Missing the Point: Handmade vs Digitally Fabricated

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.

< Previous Post
Next Post >

I agree that handmade is not about rejecting the machines that help us create.

This is something I’ve worried about a bit lately as I’m wanting to start selling my Ponoko cut goods (mostly wood) on Etsy soon.

Even for those to stick to the ‘handmade’ term really literally, consider this:

A lot of laser etched items aren’t simply cut from the machine and then sold immediately without a human completing the item. For example, brooches need pins glued to the back, perhaps sanded around the edges, and can be lacquered/stained/painted before the item is ready for sale/wear.

Noting as well (as is mentioned in this blog entry by Kristen) that an artist has sketched/digitised their initial design out first before it becomes a real product.

These processes all spell out ‘handmade’ to me.

Isn’t the term you want “crafted”?

I prefer the term “on-demand mass production” which is how I see what my company does. What this means is you produce things only when you get an order (which is what makes Ponoko great!) but with the benefits of mass production meaning the first model cut or the 100 000 000 will be identical.

I would also agree, I don’t think laser fits into “hand made” but a new category should be used, such as “digitally made” because electrons are used instead of real sweat equity – which is how I define handmade.

I never really saw “machine vs handmade” debate, just “electrons vs sweat”. We are the smart ones… we use machines to do our bidding instead of our joints 😉

Jon @ WoodMarvels.com

These are such well-needed clarifications! I work in the fashion industry to pay the rent, and people do not realize that PEOPLE make their clothes. Everything is sewn by hand- with sewing machines of course, but there really is this idea that mass-production of clothing is magical and machine-made. In regard to the DIY community, I think that this idea of handmade vs. machine-made gets perpetuated in Etsy’s mission statement:
“Our mission is to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers.
Our vision is to build a new economy and present a better choice:
Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade.”

Connecting makers and buyers is really what they are trying to do, but the wording “live handmade” makes the logical next thought “what am I living now that is the opposing idea of handmade? machine-made is the only opposite.” So here we are in this sort of messy machine vs man grey area, trying to figure out what we really are as artists, craftspeople, etc…

This is a great discussion. I started digging deeper and found this post by Tara aka Scoutie Girl. It is worth a read. She tackles the bigger picture trying to define what the craft/handmade movement really is about.


I use to have my own doubts about designs I’ve made with Ponoko being considered handmade by shoppers because I have straightforward products like coasters that require no hand work and others that require building and finishing. So what should count?

My gut reaction to the handmade movement is more about who is making it and less about the dictionary definition.

Mirriam Webster – made by hand or by a hand process

As long as it is me creating these things in small volumes and not some factory I pay, it’s handmade/crafted. I’m one person making something from nothing. A laser cutting machine is just another amazing tool I get to utilize thanks to Ponoko!

Kristen Turner

@Thomas I had initially been thinking “individually crafted” but it seems a bit cumbersome.

@Jon To me, on-demand is almost the opposite of mass-production. I don’t so much think of the term “mass-production” as “production for the masses” but “production IN masses”. I see mass-production being about the fastest possible replication of goods which almost always ends up with surplus. It’s about quantity.

Most factories won’t even make something if you aren’t going to order at least 10,000 units. And it’s not because they’ve got a list of 10,000 names that want their product. Factory production approaches things in lump masses.

On-demand isn’t about quantity. Whether 2 or 2,000 of your products are ordered is totally irrelevant. That product will be made for those 2 individuals or for those 2,000 individuals. It’s still an “individual” approach. Both in the making of the object and who it’s for.

Kristen Turner

And I’m not really encouraging a debate. I’m saying there isn’t one. I’m saying it doesn’t matter if something is made by hand. SO, we need a new term. Crafted is good, but no one is going to take the “Crafted pledge.”

It’s about the relationship of the individual maker to the individual consumer, for me. “Handmade” in itself means nothing intrinsically good, until very recently it was synonymous with wonky stitching and poor finishing (“Oh, that’s interesting, did you make it yourself?”). Harking back to that is just nostalgia.

The things that give the pleasure that I associate with bespoke, unique, handmade, or “for me”, do so because I imagine that I am different and unique and therefore require a different and unique product. I think that I deserve some special attention. That is the antithesis of mass production which means one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator stuff. I disagree with Jon that what we’re doing here is anything resembling mass-production: It’s individual production, just happens to be using some industrial processes that make it affordable and consistent. Previously small-order stuff could be done consistently but not cheaply (master craftsman in his workshop labouring over cutting identical joints), or cheaply but poor quality (get the neighbourhood kids to colour your posters with their crayons).

