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Artisans, present and past


On my list for Assyriologists I found the following interesting
discussion on hand-made art.

Judy Bjorkman

Etsy’s Industrial Revolution


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
20,000 Years.”


Hi Judy,

Yeah, I saw it too. Meant to mention it, got busy.

I think several things: (A) she has a point, and I mostly agree with
it. (that it’s really intent, rather than any particular tool (or
lack thereof) that defines ‘handmade’.) and that (B) the fanatics
won’t care. The arguments will continue.

Somewhere around here, in one of my boxes, I have a very, very,
bloody small
steel knifeblade that I made all the way from ore.
8-10 people pumping away on a bellows 24hrs for ?4? days. We each
ended up with about enough iron to make a penknife blade. (I helped
out just so I could say "Yes, I HAVE made iron all the way from
reducing the ore!"Grad school was like that. But I’m better now.)

Intent to the side, there’s simply no way to make a living at that
level of insanity, so once we’ve gotten beyond making our own metal,
the only real question left is just how many tools we’re willing to
use, and where the limit of the ‘hand’ is.

I do a lot of CNC work these days, but I’m also a
not-entirely-horrible manual machinist. I’d have no problem saying
that a CNC’d piece wasn’t ‘hand made’. But what about a machined
piece that was done on a manual tool? All the motion of the cutter
was the direct result of somebody’s hand on a crank or handle
somewhere. All the cutting was an extension of the hand, just like a
hammer. What about pieces that can’t be strictly handmade? Any
piece of blacksmithing, for example, or any piece of raised
hollowware. They all require something harder than the hand to do
the work. I’d call a hand raised piece one of the most clearly
"handmade" items out there. Every millimeter of the form is the the
physical record of the maker’s interaction with the material. Yet it
wasn’t (strictly speaking) the maker’s hand that did the work. It
was the hammer and stake. The hand controlled the hammer and
stakes, but that’s all. So for the truly doctrinaire, there are no
’handmade’ crafts beyond some limited ceramics, and certain
(insanely tedious) types of fiber work. Everything else requires a
tool. (For the truly doctrinaire, try this on for size: what about
eyes? Does it count as ‘handmade’ if the maker needed glasses (or an
optivisor) to be able to see the work? They’re a tool too, and as
the crafts community gets older, this takes on more seriousness.)
(Some of the fanatics won’t accept a piece as “handmade” if the
maker couldn’t have made it buck naked on a desert island.)

So is it intent? Or is the dividing line more a question of how much
interaction and involvement the maker had with the item while it was
being made?

Personally, I fall on the side of counting the level of interaction,
but that’s me. I helped out a bunch of friends on the ACC circuit
back in the mid 90’s, and there was a lot of bad feeling at the time
about the ‘artists’ who everyone knew had a whole swarm of underpaid
recent grads working in the shop, putting premade parts together,
and calling that (insert artist’s name here)'s work. I thought at
the time, and still do, that most of the annoyance was based on the
level of disconnectedness, or lack of interaction with the work, not
the nitty-gritty of how each component was actually made, or how the
whole unit was assembled. “Handmade” seemed to be a marker for how
much of the artist’s soul was invested in the piece.



Thank you for sharing this fascinating discussion! The writer brings
up some very interesting points about how much "handmade"
constitutes truly handmade. I also loved the excerpts from the
ancient letters!

Donna W
Huntsville, AL


HI Brian,

I like your article. I agree with most if not all. Simply put, I
believe, that to make hand made items you may use tools, maybe even
machines and lotsof soul!

My associate and I are discussing this right now.

We were talking about a cast pendant. We spend about 10 to 15
minutes casting each pendant, but spend 1 to 2 hours building each

We spent 50-100+ hours or more perfecting the design, cad work and
hand work designing the piece.

Is it hand made?


Hi interesting discussion but in today’s world somewhat passe.

Looked at Zibbet there is for sale a bird’s nest pendant.

Did the maker make the chain, don’t think so.

Did the maker make the beads, don’t think so.

Did the maker make the bird, don’t think so.

Did the maker make the wire, don’t think so.

Did the maker make the final piece from components they did not
make, looks like it.

Did they make a good looking piece of jewellery yes.

So what is handmade and who cares?
The maker translated a design concept into a finished piece.

Is something hand engraved if a hand held machine graver is used or
does it have to be a human powered graver?

I believe there is a distinction between a mass produced cast item
and a one off fabricated item.

People are always amazed that I make my jewellery, because so much
is mass produced these days.

But really it is a mill product that I transform into a finished

I use mill products because the quality of wire and sheet is better
than I can make, and to be honest better than most of us on Orchid
can make. Your ingots and rolling mills are no match for a commercial
production house.

Can I make the jewellery from scratch, yes, I was taught how to do
this. Then my teacher told me “You can’t beat a commercial machine
for quality and time saving.”

IMHO it is the design and quality of materials and precision that is
important, not HOW it was made.

Now for a good laugh look at the National Gallery of Australia
traveling exhibition of “Body work Australian Jewellery 1970 to 2012”

Just google National Gallery of Australia traveling exhibitions.

The preamble is good for a laugh.

