(re)defining the craft movement

vintage thread fine art photograph

One of the goals of this site is to provide a platform for the spread & discussion of the handmade movement.

One such discussion I’ve tried to spark here, rather unsuccessfully, is what we actually think of when we think of “the handmade movement.” To me, this isn’t a semantic argument but rather one of great importance. How we define ourselves, our community, and our movement is how we will be judged by others. It is also how people will decide to identify with us or not. The way we define ourselves creates an opportunity for buy-in or opposition.

I have no qualms about the fact we will never reach consensus on what does and what does not qualify as handmade – or craft – or art. But the act of discussion, of discourse, helps us to define ourselves and our interactions, thereby strengthening our cause.

As for myself, I come at this discussion as an outsider. I am not a pro crafter or artist – nor am I even a talented DIYer. I was brought up with a deep appreciation for craftsmanship and design. And while this may hinder my ability to relate directly to the artists featured here, it does give me a unique perspective on the creative community and the movement around it.

As I see it, there is no line in the sand.

Let me say it again, there is no place that we, as a movement, can say that’s not “handmade enough” without questioning our own integrity & vision. At each level of creation & craft, there is an opportunity for purity – at one point or another, we all fall off the wagon.

So here is my stab in the dark:

Craft is vision, purpose, and idea that has been beautifully executed.

Let me explain.

Megan’s cozy/cuff is an original design. Its conception is Megan’s and hers alone. Her company, from accounting to design to marketing is just her, along with her insatiable need to do things the smart way. The cozy/cuff is laser cut by a manufacturing company in the United States that specializes in working with designers.

Her craft (aside from amazing jewelry) is the design, the conception, the blood, sweat, & tears that goes into creating an object that screams self-expression and artistic voice.

Her craft is an idea, beautifully executed.

Geo Grand stack with mod vase

Jan’s fabrics are her conception and hers alone. Her fabric exudes the independent spirit that they are born from. No one I know more carefully sources every part of her production chain – ensuring that each decision makes smart business sense, is eco-friendly, and is of impeccable quality.

Her craft is an idea, beautifully executed.

cartolina & fin + roe

Fiona, of Cartolina (left above), and Lori, of Marzipan Inc (right above), create an amazing array of paper goods & gifts each in their own distinct style. Their goods are designed by them but brought into being by a printer.

Their craft is an idea, beautifully executed.

Clearly, a narrow definition of handmade does not apply to this kind of craft. Would you still buy it? Do you support it? Is it part of your handmade movement?

Let’s flip the coin over.

Many people take manufactured beads & findings and create jewelry pieces by hand. Wire is bent & snipped. Pieces are strung & tied. And one crafter’s piece may bear no discernible difference to the next crafter’s.

I am in no position to call this not handmade, clearly. But I do ask, where is the vision? Where is the independence in that craft?

As a movement, I believe we seek exactly what Grace said in her keynote to the IDSA conference:

To see the maker’s hand.

And, not only do I seek to see the hand of the maker, I seek to see their vision & their purpose. I want to consume goods that are conceived not out of marketing meetings but of needs, and beauty, and ideals, and purpose. For me, the maker may be a designer or an artist or a craftsman. For me, their personal mark – and unique vision – on the product is what confers the title of maker.

I seek to identify with the maker’s worldview.

I seek to support the maker’s independent ideas.

I seek to see a spark of the divine in the objects I buy, just as I see that spark in you.

Goods can be manufactured or wrought from flesh & bone and still have that spark of the divine. If you support the vision of artists, designers, and markers, you support our movement. If you are concerned with the purpose of what you consume and not the consumption, you are a part of this movement, if you support the independence of personal aesthetic and the inherent beauty of a marker’s touch, you support this movement.

This movement is a response to an evermore dull aesthetic of commercialism. Questioning that aesthetic and what it stands for – or doesn’t stand for – is the responsibility of this new Craft movement. Our response is one of steady progress towards our ideals, knowing that purity will not be reached in our lifetimes.

Art & Craft is an experience and an idea that cannot be held by narrow definitions. Art & Craft is where execution meets personal experience and where conception meets the divine spark of being.

