On my list for Assyriologists I found the following interesting
discussion on hand-made art.
Etsy’s Industrial Revolution
By ELIZABETH WAYLAND BARBER
PASADENA, Calif. ? HAND-KNIT sweaters? Hand-thrown pots? How about
quilts stitched on a sewing machine? In an age when artisanal items
can be sold at a premium, what products should qualify as
This is the problem confronting executives at Etsy, the online
marketplace for all things vintage and handmade, which has not
allowed factory-made products to be sold on its site since it was
founded in 2005.
But last month, Etsy announced new policies that would allow sellers
to apply to peddle items they produced with manufacturing partners,
as well as to hire staff and use outside companies to ship their
goods ? all provided that the sellers demonstrated the “authorship,
responsibility and transparency” intrinsic to handmade items.
By easing the definition of “handmade,” Etsy is trying to
accommodate individual vendors who are having more and more trouble
keeping up with their growing volume of customers. But many Etsy
users are outraged by what they see as Etsy’s abandonment of its
commitment to human handicraft, with some jumping ship for purer
artisan sites like Zibbet.
Yet Etsy’s latest move is entirely in line with the history of
handmade goods, a history that is more complicated than the simple
term “handmade” implies. The artisans have run head-on into the
problem that led to the Industrial Revolution: Making things by hand
is slow. Really slow.
Nearly 4,000 years ago, when Assyrian women wove fancy cloth for
their menfolk to sell hundreds of miles away in what is now Turkey,
the problem was already there. We have the women’s letters to prove
“About the fact that I did not send you the textiles about which you
wrote, your heart should not be angry,” wrote one wife, as
translated by the Assyriologist Klaas Veenhof. She couldn’t finish
the textiles because she had to stop and weave new outfits for her
daughter’s coming-of-age ceremony ? but “whatever textiles I can
manage I will send you with later caravans.”
Like the Etsy artisans, these women worked for their own profits.
They liked to keep them, too. In one letter, a wife asked her husband
to hide the silver she earned inside a bale of wool to avoid notice
by the tax collector. With their profits, these women ran their
households and bought raw materials ? which sometimes included slave
girls to increase production ? to make more cloth. After all,
handmade goods require many hands; machines, there were none.
Unless you call the hand loom a machine. The ancient Assyrian loom
already had mechanical aids in the form of a complex of wooden bars
and thread loops to open the passages for the weft thread to go
across the cloth. The women no longer had to use their fingers to
part each pair of threads.
And what about the hand spindle, a mere stick with a bit of pottery
or an apple stuck on the end? Its whirling speeds up the process of
thread-spinning enormously. But spinning the thread took much longer
than weaving it. (At least one Middle Kingdom Egyptian wall painting
of cloth-making shows a worker saying to the thread-makers, “Hurry
up!”) It was that bottleneck ? lack of thread for the weavers ? that
led to some of the most important machines of the Industrial
Revolution, such as the spinning jenny.
Since then, machines have essentially made all the thread and yarn
we buy to knit and crochet and sew our handmade sweaters, doilies and
Oops. Are those crafts then not “handmade”?
I have friends, hand-weavers, who spin their yarn from
hand-processed fiber. But they use a spinning wheel, a labor-saving
invention developed in the Middle Ages. Does that yarn not count as
Using a spinning wheel to make thread does seem quaint and
old-fashioned enough to qualify, especially set against the giant
mills of today. But by that logic, everything made by an earlier,
outmoded technology could count as handmade.
The truth is that almost none of the objects that we think of as
handmade truly are. And that has been the case for thousands of
years ? long before Etsy announced this latest change to its website.
A fully handmade item, like the fragment of Egyptian linen from
2,500 B. C. that I came across in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,
is a testament to human skill. Fine as silk, 200 threads to the inch,
the linen had been hand-split and spliced end to end to make the
But that kind of artistry is a rare treasure today, as time is short
and machines, ranging from the simple to the complex, are with us to
stay. Ultimately, it is the human care, effort and ingenuity used to
create an object that is important, and not whether it fits the
exact definition of “handmade.”
Just because an object includes manufactured parts doesn’t mean it
can’t reflect the touch of an individual creator’s hand: the subtly
uneven knit, the finger-marked clay, and all the other happy
unmechanical surprises of human quirkiness.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a professor of archaeology and linguistics
at Occidental College, is the author of “Women’s Work: The First