machine: sometimes it is achieved through efficient upscaling of “hand made.”

Higher quality mass produced items, and the ability to produce goods with machine-like precision quickly by hand, have changed our perceptions about the quality and value of objects. If something looks perfect and could be mass produced, we now interpret this to mean that it must have been mass produced: otherwise, what would be the point? If a Chinese factory worker can sew 50 blouses perfectly in a 12 hour shift, where’s the value in me sewing one myself?

I’ve seen this in action on several occasions. Whenever Mom sends us hand made baby clothes, we comment that “they look just as good as store bought clothes!” We know they’re better, because we value the fact that they’re hand made by her; but we have the reaction despite our better knowledge. Another time, a patron at a bake sale irritatedly complained, “They can’t sell these, they’re from a bakery!” In fact, Marla baked them. They just looked too good to be home made.

These days, hand made items must distinguish themselves from mass production in order to be valued as being hand crafted. They can’t look like something a machine or fast human could produce. They might be imperfect. They might be perfect, but of a design that does not lend itself to mass production. One-of-a-kind or custom objects might fit the bill, but it has to be obvious that they’re unique.

Perfection becomes dangerous, in a time when well crafted items are misinterpreted as mass produced. But there are still many classes of objects which aren’t produced in large scale. For those who prefer a high degree of precision in their work, it’s probably best to choose a subject or medium which doesn’t lend itself to mass production.

  1. Alan, I wholly agree with your thoughts. In many ways it is just too hard to produce something handmade with the hope of making a living from it. Of course there are exceptions such as the handmade bikes that sell for $2,000. I think there is value in making things for yourself that you would otherwise buy. Sometimes it is cheaper, usually the quality is higher, and often the learning that goes into making it once means that it will be much easier the next time when whatever it is wears out.

    Nice post, there is a lot to think about here.


  2. I applaude those who make their living hand crafting high quality items, especially if they can do it while still enjoying the process. Too often, it ceases to be fun once it becomes a job.

    The hand made tools I use for chair building are an example of a niche which is better satisfied by hand than by machine: the tools are so infrequently used these days, that no one bothers to mass produce them (not ones that work, anyway). Few people bother hand building chairs, so the tools are even less common than the chairs.

    I definitely think there’s a place for hand-made, both as a hobby and as a job. But as with any business, keep your competition in mind.