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…