{image credit: vintage thread fine art photograph by jessica torres}

40 thoughts on “(re)defining the craft movement

  1. I wonder if the reason why this is a difficult discussion to have is because we the makers have a hard time defining ourselves. I am transitioning from mostly sewing and hand printing to more of the design aspects and looking into having others produce my fabrics, paper goods, etc. I have a harder time these days calling myself handmade and usually stick to indie designer because I want to work for myself designing products that I believe others will find useful and worthwhile to own. I think my “mark” comes through in my style, which is admittedly a work in progress.

    1. Hi Nicole!
      I think that’s DEFINITELY why the conversation is difficult to have. I think we’re all afraid of not only alienating others but alienating ourselves.

    1. It is! And it’s comfortable too. AND it makes any outfit feel complete. I get more compliments on mine than just about anything I own!

  2. well said, tara.
    along the same lines as nicole’s comment above, i think for many of us, there is a natural growth and progression of our businesses that you’ve hit upon here. most successful small creative business owners i know began making and doing as absolutely much of their product by hand, one at a time. as their lines and businesses get bigger (and better!) and there is more demand for their products or they branch into wholesale, it becomes unrealistic or impractical to do as much on a one at a time basis, and smart designers realize there is no point in reinventing the wheel, so to speak.
    for example, when i began my little screenprinting business, i primarily printed on things that i stayed up til the wee hours of the morning sewing. as my sales increased, i realized there were many fantastic things i could use as canvases to print on and that it was the original designs i was printing that made my line my own. every so often, someone will ask if i made felted the wool coasters myself, for example, which i did not. i suppose i could make felt, but i was able to find an amazing local felt manufacturer who can provide a better, more consistent product than i’d be able to make myself.
    what i’m getting at is: thanks for this post, as it solidifies and articulates beautifully my thoughts on this.

    1. “there is a natural growth and progression of our businesses” YES!

      I think the truth of the matter is that there is a certain level of sustainability that comes from accepting the resources that others produce in a variety of ways, your felt coasters for example. I don’t want to say that “pure” handmade isn’t sustainable… but focus on the “purity” of it is.

      I would much rather focus on the independent spirit of design that is so evident in work like yours. That’s what’s going to draw “mainstream America’s” curiosity. It’s what will bring a whole new audience to the handmade movement.

      Thank you, thank you for your comment, Sara!

  3. Great post! It really resonated with me. I’ve been thinking about this definition recently and where I fall in this category. I’m still starting out in my making area, but one part of your post that really stuck out to me was: “I want to consume goods that are conceived not out of marketing meetings but of needs, and beauty, and ideals, and purpose.” and that is exactly what I am striving for. Thank you for your great insight into this and I hope the discussion continues!

  4. I half make my products. A lot of my items incorporate new and vintage/antique/upcycled products. I try hard to buy and support local and indie businesses when I buy my supplies, but not everything is handmade 100%.

    I have thought of this word “handmade” on many occasions. I think we use handmade as an idea instead of in the literal sense. Many products are not 100% handmade, but they are conceptualized by an individual who is concerned with ethical business practices, the environment, and supporting other small businesses. This is more important to me than an item being handmade. You can buy items which are “100% handmade” in third world countries where the workers are not aid a proper wage or treated humanely.

    I agree that the handmade movement has more to do with the products simply being made by hand. It has to do with the whole package.

    1. Hi Gina! I agree – handmade has to be an “idea” and not literally made by hand. Otherwise… where do the photographers & digital artists fit in? Where do all the other fine making things with tools/machines artists fit in?

      Here’s to the “whole package!”

  5. YES! I so agree – in fact it’s the evidence of the hand of the maker that I find incredibly inspiring! (I blogged about this a couple of months ago: http://www.candiedfabrics.com/2010/02/26/hand-art-coordination/)
    As 1 was developing my skills a quilter (10-20 years ago), the drive for perfection was very present in fellow quilters and in the judges minds at quilt shows. Although when learning one’s craft the need to improve skills is very important, at some point it gets crazy! For ME, the need to make my work look like a machine did it – ah! what’s the point!

