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The Value of Handmade: Why We Buy

A cover graphic. The background image is of an artisan using a sewing machine to work with leather. The graphic reads "The Value of Handmade: Why We Buy"

We’ll say it: Handmade items are Art. And whether they’re functional items (“applied arts”) or decorative (“fine art”), art touches us more profoundly and deeply than most other things. In this post, we’ll explore why that is in interviews with artisans and supporters. There are three main themes that are woven through these interviews: the human-to-human connection, the satisfaction of owning original work, and the pride that comes with ethical purchases that support artists and makers. 

The Human Connection: From Hands to Hands 

There’s a romantic saying about a home cook sprinkling a little love into each dish they create, and we believe handmade objects contain a little bit of the spirit of that artisan who actually made that thing with their hands. 

This may sound figurative, but in some ways, it is quite literal: when something is made by hands, the dimensions are often driven by the size of those hands; the balance and form by how those hands typically hold or use the object; the surface aesthetics by the personal choices that artisan made based on their own preferences. Sometimes there is literal evidence of the physical hands, too: fingerprints or throw marks in clay, a single inked line made by a pen in the illustrator’s hand, the indentation of a carved mark made by a tool in the woodworker’s hand.

Knowing the effort and skill that an artisan puts into their work makes an object personal and memorable. This is even more true of those who have attempted craftwork themselves: they recognize and appreciate the effort and skill that went into the handmade products that they use. Add an appreciation for the person who made it to the recognition of effort and skill, and it becomes more personal: using a coffee mug made by a friend, one feels a connection with that person running through the object. A fleece blanket will keep a body warm enough, but pull out your grandmother’s hand-stitched quilt, and her arms wrap around you with love in the warmth. It is a yearning for connection with humanity. 

“In an age of virtual reality [and] AI, … I think people are starving for reality, including the human body and its time-bound skills and limits. Choosing handmade objects, formed with hard-won, sometimes centuries-old skills, answers that hunger. These objects are not part of a throwaway “instant” culture – they have a beauty and touchability that may outlast us. In choosing and using them, the buyer participates in that commitment to reality, to earthy materials like clay, metal, fibers, wood that have been shaped and changed by real human beings and the time they spent making them. It’s an antidote to virtual reality and a culture of endless duplication and replacement of the human.”

-Judith Walker, River of Beauty Designs

Like the humans that made them, handmade objects are also each unique. Dr. Jenny Kilgore, a career educator, prefers “handcrafted goods for myself and as gifts, as they are each unique and imbibe the character of the artisans who create them,” reflecting the artisan’s “individual inspiration, motivation, and industry.” One member calls this “soul”: “You can really see the artists’ creativity and “soul” in their works, whereas mass produced products often feel like a ghost of wherever the original idea came from.” 

This gets to the heart of authenticity in handmade craft – the connection of human souls that happens when we physically pass an object from the hands of the person who shaped it, into the hands of the person who uses it. 

The Satisfaction of Owning Original Work

Clearly, it is a deeply human instinct to want art on our walls. Ancient graffiti, murals, frescos, and cave paintings are evidence enough. Art touches us more deeply than most other things. But shoppers are in a conundrum right now with the availability of cheap, mass-produced “art.” Is it satisfying when you have an IKEA print on your wall that you know hangs in millions of other homes around the world? Or is it satisfying to have a unique conversation piece that expresses your interests, your colors, your pets? One postmodern artist, Bonny Hill of Nova Scotia, explores this concept brilliantly in her series, I Don’t Know Anything About Art. I Just Want Something Nice to Hang Over My Sofa. 

Handmade products are art sprinkled throughout our everyday lives, as applied, functional art. The art that the artisan intentionally imposed on a functional product elevates their coffee cup to a purpose greater than the coffee: eyes dwell on the surface, fingers seek the sculptural details, lips appreciate the intention-driven smoothness and angle of the rim. 

