Anthropology of Sewing II: Handmade and the Economy

Looking back, I am absolutely horrified to discover that the first post in this series went up in July OF LAST YEAR–how quickly this year has FLOWN by! As promised, I hereby give you Post #2 in our Anthropology of Sewing series. Read on through to the end to see the winner from the first post, and then leave a comment to qualify to win a FREE YARD of designer cotton fabric* from our shop!

Today’s topic: Why hand made, and what’s it got to do with the economy?

Seems as though everywhere we look these days, “handmade” is popping up. The tremendous success of Etsy** and of shops like Beehive Co-op** are reflections of this.  There seems to be a greater value placed on handmade goods these days, a recognition that the effort and love that go into creating something from scratch is worthwhile.  But, don’t we all think that ALL the time?  So where is the relationship between a “downturned” economy and a new respect for handmade?

I would argue that during times of economic belt-tightening, we are reminded–whether consciously or subconsciously–that there is a chain of events that leads to any object you hold in your hand, and that regardless of how openly we acknowledge them, there are emotions associated with those events (not to mention repercussions to them).  When I purchase a t-shirt from a chain department store, it began in a nation far away, made by hands I will never meet, anonymously, perhaps under undesirable conditions.  When I wear it and walk down the street, I may pass someone wearing the exact same t-shirt, or a dozen people wearing it.  When I wash it, I don’t take exceptional care of it, because it’s disposable and has an ephemeral nature, as if it never was intended to be something I treasure.

If I buy a more expensive shirt from a boutique, do I feel differently?  To a degree.  Because it likely cost more, I probably take better care of it.  And perhaps because of the boutique cache, I might feel that I’m less likely to greet the same shirt passing me in the opposite direction.  But it was still, almost certainly, made by someone far away, indifferently, with no thought to me as the recipient.

When I buy handmade, though, from a small seller who has touched each t-shirt individually, who has thought about who would buy it and wear it, who has taken the time to make it something special, I feel that.  It comes through the fabric, somehow, and translates itself into how I walk and how I care for the garment.

When I MAKE handmade?  That takes it to a whole ‘nother level.  Knowing not just that I’ve made it, but who for and with what materials and where I was when I made it and what I was thinking as I took each stitch, all that gets put into the project.  Even if it’s a quickie project that costs pennies and isn’t meant to be an heirloom, even then I get a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment out of taking each stitch and seeing the finished product, as if a part of me is fed by the act of creating something new.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s totally true, and I think ultimately the reason that when the economy forces us to examine what we buy and where we put our precious resources, we turn to the handmade is this: because a handmade object is a relationship between the maker and the made, and between the object and the user.

Human beings, regardless of their cultural background or nationality, are about relationships. It’s how we are made, and is at the heart of all we do, when you get right down to it.  Relationships between us and other people, between us and the world around us, between us and the work we do, between us and ideas.  Those relationships change form depending on the circumstances, and I believe that when our backs are to the wall and the wallet is bare, we choose the relationships that have the deepest value to us, and the ones that have the most power to outlast.  Handmade does that, in spades.

According to some sources, the United States has experienced 12 recessions since Great Depression, and all have led to a return of handmade. What does that say about us as a society?  That we spend huge amounts of time spending money on things that don’t matter until we’re forced to step back and evaluate our choices?  Well, yes.  I think that’s exactly what it says.  That is, in some ways, a basic part of human nature: that we tend to take the easiest route until it is blocked off, at which point we reach deep inside ourselves and find reserves of character we might not have known we had.

I, for one, am delighted to see so many folks taking time in ways we haven’t, possibly for decades.  I revel in the moments when I sit down and stitch slowly, deliberately, by hand.  They remind me of what I am doing and where I am going.  I don’t multitask, unless you consider that as I create, I talk and listen, so that as I build relationship with what I’m creating, I build relationship with those around me.

I sure hope handmade is here to stay.  It brings out the best in us, no matter what shape the economy is in.


In the first post, I asked for comments giving your story of how you learned to sew. The random winner of that comment drawing is Courtney:

Courtney said…
I definitely fall into the category of my mother made every stitch of clothing her closet and mine too when my sister & I were little, and when she tried to teach me as a tween, I was not at all interested. I “helped” her make my college dorm duvet (read: picked out the fabric and watched TV in the same room she sewed in). It wasn’t until I bought my first house at age 27 that I really wanted to learn how to make my own drapes and pillows, so that’s when I finally asked her to teach me and she did. Fast forward 5 years and I love love love to sew, still drapes & pillows and now I’ve even graduated to wearing clothes I’ve made! In public! Thanks to taking, oh, about 7 of Deb’s sewing classes. I am amazed at the time that I now realize my mother must have put into making outfits for me, my sister and our Cabbage Patch Kids.

Congratulations, Courtney! Contact me in the comments or via email to collect your code for FREE SHIPPING in our shop.

For the rest of you, leave your comment below telling us how the current economy has or hasn’t affected your attitude toward handmade goods: have you always loved them? do you pay more attention now that “handmade” seems to be a buzzword? do you think handmade is inferior to store-bought? I’d love to hear from you! Random winner from all the comments received will have their choice of ONE YARD of fabric* from the Whipstitch shop.

