What is Handmade?

11 November 2006

These questions started here. But this site, The Handmade Market, pushed the same buttons. I like their tag line,

“because Mall is a four letter word”.

But looking at their site raises these questions in my mind:
Are T-shirts handmade? Here is one from their vendors.
It appears to be an American Apparel T-shirt. And they are using the branding by Americain Apparel to sell their product.
Should one expect to get something handmade in the USA for $15-20?
From my experience , with overhead costs, selling costs, etc. this is about 10-15 min. of the makers time including design , manufacturing and packing. Is that what you expect when you buy something handmade?
Let just stay with the T-shirt issue for a moment. T-shirts are not permitted at the kind of Fine Craft Shows that I try to attend, and one would not expect to jury into the Smithsonian Craft Show with T-shirts. Here are some jury standards from the American Craft Council:

Paintings, prints, photographs, graphics (including etchings and web- or sheet-fed offset printed matter), works that incorporate materials acquired from the killing of endangered species, elephant ivory (fossilized ivory is the exception), dried or silk flower arrangements, bonsai, embellished commercially-made objects (e.g., tee shirts, note cards, etc.), and works assembled (wholly or in part) from commercially available kits are not permitted in American Craft Council shows.

This does not mean that there is not a market for this kind of T-shirts, T-shirts are a part of every one’s wardrobe. In fact there are sooo many of these that we have abbreviations for them, WOATs (words on a tee) and GOATs (grahics on a tee). What are the consequences of using existing brands, such as American Apperal to sell “handmade”? T-shirts can be tie-dyed or silk-screen printed by hand. Can I tell the difference between industrially and hand screen tees? Or are we talking quanity here? Is this hand-decoration, hand-embellishment or customization? Is it the language, not the work, that needs to evolve to describe this part of our current lives?
And this is one of the questions which has already been considered, how about this piece? This is a sewn product, how is it better (that I should pay more) because it is hand-made?


2 Responses to “What is Handmade?”

  1. becki Says:

    Both the items you chose to highlight would seem to be handmade to me – and very worth their price tag – because they are original designs and conceptions from start to finish. The vendors have not only designed a graphic, they have learned to screen print, sourced quality apparel to print on, and most likely photograph it, and sell it on a website that they most likely built themselves, or at the very least, maintain themselves. I addition, that artist also markets her website, and her brand.
    In a world where printed t-shirts are a dime a dozen at places like Old Navy and Target originality and limited production certainly counts for something.


  2. Bitsy Says:

    Regarding screen-printing or otherwise embellishing commercially made t-shirts is that there will only be a few of those shirts out there. No matter how “edgy” a t-shirt from Old Navy might be, it will never be unique. It is interesting what has happened with the folks at http://www.threadless.com, in that vein: the number of shirts they print is limited, but it is still a lot of shirts. And I do recognize them when I see them on people. But the idea there is uniqueness, and interesting design, not that they are “handmade.” I think that is generally what’s going to make a screenprinted t-shirt desirable, not that it is hand-made. Screenprinting on shirts is still too close to being an industrial process to be arty.
    What do you think about people who, instead of screenprinting or otherwise embellishing new t-shirts, go find used t-shirts at thrift stores and embellish them using applique and embroidery? If that counts as “handmade,” why doesn’t it count if they also engage in some screenprinting? Maybe the trick is that there needs to be only one of the shirt, kind of a version of haute couture where each person gets a garment that is unique to them?
    As for the “Black Tattoo Lovey” linked, again, I think the issue is uniqueness, not that it is “handmade.” The person who buys that is someone who doesn’t want to buy pastel bunnies for their child, they want to show that they are counter-culture enough to want to give their kid a black blankie with skulls on it. Of course the kid doesn’t care, he/she is an infant. It is just a fashion statement for Mom/Dad.
    Another issue for discussion raised by that Handmade Market website is what about the people making stuff that looks like a sixth-grader’s home economics project– and one that earned a grade of “B” at that? Is it somehow better just because someone made it at home?
    Maybe we need a separate category for the kinds of things people used to sell at church bazaars? And frankly, I could use a good church bazaar, I need some new pot holders.


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