The Handmade Item

A long time ago, when machines did not yet exist, all things were handmade: pots, shoes, furniture, books, tools. All this was made by hand, manu-factured in the true sense of the word, there was no other way. If all those things were to be made to do the job, they were supposed to do, properly, these things needed to be made solid and suitable. This was the reason why a person who was to manufacture such items needed to be well trained and to know exactly what they were doing while at work. This person would have to spend years as an apprentice. They would have to take their exam in the end and pass. The best would be allowed to spend even more years as journeymen, so they could become a master craftsman and open up their own business eventually – and train apprentices themselves.

Then machines were invented. An increasing number of things could be machine-made: pots, shoes, furniture, sheets of paper, books, tools. For machine-making some items needed to be simpler, not so ornate, concessions might have to be made as to materials and design. Production processes would have to be standardised, simplified – the objects became cheaper, for one thing because they were simpler, but also for the fact that a machine could produce a higher number of items than a person in the same period of time.

The tools of a compositor for working with metal type

Customers started asking, why they should be prepared to pay more for the goods made by the craftsman, when they could have the machine-made goods for less.

The tools of the bookbinder

Well, yes, why should we?

There are crucial differences between goods made by a craftsman and machine-made goods. Trained craftsmen have so many more options when working, they have more leeway in making something, they can use materials too delicate to be fed into a machine. More often than not handmade items are longer-lasting than machine-made ones.

A bus ticket handset from metal type and brass rulers, neatly tied up for storage

But we want to look deeper into something else entirely.

The handmade item is lifetime that has taken form and has solidified within this very item.
A person spent years of their life to gain the knowledge and the skills needed, to make the item in question with the adequate amount of expertise. Then, this person has spent a reasonable amount of their lifetime to actually manufacture this one item: a pot, a pair of shoes, a wardrobe, a sheet of paper, a book, a saw.

Working on a sewing frame, making book blocks

Whatever item the person made by hand, it incorporates, it contains the most precious this person has: their lifetime. Every minute, every hour that passes in the life of a person, is over, irretrievably gone. And in the work of the craftsman it has flown into the object, is embedded in the item made by hand. This makes the item unique. There is no other item into which the same moments of time have flown. And with every pot, every shoe, every chair, every sheet of paper, every book, every knife a person makes with their own hands, they gain more skill, more experience, more expertise. And this process of getting better over years of work also flows into the items made by hand.

A board game about typefaces made entirely by hand

This, again, renders every handmade piece unique. This might seem irrelevant for using the item in every day life. However, it is ever so certainly relevant for the esteem we should have for the item. For it is both who are due our respect, and rightly so, the handmade item itself and the person who was willing and prepared to spend part of their lifetime to make it.

Notebooks made by hand using the coversheets from old paperback books – upcycling

We have to understand that we need to be respectful towards the person who puts their effort into their work, to spend their very lifetime on doing work with their own hands. And we need to understand and become aware of the fact that this person was willing to take the time in their own life to train and study, to hone their skills, in short: to genuinely learn their craft. And make something we need and can enjoy. A frying pan, a pair of shoes, a table, a finely woven fabric, a book, a teapot.

Upcycled book handmade from the covers of an old paperback – coptic binding

And this is the true reason why we should be willing to pay more for a handmade piece than for one that was made by a machine. In the handmade object something irretrievable is embedded: The lifetime of a human being.

For Reading

The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett, penguin books, 2008, London

Handwerk, Richard Sennett, 2009, Berlin Verlag

To be continued on 13 June 2024


  1. Hello Annette, I really like the photos that you included in this article.

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