Mass-production, not machines, is what the new maker movement is fighting.
“I think it is time that laser cut products be taken out of the handmade category,”
declared a wood worker in the Etsy forums last month. What followed were 37 pages worth of debate on what qualifies as ‘handmade’.
Most commenters were in support of including digitally fabricated designs into the handmade category. “As a owner of a cnc, I can say this, you do not push go and walk off and leave it. For each hour it runs I have app. 1 hour design and set up and 3 to 4 hours of finishing work,” said one advocate.
But this argument misses the point. Lasercutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, and even sewing machines are simply electronic tools for creating. The handmade movement was never about the rejection of machines. It was about the rejection of mass-production. Unfortunately, the term mass-production became synonymous with ‘machine-made’.
That mass-production is the real antagonist of the new maker movement came up in the original complaint on the Etsy forums, only in the form of a not so politically correct comment. “It really bothers me that we are starting to see more and more, expecially Asian, products get into the handmade category.”
Asian goods have gotten a bad reputation. And it’s not because Asian=machine. It’s because the phrase “Made in Asia” is synonymous with ‘mass-produced’.
And for those devotees who espouse a strict definition of ‘handmade’, let me drive the point in a little more. Chinese factories aren’t product-making automatons. China’s major resource wasn’t a plethora of machines that could make anything; it was hundreds of millions of people willing to do the work. Much of what you can buy at a retail chain is 100% made by hand — the hands of overseas factory workers.
What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter whether or not a product is made by hand.
Did you know that every single basket ever was made by hand? There are no machines that can make baskets. Yet there are tons of them in chain supply, retail, and even grocery stores.
So if mass-production — not machines (or Asians for that matter) — is what the new maker movement is fighting, why the confusion? It’s because we don’t have a term for products that meet the shared standards and ethos of today’s DIY designers/makers/crafters.
If people on Etsy have conflicting views about handmade vs digitally fabricated, imagine the confusion of the general public. As the public’s concern about the origin, manufacturing process, and materials of products continues to rise, so will the popularity of handmade goods. It is crucial that digitally fabricated designs be understood with the same positive and respected reputation as the handmade.
We need a term to align the digital fabrication revolution with the handmade movement.
We need a term that focuses not on technology or human touch, but on the individual attention an object receives during its construction. Because it’s with individual attention that today’s maker movement is replacing mass-production.