It should look handmade…

Should it?

I had this conversation with someone last weekend at Chillingham. Honestly, that phrase just sets me off on one, I hate it. “It should look handmade” should only ever be applied to 1970s hippy trippy macrame plant pot holders and things made by primary school children as far as I’m concerned.

You might find this odd from someone who does a lot of handwork (Oh, and how I hate the word “Crafting”, mainly because its not a proper word) but its because I’ve heard it used far too often as a blatent excuse.

There is a massive difference between an honest mistake at one end of the scale, and the laziness and lack of pride in one’s work (and to me this implies a corresponding lack of self respect) that is found at the other, much more heavily wieghted, end of the scale.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to put down beginners efforts, but as the phrase implies, a beginners effort should be a starting point, a jumping off to something bigger and better. You should constantly strive to improve. Being happy with your own beginners effort as an end unto themselves is self defeating because it denies growth.  Be proud of your first effort, by all means, but don’t be content with it. The day you stop growing as an artist or as an artisan is the day you ought to book yourself into Dignitas. Personally, I think telling a beginner thier work should look handmade is somewhat patronising, tell them its a great start, give them a little tip so they can improve next time, throw in some gentle constructive criticism, but don’t fob them off with platitudes.

Nor do I have a problem with honest mistakes. Goodness knows I make enough of them myself, and I’ve learnt far far more from them than I’ve ever learnt from getting it right first time. Sometimes I go to great efforts to remove or correct those mistakes, and sometimes I let them stand. Honest mistakes are part of the creative process. The difference is that I take no pride in my mistakes, and I certainly don’t advertise them. But sometimes I let the little ones stand even though I know they’ll bother me, niggling away at the back of my mind and reminding me to try harder next time. They force me to grow as well as reminding me of my past, without being quite as annoying or embarassing as certain ex boyfriends, but then, lets face it, few things are cringeworthy as the loser you dated in the eighties. Or was that just me?

In costume and re enactment, I have seen “It should look handmade” used far too many times as an excuse for sheer unrepentant laziness. “It should look handmade” is used as an excuse for just not trying at all. “It should look handmade” leads to a Viking cloak embroidered all over with six inch satin stitches done in neon pink  fourply polyester knitting wool (and yes, I have encountered such beasts, and they were quite beastly, believe me). “It should look handmade” is used to justify the production of complete and utter rubbish.

“It should look handmade” is used too often to devalue and belittle handwork, usually by the people working it, and this is why the phrase sets my teeth on edge.

“It should look handmade” implies that there is something ever so slightly mentally deficient about striving for perfection.

If my work must, by virtue of my own mortality, look handmade, then I shall forever strive to make it look made by the hands of angels. I know I am in the minority, but don’t minorities have rights these days?

~ by opusanglicanum on August 21, 2012.

61 Responses to “It should look handmade…”

  1. I’m with you. I went to an exhibition at the Arnofini, a swanky artspace gallery thing in Bristol on Craftivism. I hated it. Craft is not about people ‘In the Community’ banging stuff together and expressing themselves. It can be, and good for them, but that is only part of the story. Craft is about taking delight in the work of your hands for me, exercising skill, exercising mastery. it should look handmade equates to it should look amateur quite often and that is wrong. I was once accused of elitism by not fully embracing the everyone is an artist line. That’s true, but sadly not everyone makes good art. I could go on all morning and I am ranting but, but, as they used to say in The Wire (a supremely crafted show), ‘I feel you’.

    • I have often been enviously asked why I’m so good at everything I do, and the answer is simple – I avoid doing the things I’m bad at at all costs. if you aren’t good at art, try something else, and you’ll probably enjoy yourself a lot more.

      IF its elitism, then I’m elitist too.

  2. Fabulous post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in such a well-said, carefully crafted article. Striving for excellence is always rewarded.

  3. Thank you. This is a lovely post. I tablet weave. I have had people tell me, to my face, that they can buy the $2 per yard machine made trim, and it won’t make any difference because my trim doesn’t look handmade. (It is well woven, with interesting designs and even edges. Feh.) Or they only want to spend $3/yard on my trim. (A small increase because they have watched me weave it, but …)

    So now I weave for pleasure instead.

