Automation has made it possible to produce so many objects — from bread to shoes — without the intervention of human hands (assuming that pressing a button doesn’t count). What things do you still prefer in their traditional, handmade version?
I’m a big advocate of using unprocessed foods — I don’t buy mixes for cakes and baked goods, I prefer using all fresh vegetables, and don’t use prepackaged seasonings for stews, chilis, etc. I like to make my own bread, but I’m not very good at it, even with my bread maker. Maybe I should go back to the basics for that, and skip using the machine.
I have a friend who is a weaver and makes rugs. She has a massive 12-harness loom. Luckily for her, her husband is a builder and added a room to their house on the second floor with skylights and several windows so she has optimum conditions for weaving. Her rugs are magnificent and each is one of a kind — and expensive. There is no comparison with her work and a manufactured rug.
There are some things worth making and others, not so much. I can sew, and I have made lots of clothes over the years — for me, for kids, for dolls (never again), and I really don’t think it’s worth the effort. I have made a couple of quilts on my machine for family members, and I think they’re more special because I try to use old clothes for the squares so that the pieces bring back memories. I made one when my daughter went to college in England and she was really pleased to see old shirts and jeans and tablecloths from home. I’ve never hand-quilted — I don’t have the patience — but it would be special to have handmade version of one of those.
I knit and crochet, and about once a month during the school year, I meet with other women to knit and to discuss a book we’ve all decided to read. There are a couple of women in the group who are really talented. One is an art teacher, and combining the special (expensive) yarns she chooses with her ability, she creates some incomparable wearables. They are the kind of product that cannot be mistaken for machine made. I make scarves, but have set myself of goal of a pair of mittens this coming school year! Or perhaps a hat. Both?
I like to to travel, and have visited several European countries, but mostly Britain. I love the old buildings, the cathedrals, castles, country houses, and old public buildings — like the Houses of Parliament. Besides the fact that men were able to just stack the stones up so high without falling down (the stones) and do it all by with only hand tools, they’ve lasted for centuries and are decorated extravagantly and beautifully. (I guess they did use some kinds of levers and hand wenches and the like.) Are there machines that can replace the craft of a stone mason fashioning a gargoyle? When we moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1973, the Washington Cathedral wasn’t finished. The first stone was laid in 1907 and it took 83 years to construct, partly, I understand, because they had to import so many traditional craftsmen from Britain and Europe to complete the work. Old ways take time, and there are fewer and fewer people who do this work because of the lack of demand in modern architecture.
I like handmade jewelry, too. There are a large number of talented people who craft lovely pieces, and sell them at local markets and holiday events. Why buy earrings or a necklace at Target when you can get originals for a reasonable price, that are handmade, unusual, and an expression of the artistic preferences of the maker?
On Saturday mornings in the summer there is a market at Lake Anne in Reston, and I love to see the beautiful things that different people make. Even if several people are selling the same type of items, there will be a difference because of the talents of the people who make them.
When I was a student in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 1967-70, there was a shop I loved, Birrells. They sold food, but when you went in, you gave your list verbally or in writing to a man behind the counter and he went and “fetched” your items. If you were a local shopper, you put the goods in your straw basket, paid and left to go on to the butchers, bakers, and greengrocers, and then usually you did the same thing the next day. While I am nostalgic about the past and glad to have had that experience, I’d rather go into a store where I can get everything, and have many more choices. My point is that progress cannot be repressed. Many things that were once handmade are now machine or computer produced. That’s just the way it is — you can’t stop new ideas, and most are an improvement over the past.