*Free yard may be selected from any of our cotton fabrics, up to an $8 value.  Shipping costs not included.

**Full disclosure: Whipstitch Fabrics sells through both these venues, and we freely acknowledge there are piles of places outside of them to purchase handmade, local design.

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  • Theresa
    June 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    I am simply thrilled that handmade has made a comeback! Sewing (and crafting in general) is a lifelong skill that has far reaching implications. At the very least it’s a way to put effort and energy into something that you love… more importantly it can demonstrate love and generosity to the recipient.

  • ~Michelle~
    June 22, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I really don’t think the general economy is playing into whether I want handmade or not… for example, I bought a Liberty quilt when it was @ Target because I only had to spend $60, and there was no way I could get such a big quilt for so cheap otherwise. But I just made a quilt for a wedding gift w/the AMH voiles (from you, thank you very much), and spent probably close to $150 in materials plus another $50 for long-arm quilting… and it didn’t occur to me til afterwards that I had put that much money into the quilt, not even considering my own time & efforts. But am I happier that I did that instead of buying the bride & groom a China place setting? Absolutely! And would I have spent $200 on a mass-produced gift? Absolutely not! So for me, it’s all a matter of perspective & occassion, not economic circumstance. 🙂

  • ashley
    June 22, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I started sewing my daughters’ clothes somewhat as a reaction to the economy…I left my teaching job when we had our first daughter in 2008 and then when we had our second in 2009, I decided it was time for me to start trying to pitch in a little by earning money where I could. I loved creating homemade gifts for friends and was encouraged to open an etsy shop! I did and soon, as my sewing progressed, I started filling my shop with skirts, dresses and aprons. I tested out patterns on my girls and then would list the successful ones on the site. So they have a closet full of hand sewn clothing and I have an etsy shop that earns me money that I can spend on little extras that come up. I love it that I can clothe them. There is something very satisfying about that as a mommy! I used to buy their clothes for the next year when end of season sales came around, but I am not planning on buying ahead for next summer, as I am very excited to try to make the majority of their wardrobes from here on out. I think handmade items are very special! I

  • Corrie
    June 22, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    I don’t know if it’s much to do with the current economy, but I was raised in a very frugal household. My mom sewed her own clothes from the time she was in junior high–she even sewed her own wedding dress! I guess I’ve inherited my love for handmade from her, and when I sew I feel connected to her and to my grandma (her mom).

    We are all very frugal women, but we also enjoy the pleasure of making something for someone we love.

  • Ashley Boccuti
    June 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I started sewing when I was 3 years old, and until I was about 8 years old, almost all my clothing was handmade by my mother, grandmother or great-grandmother. I was very, very fortunate to have been brought up in a family with three talented quilters and seamstresses to teach and guide me. I sewed througout my childhood, and quit for several years in my teens. Like you said, I had money, so there was no need for handmade (or so I thought!). After I moved out of my parents house 4 years ago and began paying my own bills, I began making things by hand again to save money, and I rediscovered my love for it. I think with every object you make, it’s like you grow somehow… It’s like watering your artistic garden! The economic downturn has only made me want to create more things. I’ve made a quilted camera case instead of spending $20 for a new one, and made potholders from fabric from my scrap bin and old towels cut up for lining. It’s made me more creative, because I have to be more resourceful!

  • Heather J.
    June 22, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    My grandmother was an amazing seamstress and knitter, and my mother was and is no slouch herself–she sewed many of my clothes (and my dolls’) when I was young. There’s an old family joke that the three of us used to tell amongst ourselves about the time my great-aunt (not AT ALL crafty) told my grandmother, of the new dress grandma had just made, “Gee, that looks almost storebought!” We knew she meant it as a compliment, but it really rankled my grandma at the time. For me, handmade has always meant love, time, and care. My personal handmade revival has little to do with the economy, and nearly everything to do with having kids of my own and suddenly feeling the urge to pass that love-in-tangible-form along to another generation.

    It does make me crazy to see something at Anthro that I know I almost could make for a fraction of the price. But the thrill I get from seeing my daughter wear something I’ve made, or watching how special my son’s tooth fairy pillow I made for him is–that has nothing to do with saving money.

  • TammyR
    June 22, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I don’t think it’s so much about the economy as it is the sheer joy in saying “I made that!”. I love being thrifty and always shop from consignment and thrift stores. I also frequent garage/moving sales. One year, I hit the jackpot with fabric. I mean, literally, I packed a Nissan Altima to capacity (read: couldn’t see out the window) all for $5! The lady had passed and her grandchildren told me about her making all of their clothes. I had so much fun going through that fabric and wondering what she made with it. So, for me, sewing is more sentimental and personal than economic.

  • Dusty
    June 22, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I think I’ve always loved handmade (well, except for in 6th grade or so, when I was sooo worried about what my classmates thought of me) and I’ve always been frugal so I have to say that the economy hasn’t effected my views all that much. I wasn’t so much into making things myself until I had a little princess to dress up and that’s changed my views more than anything.