    • I tablet weave as well. if someone says to me, “well I can buy it for a fraction of that from such and such” (and I usually know who theey mean) I just tell them that if they can’t tell that mine is worht what I’m charging, then they should eff orff and buy it elsewhere.

      I got a large quantity of silk pile velvet earlier this year, and passed it on to one of the cloth traders who specialises in silks. Gareth, carrying the bolts for me, said, “all the reenactors who do posh will want this!” my friend just looked him in the eye and said, “half the people who do so called posh want to spend a tenner on thier entire outfit, only the quality will buy this” which just about sums it up really – tell yourself you cater to the quality

      • Yeah; I’d love to look posh for a tenner too. Aint gonna happen though. For now, weaving is my form of meditation, and work is my way of getting bills paid. I don’t think there’s enough of a market for straight weaving, without the side job, sadly. Possibly for handwoven cloth in large widths, but not so much for belts.

      • there are a couple of people in the uk who specialise in loom woven cloths and scrape a living from it. I tend to view tablet as something I do when I have spare time, and if I make a few quid its a bonus, but that doesn’t mean I’m about to undersell my own work

      • Exactly. So when someone wants a custom made piece of trim, or a belt, I have a simple pricing schedule ready to go. (If I ask them what they think is reasonable, nine out of ten seriously underestimate the time required.) But for the rest … in the SCA, trim makes a lovely gift. 🙂

      • Ah ha, I recognise some of that sentiment. Still not sure who you are to look at though…
        (I’m the alchemist at Chillingham at the weekend)

      • Tanya, the storyteller/embroiderer

  4. What a fabulous post! My blood was starting to boil reading it, and then I thought, well, the peeps who say it must look homemade are probably uninformed anyways, so why get mad about stupidity? Why should it look handmade? I am not at all familiar with the historical world of reenactment or correctness in appearance/construction, but in the home sewing world, it’s a horrid thing if it looks homemade! We all strive for excellence in everything we do so that it DOESN’T look homemade. I’m sure all the peeps throughout history would be horrified to hear that period clothing needs to look homemade. If they were anything like the rest of us following them, they wanted the best they could afford. Quality and elitism and excellence – I’m there!

    • my point exactly – our ancestors would have loved the perfection of a machine made object. I love handmade objects, my house is full of them and they are lovely (gareth looks at me funny when I spendhours admiring one simple handmade bowl), but I hate the handmade thing being used as an excuse for laziness and shoddy work, and when someone says it it feels like they’re patting you on the head and saying “never mind, dear, you’re too stupid to do any better”

  5. To my mind, handmade with love (and I don’t mean an acrylic sweater knitted by a doting great aunt!), care and craftsmanship trumps machine-made every time. I can’t necessarily afford it all the time, but how I wish I could!

    I usually let mistakes stand – unless they are really irritating me – because then I can see how I’ve improved. Of course, that’s only worth doing if I do improve so it’s a great incentive!

    • I love handmade things, I have since I was a child, perhaps because I’m descended from, and grew up amongst, craftsmen. but even as a child I could tell the difference between well done work ( When I was 15, I borrowed money of my mum nad spent six months pocket money paying her back to buy a marquetry box, adn five years ago the man who made it offered me ten times what I paid to get back something he classes even now as his best work – I still have it) and stuff made by people who didn’t care.

      you obviously care when you do make a mistake, and thats what matters

  6. If I may:
    “It should look handmade” may be in fact a description used instead of the better “It should not be mass produced by machine”.
    I am a professional artisan blacksmith. If you look *really* closely at pre-Industrial age forged work, you see that even in large grills with regular, repeated elements, are in fact all individually hand forged over the anvil, one by one. This creates slight differences to each. Not what happens if forms and jigs are used for the shaping. The net effect is subtle, but even the casual viewer notices something that tells them ‘hand made’.
    A trained and careful hand *can* in fact produce effects indistinguishable from machine work. (I’d say this most often seen in highly skilled hand sewing!) This should be a goal to be sought as one develops as an artisan.
    In my own *modern* work, I stress designs that feature the greatest possibilities of shape and form possible by the aggressive use of hand forging methods. This does create objects very obviously ‘modern’ in their overall look.
    Note that I am not talking about *mistakes* here, but an approach to the work itself. I most certainly have undertaken detailed reproductions and replicas of historic objects in the past. Here the fine details of the objects most often also must be created using not only hand work methods, but sometimes replica tools and historic processes. Carving with a dremel bur will *never* look like carving with a fine chisel.

