Nothing like handmade

A recent newspaper article on what we can expect in 2013 quoted a designer as saying, “We are seeing a premium put on bespoke and handcrafted, similar to what we saw 100 years ago with William Morris and the reaction to the industrial revolution, to a world that is completely technologically driven and impersonal.”

Slightly imperfect tumbler
Slightly imperfect tumbler

He went on to say that people are trying to create spaces that are unique to them, that are meaningful in various ways. He believes there’s ample evidence of this, even on the shelves of ubiquitous big-box stores where price usually reigns supreme over quality and individuality.

Another article focused on how London-based artist Bouke de Vries creates sculptures from cracked teacups, chipped Limoges figurines and other broken bits. “With ceramics, there’s no room for imperfection,” he was quoted as saying. “If there’s the tiniest chip in a vase, its value is reduced so dramatically, but to me, it’s still beautiful.”

He said he doesn’t purposely break things, but rather scavenges for pieces and also uses objects that he deems beyond restoration. The time is right, he said, for his kind of work. “I think there’s a change going on where it’s okay to make beautiful things again, where the actual skill of the worker is important,” de Vries said, not just the idea.

Many of us have valued handmade, one-of-a-kind items for a long time. We like that we can see hammer marks or indentations from a chisel.  A slightly-less-than-symmetrical rim on a tumbler [see photo] may technically be an imperfection, but really it’s a clue that it didn’t come out of a mold.

I collect a particularly charming genre of handmade items – needlework samplers. These pieces of often homespun cloth and kitchen-dyed threads were made by girls as young as 5 or 6 who were learning the various stitches to mend, darn and sew clothes and linens. In the process, the girls learned patience, perseverance and pride and produced pieces that are as simple as bands of letters and numbers or as complex and artistic as a painting.

Each sampler is undeniably unique. While some take on characteristics of the teacher in how she formed flowers and fauna or the pithy sayings she pulled from books, the skill and personality of the little girl who was earnestly trying to produce something to please her parents is captured forever in those stitches. Her skill might shine forth in a Queen’s stitch tree or border, but her personality might be revealed in a fanciful little creature she placed on a splash of grass or how she failed to plan ahead and ran out of room to finish a phrase. Putting a couple of letters above the line or using the wrong form of a word are “mistakes” – the kind that distinguish her work from anybody else’s.

Such imperfections are partly why samplers often are labeled folk art while other handmade pieces are decorative or fine art. They embody the best the artisan could do, whether in wood, glass, ceramics or fiber. And these pieces are cherished for the skill and ingenuity they represent.

Those who own such pieces are really caretakers who understand their responsibilities to preserve what has been entrusted to them. An item may be worth a lot or a little in monetary terms, but its value also lies in being a repository of memories.

As an appraiser, I appreciate the origins of pieces as well as all the hands they’ve passed through over the years. I study the history of decorative arts and even have tried my hand at glassblowing [see photo] and silversmithing to enhance my ability to recognize true craftsmanship. It’s all a kind of tribute to those possessions many of us have, but few of us can actually create.