The Value of Handmade Things

What is it about handmade items that gives them a value beyond their mass-produced counterparts? Why would I pay more for something handmade, go further to seek it out, or just feel especially pleased to own it? I don’t want to attempt to answer this question for “us” or “one,” just for myself — though no doubt my response is pretty typical for someone of my generation in my particular culture.

Part of the value, I think, comes from admiration for the skill involved in producing whatever it is. No doubt I should be just as admiring (or more admiring) of the skill involved in producing machines that can make things faster and better than an individual artisan, but — well, I guess I’m not. Perhaps it’s significant that it’s hard to identify the role of individual in mass production, so the individual effort is harder to admire.

It’s pleasing to know something about the individual who made a thing that I own; sometimes the interaction with the maker is actually a motivation for making a purchase, or helps to justify paying a higher price. Sometimes it just adds value to the item by connecting it to the memory of a particular encounter. The dress that I bought to wear to my wedding rehearsal would probably be special no matter where it came from, but I also happen to have the memory of buying it from the designer who made it, and who was particularly keen to point out that it had pockets. (Which — seriously? Genius! More dresses should have pockets.) Of course, quite often handmade items come into our lives as gifts from friends.

Then there’s the fact that handmade things are often of a higher quality in fairly prosaic terms: more durable, more carefully put together, made of higher quality materials. They are often luxury items, because hand-crafters have to charge enough for their lovingly produced small batches to make a profit. They carry the seductive cachet of the one-of-a-kind, even if there are multiple copies that differ only in subtle ways (variations in wood grain, dye lots, etc.), and they will always be rare in comparison with the mass-produced. They offer the opportunity to tell a more interesting story to the person who asks, “Where did you get that?”

Of course, one of the most pleasing ways to be able to answer that particular question is with, “I made it myself.” The value that I attach to things I made comes from a variety of sources: the pleasure of learning and using skills of my own; the satisfaction of creating something that didn’t exist in the world before; a feeling of self-sufficiency at knowing that I can produce something for myself, or even provide for others; sometimes also the prosaic satisfaction of saving money by making out of cheap raw materials something that would cost more to buy pre-made (though this is not always the case). All of this without even considering the pleasure of the process. I assume that this pleasure is shared by the artisans who create handmade items that I buy for myself. Helping to spread a little more of that pleasure around is, I suppose, no bad thing.


  • I think it is one of the most important things! (Here speak as someone who delightfully wears the nightcap you made for her almost every night through the winter. I get enormous pleasure from its existence, that you made it, that you made it for me.) I love making things for people — and only wish I were better at it. It’s of a piece of cooking for people, I think; you get that sense of abundance and the expression of love through tangible means.

    In my mind it’s connected theologically with the Incarnation and the idea of a God personally involved in creation. In those terms, we can rejoice in the embodiment of principles (and activities) of creation, as well as in the idea that the world itself is ‘handmade’. (Of course, this brings up other puzzles — namely the perennial one of the existence of evil — but still; I think I’d rather live in a handmade universe, however puzzling, than a chaotic chance one.)

  • ajdegan says:

    Victoria, I’m so glad you still use and enjoy that nightcap! I had almost forgotten about that.

    Though I was trying to write from a slightly sceptical perspective here, for the sake of argument, I do indeed agree that there is a theological dimension! The closer I can come to making something from scratch, the more my human activity resembles, on a miniature scale, divine activity, which is probably a big part of why it is more satisfying.

    The relation of hand-crafting to gift-giving is also very interesting and deserves further exploration. (Fortunately, I have this blog…) When I looked around my study for examples of handmade things as I was thinking about this topic, I was struck by how many items I saw that had been made for me by friends.

    I wonder, though, how much our perspective on this is influenced by the fact that making by hand is an option today rather than the only way to produce something?

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