    1. Interestingly enough, there was a question on my FB page about how to answer a customer at a craft show who said, “This is handmade? It doesn’t even look handmade!” … so the topic of perfecting skills is another one that bears a lot of thought…

      Thanks, Candy 😉

  6. Bravo Tara! I have been questioning where I belong in this arena as a digital artist. There is still some hand painting involved in my process, but I am more than %75 digital. I print some of my work at home, but mostly use a local fine art printer. So, what does that make me? While I am not forging metal, or molding clay with my own two hands, I am still creating original works from my own ideas, passions, and beliefs. Thank you for helping to define what I have been stumbling around.

    “I seek to identify with the maker’s worldview.

    I seek to support the maker’s independent ideas.

    I seek to see a spark of the divine in the objects I buy, just as I see that spark in you.”

    This I believe I can do!

    I also like what Gina says about “handmade” being used more as a concept than literally.

  7. First, I am a regular reader of this blog. I enjoy it very much. Sarah and Gina’s comments really resonate for me. I guess I don’t struggle with what to call myself because I know I need to be comfortable moving between different roles all of the time. My name is artist. By that I mean I design, create and over see all aspects of the production of my work. I make handcrafted collectible dolls, studio art quilts (http://www.graysonstudios.com) and screen printed cards among other things). My card designs are the only things I license and mass produce. I have purposely chosen not to outsource the work on my dolls and quilts because I feel that it is my hand that makes my work unique. Everything from the way I sculpt and stuff the dolls to the way I hand or machine quilt a piece is my signature. I hand dye my fabrics to develop my own color palette. I know that there is a trade off for the decisions I have made about how I run my business. As I continue to grow I know I will have to continue to re-evaluate my choices. For now, this is what it means to me to create handcrafted work.

  8. Great article! I love what sara called us: small creative business owners. Because whether you make your product completely by hand or not, that’s what we are. I struggle with the “handmade” label. While my greeting cards & pocket notes are all truly handmade (by me), I wonder whether it construes a less than positive image when attention to detail and solid workmanship matter so much. Yes, the big card companies can produce a “handmade” product – but as Gina pointed out, those are most likely made in third world countries for pennies. Does it matter to a retailer that my product is 100% handmade in the USA? Or does it give the appearance that my business is more of a hobby than a true business? I know I run a successful business – my cards are sold through retailers across the US and Canada. I just wonder how much bang for the buck I get by advertising my cards as handmade.

    Thanks again for such a thought provoking post!

  9. Glad to see I am not the only one that feels this way.

    I have been struggling with the title “handmade” for myself.

    I actually hire someone who helps me assemble my bags, by sewing them. I design all the fabric, cut all the piecework out, iron the stiffening, seal the designs, so they are waterproof, heat seal the seat belt straps…and was quite hurt when I was told I did not belong to hand-made movement and there were other places for my work. Ouch that hurt. I tried explaining where I was coming from, that I actually thought I was doing a good thing, by crafting something from scratch, so not buying a bag made in China and sticking my designs on it. I mean I was so happy that I nutted out a solution to my obstacle, which is that I can’t sew (and don’t like to either). I was also so happy that I enabled someone else to have some extra work, do something they enjoy doing (their craft), with lots of flexibility. I felt good being able to create something locally, and give something back to the community.

    But then again I understand where traditional handmade artists are coming from, they want to keep a movement the way it is. But I guess the thing those that are moving on up, need a place of their own. So they don’t feel like they are being judged each-time they create something with an extra pair of hands.

  10. Well said! I also like what Sara said about her felt. She found a local manufacturer for her felt…not the cheapest place she could find it. This ties into Gina’s comment as well. Lots to think about and re-read here. The Internet may be the place for the low-attention span, but it’s so refreshing to find thought-provoking ideas and deep meaning in the posts of this community. :)

  11. As a photographer who went digital but also colors by hand most of my black and white images – I loved this post! And I loved this definition: “Craft is vision, purpose, and idea that has been beautifully executed.”
    Years ago I called my business “Handcrafted Photography” but someone talked me out of it purely because of the word “craft” in the title. We were “artists” after all.
    Since finding your site and reading your posts I would be proud to call myself a “crafter” and be part of the community that has formed around that. Thanks for what you do!

