[Clayart] Handmade

David Hendley farmpots at eastex.net
Thu Aug 4 23:12:30 UTC 2022

On 8/4/2022 8:32 AM, Lis wrote:
> So true! I know of one potter whose mugs were $46 last year (don't 
> know what they are this year), and they are not really hand made. At 
> least not in my opinion. Underglaze transfers and slip casting are 
> taking a bite out of the hand made market.
> I'd be interested to hear opinions on what constitutes 'hand made'. Is 
> slip casting hand made? Is stuff made on a RAM press 'hand made'? Are 
> underglaze transfers 'hand decorating'? Where do each of you draw the 
> line? Or do  you just not say in your marketing materials?
> I don't mean to be judgemental, just would like to know what the 
> current thinking is.
> Lis

This has been the second most asked question on Clayart since its inception.
(#1 is, does anyone have a good non-crazing cone 6 clear?)

Here's what I wrote about 25 years ago (published in Ceramics Monthly in 
I have maybe become a little more lenient in my old age, but I still 
think the term
'handmade' is inaccurately overused and abused.

David Hendley
david at farmpots.com

In Ceramics, “Handmade” Still Means “Hand” Made

What exactly does it mean to call a piece of pottery handmade? At first 
glance, it might seem obvious; it’s either handmade or it isn’t. Well, 
in taking a look around craft shows and talking to potters, I’ve found 
that the definition of “handmade” mostly depends on who is doing the 
talking. Of course any potter you talk to at a craft show considers 
their work handmade; what they consider not handmade is any work that 
uses more advanced or automated technologies than they use.

This has probably gone on for millennia. The potters in ancient Egypt 
were probably pretty hacked off when some guy built the first potter’s 
wheel and started turning out pots ten times faster than the 
handbuilders. They probably considered these pots “machine made” and 
less valuable than their truly handmade pots. Thousands of years later, 
the wheel-throwing potters were probably none too happy when some 
mechanical wizard figured out a way to make a motor turn his wheel, and 
was able to increase production while doing less work. “Not really 
handmade,” they probably argued, because a machine was taking over what 
the potter used to do. Of course, it wasn’t long before someone else 
added an arm and a mold head to the motor-driven wheel, and the 
jiggering wheel came into being. The throwers argued, I’m sure, that 
their work was far superior because it took more skill to make each 
piece without a jigger mold and it was thus “authentically handmade”.

Recently a potter friend came by to visit and showed me one of his mugs. 
It had been slip-cast in a mold. The mold was made from a wheel-thrown 
cup with a pulled handle, and, I’ll tell you, that mug sure looked 
hand-thrown with a pulled handle, right down to the finger wipes that 
attached the lower end of the handle. Since I had this “What is 
handmade?” question on my mind, I asked him if he considers his mugs 
handmade. Well, he does, and he started telling me about all the time 
and effort required to cast the mug, clean up the mold lines, glaze and 
decorate it, and fire and finish it.

So, are there any absolutes? Is there a line that can’t be crossed if a 
piece is still to be called “handmade”? Does process matter? I say “yes” 
to all these questions. First, let me make it perfectly clear that 
“handmade” does not mean “good” and “not handmade” does not mean “bad”. 
We’ve all seen examples of horrendous handmade pottery, like those 
lop-sided boat anchors that somehow made it past the critique in 
Ceramics 101. Likewise, there are many examples of elegantly designed 
and beautifully crafted factory-made pottery. In fact, many artistic and 
talented people working in ceramics are not even concerned with the 
process of pottery making. To them, the ceramic form is just a “canvas” 
for painting.

Unlike most art and craft media, the potter’s hands are the primary 
tools used to make pottery. The wood-worker needs a saw and a drill, the 
stone sculptor needs a hammer and a chisel, and the metalworker needs a 
torch and a file to shape his work. The potter does his shaping with his 
hands, and the clay records everything the hands do. This suggests a 
logical standard for judging whether or not a pot is “handmade”; namely, 
did a hand shape it? Once any kind of mold or template determines the 
final shape of the piece, it’s not “hand” made, or “handmade” in the 
literal sense.

There are other criteria that are useful for judging a piece of pottery 
as handmade or not. One is to question how much skill, or training, was 
required to make the piece. Workers in ceramics factories can be trained 
in a few days to pour molds or press pottery. On the other hand, 
learning to skillfully manipulate plastic clay into desired shapes takes 
years of practice. Yes, I know that great skill and experience was 
required to make that mold. Well, the mold itself is handmade. Another 
useful question is, “What would be involved if the design of the piece 
were changed slightly, say made a half inch wider?” For mass produced 
pottery this would require a complete retooling, while for a potter 
shaping plastic clay by hand it would simply mean that she would start 
with a little more clay and remember to make the form a little wider. It 
is this quick and easy evolution of form that allows an accomplished 
potter to grow and to breathe life into her continuously refined work.

Like so many terms used in business and government, and indicative of 
the times, the word “handmade”, as applied to pottery, has been ever 
more broadly and inclusively used. This makes the word meaningless at 
best, and downright misleading at worst. I say it’s time buck the trend 
of the 90’s and narrowly define the word. “Handmade” means shaped with 
the hands, period. Jiggered work is not handmade, pressed work is not 
handmade, and slip cast work is not handmade, no matter how well 
designed and well made. The exception would be in the case where pressed 
or cast pieces are twisted, cut apart, or re-assembled, in which case 
they are really being used as building components.

So, what about that slip-cast platter that has been so elegantly and 
meticulously decorated with hours of hand labor? It’s certainly not mass 
produced or the product of a factory assembly line. Well, it can most 
definitely be labeled as “limited production”, “individually 
hand-finished”, or “hand painted”, but, sorry, it’s still not “handmade”.

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