The following article was inspired by this quote from a team forum post by Nancy Andrews of TheBakersDaughter: "To me, a very important part of describing handmade is the process in its entirety; from the initial idea/concept through the creation and execution of the item. Also important to me is the the word "original"."
The Language of Handmade
Part I - Handmade or Made by Hand?
On its face, the word “handmade” seems self-explanatory, but within the handmade community, there are as many definitions as artists defining it. Discussion about the meaning creates more questions than answers, and the definition of “handmade” remains ever elusive.
We can only guess the word “handmade” became firmly integrated into our language after the Industrial Revolution, used to distinguish between machine or factory-made and individually or self-made. As “self” encompasses the entire of one person - mind, body, and soul - we can describe an object as handmade if it meets three criteria:
a) It was created from an idea that originated within the artist;
b) The artist’s mind used intent in carrying out the idea; and
c) The artist’s physical body manifested the idea.
It would follow that not everything made by hand is handmade. For example, something made by hand in a factory is not handmade because it does not involve the factory worker’s whole self. That is, the idea does not originate with the factory worker even though he might use mind and body to make it. This is "made by hand in a factory,“ not "handmade."
Further, something designed by one person and made either partly or entirely by the hands of another is not handmade. The idea originates with the artist, the artist’s mind is intent on carrying out the idea, but more than one physical body manifests it. Handmade implies made by one self, not multiple selves. The same would hold true for artists who farm out part(s) of their work. Again, if more than one self was involved in manifesting the object, it is not “handmade.” Objects created in either of these ways could be described as one or more of: “artist-designed,” “made by hand,” “made by hand in a factory,” “outsourced”, and/or “collectively made by hand." Along this same line, "collectively handmade" is an oxymoron. "Collectively" implies more than one; "handmade" implies one self.
Handmade also implies that objects created by the artist are limited in quantity, as “one self” can produce only a limited amount. So, once the artist's intent shifts from "creating limited quantities" to "creating infinite quantities" the object becomes "mass-produced," whether it is "made by hand in a factory" or not. In fact, the object no longer qualifies to be described as "made by hand in a factory" because producing infinite quantities is antithetical to "made by hand." It then becomes "mass produced in a factory." And we can say this happens at the point when an artist-designed, factory made object is no longer under the direct control and management of the artist (the "hands" of the "one self").
Part II - In the Spirit of Handmade; Resellers; Tools
“Handmade" does not mean that an object must pass directly from the artist’s hands to another's to remain “handmade.“ For example, if someone buys a handmade object directly from the artist and gifts it to another, the object remains handmade. If someone buys a handmade object directly from the artist and sells it to another (“reseller“), the object remains handmade. Following this line of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that the word “handmade” does not embody all we envision, and in fact embodies some of what we don’t. This is where discussion over the meaning usually divides. What one envisions as "handmade" is not always what another envisions.
This is where the terms “handmade spirit” or “in the spirit of handmade” become useful. Embodied therein is the idea that the intent behind the object was “to create” and the intent behind selling the object is “to continue to create.” (That is, the profit gained from the sale of the object affords the artist the opportunity to continue to create.) So, buying directly from an artist is buying “in the spirit of handmade.”
This does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that buying a handmade object from a reseller, a boutique or gallery, is not buying in the spirit of handmade; or that an artist selling a handmade object to a reseller or boutique owner is not selling in the spirit of handmade. It merely means the buying transaction loses some of its flavor. That is, the action of passing the handmade object directly from the hands of the artist to the hands of the buyer is more satisfying for both than passing and receiving the handmade object through a "middleman."
Also embodied in these terms is the idea that an individual's two hands created the object. This brings up the relevancy of the choice of tools used by the artist. First, for an object to be called "handmade", one cannot claim that another's hands are their "tools" because once again, this is more than "one self" participating in manifesting an object. Secondly, the Handmade Movement, in response to society valuing mass-produced objects (or machine-made objects) over handmade objects, is the embodiment of "the spirit of handmade." Therefore, using commercial-grade machinery in the creative process could be considered outside the realm of the spirit of handmade (but does not preclude an object from being called "handmade".)
Part III - Multiples
How many multiples of a handmade object can be created by the artist before the multiples are no longer “handmade?” All multiples are "handmade" - and therein lies the beauty of "handmade." Although many duplicates may follow the original, each retains the creativity and unique characteristics of its maker - the artist - the "one self."