    • since I do silversmithing ( I forge siolver but iron just looks downright scary and sweaty) as well as sewing, I can confirm that perfection is far far easier with sewing!

      It that very subtle “should” that gets to me. looking handmade is a wonderful thing, but the should is used as justification far more often than its ever used as a compliment.

      the agrressive handmadeness of some modern pieces is a separate category which is in itself a reaction against the conformity of our society, and in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing it can be fantastic – but to deconstruct any artform you have to know how to do it “properly” (for want of a better word) first. to deconstruct something without knowing how to construct it just vandalism. to use deconstruction as an excuse for not bothering to learn to construct is mental and physical laziness, and thats where the “should” becomes a vital distinction

      • (I did re-post my piece on my own blog with a direct link back to this. Mainly because I am finding the commentary additions here quite insightful and thus will be of interest to my own readers! )

        Back when I was in art school, something I was told stuck with me (which echoes what you have said in reply) :
        “Inspiration with out technique is only masterbation.”

        Some distinction certainly needs to be made when looking at historic work. Careful examination often shows that modern concepts like right / left symmetry, consistent line thickness, colour matching, are not necessarily important in ancient work.
        We also forget that there is *lots* of objects were are merely (intentionally) only ‘working’ pieces. A wooden bowl is more important for how much soup it can hold, not necessarily the elegance of the line.

        By the way – I really like your line:
        ‘To deconstruct something without knowing how to construct it just vandalism.”

        And a well done to many who have commented! Good thought provoking stuff!

      • I dont know how its got onto the general internets, to be honest, so have no idea where all these talkative people have come from!

  7. I totally agree. It’s all about quality. Something handmade should really be of better quality than something mass produced. I love handmade things but that does not mean I will accept poor quality. When I make something I try to make it to the best of my ability and am constantly looking for ways to improve upon what I do. I don’t want to give/sell something that I would not buy/accept myself. People do not realise the time/effort that it takes to produce handmade items which is why they often don’t like the prices and if that is the case then they should go elsewhere.

    • I agree. There are people I buy things for and others that I make things for. the ones I buy for I tend to care less about, they aren’t worht the time I put into handmade gifts, I only make things for people I care about and who appreciate them. if someone can’t appreciate what goes into the gift, they deserve something cheap and manufactured

  8. I agree with the thrust of your argument, but disagree somewhat with how you present it. We have joke in our group for when some thing doesn’t quite pan out the way we want. You know, small imperfections, usually in wooden items. We say, “Ah, it’s ‘Rustic'”, grin and move on. For slight imperfections or irregularities that most folk won’t notice. A real screw up we fix. But that has to do with intended use. A firewood box that sits off to the side of camp that’s going to get dinged around only needs to look good, not perfect. A presentation box, or a game board, well, you want that as near perfect as you can get it.

    Using, “Well, it looks hand made…” as a cop out for not striving for perfection is well, a cop out. But, “It looks hand made..” can be a compliment as well. You look at any piece of hand thrown pottery and any piece of factory made ceramic, you can intermediately tell the difference, which was made by hand and which was not. There’s a certain something that is simply not reproducible. Like wise with glass work. It’s bloody difficult to achieve that look. Oft times I’ll look a things that are stunning in their beauty and perfection, but I can still tell that yup, that was made by hand. Machine like perfection tends to be sterile. Rather than taking umbrage at things being “handmade”, I’d say “No, what you mean is shoddily made. That doesn’t look hand made, it looks shoddily made. THIS is hand made. It means with love and attention.”

