In order to learn more about “the workmanship of risk” from our handmade policy, we spoke to a few artisans from the co-op about their experiences with risk, craftsmanship, and what “handmade” means to them.
Workmanship of Risk
David Pye said of the word craftsmanship, “It is a word to start an argument with.” Similarly, it is difficult to cleanly define what “handmade” means. There are shapes of ideas, the general guess of what the word means, but that is not very useful when an actionable definition is needed.
We’ve seen the consequences of relying on broad definitions in other spaces. Etsy and other handmade marketplaces are flooded with mass-manufactured, poor quality products for sale, crowding out authentic artisans and craftspeople. We wanted to create a handmade policy that would ensure authentically handmade artisans were protected and prioritized.
Artisans Co-op needed to figure out how to usefully define “handmade.” After gathering information from a wide range of sources, we devised a handmade policy. The policy goes into detail about the working definition of handmade, along with a handmade verification and enforcement policy.
The handmade policy defines “artisan”, “handmade”, and “workmanship of risk” as follows:
- The definition of an artisan for the purposes of our marketplace is a person, micro-business, or collective that produces handmade goods for sale.
- Handmade goods are authentic original works produced with the care, dexterity / skill, and judgment of the artisan, under the workmanship of risk.
- The workmanship of risk is an original idea proposed by artisan David Pye. In essence, it means that at some point in the process, the artisan could ruin the work.
The workmanship of risk is “an uncouth phrase; but at least descriptive” according to Pye. To him, it means when “the quality of the result [of the product] is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as [they work]”. The opposite of the workmanship of risk is the “workmanship of certainty,” in which the desired result is predetermined and guaranteed. Under the workmanship of risk, there is always the chance of the work being “ruined.”
In order to learn more about risk and handmade goods, we spoke to a few artisans from the co-op about their experiences with risk, craftsmanship, and what “handmade” means to them. More information about the artisans and their businesses can be found at the bottom of this page.
Artisans Talk About ‘Ruining’ Their work
Ceramics: Stella NC Works
“It’s a REALLY common theme in ceramics to not become attached to your work until it’s finished, because so many things can go wrong,” says Erin, a potter from Stella NC Works. She explained how risk affects her craft: “There is risk at every stage of my work. So I do what I can, and I learn from failure, but I still have to accept the potential —and actuality— of risk and failure.”
For Erin, a work is ruined “when a fault makes it unsafe or unpleasant for it to serve its intended function.” She adds that there are many times when a work does not meet her expectations but isn’t ruined. “Sometimes it is a pleasant discovery when a thing turns out differently than I intended. But not usually – usually it is a negative thing.”
In pottery, a ruined piece is usually able to be recycled or reused in some way. “Until it is fired, I can recycle the clay, and after it is fired I can use it for a glaze test or give it to a mosaic artist. Clay is cheap, and not much glaze is used on each piece.” Opportunity cost results in the most waste through wasted time or wasted space in the kiln. “I spent time making that thing that failed, instead of making the thing that didn’t fail.”
Leathercraft: Walnut Studiolo
Geoffrey works with leather and wood to create original designs for his and his wife’s business, Walnut Studiolo. “I consider a piece ruined when it is visually flawed to a certain degree or when the functionality of it is impaired in any way.”
Geoffrey throws functionally-ruined pieces away or uses them as scrap leather. Pieces that are functionally intact but visually imperfect get put aside and sold for half price on Earth Day. “I just can’t send someone something that has a blemish on it. It hurts inside to think of what they think of me as a craftsperson”.
Fine Jewelry: NuanenorúM
Tyler is a goldsmith and runs the shop NuanenOrúm. They make fine crafts, like jewelry, out of metal. In Tyler’s practice, the metal can be reworked, scratches can be buffed out, and flaws can be worked into the aesthetics of the final product.
Metal is forgiving, they said, but gems are not. Once a diamond is broken, that’s it. Tyler explained that the majority of the transformation from raw materials to a finished product is done by hand. Goldsmiths study extensively to understand how to execute each technique and get the desired result. This takes time and care, and therein lies the value.