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  13. At the heart of your post, I agree with you. I think it’s important to see the maker’s hand in any handmade item I buy. I shop handmade for that reason, and to support other artists.

    But that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to leave your mark on a piece if you don’t create every single component for every single step in your process. I’ll admit, that kind of thinking bugs me.

    I’m a beader, not a metalsmith. Just because I use manufactured components doesn’t mean I can’t or don’t know how to make it myself (I do). But if I can realize the vision I have in my head while using a manufactured component (and save myself time while doing so), I’ll use it. I don’t see it as compromising the vision, I see it as using my time effectively. To me, it’s not about if I used a manufactured component or if I made it by hand – it’s what I did with what I used that matters. To me, that part of my process is no different than a photographer outsourcing the actual printing of their work.

    In my head, the handmade movement is all-inclusive, not exclusive. It’s about sharing a common need to create, a passion for art, and a creative spirit. I most identify with what Gina was saying, about it being an idea versus a literal thing.

    Perhaps “maker” is a better word to use instead of “handmade”, but does terminology really matter? It’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?

    1. Hey Brandi – I think what you took contention with is not what I meant at all. Your work is a perfect example of how vision & passion can transform manufactured parts into a truly artistic piece.

      What I take issue with touting something as art that doesn’t bear the maker’s mark. I value anyone’s ACT of creation as being cathartic & worthwhile – but what I really want to support with my dollars & my blog is creative vision, like yours.

      And terminology may not matter to you as someone in already in & of the movement, but it does matter to those on the outside who see buzz words & labels as confusing & alien. It’s really really important to talk about these things and form your own clear ideas so that when you’re pressured to explain them, you have a voice.

      So often we are silent in our own misunderstanding.

  14. This is a great and thoughtful discussion.I am going to add my$.02 to it from perhaps a slightly different perspective.
    I make OOAK pieces,mostly hats.Each one is made from recycled thrift store or hand me down fabric-t shirts mostly.I cut them,dye them,hand paint them and generally mangle to get what I want.I consider it wearable art.
    It is more like couture than craft,I think.Often I wonder where artisans like me can be seen,the reality being that it takes more time than making earrings as such.I am in no way minimizing your creativity because all the creative processes go into a beautiful pair of earrings many of which I covet.I am just saying it is comparing apples to oranges.I have done the designing and jobbing out some sewing and I hated making multiples.That’s me,I am a dinosaur and I know it.Everyone finds their own way and that is a good thing.I am all for the inclusiveness but it IS different when someone silkscreens their own limited design.They are both creative and beautiful but how do we differentiate?For me I think wearable art works,but what about jewelers?
    Digital art is just a new category of art.Original in design and executed by the artists hand on the mouse.But,and I say this from my own perspective as the painter that I am…If I take one of my paintings and license the image for say cards then the cards are a copy of the art which again is a beautiful thing but somehow different.
    I fear I come on too strong sometimes because i care so deeply about what I do and I want some way to differentiate,for customer clarity,without denigrating anyone else vision and work.I just don’t know how to do it .I am so glad this discussion is going on.

  15. Tara-
    Thank you so much for bringing this up. This is actually a topic that is constantly circling around me. As I, much like Megan look at my hand in the work being from the design and marketing side of things. It’s about the idea and the thoughtfulness behind the end product that makes a maker a maker. I do not believe that you have to do everything yourself to be considered part of the handmade artistic movement. It really is about the vision and having a voice that makes you stand out from the crowd of Mass Produced goods out there.

    I run into the question myself all the time which is when is something no longer able to be considered handmade? diy? indie? etc? what label counts?

  16. I just skimmed quickly through the comments so I’m sorry if someone has already addressed this. But I have to say it anyway.

    It’s crazy that we even have to question this. (But we do have to answer it, so I assume that means questioning this.)