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

    • that sounds like the old archaeology joke that if you dont have a clue what it is, you just label it as having ritual significance. And theres a difference between basic and bad, after all, simple can still be well made, after all – just ask the Japanese.

      I have no beef with looking handmade, that can indeed be a good thing, its the “should” that sets me off – its a very subtle thing, that should.

  9. I enjoyed reading this. One of my favorite comments is when somebody looks at my work, and says, “This looks impossible.” Like high thread count can’t be achieved by careful work done by hand. Yes, it’s finer than sewing thread. Yes, I made it. Yes, I made the thread, too. Yes, I know it’s very small.

    The ones that tick me off, are the ones that say, “This looks like it was made by a machine, it’s so (fine, even, regular, whatever).” Show me the machine. I want to see it.

    I do get into kind of an odd head-space with the manufacturing of the silk thread, though – with the very fine, very even threads, the only good input that my hands can have, is to keep it fine and even. The only real character that I can introduce comes in the form of flaws and irregularities, which I don’t want. Is a very even thread, made in a very mechanical manner by hand, superior to a virtually identical thread made by machine? I come to a point of diminishing returns on the handwork time, and sometimes I do wish I had a machine, at least for the twisting part.

    • the person who thinks it looks machine made should perhaps be pitied for thier limited imagination?

      the person I was discussing with at the weekend was talking about basket weaaving, he complained that it should look handmade because sometimes the willow naturally warps as it dries – but if there was a robot that wove willow the willow would still warp as it dried, so I fail to see how a naturally occuring feature of the material makes it look particularly handmade.

      do you spin by drop spindle or wheel? it could be argued that a wheel is still a machine, allbeit a simple one, so where do you draw the line? a drop spindle is something i would class as one of the worlds oldest bits of technology

      the machine I want is a one that streches time, so I can make the one day I have to myself each week last for a month becuase theres never enough time to play with all the ideas in my head

  10. Radical egalitarianism leads to enforcement of mediocrity . Excellence threatens the basic tenet that we are all A+ students… no matter what.
    People who strive for excellence become suspect.

    It’s a heavy burden to bear, but keep on doing your excellent work, because people like me appreciate it! 🙂

  11. Thanks for the great post. You have certainly hit a sensitive spot for all of us who work long and hard to improve our skill and execution of any chosen applied art.
    When people don’t believe that we ‘made-it-by-hand’ ….well….who do they think made all the great historic works of textile? or metal? Just people striving to be excellent.

    Thanks again,

  12. I´m with you too! I often get accused of being too neat in my stitches like “what´s the point in sewing by hand when it looks like a machine did it?” Well, my own satisfaction and enjoyment in the items I make value more to me than that. Morons!

    • actaully, really god hansewing looks better than machined, it fits the construction of costume better as it works with the shape rather than against it, and in my experience handsewn wears better – theres just no competition

  13. Apparently, I’m late to this conversation! I agree with your last statement that really good handsewing looks better than machine sewing. “It should look handmade,” should mean that it looks better than machine made, mass produced. It shouldn’t mean shoddy or poorly made.

    • um…its been a bit busy round here today, it took me by surprise.

      I love handsewn garments

      • The only handsewn garment I’ve ever had was my wedding gown. You clearly hit a nerve with this topic. It’s a feflection on our ‘quick and easy’ culture. Handmade has a reputation for being ‘not quite’ which I hope will eventually go away in the face of good, quality workmanship.

      • there have always been quality artisans, and they’ve always been in the minority, but our disposable society has a lot to answer for

  14. Thank you! Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who finds “It should look handmade!” irritating bordering on insulting (depending upon the tone of voice). I agree – it is all in the “should”.

    Sometimes I blame the ’70s. Yes, it was great everyone suddenly decided that sewing and embroidery and weaving and goodness knows what else were enjoyable things to do again. But there was a certain celebration of mediocrity – it had to be handmade and OBVIOUSLY so – big stitches, chunky yarn, crude designs – which I think has stuck in many people’s minds when they think of crafts. Such a pity…

    • I have always blamed the 70’s too – hence the mention of macrame pot holders!