Rarely, big companies figure out how to make one-size-fits-all fit perfectly for enough people that it seems … “magical”, or at least, surprisingly good enough that we start to look askance at the rubbish we usually swallow. Smaller producers can do it more easily because they have individuals, or families at the helm. People with insight.

The products don’t necessarily have to pass through an individual’s hands, but they need to feel like the product of an individual. It’s not about the “handmadeness” of any particular process at all, or if it seems like it is, it’s only because of proximity. It’s really about aligning myself with the kind of people who good at doing something – experts, craftspeople, people who understand quality. Person-made-ness. Maybe about business vs home?

There’s a curatorial aspect to it too, where I trust another person to choose what’s best for me. Call it “handmade” or “designer”, the two are in essence about the same thing for me, and there are non-canon versions of both.

That was long winded! Cheers!

I’m with you on this one all the way. This is the discussion I am always having with people and I always find myself having to defend my work under the “handmade” umbrella.

I consider myself an independent maker. The products I put out would not exist without my brain, my hands, and my mark. Handmade to me is about seeing a point of view and being able to see the makers hand in the work. I don’t think every step has to be handmade but it is the essence of it being individually created.

While I may not be guiding each piece of wood through a machine by hand. I am spending hours designing my work, finishing my work, designing and creating packaging, and a brand behind it all. When a lasercutter can start creating new products from scratch without me… then maybe i would rethink it being “handmade”

I am constantly surprised at how much hand finishing is required on objects that are digitally manufactured, be it laser cutting, CNC routers 3D printing etc. The technology is still a way off the “hands off” utopia. But this is not the point. It is about independent makers/designers/crafts vs mass production.

Will people take an “indie” pledge?

Craft & Design has a rich history of convergences & divergences with debate of the use of ‘technology’ in craft. All tools are a technology, be it fishing line held taught between 2 pegs, or a 5 axis CNC.
Craftsmanship exists in the use of both, through attention to detail and the personal connection of the maker, to the object, to the person beholding it.

The separation of the hand from the object is simply a reflection of our society, where we are often physically separated from our friends, family and work, yet through digital mediation we still have meaningful and fruitful connections.

There is a conference coming up hosted by the International Committee
for Design History and Design Studies which has a stream to discuss just this. http://www.designandcraft2010.be/

Bonnie L. Rubio

Personally, I’m not even anti mass-production. Individuals can mass-produce items by hand, as is mentioned by several sellers in the Etsy thread.

What I’m interested in is human- and Earth-friendly production, whether in a factory or in your garage. American Apparel could be seen as human-friendly and certainly as mass-production. There could be even more scales such as animal-friendly and uniqueness.

How about responsible production? This gets rid of ideas of machines being evil, having (heaven-forfend!) employees as your micro-business grows, and mass-production by any method (machine or hand, by groups or individuals). It also takes away the production manner as being either morally right or morally wrong. Should a person stringing a human- and Earth-unfriendly mass produced pendant on a human- and Earth-unfriendly mass produced chain by hand really have more value than a self-designed laser-cut bamboo pendant (which may or may not need further hand-finishing) or self-designed laser-cut leather gauntlet that requires a bit of hardware (which may well be mass-produced and have varying degrees of *-friendliness) before being a finished product or a digital photographic print? These vary on the aforementioned *-friendly scales, which is why trying to polarize yet another issue is unproductive, to say the least.

Kristen Turner

I really like the use of “Indie”. Not only does it signify something as independent, but it also ties in to my focus on “individual construction”.

I definitely think people would take an “Indie pledge”.

Nicole : Three By Sea

Interesting article…you raise a lot of good points. I’ve grown tired of stressing about how to label myself and have decided to just leave it at “maker”.
Here’s a blog post I wrote today about it-

Increasing access to digital tools (ie: CAD software + CAM hardware) combined with online platforms such as Etsy and Ponoko have the potential to democratise the production process by connecting designers and customers. In my view, these technologies are actually reviving the pre-industrial values of Craft.

If you think about how the mass media paradigm that emerged from the Industrial Revolution is being challenged by the rise multi-media (enabled by access to digital tools connected to a shared platform) – I believe the term ‘multi-production’ best describes what happens when you combine craft and technology.

Simply, is the umbrella theme: the “custom made movement”?

“Custom” seems to include everything above.

I love this discussion that Kristen has started! I would take the idie hand crafted custom pledge.

Comments are closed.