    I hand dye wool. Do I make the wool? Well, . . . no. I leave that up to the sheep. But there’s not much that’s more hand made and carries my signature than my hand dyeing. (Just look at my hands a couple of days after a dye session. The evidence is still there!)

    Anyway. For me personally, the handmade movement means doing it yourself. And all the DIY projects and programs make that appear to be a new concept. A trend. A fad. But for me it’s a way of life. I cook meals at home with the rare exception of a meal out. I mend clothes. (I used to make them, too, and rarely wore anything I didn’t make.) I can fruit and veggies in the summer. I can soup in the winter. A friend cuts my hair or it doesn’t get cut. I’ve just discovered making my own soap – and have been wondering why I never did it before. My husband and I won’t use store bought soap any more. I could go on and on. ‘Handmade’ is a way of life.

  17. Great post. As a few have also mentioned – it is difficult for me to define myself in this area. Am I an artistic crafter/designer/artisan? Do I make things that are handmade or homemade?

    The handmade movement is more than me crafting up projects – to me, it’s a community movement. I buy handmade to support the small business person. I also buy handmade to support the LOCAL person. This transfers to my preference of farmer’s market vs grocery store. I also believe in the movement because I believe handmade is much more thoughtful then something store bought.

    Thanks for the insightful post :)

    1. “The handmade movement is more than me crafting up projects – to me, it’s a community movement.”

      YES. That is so exactly it. I’m not sure I have a whole lot else to say!

  18. Wow, I admit this has been an issue for me, so happy to see it being discussed! As I was making new labels for Renegade SF a few weeks ago, I struggled with my wording. I found I wasn’t comfortable with putting ‘illustrated & handmade’ across the board on all my products, so I made some that just read ‘illustrated by Sarah Golden’. It was a fierce debate in my head for a few days I admit, I didn’t want to feel like I was misleading anybody. I have a very broad sense of handmade and I wholly endorse it’s in the vision and not always in the obvious execution.

    I suppose I could change my signature to:
    Handmade>crafter>maker>entrepreneur>think tank>researcher>accountant>janitor>seamstress>president>secretary>painter>postage/shipping expert>photographer>designer

    Hurrah for great discussions!

  19. I love this post, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and like a few people above call myself an ‘indie designer’. I sometimes wise there was a sub section to etsy or a whole new side dedicated to indie designers.

    It was interesting reading the DesignSponge post as I sit on both sides working as commercial designer by day and a indie designer by night (like a really useless superhero of aesthetics:). I’m an ideas driven person so your ‘craft as an idea, beautifully executed’ was a breath of fresh air to read.

  20. Wow. Great post. As a designer of paper goods I really starting thinking about this a while back, especially when I started officially selling on Etsy.

    The post stuck a cord. In fact I just wanted to link it to my weekend blog links, but then I started writing and ranting and couldn’t stop, lol.

    The conclusion that I came to as I wrote and read this, like many, is that in my opinion ultimately it’s not just about ‘handmade’, (though handmade truly is wonderful and always appreciated when done well) but it’s ALSO about the support of artist/crafter/designer-made, whether fully by hand or not.

    I think it’s about supporting the whole, which is made up of many parts, especially at a time when the world and people would live on even if there was no “handmade movement” or handmade resurgence. It’s about broadening our views of design, art and craft while supporting each other, helping bring awareness that small business doesn’t mean small quality, that crafter doesn’t mean crap and that there are many options, whether it be a big chain store or etsy. As well, whether it’s a hobby or a full blown business I also think doesn’t matter. The fact that the person has the need to create is wonderful in itself – and if the work resonates with me and I want to support that person(s) in my own way, I will. I think that’s what it’s about.

  21. “Many people take manufactured beads & findings and create jewelry pieces by hand. Wire is bent & snipped. Pieces are strung & tied. And one crafter’s piece may bear no discernible difference to the next crafter’s.

    I am in no position to call this not handmade, clearly. But I do ask, where is the vision? Where is the independence in that craft?”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this section of the post. Is it that one side of the coin is people designing their wares to fullest but using other people’s machines/presses,etc actually create them, while the other is using other people bits and pieces to create a design? I know tone of voice is hard to gauge online…just letting you know I’m purely being curious in my questioning.

