On choosing handmade

Etsy featured a profile of the artist Cathy McMurray this morning, with the following teaser quote from the interview:

Choosing handmade is choosing a slower way of life, one rooted in tradition and creative expression. Handmade always involves a story that is as much about the maker as it is about the product.

It got me to click over, and her work certainly is beautiful. Really, I envy her her creativity. I don’t kid myself that I’m an artist. I’m a craftsperson at best; I don’t have artistic vision, which is what it really takes to do more than just alter this or that to make it my own. So possibly she’s talking about something different from what I think of when I hear the word “handmade.”

Emotionally, I’m very attracted to that sentiment. I’ve long been much more fond of the things I can make than the things I can buy. Where knitted and embroidered objects are concerned, I generally prefer anything I can make to anything anyone else can make, where I decide that said object is worth my investment of time and effort. And really, I hold both of those things quite cheaply. I don’t make a living knitting, so if a sweater I’ll wear every winter for the rest of my life takes me several months, or even years, to finish, that’s just fine. If I thought knitting was a waste of time, I certainly wouldn’t do it. Unless the need is incongruent with the amount of time I’ll realistically have to work on something–which is to say, I need wool socks tomorrow and know I need to do x other things besides knit between now and then–I’d always rather make what I want than buy something that almost certainly won’t be as good.

But. You knew this had to be coming. I’m too much of a historian to let a statement like that go without thinking of the luxurious life from which it springs. We may not get rich by the work of our hands, but making things out of the enjoyment of craft is much more prevalent in our world than elsewhere, and today than in the past. Her notion is romantic and compelling, but I think of women and children in tenements making lace collars, children knitting to support the family, women knitting to clothe their whole large families, the constriction of young ladies’ academies and hours of needlework whether they liked it or not, even the sheer tedium of plain sewing for a large household before home sewing machines. I know that what I do is a luxury. I can stop doing it if it stops being fun, and nobody I love will go without socks or sweaters…or food or shelter. I’m reminded that when I can choose handmade, I’m lucky.

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