mass-produce identical items. Since everything was “handmade”, there was no such term.

As an example, in Pre-Revolutionary America, weavers may have grown and sheared their sheep, dyed and spun the wool, made the spinning wheel and loom from lumber they grew and harvested, wove the cloth, and made it into clothing they designed. We easily label their works as “handmade”.
As the years progressed, these same weavers purchased some of the implements and materials from imports, while others were sourced from cottage industries that sprung up. Even though the dyed yarn and thread may have not been “home made”, their final efforts of the process still made it easy and correct to consider the outcome “handcrafted” and the product of “handicraft”. As the industrial revolution progressed, readily available imports and budding entrepreneurship made weaving components less expensive and more uniform. Even though the entire process was no longer in the control of the crafts-person, we still consider the garments, rugs, and decorative cloths produced in this manner to be handmade and a product of “handicraft” because no items were exactly the same and were not repeatedly duplicated.
In defining the terms handmade, handcrafted, and handicraft, Webster says “handmade” is: a) made by hand or by a hand process, b) the articles fashioned by those engaged in handicraft. Webster then defines “Handicraft” as: a) manual skill b) an occupation requiring skill with the hands. Oxford-American Dictionaries defines “handcrafted” as a verb; “make skillfully by hand” and uses the example “a handcrafted rocking chair”. Oxford-American defines “hand made” in a slightly more comprehensive manner and implies a higher quality standard “made by hand, not by machine, and typically therefore of superior quality” and uses the example “his expensive handmade leather shoes”. It should be noted that dictionary sources do not define the process, only the outcome in the definitions.
Does handmade equal superior quality? We think both yes and no, and it depends on your definition of “quality”. On the no side. Examine a hand-woven cloth. Is the item more durable than machine made cloth? The answer is no, because it is not practical or even possible to hand-weave cloth as durable as the Levi Jeans you have on. You cannot duplicate a high-tech, machine intensive, factory product without specific equipment and a high level of research to perfect the process. What you get with the factory-produced cloth is the exact same consistency from piece to piece. Quality, durability, and machine repeatability is possible. On the yes side, defining quality as desirability of ownership with a sense of beauty and artistic interpretation, the answer in most cases is yes. What you may receive from the handmade item is uniqueness or artistry. You will receive a part of the person crafted the cloth and know that it cannot be exactly duplicated. The cloth from the machine may indeed be of durable quality, and might even be beautiful, but it is not altered by hand and should not be called hand-made. However, if the machine made cloth were sewn into a desirable garment by a crafts-person, we would call it “handmade”, even though it is really finished by hand (hand finished). And so the defining line begins to blur a little.
What are the practical limits of something referred to as handmade? If I offer a knitted scarf that is “handmade” does it mean that I purchased the yarn, or does it mean that I raised the sheep, sheered them, combed and spun and dyed the wool, and then knitted it into something extra special? Is my handmade work in any way diminished because I am not a sheep farmer? Does the fact that I knitted your scarf guarantee that the yarn used is not of inferior quality? Or even that I am a skilled knitter? If I offer an original painting, does it mean that I wove the canvas? Made the paint from pigments gathered in the forest and fields? The answer to all the above questions is, of course, no.
If I go to a little shop in a small American town and watch a local artist apply paint to a sculpture, is it handmade? Or hand-finished? Would I know if I didn’t ask? What if the unpainted sculpture originated from a third-world sweatshop factory? What if the unpainted sculpture was produced by the hundreds from a mold created by the same artist doing the painting? What if the hand-painted finish is beautiful and I love it? Does it matter? The line blurs a little more.
We have all seen the “starving artist” sales from time to time at a hotel or the back of a semi at the corner, (out of business) car lot. For less than a hundred bucks you get an “original oil painting” that covers the wall behind the sofa. What a deal, and you may think that you are helping some young student artist as you start your fine art collection on a budget. It even has a name signature that sounds European or American. Too good to be true? Of course it is, but your fantasy prevents you from seeking truth. Fact is, your treasure was probably assembly-line painted in some Far East sweat shop by laborers standing for 14 hours a day putting the same bird, barn, or tree on canvas that just keeps rolling along as a never ending ribbon. Hand painted? Hand crafted? Yes. Art? Very blurry.
With any product that you purchase, there is a certain responsibility to do your “due diligence” and determine if you believe you will be happy with your purchase. When you visit a craft store or an e-commerce website that specializes in handcrafted items, you may choose to trust the integrity of the proprietor to give some assurance that the items you are contemplating for purchase are “as advertised”. That is, created to the level specified by the person or group that completed the item. You may choose to trust that every similar piece has some difference from the next, showing that there is a “hand” involved and not only machines. If there is only one example on display, then you again trust that the store’s buyer has sought out items that have some level of uniqueness from piece to piece. If you don’t have a level of trust, then you should probably not make the purchase believing that you will have a one-of-a-kind item. Purchasing online may be a better alternative becau se it gives you the opportunity to review posted comments or testimonials as a way of developing confidence in the selling party. We then have “due diligence” and “self policing”, the finest examples of capitalism! Those that are fraudulent ultimately fail, while those that provide quality at a market acceptable price succeed. Isn’t America Wonderful when allowed to work as our forefathers intended.
All this and we haven’t even touched on “fine art” or the use of any printing machine, or computer in items labeled “handmade”. At this stage, with all the variables possible, all the terms “handmade”, “handcrafted” “handicraft” and “hand finished” can possibly mean is that some part of the process has the mark of an individual human being. And that the final item cannot be exactly duplicated, and is therefore, one-of-a-kind. But the line is drunken blurry, and subject to individual interpretation.
Finally, the bottom line. With rare exception, there is little left in this world that is handmade from start to finish. If you like it, maybe do a little research, or just buy it and enjoy.
Lou Radecki is a partner in the firms Metal Facades and Atlas Signs and Plaques. Metal Facades applies real metal coatings to most any surface transforming inexpensive materials into beautiful items with the look and characteristics of foundry cast metal.