    I agree that defining the handmade movement is difficult. But it’s hard to go into any store and not see some design or motif that strongly resembles a piece I’ve seen from one of my indie friends. (Though I guess this could go both ways.) So the commercial sector has definitely seen that creating items with a ‘handmade’ feel is important to a viable amount of consumers.

    My thoughts, as many have said already, on what boundaries (low-lying fences that they are) I place on the handmade movement are rather knotted. I’m not sure I can untangle them enough to succinctly post them here. But when I picture it, it’s sort of amoebic- flowing rather than marching. I hope it fosters an appreciation for craftsmanship and a well-made (design through execution) product, again. And that we can honor the time and effort it takes to create them. But such things can’t be elicited strictly from the end product. It has to pervade the way we as makers and advocates of the movement do business and live. Creating a idea that people can relate to. We (general we) no longer want to be sold to. I think we’d rather buy into something. And handmade has the appeal of being an investment rather than a disposal purchase.

  22. I think a difference lies in the design or thought process. Something can be completely handmade, from beginning to end & still not be very interesting or even particularly well made just as something can be (& often is) completely manufactured & be uninteresting, as well as poorly made. In many cases, I agree with one of the other posters who said that it isn’t necessary to re-invent the wheel. Depending on what we design (& I think I prefer the term designer), we can seek out basic products to make our own, but we have to make them our own or own them. Yes, I could grow cotton (providing I had enough land, etc), for example, pick it & comb it, make it into fabric, cut the fabric & sew it into a tea towel & that would be amazing, but it isn’t a necessary thing to do. There may already be tea towels or at least the fabric that fits my vision, waiting to be a blank slate for my creation. It has to be my vision, carried through, in order to call it handmade, by me. It would be different if I was taking pre-made tea towels, stamped with someone else’s designs & sold them as mine. I couldn’t call that handmade, there’d be no design or thought process, other than maybe ‘wouldn’t this tea towel look cute with that design on it.’ Could this be handmade? I might not call it that, but maybe someone else would. Someone else might take pre-made beads & string them together into a bracelet. They thought about colors & spacing, bead styles & closures, is this handmade? In my case, I like taking vintage or found items & turning them into something new, giving them a new story to tell. I don’t make all of the items that I use in my pieces, but there is a design or thought process to each one (beyond those listed above), otherwise they wouldn’t have a ‘voice’ & nothing to say, this is why I like the term indie designer. I’m not sure what the answer is, there doesn’t seem to be a clearly defined “handmade” line. Thank you for the great discussion!

  23. hi Tara – thanks for including Cartolina in your post.

    I’m a graphic designer and I apply my designs to paper products. They are not HANDmade. But I have a HAND in every part of my business. I started it from scratch and I still run the studio single HANDedly, selling hundreds of thousands of cards a year to 8 countries on 3 continents.

    To me the phenomenon in this new economy is that big buyers in big stores, in big cities, will buy from small independent companies like mine. Not only that, but they treat us well – they offer us great terms and understand our limitations.

    So not only are the consumers interested in shopping at indie producers, but the wholesale buyers are interested too. In fact many of them are seeking out small indie producers like us to partner with and license designs – because it makes them look good. The tables are turning(as you have written many times!)

    I call myself an indie producer :-)

    1. I’ve been thinking some more about this. Hope you don’t mind!

      Maybe what we all have in common here is that we have simply chosen to take our creative skills and turn it into our own small business.

      For many of us it was a good alternative to working at a corporate job. We are taking care of our own small, creative businesses. It doesn’t really matter what we are doing – we have designed the product and now we are selling it. I think that ‘handmade’ actually doesn’t suit very many businesses these days because almost all the materials used are mass produced by another manufacturer – so the final product is hardly handmade.

      Perhaps the worst thing we could do is pigeon-hole what we do with one descriptive term. It almost goes against the entire indie movement.

      Staying individual and unique seems more natural – grouping the movement under one ‘umbrella term’ is a step backwards. Perhaps it’s entirely unnnecessary . . . . .

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