  • Tiffany Rosenberger
    June 22, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    I’m excited for the return to homemade because there are people that are discovering crafting (sewing, knitting, etc) who never realized how creative they could be. My best and I took our first sewing class together and we are continuing our handmade education. So excited!

  • Holly
    June 23, 2010 at 9:10 am

    I didn’t really start sewing out of a sense of frugality but really out of a need to release my creative energies and to be able to sew some things that I couldn’t find in the stores. I mostly have sewn for my kids but have recently come across some patterns for some stuff for me … so we’ll see how that goes! I am so glad that a place like Whipstitch exists – where sewing is fun and creative and not dowdy!

  • Amy
    June 23, 2010 at 9:58 am

    I love making homemade things that I know will be put to good use, especially quilts. I actually just made my girls matching, quilted sleeping bags. It wasn’t really a cost efficent project but I know they’ll be well used.
    I wouldn’t say the state of the economy has drawn me to making or buying more homemade goods but rather I love them for the stories and love that went into making them.

  • amber
    June 23, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I always choose handmade for economy/utility/sentimentality/expression. And I love it even more when I influence my friends to do the same! I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been asked if something I’m wearing, carrying, or sitting on is handmade. It’s always been to save money, so the current economy hasn’t influenced me, but it has affected my friends. More friends have asked me to make things or teach them how to make things more in the past two years than ever before. BUT I would also attribute it more to the trendiness of handmade rather than the economy. Handmade will always be better.

  • Kara
    June 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I believe my attitude to handmade was not altered in the least bit by the economy. I grew up sewing and being thrifty so for me, I haven’t really changed my attitude, but maybe have been a little bit more recession-proof. I totally love handmade items, it makes me so happy to wear, or have my daughter wear items I created.

  • Diana
    June 24, 2010 at 8:34 am

    As a result of the economy, I try to buy less, so browsing the open market here on the weekends is a cheap/free activity. As a result of the increase in craftiness, however, I have noticed how un-novel a lot of the things sold there are. I’ve seen those patterns, those fabrics, those craft projects. Knowing that I can (and have) made those things, I don’t buy as much. However, when I see something unique, I don’t have a problem shelling out that extra money to support an indie crafter. So it’s a double-edged sword, really.

  • Melany Spiehs
    June 24, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    I love creating things with my hands, I always have. It excites and empowers me. I also love purchasing handmade items because I appreciate the time and creativity that went into making something by hand. The economic downturn has not effected my love for handmade goods. I don’t see as big of a connection between economy and the rise of purchasing handmade goods for a couple of reasons. First of all, handmade items tend to be a little more expensive because they are handmade and not mass produced. Second, handmade items may have a reputation for being non-functional or “luxury” items. For example, decorative items that may not be necessities.

    The reasons that I believe there has been a rise in the interest in handmade goods are education, functionality and technology. Let me explain a little bit better. As one becomes educated and pays attention to where his or her resources are spent they realize the importance of buying local, handmade goods. Being conscious of where our “stuff” comes from is a trend on the rise and I hope that it sticks around.
    Many handmade goods are moving toward functionality and thus creating and need to be bought. Lastly I believe that technology has played a large part in the return of handmade. Etsy makes it easy for someone to buy and sell handmade. The world of blogging has created an entire network for artists.

    I am always very conscious to say that my creations are handmade as opposed to homemade. Homemade seems to have a bad connotation and portray low quality and “cheesy”. I say we adopt the french word for handmade… fait main.

  • Sherie
    June 25, 2010 at 2:00 am

    I grew up sewing and after having kids, I wanted to stay home with them but I needed money. Thankfully, my sewing skills made it to where I could raise my children and not have to go out to work each day. It has been a blessing. I love handmade because there is always something different that your not going to see in the big box stores that you go to day in and day out. I also love the internet for bringing all that handmade goodness to me at the touch of my fingertips. Without it, I would never get to see all the interesting handmade things.

  • charlotte
    June 25, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    i have always enjoyed crafting and sewing, but took a long break from sewing up until 1 1/2 ago. it really did not have much to do with the economy… i simply fell in love with fabric and sewing in a way i never had before. the economy did push me a bit though (in a good way). i decided a year ago that i would make all my gifts rather than buy mass-produced items. it has been challenging a bit at times but i have enjoyed making birthday, christmas, baby, hostess, and even wedding gifts for my friends and family! i am able to give loved ones functional well made items for a fraction of the cost i would normally spend… and i am coming up with ways to be more frugal with garage sales, thrift stores, and upcycling/recycling (:

  • Courtney
    June 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Wait, that’s me!! I win!! I win!!!!! And how perfect tht my prize is FREE SHIPPIING since I don’t live in Atlanta anymore.

  • Janimal
    June 28, 2010 at 10:49 am

    I don’t think the economoy has changed how I feel about hand-made. What has made the most impact for me was the birth of my daughter. I always treasured the memories of twirling in the skirts my mother made for me as a child. They were handsewn by her and were SO special to me. Now as a Mother I LOVE to make things for my daughter. I feel a connection to my Mom when I make things for my daughter. And also to my grandmother, who made a living and supported her family as a dressmaker.