Jewellers preside over the manipulation of materials and the
transformation of their meaning and value. Design involves working
on a small scale in relation to the intimate site of the human body
and exercising advanced craft skills to bring a variety of materials
together as desirable and durable objects.

I would like to make Brenda Ridgewell actually wear the Space
Edifice armband for a few hours. All those nasty sharp points would
surely cause an injury.

One of the jewellers is classically trained and I have seen his work
first hand, Pierre Cavalan interesting and good quality.

The piece in the exhibition is not one of his best, but still unique
in concept and execution. But as for most the rest LOL.

When I speaking to Pierre about setting an opal and saying I was
nervous. He told me I did not know what nervous was.

Crack a $5,000 emerald, and sit at the bench to do the next one.
That is not nervous I said no that is sh*t scared LOL.



Hi Bri,

I did wonder, when I first began to apply to shows with my jewels,
whether, because I was using a flexible shaft machine, my work could
be considered ‘handmade’. Silly me!

You said,

Handmade" seemed to be a marker for how much of the artist's soul
was invested in the piece. 

And that triggered some thoughts. You were paraphrasing a group
response, but the phrase is, of course, a generalized statement,
isn’t it! The definitions of soul are absent, and that’s not wrong
in any way, but it also re-opens an ongoing discussion.
quality-defined, plus more. So, in the attempt to define ‘handmade’,
now we task ourselves with defining ‘soul’ and then we insist on
trying to quantify, if that’s at all possible, the percentage of
that soul that has been applied to a body of work.

In equating the quality of a piece with the presence of soul in the
piece, I propose that it is not possible to disengage the inherent
quality of a piece from the investment of the artist’s passion or
soul, for want of a better word, for the conception and the working
of the piece. I am connected in very intimate ways, with my work,
and always hope that the product of my passionate conception and
application of that passion, the jewel, continues to express what I
applied to it to create it, as it is appreciated and worn.

Of course, I’m not talking about the quality of the skills applied
to the jewel. That is a given! Without more than adequate skills, it
almost impossible to invest one’s passion in anything, including the
making of a jewel. What I am talking about is the ineffable and
unquantifiable elements that attain to a piece of art, whatever
medium, that seem to pulse with life. There is much jewelry out
there that is exceptionally well-made, and that has no pulse, no
life. It is simply formed metal and stones, flash, but no vibrancy.

Without becoming overly bathetic, perhaps the word is not so much
’handmade’ as it is ‘heartmade’. And, yes, this is another
unquantifiable term, but so it goes with spoken/written language. No
matter how much we, as humans, try to use language to express the
indefinable, it always falls short, except in the very best poetry.

The work, the jewel, the painting, the sculpture, the tapestry,
etc., that has been invested with the passion of the artist and
manifests that quality, is heartmade. It is not the language that
defines the quality of a jewel, it is the jewel itself that
demonstrates it.

Serving only to confuse further, I’m afraid, but hopefully adding to
the discussion in a positive way,

Linda Kaye-Moses

We spent 50-100+ hours or more perfecting the design, cad work and
hand work designing the piece.

It’s my opinion that CAD is not hand made. I’m not against CAD. It’s
very useful for large orders, etc. It’s just that I don’t consider
CAD as hand made.

Also 50-100 hours? That is waaaay to long. It’s important that you
charge and pay yourselves a decent hourly rate even for design and
brainstorming time.

We spend maybe 1/2 -1 hour for design and sketches and up to 4-maybe
5 hours for a complicated wax. A wax for a simple eternity band with
the stone seats and bead setting precut about an 1- 1 1/2 hours max.

Have fun and make lots of jewelry.

Jo Haemer


I seem to remember this discussion has been covered before. I have
searched for the earliest example and found this in the Orchid
Archives. This conversation between Ogg and Mogg is from one of the
oldest Orchid archives known. This particular archive is not online
because it predates computers. It is from an engraved stone found in
a cave near the town of Lascaux in France. By the way, the engraving
was particularly well done for work that is over 30,000 years old.

“Hey Ogg, take a look at this spear point I just made.”

“Yes, Mogg, it looks nice, but personally, I only hand work stone.”

“Ogg, this is hand made. I chipped the spear point out with my own

“Sorry to inform you Mogg, but that is pressure flaked. Pressure
flaked points are not hand made. I only percussion flake stone

“Be reasonable Ogg, I held an antler tip in my hand to exert
pressure on the edge to flake it. It is hand made.”

“You should know better Mogg. You may have held the antler tip in
your hand, but you used your legs to pull your hands together so you
could press hard enough to flake the stone.”

“Ogg, times are a changing. Modern man is doing great work pressure
flaking stone.”

“Mogg, mankind has been using percussion flaking for over 200,000
years. Now tell the truth. You made a spear point, but it isn’t hand
made because you assisted your hands with your legs. A true artist
only uses his hands.”

“I am a true artist Ogg. You narrow minded nitpicker.”

“I won’t take that from an unskilled hack who can’t master the ways
of our revered ancestors.”

“Ogg, you are a narrow minded anal retentive short sighted onager.”

“Mogg, you unqualified, lazy, stub fingered factotum. Pressure
flaked spear points will be handmade when mastodons grow wings and


Re. Calvin C. Smith’s “Ogg and Mogg” diatribe…

I laughed so hard when I read that I almost peed myself!