Handmade seems like a simple word, right? It’s things made with, well, our hands. But I use a sewing machine. And I work with long-arm quilters. And I design on a computer. Heck, my last quilt used a computer-aided long-arm and I am diving into machine embroidery. So, here’s the question: are any of these things handmade? Which ones? Why?

Now, you certainly didn’t think I was going to leave it there, did you? I’m not one to ask questions without being willing to try to give them a go myself.

So, as an artist who has frequently utilized tools and the assistance of others and technology, and who has done more than dabble in performance and ephemeral art that last only minutes (remind me to tell you the story of how I was arrested during one performance piece), the idea of making has long been a complicated one for me. Within the current craft world handmade seems every bit as complicated as the idea of making was in the museum art world, especially in those postmodern 1990s.

There are some who would stick to what they regard as a traditional view that handmade stems from “true” hand work, needle and thread in your hands with no other tool. It seems to me that this stems from a desire to do things like they were done, to preserve something. While I love doing hand embroidery, I feel like this may be a bit narrow of a perspective. I know that my great-grandmother was more than happy to make use of her treadle sewing machine rather than hand-stitch, and that that machine was set aside in favor of a motorized sewing machine when that became available.

The adoption of new technologies is not a new phenomenon; it is simply a fact of life and part of the evolution of a tradition. Most of my wife’s grandmother’s quilts are neither hand-pieced, not hand-quilted, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are truly handmade objects. But then where do we draw the line? What is the difference between using a domestic sewing machine and long-arm for quilting? Is it cheating to use a die-cutter, because that is another step away from hand labor?

Some may see this as a slippery slope, a diminishing of hand skills, of tradition, of the beauty of the craft; I see it very differently. With every new tool we expand the vocabulary, add new possibilities to the practice and the tradition. I think it is a mistake to see the different techniques, skills, and forms as attempts at replacing “traditional” practices, as competitors. Instead I am always excited to see new approaches, which bring in new voices to a wide-ranging and extraordinary practice. But I am not sure if I am getting any closer to figuring out the word handmade, yet.

I’ve long been a fan of the idea of makers, those who make things regardless of the technique. Makers are those who make rather than buy, those who are actively engaged in the process and practice of making in order to figure out what can be made, things that matter. But what concerns me is that in reserving handmade for those older hand-craft techniques we reinforce a tendency that already exists in the quilting world: that those who hand-quilt are “real quilters” while the rest of us are just taking shortcuts. That all-too-present hierarchy in some circles just misses the point of method: no method is fundamentally better or truer than another, what matters is whether the method, the tools, are appropriate to project at hand.

It may be strange, but I am not sure if the hands are the ultimate arbiter of handmade. To me handmade is more of an ethos than a particular practice. It stands not in difference to machine-produces, but mass-produced. I see handmade as a recognition that individual things matter, and intimate engagement with the thing at hand, whether there be a machine between the thing and my hand or not. Over the past century handmade has evolved from a necessity to a concept; as the tools have changed so have out practices. What once fulfilled basic needs became a hobby, and as of late it has truly morphed into a counterculture, a form of protest.

And here is the real point: if we want handmade to survive as a concept I am pretty sure we’re going to have to continue to embrace new tools and understandings within that umbrella. Those hand crafts are not likely to go away, but like any tradition, the idea is bigger than any of its parts. Handmade matters, those older, hand practices truly do matter, but so does the larger idea of making. Maybe handmade has become too narrow of a word, but I am perpetually wary of segregation; we need a way to recognize the differences in practices while still embracing the larger similarities. Honestly, I don’t think we need yet another new term like “techno-guided handmade” because luckily we already have a truly amazing tool for understanding that difference does not necessarily mean division, the subtlety of human thought…


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8 Responses to Handmade???

  1. 1
    mjb says:

    There was a line in the recent issue of Stitch Style that bothered me: about Jenny Gordy’s Wiksten, it said “all of her clothes are made by hand”. While I understand the intent to say she doesn’t send them to a factory for manufacturing but makes them herself, I have trouble with the difference between work like hers, sewn by the designer, and that of Natalie Chanin, whose clothes are all stitched by hand by needle and thread, but who uses contract workers in rural Alabama. If Jenny used contract workers or manufacturing, she could lower the per unit cost, even though they were still made by the same processes and machines. She’s chosen instead to stop making fashion lines and focus on designing sewing patterns instead. Denyse Schmidt has quilts hand quilted by Mennonite women, while major manufacturers have them hand quilted by Chinese women in sweatshops. Aside from the quality of the work and the treatment of the workers, how do we evaluate them as being more or less handmade? Aren’t all hands who make equal as humans?

