Handmade or not, that is the question

Handmade, along organic and fair trade, are big selling words in our modern overly industrialized world. But so many steps are involved in the production if any items, from raw material to assembly

 to finishing and decorating, that it is most often very difficult to draw the line between machine made and purely handcrafted items. 


Guess what, your iPhone is handmade!

In keeping up with the judgement of many producers in the garment industry labelling freely everything as handmade, a smartphone qualify for this status. At many points during its assembly life, a human had to handle the parts with his hands. Smartphones also need coltan, a mineral gathered by hands in mines in Africa. But these are facts you don't want to know. More so, manufacturers would rather conceal these ‘handmade’ qualities of their products as they bring on more controversy than sales.


Handmade and its idyllic imagery

But for many other industrialized products, the notion of handmade has a strong marketing value.  Even highly industrial products use the imagery that handmade or handcrafted evokes as these are very useful marketing tools. If any part of the process does involve pair of hands, then the product is labelled or marketed too easily as "handmade" .




On this instant powder coffee package sold in Thailand, a drawing of a man is seen lovingly picking the coffee cherries. Although it is a known fact that harvesting the coffee cherries is still done by hand, it is also a known fact in the  West that this job is strenuous, difficult and low paid jobs. No much smiling or loving caring is involved, nothing like this drawing suggests. More so, the hand picker of the cherries is so far away in the chain of making of “3 in 1” instant coffee mix. It probably doesn't say "handmade" on the package, but the drawing surely suggests we are getting serving of coffee directly from this kind thai farmer! 



Usign the image effectively

Twool is a small-scale self-sufficient wool production UK based company. They have sheeps, process the wool, spins it and make it into so kind of natural jute like cables.  They have a great looking website that is very transparent about who they are, what they do and how they do it. On the how is it made page, the drawings show people but the videos show machines only. Yet, yarn is organic and locally made. This is probably as handmade you can get in the western world small scale private industries, unless you buy a high priced item from one hermit nostalgic farmer who knits directly off his sheeps. 


Textile industry continuum

Drawing the line between handmade and machine made is not easy and often a decision based on emotions more than logics. In the textile industry, it is a continuum between the two extremes, with all the subtleties and variations in between. On one end there is the product of the fully automated machines, including the gathering of raw material in the case of cotton harvesting, viscose and all the petroleum based products. On the other end theewe is totally handmade, from raw material to final processing.


Block printing using hand as a pad and hand carved stamp

The making of a piece of fabric

Scarves are easy items to evaluate their level of "industrialization", as they require to assembly and can be one sheet of fabric with no designs. Yet, on plain textile item like a unicolour scarf, involves at least 16 pairs of hands of skilled people and/or machinery. And this is excluding all finishing, administrative work and further packing. As with any manufactured item, there are 3 major steps in its productions; making of the material, assembly into the sheet of textile and the processing. Any of these stages can be done partly by hand or by automated machines, from 0 up to 16 out of 16 which would yield what is acceptable as a 100% handmade. In reality, a scarf with the perfect score is very difficult, if not impossible, to find.

 Machine made jamawar scarf

Machine woven fake jamawar "pashmina" made with chemically treated wool

Not handmade at all: the imposter

If China is a well-known provider of industrial products, Punjab, India, who has smaller scale factories but all fully automated, still tries to cash in with the “handmade’ label. But in reality, the only handmade part of any of those scarves, is from the worker behind the factory computer, who is setting up colours and weaving patterns for the automated looms.  


Almost not handmade

In Nepal, they say always say all their scarves are handmade. It is true that the looms used are often hand powered since they have too many power outage (scheduled load shedding). But the yarn they use is from China or India, where it is spun by big machines. And many larger factories in Nepal are not home based (as in Kashmir), but more similar to small scale assembly lines. The case of the Nepalese scarf is the most mitigated as the "handmade" label is used all around the world and helps promotes these products and the Nepali economy. But i would much rather promote the overall quality of the scarves that the small scale nepalese factories produces than its not-so-handmade quality. 


jamawar needlework

Machine woven wool jamawar shawl, with handmade finishing work (needlework)

Somewhat handmade; the scarf with a soul

One owner of a small textile factory i knew in Nepal is a businessman and he doesn’t handcraft his own scarves. Yet he checks in a fatherly way on every step of the production and takes a good care of his employees. He loves his products and is very passionate about it. Machine made yarn is running in his machine looms, where all have operators checking on them individually. All warping and wefting is done manually. Only at the final step the scarves get the more or less “handmade” treatment while they are being individually dyed, washed then later screen printed. The final product is of high quality and sought after from major European designer stores who asks him to sew onto his scarves the label "Handmade in Nepal". I would rather put a "Made with love in Nepal" label, it is closer to reality and would certainly have a good marketing appeal.


jamawar pashmina

Pure hand spun pashmina cashmere stole with block printing and needle work 

Then there is the totally handmade

I produced an infographic showing visually all the steps I could verify on the making of a handmade pashmina.  All tools are wooden or part metallics that could have existed hundreds of years ago. Only the pressing machine uses mechanical power. But  his one could easily  be substituted by a traditional machine if the source of power went missing. These steps are exclusive of any further decorative work on the fabric, such as digital printing, screen printing, block printing, needlework, and so on, which is also done by hand.


infographic showing process of making pashmina








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