Jessica, a librarian who wants all the things in her life to be handmade, feels that “Knowing that a person” specifically made an object is heartwarming, and that the art is found in the fact that because it was not mass-produced, the object is a “unique/special thing … that can never truly be fully replicated,” like “moments, people, pets, vistas, and so on.” This uniqueness is something we can relate to when we buy products that reflect our own unique personalities: in a way, we are able to express ourselves by surrounding ourselves with handmade objects that reflect our aesthetics or values. 

The Pride of Ethical Purchases 

So many of us pursue a purpose-driven life, and we know the impacts that our purchase choices have on the world. Shoppers take pride in their ethical purchases, and purchasing handmade goods can help fulfill our ambition to do good. 

Supporting Artisans and the Arts

Supporting the artisan, and thereby the arts, is just one value that can be accomplished through buying handmade products. When you purchase a handmade product, you’re supporting an artisan. Lee Cattarin, a printmaker who buys whatever he can find handmade, is willing to spend more to know that the artisan was “compensated fairly for their work,” and one member notes that it “feels good to support a person directly for their craft, not [big companies] who tend to not support their workers as well as they should.” Buying handmade products, especially on a marketplace owned by its members, means money goes into the hands of the people making the products instead of into the hands of investors and corporate staff. 

Paying people for handmade work allows them to support themselves in that endeavor, preserving the existence of traditional craft and supporting the arts. Susan Mohr, a spinner and knitter in her own right, likes “supporting individuals and small businesses. I know that my purchase has a greater relative impact, both for them and their communities, than buying a mass-produced item.” Dr. Kilgore agrees that “handmade items support the local communities and encourage cottage industries.” Buying from artisans on a site like Artisans Cooperative is even one ethical step further, because the marketplace profits from the sale go back into the artisan community. 

The significance of supporting an actual artisan through purchase of their handmade work is often more significant than is immediately apparent. As Artisans Co-op’s values statement points out, “craft has always been the refuge of the disadvantaged: a way to earn income outside of a system that makes participation difficult for so many.” Often an artisan’s sales of handmade products are critical to them making a living.

Supporting the Environment

Purchasing and using handmade goods can often reduce material consumption and demand of manufactured goods. Not only do handmade goods not come from an infrastructure of mass production, like factories, in the first place, but they also tend to last longer, preventing the need to buy replacements. Not only that, it is supporting skilled workers who hone the ability to repair things. 

Sydney M., who makes things for herself (mostly with yarn), elaborates: “In this age of planned obsolescence, individually handcrafted goods are more likely to be made to last. I’d much rather pay more up-front, for the value of a skilled craftsperson’s time, and get an item that will last for years, than buy several mass-produced equivalents over time as they keep wearing out. It’s cheaper for me in the long run that way, and puts less flimsy garbage in landfills!”

Several customers of handmade goods also noted the tendency of artisans to use environmentally friendly methods. Lynn, a data guru and general fan of handmade, notes that one aspect of customization is that a customer can choose a look that they like without impacting fragile habitats or species: “For example, we like the color of rosewood, but we know it’s endangered in the wild so we don’t want to buy anything made of it. But we found a woodworker who used a rosewood stain, so we now have a rosewood-looking paper towel holder that also has a decoration we like.” And because of the inherent nature of mass-production by manufacturers, customization is usually only available from handmade artisans.

Environmentally-friendly packaging is also more possible when an operation is small-scale. One member knows “a lot of artists who put tons of time and effort to … make sure that their products/packaging are as environmentally conscious as possible. …I see a lot of folks doing their best to make the least negative impact as possible in whatever way we can, whereas large companies are more than happy to “greenwash” and keep doing what they were doing.”

In Summary

We’ll say it again: Handmade items are Art. Incorporating art into your everyday environment enriches your life with memories, human connection, and intentional details of craftsmanship. You feel it in each sip of coffee from a hand-formed mug from that potter you liked in North Carolina. Or in a conversation with a new friend as you explain that the oil painting on your wall is a portrait of your long-gone beloved dog, drawing memories of your faithful friend. The value of handmade is the value of art: it brings us the ancient satisfactions of human connections and originality, and makes us feel good about being able to make ethical choices about the unique products we buy. 

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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