Defining Handmade

April 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

One of the questions I ask my interviewees is, “What does ‘handmade’ mean to you?” No two answers I receive are the same, nor are the definitions I’ve found in my research. While I often use the words interchangeably, “handmade,” “craft,” and “handcraft” are concepts that are difficult to define. Online marketplace Etsy has done a lot to bring this debate into the web sphere, where it meets questions about internet cultures and markets. But while it’s been highly influential in forming people’s opinions of what handmade means, its policies – and shifts therein – have also made the issue more nebulous. For that reason, I’ll try to keep my interpretation independent of its own.

So what’s my take on the meaning of handmade? First of all, I think handmade exists on different levels. It’s not a yes/no binary, it’s a spectrum. I also think that there are two axes that go into determining how handmade something is: personalness and bodily involvement. Personalness is a word I’m using to encapsulate concepts of self-expression, personal creativity, originality, intent, and care. Bodily involvement describes making something yourself as opposed to outsourcing it to other people or machines (though, of course, this too lies on a spectrum).

Furthermore, handmade items are not mass-produced. They are made in small batches so that personalness and bodily involvement is maximized in each one (plus all that labor can be pretty tiring!). This approach also maximizes quality – though handmade is an expression of a crafter’s current level of skill, so more quality doesn’t necessarily correspond to something being more handmade. Small imperfections, after all, are one of the things that come as a result of personalness.

Of course, there is a certain threshold I apply when I’m buying something or looking to feature it on this blog. A store-bought charm on a store-bought chain would definitely fall below this threshold. But something that has a lot of thought and effort put into it would definitely fit my personal criteria.

I’d love to hear my readers’ views on this! Sound off in the comments below or on social media with the #craftcvltvre hashtag. Feel free to respond to my previous posts as well!


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