Handmade vs. “handmade”

This is a long and heated conversation between the industry professionals. The question sounds like this: what is “handmade”? Makers, like me (and many others, working with their hand and tools only), would answer this way:  “surely handmade is a product which is made by hand entirely”. Sounds logical, isn’t it? It is so funny that a machine, which makes the work way easier, can change that opinion rapidly. A sole stitcher, a line finisher tends to plant idea in people’s mind that their product is still handmade, as “everybody use those anyways”*. Once I have a conversation with an investor (not my investor – that is actually me, and only me) and he had a valuable opinion about it. He thought that there is no really handmade anyways. (let me put this here: there is. But really very rare). He thought that even the case of high end shoes the upper are machine stitched, skived, the sole is machine sanded, etc. So after all – he said – all the shoes are partially machine made. To be very correct, he used this philosophy to justify a welting and sole stitching machine in his “handmade’ process.

We must admit – handmade sounds good. Just like “natural”, “healthy” or “organic”. These are those words which can sell a product, even justify a higher price tag. Why wouldn’t we use it then, right? Let’s be realistic: there is no control. Companies, as long as they can, will use “handmade”. Customers – well, they have no idea. They believe those labels, printed on fancy recycled papers (and a company which that much environment conscious MUST be honest in the same time, right?).

Here is what WE can do. First of all: we have to be honest in a World which is not honest. Instead of coming up with new and vague terms, let’s be specific.


Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 15.44.34

And how we can be sure where our products belong? If we determine the times, what it takes to make a pair (here is my suggestion), we can calculate the times what we save with a machine. (the logic is simple: a 100% handmade only allows to use hands. if we replace, let’s say 20% of the time with a machine – whatever machine it is – only 80% needs to be done by hand).

For practical reasons I don’t consider upper making into the process, for two reasons: a.) literally everybody use a sewing machine for uppers. If not – that is probably just an editorial piece. b.) traditionally shoemaking starts with a ready made upper, as upper making is a different craft for ages.

Let’s say we do everything by hand from a ready made upper. In this case the product must be made without any help of a machine. No sander, no skiver, so electricity at all. Our chart (based on my experiences) would look like this, if it is about a simple welted shoe:

Screen Shot 2014-06-22 at 12.14.49

The section I moved out is the sole stitching, which is one of the most complicated work-phase. As you can see – as a great example of what I am talking about – this make the shoe 80% handmade, which is a really great ratio as a matter of fact. If we would take the welting, lasting, finishing, heel building, etc. out of the process, which leave only some part of the finishing in – that is 10% of the process – that is actually a machine product. Interesting fact: these are the product which are widely promoted as handmade.

Approach this topic a different way. Communication. As long as you can walk in to a workshop and see the maker doing the whole process by hand, you don’t see any huge, heave machinery all around, there is not much sense to state that the footwear is made by hand. It would be as smart if your mom would stamp your lunch, straight from the oven “home-made”. From all perspective: our craft must grow. That is the only way to survive: make and sell. This is not possible in your little workshop, we need to be present on the internet, retailers, etc. We need to prove, that our products are genuinely made by hand. We need to communicate it well or we just stare the huge and greedy industrial competitors to overuse our hardly earned reputation of handmade.

I guess this post will generate some arguments. Great! This is something worth to talk about.


*It seems we have quite much of a variety in terms of opinion about “handmade” and it is greatly influenced by the possession of machines.

I used this site to build my chart: http://www.onlinecharttool.com

8 thoughts on “Handmade vs. “handmade”

  1. When a person sees a shoe, what they mostly notice is the upper. So I think it could be helpful for a buyer to understand how much of the upper is made by hand. I use a motorised sewing machine, but skive, click and make patterns by hand. I think machine sewing saves about 50% of the time for upper making compared to stitching by hand. And in my case, it also makes a much neater job. So when occasionally I am shown a shoe, with beautiful hand stitched uppers, I am truly impressed. 100%!

  2. Hello!

    This is a really important subject and one that isn’t much discussed among general people or even crafters. Thank you for bringing it up.

    I make 1/6th scale doll clothes entirely by hand (partly because I can be more detailed and neater, partly because I’m too lazy to thread my machine to sew 10cm of fabric). I’ve been doing this since I was 13 and now, with the hobby’s boom and almost 30 years later, I started a tiny business. When I entered this community I quickly realised what you mean with “handmade vs. ‘handmade'”, but even having the possibility of showing my products live, talking to people, regularly feeding the internet with photos of intricate 100% handmade pieces for many years, my potential customers still don’t realise that I belong to the small minority of people that are actually being honest when they label their packages with “100% handmade”.

    I think it’s a bit pointless trying to get the masses understand this, maybe it’s the industry’s fault and responsibility, as you say, during my years trying to open the eyes of a niche business, I realise I only reached out to probably less than 5% of potential customers. I’m a stubborn person and for me it’s therapeutic to sew by hand, so I will go on. And if in one year I made one more person realise the value of the effort of truly handmade, I’m happy.

  3. “A sole stitcher, a line finisher tends to plant idea in people’s mind that their product is still handmade, as “everybody use those anyways”*.”

    “For practical reasons I don’t consider upper making into the process, for two reasons: a.) literally everybody use a sewing machine for uppers.”

    Same argument there I think.

  4. i see it as a $$ issue. does the craftsperson have the time to do it all by hand. and does the craftsperson have a community that will support that time. i.e. do you have rich customers that can afford to pay you for your time spent hand stitching. it is an amazing skill, therapeutic, old school. i am a crafts person, i understand the worth of 100% handmade. but I’m not comfortable asking what it would make a (100% hand knit sweater for example) cost so i only knit for myself and my family. i pay my rent bar tending so i have the time to craft. but if i even only asked 15$ an hour (min wage in seattle wa) the object becomes so expensive it makes me uncomfortable. i can’t ask what i myself can’t afford. i guess all I’m trying to say is… if a sewing machine can help speed up the process so a gorgeous “handmade” pair of shoes can become closer to reality and less of a dream for the working class, i see no harm in that.

  5. Thanks for pointing out this important topic.
    Would you consider a foot-operated sewing machine as a machine? it uses no electricity, right? but at the same time it goes beyond te simple hand tool…

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