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I Took The Handmade Pledge

March 11, 2012 - The Politics of Handmade

Yesterday I had a chance to get away from the shop for a bit and reflect. I attended a conference called Craft and the New Economy at OCAD, presented by the Ontario Crafts Council. I came away with much food for thought, and fodder for a whole bunch of blog posts. For now, I'll share some ideas on the rather vast and complex question of how to make handmade goods accessible to the average consumer, rather than available exclusively to an elite group of shoppers.

I always urge handmakers to charge fairly for their work. Underpricing only undervalues the craft and quality that go into the product, and in the end, serves neither the maker nor the client well. There is no doubt that this means some products will be priced at a level out of reach for many buyers. It's why you'll rarely see handmade socks. At two days' labour per pair, they'd have to cost $200 just to cover yarn and pay the knitter minimum wage. Typically only the close friends and relatives of devout knitters have the pleasure of receiving such socks as gifts.

Pricing is something of a feminist issue as well, given that most handmakers are women, and that traditional women's work continues to be undervalued. Sometimes I hear older visitors to the shop sniffing at the prices, arguing they could make the same items for a fraction of the cost. I want to ask (and sometimes do), why they feel their skills and time are worth so little. One of yesterday's speakers mentioned her discomfort with marketing messages along the lines of, "Not your grandmother's ________ (embroidery, sewing, knitting)," and I absolutely related to her comment. If it weren't for my foremothers' skill and passion for craft, I wouldn't have embarked on this journey. I want to honour their work, not dismiss it as hokey or old-fashioned. Design tastes evolve, of course, but appealing to hipsters in this way seems both disingenuous and short-sighted to me.

Let's look at a sweater like this one made by Vintage Baby Revival:
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At $60, it's obviously more than a baby cardigan you might find at a major retailer. But let's assess the value of such an investment:

1. It is designed to expand with the baby, fitting for a good 9 months.
2. It is made to last, out of quality yarn. Cared for properly, it could be worn by half a dozen babies.
3. It travelled a block, on foot, to get from the maker to the retailer. Can't beat that carbon footprint.
4. The maker's earnings will circulate in the local economy.
5. The retailer's earnings will also circulate locally, and bring tax earnings into provincial and federal coffers.

Quite apart from the loftier questions of economic and environmental sustainability, this sweater starts to make sense in purely mathematical terms when you you consider that $60 divided by 6 kids is $10 each. Not even a big box store selling goods manufactured in developing countries can compete with that.

At the far end of the spectrum, you've got something like a Hermes scarf. One of yesterday's presenters (speaking about the marvels of technology) showed how an intricate and beautiful hand drawing is digitized and printed onto luxury fabric to create this example of wearable art. It is a thing of beauty that only the 1% we've heard so much about this year can possibly afford. But it's an art object we can all appreciate and admire, albeit in a book or museum.

Another speaker lamented the "H&Mization" of such items, and I started to bristle at the elitism of her argument. I obviously agree that designs shouldn't be stolen, and I feel strongly about fair labour practices, but why shouldn't everyone have access to a garment that lifts the spirits because it's lovely to look at?

This is where things get murky. There is a conflict between the ethos and reality of handmade that can't be simply or easily resolved. Making things yourself is satisfying because it is both creative and resourceful. DIY can even be seen as an anti-capitalist resistance movement, but that's a blog post for another day! Selling what you make, however, does open a whole economic can of worms. Handmade doesn't have to be expensive, but it does come loaded with values that require some awareness-raising.

I welcome your thoughts!