how to change the world

Why hand-made matters

"I'm not interested in making the cheapest mug"
— Emma Bridgewater

By John-Paul Flintoff

A few years ago, I made a decision: I would never again buy anything “cheap” if I could help it. In other words, I would buy less than I had bought in the past, but it would all be good quality.

Home decorated plate, "Eye love you", by Nancy

The idea came to me indirectly. As the father of a young child, I had thrown myself into relearning craft skills that I’d not used for years. Helping my daughter, Nancy, I experimented with book-binding, pottery and sewing. We made booklets for her to fill with pictures and pressed flowers, we decorated plates and mugs, and we sewed clothes for her teddy bears.

In truth, I was not only doing this for Nancy. I soon found I was doing it for myself, too, because I enjoyed it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just one of many people driving the ongoing renaissance in craft that has seen huge numbers of people buying and selling handmade items on sites like Etsy, and looking to buy high-quality goods instead of high-street knockoffs wherever possible.

By experimenting with these crafts myself, I also came to a better understanding of what was involved. I made myself fitted shirts that each took a whole day to sew. Feeling pleased with my handmade books, I even set up a shop of my own on the British designer-maker website, Folksy; but I soon learnt that it’s impossible to compete with mass-produced goods.

That doesn’t matter to me, because I don’t depend on making a living from my sales, but I began to understand how hard it must be for people who do.

That is to say, I realised that the pressure from consumers always looking for bargains (as I had previously done) leads directly to the exploitation of producers. Ultimately it can even lead to the destruction of entire industries. Take ceramics: in the late 19th century, Staffordshire was home to more than 2,000 kilns firing millions of products a year. But within 100 years the industry had virtually collapsed, as consumers demanded cheaper goods from overseas.

It can be hard to care about the fate of producers we don’t know, but the pressure on price also drives down quality, and that affects us directly.

Having become (relatively) expert at book-making, I recently examined my own sizeable collection of paperbacks and felt appalled. Paperbacks are usually glued together, rather than being stitched (which is more expensive). With time, the glue becomes brittle, and the pages fall out. As a result, many of the books I love most are hardly worth holding on to. Distressingly, I discovered that modern hardbacks are usually glue-bound too, and equally liable to fall apart. Only a few beautifully designed, stitch-bound classics from the Folio Society, printed on acid-free paper that won’t yellow, are likely to endure for my daughter to read when she’s grown up – and perhaps she’ll even be able to pass them on to her own children.

I felt like a fool for buying so many books, over so many years, under the mistaken impression that they might endure. A home is built up slowly and filled with things that have meaning to the people who live in it – but if those things won’t stand the test of time, what are they for?

This question encouraged me to look again at the things I own already. Among them, I found a small number of treasures.

Of these, the greatest is probably my winter coat, inherited about 20 years ago from my wife’s great uncle. Even then, the coat was about 15 years old, but today the Harris Tweed still looks as good as it did when I first wore it. It must have been fantastically expensive, but it has lasted several times as long as cheaper coats would have done.

When I was learning to make clothes, I got to know some tailors at Savile Row. I saw that no matter how good my home-made shirts were, I would never manage to make a fitted suit: the skill required takes years to learn and every one of the 20,000 stitches in the jackets must be made by hand. So I determined to save up for a suit, to give me something like the same pleasure as that coat. Until a generation ago, saving was the normal means by which well-made items came into our possession. And I have to say, waiting has only increased the thrilling expectation.

The suit will be expensive (they start at around £3,000), but now I understand why. Not only because each suit takes weeks to make, but because I’m supporting a trade that invests in its own future: the only way to preserve the expertise that goes into every one of those stitches is to keep training apprentices, and charging customers a little more in order to cover that hidden expense.

A similar point can be made for hand-printed wallpapers, handwoven carpets and anything else that is made by hand.

Of the other things I own already that might one day be considered heirlooms, there are several ceramic pieces. Not only the ones we have made ourselves, which have obvious sentimental value, but a Leach water jug and a beautiful pestle and mortar my wife gave me years ago.

In time to come, I hope to add to that collection an item for which I have already started saving – a plate by Paul Scott. He is a British artist whose ceramics emulate the look of mass-produced consumer wares. Using traditional patterns and a classic palette of blue and white, he makes domestic pieces that challenge our complacency over the loss of industrial skills and the economic and social consequences. Nowhere does he do this more beautifully than in the witty plates and casseroles he made in 2010 to commemorate the closure of Spode’s factory. It would remind me always that well-made items come at a price – and that the price is worth paying.

Happily, the history of pottery-making in Staffordshire – and Britain generally – is not finished. On the contrary, it’s being revived. (When Portmeirion acquired Spode in 2009, it actually returned some of its production from China and Malaysia to Stoke.) But the businesses leading that revival are clear that they can’t compete on price. “If we are going to make it here in Stoke on Trent, then we need to make it well,” the ceramics manufacturer Emma Bridgewater said recently. “I’m not interested in making the cheapest mug.” And I’m not interested in buying it. But what about you?

Posted: May 4, 2012