Part IV - Supplies; Quality and Craftmanship
First, supplies are all those things the artist uses in the creation of an object. And of course, the quality of the final object reflects the quality of supplies used in its creation. However, supplies are irrelevant when deciding whether or not an object is “handmade*,“ thus the quality of the supplies is also irrelevant . As long as the final object meets the criteria for “handmade,” it is in fact “handmade.” The same holds true for “craftsmanship.“ Whether or not something is created with craftsmanship is irrelevant to the decision of: is it, or is it not “handmade?"
(ETA: An object created from a mass-produced supply might fall outside the realm of the spirit of handmade if the mass-produced supply was created using commercial-grade machinery.)
Having said that, going back to the Handmade Movement: If you are an artist in today’s world who values handmade, then you are (whether you asked to be or not) a part of that “movement.“ And you are asking society to accept the idea that buying handmade is a better alternative to buying mass-produced. But before society will be moved to do that, they must first envision “handmade” as a quality item, made with “craftsmanship.” So, in this regard, both supplies and craftsmanship are very relevant - and very important.
Part V - Hand-Altered
“Altered” means changed or made different, so “hand-altered” refers to any object that is changed or made different at the hands of a person. The term does not take into consideration to what degree something has been changed, only that it is “different” by virtue of the alteration(s).
Hand-altered objects may sometimes seem at cross purposes with the idea of “handmade.” That is, mass produced items can easily become “handmade” items. But, as the mass-produced items are the artist’s supplies, they have no bearing on whether or not an object is “handmade.” The question is: does the final object meet the criteria of “handmade?” Perhaps what should be asked is: "does using mass-produced items as supplies mean the created object falls outside the realm of the spirit of handmade?" Today's answer would have to be no*, it doesn't; because in today's market, finding supplies that are not in some form either "mass-produced" or "commercial" is next to impossible. So until the handmade community begins to create and offer more handmade supplies, we must use what is available.
(*ETA: An object created from a mass-produced supply might fall outside the realm of the spirit of handmade if the mass-produced supply was created using commercial-grade machinery.)
Part VI - Originality & Creativity in Design; Charm on a Chain; Copying; Patterns
By nature, we are all creative beings and use our imaginations to "create", be it by cooking, gardening, arts and crafts, etc. And, we are all influenced by everything we read, see, hear; by our parents, our friends; the groups to which we belong. And every human being on earth has a different set of influences. This is our "individuality," part of what makes each of us unique individuals. So originality and creativity in design means the design of your creation arose out of your individuality - your unique set of influences. It does not necessarily mean your creation is something new or unique to the world.
This takes us to what is known as “the charm on a chain” conundrum. To be "handmade" an object is created from an idea that originated within the artist; thus, the object naturally reflects the originality and creativity of its maker. A mass-produced charm on a mass-produced chain reflects no originality and creativity of its maker; therefore cannot be called "handmade." But what about adding a bead to the chain or taking out a link in a chain? Would this not be "hand-altered" and qualify to be called "handmade?" By definition, yes. But again, this might be another example of falling outside the realm of the spirit of handmade. The only way to make that determination is by looking at the artist's entire body of work.
Along these same lines, copying another's work, or using the exact pattern of another's design in creating an object does not qualify the object to be called "handmade." There are two reasons for this: 1) the ideas did not originate from the artist; and 2) more than one self participated in manifesting the object (either knowingly or unknowingly.)
This does not disqualify an object created with a pattern, or using universal techniques, from being called "handmade." Quoting from Sally Harding*: "If you've picked up techniques and parts from making several different items from patterns and you've put those techniques and parts together to make something of your own, to me that's handmade. The artist has invested their self in the item."
Part VII - Handmade Artists; Conclusion
"Art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." (dictionary.com)
The handmade community widely recognizes that the term "artist" refers to both artists and artisans, and that artists are engaged in the "practice" of their art - that they may or may not possess superior skill or ability. That decision is left open to interpretation based on an individual's ideas of superiority. It is also widely accepted that artists' works may be described as "handmade" even though not qualified by definition. The "handmadeness" of something is also left open to interpretation based on an individual's ideas of handmade, or what handmade means to them.
And this is where we come full circle: In essence, a handmade object begins with the ideas of one (by creation), and ends with the ideas of another (by interpretation, recognition and acceptance.) What is important is not the object itself, but the exchange of ideas between two individuals, passed hand to hand, with no word ever spoken.
*private forum post on Etsy Handmade Team Discussion Board entitled, What does "handmade" mean?
Copyright, 2012. Kathijane Proctor.