If you follow me on Facebook you’ll know that at the end of last year I agreed to make purses for an exhibition shop, to accompany a Harris Tweed exhibition here in Cumbria. I am asked regularly if I’d like to stock shops and generally my answer is no, because I just can’t make the stock, at the prices needed, for anyone to make a profit. This one was different however. I love Harris Tweed and I was so excited about the exhibition that I said yes, just so I could in a very small way be involved. Silly, I know.
I was asked if I could make 50 purses, 60 pencil cases and 100 keyrings. I stifled a laugh. The obvious answer to this is ‘don’t be so ridiculous, of course I can’t’ but instead I smiled and said ‘okay then’
What was I thinking???
I pretty quickly set the keyrings aside in my head, thinking I would aim for the purses and pencil cases first and then see how it was going. It started off well, I worked on batches of 10 and fell into a pattern of cutting out for a day, appliqueing for a day and stitching together for a day. This three day rota incorporated one slot for food shopping and of course daily school runs and dog walks.
Whilst I was stitching I thought about selling handmade things and 'production line' sewing. I knew I didn't want to lose quality for the sake of quantity and am happy to say that I didn't. Each item was individual, no two were the same. I took as much trouble choosing buttons and linings as I always have done.
I recently joined a facebook group aimed at bag makers, but specifically for those making in quantity and supplying wholesale. The bags are considered ‘handmade’ but I found this definition is perhaps not quite as clearcut as I had previously thought. The discussions centre, not surprisingly, on how to make more in a shorter time. Ways of doing this include using the same lining fabric for all bags, using the same coloured zips and hardware, even using the same coloured cotton thread for everything! I found this deeply depressing. Surely this is not what ‘handmade’ is all about at all?
On the day my little box of tweed purses and pencil cases entered a shop full of good quality ‘mass produced handmade’ items, I felt ever so slightly embarrassed. Like I was a mad, middle aged woman trying unsuccessfully to merchandise her handstitched wares amongst people who had ‘proper’ businesses with branded labels, uniform looking items and actual ‘stock’!! I admit I felt like a fraud, I didn’t fit in and my sewing didn't either. Placing my kind of 'handmade' alongside 'mass produced' handmade was awkward and I left the shop feeling disappointed.
Driving home I started to wonder whether between ‘mass produced’ and ‘handmade’ there should be a third description along the lines of ‘mass produced handmade’ so that we all know where we stand. Incidentally, I don’t have a problem with either, there is a place for both, its just that trying to compare products across the categories by placing them in the same shop is tricky and confusing and can make you question the worth of what you are doing. More seriously however it can really cause problems with pricing and can undermine a structure that's already impossible to navigate for most of us!
On a happier note, a week or so later I was asked to join a co-operative called ‘The Wool Clip’, run by inspirational craftswomen who are all involved in wool treatment or production, be that spinning, dying or weaving. They organize the hugely successful and original ‘Woolfest’ every year and run a shop in Caldbeck selling their wares and generally being generous with their knowledge and expertise. This means that I will have a shop outlet for my bags and purses. And when I say shop, I mean a proper ‘handmade’ shop, where I hope my stuff will fit in.
Finding the right outlet for your handmade items is so important isn't it?