      • Ah, so it’s not just me being naughty and shoving the blame back on the previous generation… ^_^

        Everyone used to say to me “oh, what tiny stitches! how amazing! … why do you bother?”. (Reasons? Perfectionism combined with teaching myself – I never knew how it was *supposed* to look). So, for a little while I tried to do big lazy stitches … and then I saved up and bought some source books. Lo and behold, my stitches are the same size as, or larger than, the originals.

        I have a vintage handkerchief from my great(great?)grandmother where the embroidery stitches are all less than 0.5mm long. I now aspire to that sort of quality. Of course, getting fabric, sewing thread and needles as fine as that is quite awkward these days…

      • I remember being astonished when I first saw the maasik embroideries (c9th)in the flesh – I had seen pics of them time and time again and thought what lovely fine stitches they were, it was only when I saw them for real that I relised every pic I’d ever seen had been massively enlarged, it was a real kick in the pants for me to riase my own standards

  15. I agree with your sentiments on “handmade” as an excuse for poorly executed projects, its not acceptable explanation. Just because an item is done by hand, by no means should that sacrifice a effort or quality in the craftsmanship of said item.

    Couldn’t agree more on all the examples you gave, because I would just be repeating your words back. There is a world of bad art out there, oh yes!

    The sense of pride in ones work and the drive to do better is something that escapes all but the finest of artisans.

    And you most certainly fall into the fine category. I admire your speed and creative compositions, you make illumination and murals of thread, its glorious wonder is a thing to behold.

    I only hope to attain the same excellence in embroidery skills in the future.

    • I thought I would be attacked on all sides for being overly fussy, but it seems not, which I find quite reasuring.

      For some people the sense of pride thing evolves as you grow up, but others never seem to get past it.

      I tried to put your lovely blog in my wordpress follw list, btw, but its had a hissy fit so I’ll have to try again tomorow, sometimes wordpress gets these temporary glitches

  16. I’ve definitely heard the “look handmade” cries before too, but as primarily a historian first, I get up in arms because it’s always seemed to come from people who take old or ancient techniques to mean “primitive” and this somehow implies a lesser quality product. It absolutely does not! I never thought of it being used as an excuse before, but I believe you’re right, it really does. I think I’m more upset that they think that is how it “should” look. Out here, it has definitely become, let’s say, an esthetic in certain costuming circles that gets perpetuated so that others believe that the look of poor quality is the the proper look for historic recreations. It demeans the beginner, and it demeans the excellent handiwork of artisans in the past we are emulating. It’s not really proper or nice, but there are some people I want to slap silly for not respecting the history of the individuals they want to portray.

    • its lazy research as well as lazy making, I hadn’t realised the research aspect of it until you said, but you’re quite right.

      I used to do a lot of viking stuff, and people were very keen on the look handmade thing, and I kept thinking that if I was a viking housewife, I wouldn’t want all my nieghbours talking about me behind my back and saying how sloppy and poorly made my family’s clothes were

  17. I think this mindset comes from the time when industrialization came in, especially in the world of textiles but any craft could fit the model. Prior to that time, everyone had to make their own clothes (or have them made for them). Many, perhaps most, didn’t have the time to be careful nor the skill. They had other chores. So handmade *At The Time* did mean less attention to detail and the potential to not be made well. Folks who had to make their own clothes because purchasing them was too expensive (remember when it used to be cheaper to make your own clothes?), well much was sub-par. Any true seamstress at the time would have flinched to see it so but she was too busy trying not to go out of business. So handmade got a bad rap and I think it started then.

    Nowadays the folks who care about their skill/work/craft/aft are artisans but those who don’t, especially those in re-enactment who want the clothes and have to make them, but are in a hurry and don’t want to perfect their skills.

    I find the term Arts and Crafts a bit boggling… these days there is a definite difference between the two. It used be Artisans and Craftsmen were pretty interchangeable. not any more. Now crafts means unskilled do it yourself at home.

