Saturday, April 17, 2010

Defining Handmade - Part 1

It's not as easy as it looks. Let’s start with the idea of making actual concrete items with one’s hands.

For example, you may own a mug that was produced by the Kedali Ceramic Factory in Fengxi, Chaozhou, China, by means of mold injection and roller and ram press die, and decorated with wholesale solid pigments ground on location then used, by one of its 250 employees, to paint the molded shape of the mug by hand with specific designs that she has been trained to paint; or the mug might have been colored by being hand dipped, or sprayed, and having decals & glazing applied; the colors will have been fixed by firing later. Given that this company ( ships in quantity to “Europe, America, middle east, and some developed countries and regions” [sic], and to judge from the generic but pleasant designs you see on its website (check out the four tall mugs labelled T058), you might well have seen their products in a local Hallmark, WalMart, Kmart, or other store that sells porcelain ware. Your mom or friend might have given you one of these once, maybe with candy added. You may even have picked one up at a Dollar Store, or seen one in a tourist shop on the German Rhein.

You may also own another mug, made by your friend in Brooklyn who works in her studio every day, teaches ceramics at a local college, is a member of a pottery collective that sells its members’ handmade wares at Holiday Markets around the area, and finds and grinds her own pigments. Your friend uses good quality clay to throw her mugs and pots, and hand decorates each. She uses a wheel, and sometimes presses designs into the wet clay to create textures or patterns. She usually works alone. Very few of her mugs is intended to be similar to another mug, and she avoids creating “sets,” and duplicating patterns. She gave you this particular mug as a gift, and it is intended to be one of a kind, although she may sometimes create similar patterns and certainly similar shapes.

If we are being literal about our definition, your friend’s mug has been handmade in both formation of the mug’s shape (she uses a potter’s wheel) and glazing and decoration; the mug from the Kedali Ceramic Factory has been hand painted and possible hand glazed (and it was possibly dunked by hand into glaze before firing). The formation of the actual mug was done through pouring ceramic into molds, and by mechanically extruding or stamping parts. If the equipment at the Factory is of the more sophisticated kind, most of the pouring, processing, and molding will have been able to be done through the flip of a switch.

Neither your friend’s mug nor the mug from China has been handmade in the sense that the materials used in their creation were made entirely from scratch: your friend does make her own pigments, but she does not excavate her own clay and refine it for use in her kiln. She also may use chemical additives to enhance her colors’ lifespan, or their ability to withstand kiln firing. The liquid porcelain used in the Chinese mug is equally pre-fab, although Kedali claims to grind its own pigments (not make them, however).

If we extend the definition of “handmade” to include intellectual property (i.e. design), we can add that your friend’s mug was designed by her; the mug created and painted by the Chinese workers at Kedali was most likely not designed by any one of the painters or dippers, but may have been designed by some graphic artist employed by the factory in its “design development department,” and influenced strongly by workers in its marketing research department, who might be comparing the output of Kedali with existing buying patterns on the market. Your friend probably learned her design techniques through courses with pottery experts, and most of her designs, although they are hers, also belong to the tradition of pottery-making in Brooklyn and the US and perhaps Europe or England. The items she makes – mugs, bowls, plates, goblets, etc. – are the traditional items that potters in these regions make. The same could be said of the designing of the shapes and designs of the Chinese mugs, although since these are aimed at an export market the designers may be working more from information they have been taught about the “international market” than from traditional ways of Chinese potters and ceramics experts. There may be some overlap, however: Chinese porcelain has historically had an immense influence on the shapes and kinds of pottery used in Europe and the US.

(to be continued – stay tuned!)


  1. WOW!!! I LOVE handmade - no Chinese products in my home! (no disrespect intended btw!)

  2. Haha, Niki! I wasn't trying to go in that direction, though... wait till part 2! :) Cause... don't you feel like the person hand-painting the mugs for Kedali deserves some respect as an artisan?? STAY TUNED...!!!!!

  3. I just saw a report about a factory in Britain offering making hand-painted ceramics much the same way (tho I don't doubt the conditions are much nicer there). So it's not like it's only China. I don't assume the terms hand-painted or hand-stitched to signify anything other than the literal meaning or to mean related to artistry when applied to artisan goods. It is good for ppl to be more informed about what goes on in factories.

  4. Thanks, Tori! exactly what i mean. I think that using a term like "handmade" to mean "artisan-crafted by an artist working alone" is somewhat misguided, and I hope to make that more clear in future blog entries.

    What I'm really concerned about is the way that artists and craftspeople, including those working in factories, are being exploited by this situation! If we are serious about "the handmade movement" being freeing and a force for social justice, we have to react against the mechanization of art, NOT the individual artists who wind up working for these large factories.

    Those artists are exactly the ones whose work is being undervalued, and whose creativity is being stunted. And on top of that, they are not getting paid fair value for their work. It's a tall order, but I really think the "handmade movement" can move toward breaking down the whole sweatshop complex. Understanding how we work and why some of us craftspeople are privileged and others of us are not is one step in that direction.


So, what do you think so far?