Handmade’s Tale

At what point does something become handmade?

It’s easiest to show by example. Take a, I don’t know, candlestick. These can be made by computer-controlled lathes; all a human has to do is program ’em and feed ’em bits of tree, and voila, candlestick. Not exactly handmade.

If a human actually steps up to a lathe and turns the candlestick, is it then handmade? Or is that just a human operating a machine – “this car climbed Mount Washington” compared to doing it with your own two feet?

In that case, would a person have to hand-carve the thing using nothing but chisel and file for it to qualify as handmade?

And what of the ancillary matters of material and design? Would the person have to design the candlestick, or could they use a pattern? Can they buy the wood in the store, or do they have to cut down the tree too? If they chop the lumber, do they need to make the axe? What if they used a lathe, but built the lathe themselves?

If these might make a thing more handmade, doesn’t it follow that their absence makes a thing less?

I think that more and less betrays the fact that handmade-ness is not binary. It is a range.

Take a garment – a dress, a suit. On the one hand: you buy material; download a pattern; run it through your Singer. It’s a step up from buying the thing off the rack at Uniqlo – but just a step. On the other hand, you could make your outfit out of nothing but a pair of sheep staring up at you. It would involve numerous intermediary steps. It would force you to master – or at least, muster – a legion of techniques. It would put you so far from Entfremdung that you might risk summoning Ted Kaczynski. But the end product would be unassailably handmade. Handmade, as the poets say, af.

So it is a range – from simple assembly on one end, to preposterous made-from-scratch on the other. To define this range, then, I propose the following hierarchy.

The main qualities of any item are MATERIAL – DESIGN – FABRICATION. An item may be more or less handmade as to each of these categories. From least to most, a thing may be ASSEMBLED – PRODUCED – CREATED – MADE FROM SCRATCH – MADE FROM NOTHING.

Let’s go back to the garment-making example to illustrate.


An ASSEMBLED item is one where you just buy the materials at the store. You didn’t make the fabric. You just went to Joann Fabrics.

A PRODUCED item is one where you make the materials out of another made material. In the case of a garment, that would be knitting or weaving the fabric yourself – out of yarn you bought at Webs.

A CREATED item goes yet another step further back – spinning the thread, then weaving it, then stitching it.

An item made from SCRATCH is one where you have stepped back as far as is possible. You start from the basest possible ingredient – a sheep, a bushel of flax-stalks – and progress from there all the way to the finished product.

And then there’s MADE FROM NOTHING, wherein you are responsible for, not acquiring, but creating the basest scratch ingredients. That is to say, you have to raise the sheep yourself.

This applies to one’s TOOLS rather easily, as a tool is just a made item of a different sort. A scissors is just metal, which is the realm of metalwork. You could ASSEMBLE a scissors (or at least, a functional scissors-like thing) from items purchased at a hardware store. You could PRODUCE one by buying blank metal and then making it into scissor-piece shape. You could CREATE it by, not buying metal, but making it yourself – actually smelting iron ore. You could make it from SCRATCH by building your own smelting tower. And you could achieve PURE SCRATCH if you gathered the iron ore yourself.

(Or you could just, y’know, buy a scissors.)

By this framework, one could make a suit that was PURE SCRATCH of MATERIAL, but at the ASSEMBLY level of TOOLS (all one would need is a sewing machine, a scissors, a loom, a spindle, a pair of sheep-shears, some sheep, and a sheep-farm. You know, at minimum.) OR, one could make a suit that was ASSEMBLY-level of MATERIALS, but PURE SCRATCH of TOOLS (you’d have to start by dredging up ironsands from the bottom of an Irish bog scoop by scoop with your tiny weak little human hands… but once you finished the scissors and needle, you could just buy fabric at the store, and go from there).

I think that DESIGN can be forced to take most of the same bit. ASSEMBLAGE is just sticking to a pattern, without alteration. PRODUCTION adds or subtracts whole elements from the pattern (peaked to notched lapels; add a ticket pocket) but otherwise keeping it the same. CREATION makes smaller changes (make the lapels 1/4″ narrower or wider).

The concepts of SCRATCH and PURE SCRATCH are a bit more difficult, since there are few designs which are not born of other designs. This at least in the context of this example, whereby we have not set out to make a thing that fulfills a particular function, we have set out to make “a suit” and so we are already trying to fulfill a preexisting notion of design. Say that SCRATCH involves drawing up the pattern yourself, but having it still fulfill the elements of some Platonic ideal of what one is creating, however nebulous or sublime. And then PURE SCRATCH has one approach a problem (“this person needs to be nonnaked”) without regard to precedent, such that the result might be a garment, but it probably won’t be what one would call a “suit.”

These rules have internal application, as the scissors you make for your clothing project might be more or less designed, even though this might only add or subtract a modicum of handmade-ness to the final product. They might even be downright recursive, as to make the scissors you might use a hammer – but are you gonna make the hammer, too?

On the one hand, handmade-ness is probably of maximally diminishing returns for most projects. Do you really need to design special scissors just to cut a piece of cloth? Do you really need to fabricate scissors that are not, in fact, special, just to say you made ’em? Do you really need to aggregate to yourself all the different skills necessary to create, not just this item, but all the items needed to make it – or even, all the items needed to make all the items required in all its various steps of manufacture? Does a knife-sharpener also need be a knife-maker need be an ironmonger need be a miner? Does every tailor need to raise his own damn sheep?

On the other hand, it would seem an incredible accomplishment to truly, truly, make a suit from scratch. You would have to learn all the techniques required at each step of the way. By the end you would not only have a suit, you would have a panoply of skills. You would have achieved complete veritcal integration, cradle to grave. The suit would be less purpose than proof.

It would, for academic purposes if nothing else, be remarkably interesting to lay out all the steps needed to make a particular final product. I would like to know what one would need in order to make, say, one suit – and to make, or approximate, all the impedimenta needed for intermediate steps.

Would I then like to take the time to make said suit, and all else between?

Let’s be real: probably.


~ by davekov on 29 July 2018.

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