Fiber Arts: DragonTree Emporium
Lizzy works with yarn and fiber to create original works for her shop, DragonTree Emporium. She knits pieces by hand, creating garments and alter cloths, among other things. To a certain point in a project, the yarn can be unraveled and reworked.
There are some times when it’s too late, however. There is a stitch that, if a mistake is made, a knot is created and the entire project up until then is ruined. Sometimes, a mistake results in a new technique or discovery, but sometimes a mistake just eats up time and effort. It is important in knitting to recognize a mistake early, otherwise the entire project will literally unravel.
Digital Illustration: Tired Fox Art
“As a digital artist I feel I get a little bit more freedom,” Ryn says of their work. Ryn owns and runs the shop “Tired Fox Art“. Sometimes a happy accident will occur, then they roll with it. Otherwise, a mistake can destroy hours of work. A mistake can disappoint many people, costing precious time and money.
If Ryn decides to turn a sketch into a full painting, they will spend hours on that piece. If it doesn’t turn out right, that is hours wasted. More than that, it means hours that could’ve been spent making something that did turn out. Opportunity cost is real, especially when running a small business. “It’s been really slow going,” Ryn said, “even though there is risk involved, it’s really important to keep the craft alive, to keep the art alive.” They said, “[risk] shouldn’t dissuade anyone from being an artist.”
Every artisan we spoke to emphasized the value of human connection in handmade goods. Artisans put hours or days or weeks into every thing they make. They built up skills and expertise over years. They pour their soul into each movement and decision. Each piece has its slight differences by the nature of it being handmade.
“To me, custom work, a ring that is unique, is more valuable than a ring that took just as much time to make but was made as one of a hundred.”-Tyler, NuanenOrúm
“An artist puts a little bit of themselves in everything they make… I put my soul into my art”-Ryn, Tired Fox Art
“I think everybody likes having uniqueness. I know I do. I like finding those things that not as many people have. I don’t know if I would say monetarily, value, but for me it’s a personal. Knowing that someone put the thought behind making something unique.”-Lizzy, DragonTree Emporium
The mass manufacturing process strips away most humanity from objects. Instead of an item telling the story of all of the people that helped make it, it tells the story of tired factories and flat designs.
“When I produce something and send it out and [the customer is] happy…. That is a gratification that a cog in a machine would never understand. That imposes on me a responsibility to maintain a level of craftsmanship that I am proud of.”–Geoffrey, Walnut Studiolo
When asked why handmade pieces are more valuable than non-handmade goods, Erin said: “A thing made by someone’s hands was made with intention. Depending on the artisan’s intention, it can convey more than just the object’s usefulness; it can convey the artisan’s values, aesthetics, a particular philosophy regarding the method of use, and many other things. If nothing else, an object formed by someone’s hands carries with it the fact of having been formed by hands.”
“Handmade goods connect people. And often being formed by hands elevates a thing above its utility: when it is made with care and detailed intentionally, a handmade good adds art to the life of the person using it.”-Erin, Stella NC Works
“[With a] craftsman, the buck stops with the maker. That’s what’s really been lost and the Artisans Co-op has a chance to re-spark that”–Geoffrey, Walnut Studiolo
“I am so grateful for people who support artists. It gives me hope. It keeps me going, to be honest.”-Ryn, Tired Fox Art
Meet The Artisans
Erin runs Stella NC Works, a small pottery business. The three mugs at the top of the page were made by her. Her work can be found here.
Geoffrey runs Walnut Studiolo with his wife, Valerie. They sell original handmade leather and wood designs. Their work can be found here.
Lizzy runs DragonTree Emporium with her husband, where they sell paintings and fibrecrafts. Their work can be found here.
Ryn runs Tired Fox Art, a small business that sells pins and illustrations of original digital art. Their work can be found here.
Tyler runs NuanenOrúm, a shop where they sell a variety of handmade goods.
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
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