    Sorry I know that rant is a little different from your comment here about technology, but there are lots of issues surrounding handmade and the use of machines.

    • 1.1
      thomas says:

      Those are indeed valuable and important questions, as are all understandings of the way we think and talk about human labor and dignity. I have more than plenty to say about all of that, as one might guess from a lot of my work, but will have to do so later. But thank you for adding that in here. Yay you!!!

  2. 2
    A says:

    My biggest problem with hand made is that those quilts sold in Macy’s at about $20 each are made by hand. I had one given to me (What do you give a quilter? A quilt. Apparently.”, after one washing it a seam or two popped – that had been sewn by hand & the quilting is done by hand as well…

    For me the hand made come about more from the fact that I get to choose the fabrics. I get to fussy cut them & I could choose where to put them in my quilt… (I got for random, so where the pieces land is a happy accident.)

    • 2.1
      thomas says:

      That again brings some of the issues from the first comment into play. To be brief, I do not think “made by hand” and “handmade” necessarily mean the same thing. Exploitative labor is still exploitative whether it involves just hands or hands and machines; mass-production is still mass-production. It should not ignore the value of those workers as human beings, but I think we need to find a way that differentiates various types of making practices.

  3. 3
    Joanna says:

    My feelings on this topic have really changed over the past year. I learned to quilt in the ’80s and the quilting community I was part of definitely considered machine quilting to be cheating. I strayed from quilting after only a year or two and only recently came back to it as I discovered the resurgence with the modern quilting movement. While I still hand quilt my work, I’ve come to see that machine quilting isn’t cheating, it’s just a different approach with different advantages and disadvantages. Both are valid.

    Handmade, handcrafted, home-cooked all have the same problem you mentioned. I guess what it comes down to for me is the distinction between being made by an individual, and possibly their community, and being made by a mass production technique. It’s never been an issue that quilts are made with mass produced fabrics, mass produced threads, or mass produced needles. Some of the tools and materials used in quilting have not been handmade for generations, so this slippery slope started a long time ago. For me, as long as someone is still intimately involved with some of the design choices and the process of assembly, I’m still mostly comfortable with considering it handmade.

    Mostly. But that’s subject to change as I think about it more.

  4. 4
    Rafael's mum says:

    Apart from all the very valuable arguments made above,on a slightly different slant,I often wonder about comments people make like “did you use a machine? did you use a longarm?” and then a very disappointed “Oh” follows after which the work gets dismissed as ‘machine, industrial, not your own work’, Who do they think operates the sewing machine/longarm? After all it’s not as if the machine does it on its own (with the exception of computerized longarms of course, but even they cannot do custom quilting). Do they ask a carpenter who made a beautiful cabinet “did you use a hammer and chisel?” oh well then…

  5. 5
    Kathryn says:

    These are all very interesting comments and give much to think about. My own personal definition of handmade is work I have done from start to finish regardless of the tools used. My quilting may not be perfect but it is mine. Somehow sending a piece off to be quilted by someone else may produce beautiful results but they are not my results.

  6. 6
    Marguerite says:

    I’m relatively with Kathryn – I know people who paid someone else to quilt their pieced top will claim to have made it themselves and not mention the contract labor until asked, but I’m not comfortable with that. (Possibly because you’re calling yourself a quilter when you’re actually paying someone else to quilt and not doing it yourself.) Of course, I have no problem saying my parents built their own house, when my father did truly hammer in nails but mainly just worked with a builder and construction crew. And, indeed, there are exceptions to my did-it-myself rule the other direction — I often see people advertising “hand-knit” items for sale produced on a knitting machine, where it takes a knowledgeable person to look at the product and not just the words. I suppose that’s most similar to describing a quilt as hand quilted when it’s machine or longarm, though – perhaps the accurate term would be homemade rather than handmade, really.

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