The Great Controversy- “Hand-made or Machine-Made”
Last week I began to write my blog on the question of hand versus machine made products. I then got distracted by writing a review of Mary Schoeser’s book, “Textiles”. I promised to return to the original subject this week.
Before I begin my thoughts on the subject, I wish to correct a fundamental error, that is, the notion that products labeled “hand- made” are made entirely by hand. Such labels lead us to assume this to be true, but I assure you this has never been the case. Since the appearance of our very distant cousin, “Homo habilis” or “handy man”, man has used simple tools to assist with tasks. These tools gradually became more complex and man began employing simple machines such as the pulley, lever and screw to complete his work. Webster’s dictionary describes simple machines as those “devices that transmit or change the application of energy, such as the lever, the wheel and screw…”.
Looking at early textile history, we must consider the use of machines. Webster again defines a machine as “ a structure consisting of a framework and various fixed and moving parts, for doing some kind of work”.
So how about a loom? From the most simple device to modern power looms, does this not apply? Or take the spinning wheel, you get my point. When a sweater is said to be entirely hand- made does that mean the wool was hand-sheered, hand-spun by drop spindle, hand-plied, hand-dyed ? Of course not. Even the most creative craftsperson takes advantage of electric shears and a wheel, while most knitters rely on purchased fibers, whether they then do their own spinning and dyeing or purchase skeins of ready to use wool. And what of purchased synthetic yarns? Another example is to refer to hand-made quilts. I made many quilts, but I did not gin my own cotton fiber, spin and dye it, weave it into cloth. Some quilts I hand- pieced or appliquéd, others I used a most useful device, my sewing machine. Therefore, I plead my case that we must rethink our terminology. Perhaps a more accurate term would be “hand-crafted” or “artisan –made” and instead of “machine-made” we could refer to those products as having been “commercially-manufactured”.
Now to our original question of comparing “hand-crafted” and “commercially-manufactured” products, specifically, textiles. Can we agree that much depends upon quality? I have encountered, as have you, many outstanding textiles created by the most skilled and imaginative artists with considerable talent. On the other side of the spectrum, I have seen some poorly constructed attempts. Modern technology has contributed so very much to the fields of design, weaving and printing. Modern workshops and factories can produce aesthetically acceptable materials or, because the managers have not maintained their machinery nor properly trained their workers, produce poor-quality goods with mis-matched patterning and obvious defects.
I believe it comes done to the end-use of the textile. In a perfect world, unique goods of the highest quality would be available to all at a reasonable price. However, no one has ever implied we live in a perfect world. I believe you should buy the best quality merchandise you can comfortably afford, whether it is textiles or pots and pans or a living room sofa. Reason dictates that there is a difference between the purchase of a quilt which is to become a family heirloom and a comforter for your four year old’s bed. Your tween daughter may think purple carpeting is rad this year and next year it is an entirely different story.
But just because we do not always purchase museum-quality textiles for daily use does not mean we cannot appreciate their beauty and the complexity of their construction. Today there are dozens of publications available to increase our knowledge of textiles, classes in design, museum lectures on their collections. When I worked at a museum back east we were taught that information leads to understanding and with understanding we learn appreciation. Developing an appreciation for textile-art (and I consider all textiles, art) would be a very worthwhile resolution for this and every new year.