What does Handmade Actually Mean, and Why Should You Care?

(Warning: As usual I take the long way around the barn.)

“Handmade”,  a term bandied about quite a lot recently. Of course I’ll speak specifically to what defines my work handmade, but many points are common to many artistically handmade items. 

Some background/family history to begin.  In a way, I come from a family tradition of craftsmen. My Great-Great-Grandfather started a Lumber/Furniture business in Denver, Colorado, in the mid 1800’s, his father having immigrated to America in 1833 from Scotland. My grandfather, having left the family business, instilled in my father the love of finely hand crafted items. I have woodwork and leather items Dad made when he was a Boy Scout, and he passed that passion for making things to myself and my brother. My childhood was filled with makings things with Dad, lead soldiers from molds, wooden race cars, model planes, all kinds of stuff. Dad also introduced me to the endlessly fascinating world of history, aided by endless trips to the library with Mom (she passed to me her love of reading).Fast forward 15 odd years and I ended up with a degree in Fine Art.

Fast forward another 40 years and here I am hand crafting leather goods (Finally, you say!).

I’d say, like myself, most artisans are compulsive makers, probably with similar personal histories. We are compelled to make things with our hands, this is first component of hand made. I started making leather goods when I couldn’t find a sporran to suit me, and of course the answer to that frustrated search for holy grail of the perfect sporran was to make one myself. And as any maker tell you, one is never enough and that one sporran eventually lead to the creation on Moncrieff Leathers. 

If the passion to make things is the first component of Handmade, the second would be the desire to create a piece that represents your creativity and skill in handling the medium in which you work. As an Artisan, I like to create pieces that are uniquely mine, and are still representative of the genre I am working within. I also strive to create items of quality and durability, items that are set apart from other examples of the leatherwork available, especially those items which are mass produced. This were the descriptor "handmade" really applies to what Artisans, such as myself, do when they make things by hand.

So how much is "handmade" is really 'handmade"?  Undoubtedly the specifics of the definition could be debated endlessly. I will use creating a sporran as an example of the process.

The actual creation of my leather pieces involves, first, a creating a design for what I am going to make. This includes the pattern of the individual pieces of the sporran, which in many cases is a pattern based on the common features of a sporran, which is, in its simplest from, a belt bag. These pieces include the front and back pieces, a gusset (but not always), a flap, a belt loop or separate sporran belt, and some method of securing the flap closed.

Once I have designed the pattern pieces I cut all leather pieces out, by hand, using various cutting hand tools, such as various knives or scissors. I don't use, or have, either a click press or laser cutter (although it would make the process easier if I did!). This is not to say that other, bigger manufacturers of sporran, are not producing hand made sporrans, they are just doing so at a different level of hand made. 

Once all the pieces are cut out. I gather the other things I need to complete the sporran, such as hardware, leather lacing, thread, etc. I'll pause here to address the potential of levels of handmade. I don't cast my own hardware for example, nor do I tan the leather I use. Now some might say that makes my work less "handmade", but I would ask, at what point do I draw the line in making a piece? Do I need to have shot the cow, then skinned the cow, then tanned the leather for my sporran to be considered handmade? Do I smelt the metal first to cast my own hardware? Do I grow the cotton, then spin the thread I use to sew my sporran? You can see how we can go from the ridiculous to the sublime. As a maker you have to decide what you define as handmade, taking into consideration time and talents, and just how deep you go in adhering to an acceptable concept of handmade. 

The other area of handmade that I want to talk about is the use of machines. For some people, it's not considered handmade if the Artisan uses any type of machines. For me, this idea is unrealistic, and somewhat naive. Does a potter use a motorized wheel? Does a jeweler use a rotary tool? Do these machine make what they do less handmade? I don't think so. I once heard an Artisan muse that if Artisans of 200 years ago had modern machines available to them, they would have used them.

In my case I do use a sewing machine on many of sporrans for 2 reasons. The first reason is time. As a one man shop I need to be able to produce my work in a timely manner if I ever hope to have enough pieces to offer to my customers. Time is also a factor for me, for as a 63 year old, I only have so much time left make the things I want to make. The second reason is old Mr' Arthritis, I am in a foot race against him and he is closing in fast. Some of my work is all hand sewn, i.e., I don't use the sewing machine, and it's usually a conscious decision that I want a particular piece to be all sewn without the use of the sewing machine. I also believe that even using a sewing machine my pieces are still "handmade", in that I can't just lay the leather pieces on the machine and then tell the sewing machine "sew these up will you, I'm going to lunch". It don't work that way. 

Back to making the sporran. Many of my sporrans have pieces cut from what is called  veggie tanned leather. This is a piece of leather in raw form, simply having been tanned and not dyed any particular color. I use this particular leather when I want a piece, say the sporran flap, to have more rigidity, or, I want to hand tool a design into the flap. Hand tooling is another feature of "handmade", which involves using tools to hand carve a design into the leather. The veggie tanned leather will be hand dyed, and the edges burnished, before it is ready for assembly. 

So, once I have all my pieces gathered I start assembly. I glue and sew the individual pieces together, adding hardware at the appropriate time, to finally end up with the finished product, a Moncrieff Sporran. 

So why should you care if you have an Artisan handmade sporran? There three primary reasons I think you might care to own an Artisan made piece. The first is quality and durability (I guess that's 2 reasons right there, anyway). If looked at closely, you will see I take great care in making and finishing my leather work. All exposed leather edges are carefully burnished and sealed to insure the sporran will look skillfully finished, not carelessly rushed an thrown together and to increase the sporrans durability. I will also point out that all my leather work are built like tanks. All stress points are reinforced, either by sewing or by rivets. I also use quality materials that will last a long time.

The second reason you should care to buy handmade is that your are supporting the individual craftsman who is maintaining what, in many cases, is a dying art from. By supporting Artisans, you have access to well made, unique and beautiful work that can add to the quality of your daily experiences.  Why does that matter? Without Artists and Artisans, we end up in a very dull world where we all have the same mass produced, cheap and uninspired stuff.  

I hope this has shed a little light on my concept of what "handmade" means. I welcome comments and questions. 



Kerry Moncrieff

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