Aesthetics of the Handmade

Whooshh! Was that summer speeding by? Here in Vancouver we have gone from a week of record setting temperatures (41 C.) and blazing sun to cool, rainy September-like days in the blink of an eye. And on top of that I have been working two temporary part-time jobs just to earn a little cash for next month's trip to Nevada and Burning Man. My garden has taken on triffid-ish proportions, the bronze fennel looms outside the window with a squash vine snaking up it. The tomatoes are hidden underneath the giant lovage and the raspberry canes are seven feet high. But that's not what I was going to talk about today.

I did have time to make a new design, incorporating Buddhist patchwork and my beloved recycled kimono fabrics. Looks so simple, but there was a lot of fiddling to get the shape and proportions as I wanted them. I'm really happy with it and ready to go into production mode.

I have used this method of Japanese patchwork before, in The Blazing World series. In the 16th century, Buddhist monk’s robes were constructed out of rags, and had two religious meanings. First, retrieving the rags from the dustbin and allowing them to end up in a place of honour signified that the cloth itself had attained Buddhahood. Secondly, the practise suggested the interconnectedness of all beings. Those of you who know me will recognise how this metaphor resonates with me, and how I return to it again and again in my work.

The bag has two pockets, one zippered and the other not, and a magnetic closure.

Now, I did title this "Aesthetics of the Handmade" for a reason. I am basically trained in a fine art tradition, and while in art school struggled with the art vs. craft issue. Since I was coming from the feminist side of the fence, it seemed to be permissable to use craft techniques as long as the real content of the piece was something a little more intellectually weighty. One of the tricks I used to get my foot in the door with the high-falutin' contemporary art crowd was the quality of my construction technique. The elements of my work, whether embroidery, tailored burlap or gold leafed panties, were meticulously made - to the extent that people would assume that a machine had been used. There were no distracting, clumsy hanging threads or dropped stitches. (This was back in the late 80's and 90's, things might be different now.)

But strangely enough, this "perfection" didn't work the other way. When I entered straight craft pieces (ie. a handspun, hand knitted sweater) in guild shows, people would say in disbelief that they couldn't have been done by hand. For that audience, the obvious mark of the maker's hand is desirable. I found myself in the odd place of not having my skill recognised and valued.

Recently, I had a colleague comment on the Matisse T-shirt that I made a while back, saying,"It's the uneven running stitch that makes it." Even Wendy Tremayne (who I adore and respect with all my being) says here that something is better when all the ends are hanging out because then you can tell it's made by a real person. It's sad that we encounter fine craftsmanship so rarely these days that we don't even have the vocabulary to describe it - except to say it doesn't look like it was made by hand!

It's something I need to ponder on. But I will leave you with a couple of photos of one of the bolts of fabric I was working with to make my new bag. I unfolded it to discover that it was actually a kimono that had been taken apart, cleaned and neatly rolled to await another incarnation.

This piece of cloth tugs at my heart. So plain jane, moth-eaten and torn, it is not tossed into the bin, but instead mended and kept for a future use. (Can you imagine doing that with anything in our current wardrobes?) Not just an anti-consumerist (or conservationist) attitude, but a recognition of the value of human labour and skill that created the cloth in the first place is what prompted the unknown sewer to save this cloth. I guess I would argue that yes, it is essential that people return to the path of creating and making, and those first crude stitches are an important step, but knowing the amazing things our human hands are capable of is necessary as well.


  1. Anonymous7:22 PM

    Hi Heather,

    Another brilliant bag! I didn't know about the budhist use of cloth. It's really fascinating. Where did you find the information about it?

    Keep up the amazing work. It would be great to see a lot of your bags shown together at the Craft Gallery on Granville Island or somewhere.

  2. Anonymous11:14 PM

    Your bag is beautiful in its simplicity. I love everything about it. Have fun at Burning Man! I'm here in southern California where many folks go to it every year. My daughter lives in is going to be hotter than blazes you know! Take goggles to protect your eyes from the pervasive dust.

  3. Thanks Barbara for your sweet comments! And thanks for the tip on the goggles, too.

  4. Anonymous11:07 AM

    a lovely reference to mended textiles, i can never get enough of them. story cloth.

  5. wonderful post, your bag is fabulous and the philosophy behind it is one I really admire. I didn't know that about Buddhist robes either, that is a beautiful attitude towrds both reuse and spirituality. You bring up some interesting points about art and craft too.


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