    I made a decision to stop calling my work Crafts and now make sure that it is clear that I am artisan and you will pay my prices for my 45 years of experience and practice or you won’t.

    Handmade… very interesting topic.

    • oh its definately dating from the industrial revolution, but the perception of handmade as lower quality has never been all pervasive – haute couture and bespoke tailoring have always been entirely handdone. It getting people to appreciate quality thats the uphill battle

      • wouldn’t it be fair to say that the “handmade is inferior” is at least pervasive in the last 150 years? It all started out as pure marketing and become “truth”

        So sad. *sigh*

      • I really think so too. The sewing machine in particular had an association between marketing the regularity of the stitch and the ease of use with a concept of modernity, both in the Victorian era and again post-WWII. In old US Sears catalogues you can see mass production being marketed a good thing because it guaranteed both regularity and time to the middle class consumer. In particular, the “modern woman” has to do many things and still keep standards, so machines and appliances help keep up appearances when you don’t have the leisure time or energy to devote to learning it. So the handmade, especially specialist work, gets pushed to the extremes as either undesirable or elitist.

      • I think we need to get away from the idea that elitism is bad thing – bring back O levels for a start!

      • I think soem people do want to cast handmade as inferior because it makes them feel better about their own lack of skill

  18. I completely agree with you. I never look at a piece of my embroidered art and feel 100% happy with it, but have now learned the hard way not to be forthcoming on just exactly where I feel the faults lie – others don’t tend to see the work the way I do and are unlikely to notice what I would prefer to amend!

    If anyone were to tell me that my work should ‘look handmade’, I’d feel hard pressed not to thump them, to be honest. I’m not a crafter. I’m an artisan and proud of it!

    • its even worse when someone looks at an intricate piece of embroidery and asks if you sell them when you’re finished – cos you know they want to offer you a tenner for something that took 100+ hours.

      Excepts once, with the gold almoner pouch I did, a nice academic at the IMC seemed more than willing to pay me four grand for it, but I didn’t want to sell

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  20. I agree with you, and with Liz Heffner. We should take a professional attitude to our work, and make the best effort possible. Of course there will be errors, and the majority of them do need to be corrected.

    I used the words ‘work’ and ‘professional’ deliberately. In our working lives, most of us are expected to achieve the standards laid down, and would be admonished for anything inferior to this. So we should take pride in what we do, and strive to achieve a high standard. We will only improve by continually making this extra effort.

    And if anyone were to refer to me as a ‘crafter’ , like Liz, I would have a problem in restraining myself.

  21. Thank you for the macaroon information which has brought me to comment on this interesting post. I hate the idea that anyone can do anything leading to very poor quality works as you describe. After years of striving to make my work the very best I can I now find I am competing for sales with items made to look ‘handmade’ and badly handmade to boot. Its frustrating. A certain magazine has a stall at stitch shows selling ‘handmade’ pieces with great big stitches hanging out all over the place for massive amounts of money.

    • Its especially galling when you’re trying to mkae a living and the person selling crap is “only doing it for a hobby”, or you’re forced to compete with people selling obviously bought in tat that they’re passing off as thier own work

      i tend to make a distinction between craft fairs and crap fairs

  22. Very well written post!

    I grew up around this mentality myself, and I must admit it coloured me a great deal. It felt like homemade gifts was only something a primary school student would do and doing so in high school was somehow something I should’ve “grown out of”.

    Luckily that changed when I moved north to attend university. Where “homemade” was not just something you did as a hobby, but rather something a lot of them wished to make an income from. They were proud of their craft and it was obvious in the quality they produced. I taught a great deal of them, and these days I am giving homemade things as gifts again, but only to those who appreciate them.

    • I make about 90% of my christmas presents each year – the 10% I don’t are people I won’t waste my time on cos they wouldn’t appreciate the good stuff (that’s 10% not counting people like gareth who get somehting I made plus a few bought things aswell). I grew up around craftspeople though, so became pretty discerning by the time I was ten

      To be honest if I couldn’t make something for my dad I don’t have the first clue what I’d buy him

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