Sustain-ability: Making Things Ourselves

Andrew made a comment on my last post about handmade things being one of those nice things we can still have. I agree, but with one caveat. Buying handmade has been co-opted and to avoid that pitfall, you need to buy carefully.

Etsy is a perfect example of this trend. When it started, etsy was specifically for custom handcrafted items as well as resale of vintage items. But if you do there now, you will see something very different going on. You will find lots of items that, which technically handcrafted, aren't custom. In fact, the same items appear again and again. This is because they handmade in a factory-like setting abroad. This reduces the transparency of the items you are buying. The maker and buyer are separated by a middle-man -- the seller. This means you can't know when you are buying if the actual makers are treated well or compensated fairly. You hope they are, but you see that they are many many identical versions of the item being sold by different people on etsy, you have to wonder.

In addition, handmade has become both a virtue signal and a wealth signal. So by buying handmade you are showing to the wider society that you care about the right things... and that you can afford them. This is challenging because you want to purchase your handmade market basket through a African women's fair trade collective* because it's the right thing to do, but it's also the stylish thing to do. The honest urge to try not to exploit people gets twisted into another square for hipster bingo.

Full disclosure: my farmers market basket is, in fact, from said collective. I'm still part of the same system.

That said, there are still plenty of ways to buy handmade and have it be a nice thing. If you know the hands who make it, you are directly interacting with your community to support makers and the local economy. This is, far from being co-opted, a direct fuck you to the system. I have several hand-turned wooden items from a fellow who has a seasonal market stall at my local farmer's market and they are unique and beautiful.

But the very best way to enjoy handmade items -- and the purest way to enjoy that nice thing in your life -- is to make them yourself and share them with those you love.

Making things by hand is of zero interest to commercial society and therefore worthy of deep exploration on psychological, social, emotional, and above all magical level. By using your own hands to create, rather than consume, you are directly countering our capitalist society and cultural norms. It short-circuits the whole plan, it's a different game, it's not just "outside the box" it squashes the box flat. It's deeply subversive. So subversive, that the dominant paradigm can't even cope with it. Just look at how our language treats the act of personal creation:
  • Handmade = expensive, bespoke, custom, curated. 
  • Homemade = clumsy, cheap, class-less, unappreciated.
Yet, there are a number of benefits to making things ourselves.

First, making things by hand seems to confer a psychological benefit. Yes, the field of psychology is suffering from a major reproducibility crisis, but this particular claim does match my personal experience and the experience of others I've talked to. Our society would rather we buy everything we need and pushes much of our creative experience online, but making real objects by hand is the birthright of every person. Look around you right now. How much of what you see could be made from scratch by you? I'm in my office, so there's a lot of manufactured plastic and glass and technology. Only a few things could be made by a person, let alone by me. When we reclaim the ability to make something for ourselves, we reclaim our power as creators.

Second, making things by hand has a social benefit. When we give something we've made, it shows a deep sense of caring about the recipient. It's certainly much harder to knit pair of socks than it is to buy them. And giving gifts of homemade food is a way of sharing love directly with the people we care about. It also shows that people are worth time and effort and not just money. This is a powerful way of expressing our caring and regard. And those who appreciate receiving the results of that effort become connected to us by tight social connection. I can go online right now and have flowers delivered to my grandmother-in-law. But that's nothing compared to visiting with a handful that I plucked from my mother's garden. 

Third, making things by hand can be very emotionally satisfying. It can be soothing or challenging in turns. It can teach important lessons about effort and reward, problem solving, letting go of perfectionism, and appreciating process as well as product. It also teaches the value of working to improve our skills. It puts us in the role of creators rather than consumers. That goes for making socks and music, drawings and soup, stairs and shoes. It's the act of creation that's important. Consumerism is destruction. It's right there in the name -- consume means to eat and use up. That doesn't mean we can't buy things we need or want, it just means that by constantly consuming and never creating, we create a huge imbalance.

Finally, making things by hand is a fundamentally magical act. It's re-empowering ourselves as creators. It's the act of taking our generative energy back into our own hands. When we make something that wasn't there before, we are reenacting the original stories of creation. And when we change our environment by hand, that's a hairs breath away from changing it by word, by deed, and by our own magical intent. No wonder the powers that be would rather we become ignorant of the power of our own hands and minds to make new things. And more practically speaking, you can layer a whole world of intent into the things you create by hand. No magic object is going to be more powerful to you or the recipient you choose. 

I've always been a crafty person, but I don't subscribe to the idea that only certain people are creative. Human's have evolved to create and the capability is in each one of us. Yet people will insist on thinking they can't create. That's what the dominant society wants them to think.

It doesn't matter if what you create is beautiful or useful or even successful or good. Those are the external values placed on it. Do your best and accept the results and know that effort will result in improvement. We're making the world into what we want... we are dangerous and subversive and radical. In every hand knit pot holder or hand made pie crust is a repudiation of the brokenness of the world. In each song we sing or poem we write is the seed of strength to survive it. In each act of creation we are reflecting the universe's endless capacity to MAKE.


  1. Yes!

    Although it's an interesting choice of image, given that all of those can openers are riveted in place by copper fittings, and are unlikely to be used again until someone takes a crowbar to the rivets and works them loose. ;-)

    I just finished my ninth or tenth baby quilt (let's see... four... six... seven... nope, I guess it *is* the ninth). I don't know that I'm good enough to sell baby quilts professionally online, but I know that I'm good enough to give them to people I know, or sell them to people who want them locally.

    As for "making things by hand as a magical act"? Yes, a thousand times yes. I know that very few magical visitors to my blog ever move past the posts about how to win the lottery or how to work with geomancy, or a few other things. But the re-enchantment of the world happens when we put our hands to work in radical ways — digging in the dirt, coating the planes with sawdust, whisking the cake batter to the perfect consistency. All of these acts are meditative, magical, re-enchanting. I don't know that I write about anything else, really, than the re-enchantment of the world through the lens of making things.


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