One of the most unusual aspects of our modern world is that most people do not make the everyday objects that they use in their lives.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this would not have been the case: even in relatively-recent history, most people would have made a certain amount of their own clothes, tools, cooking utensils, etc. from locally-sourced materials, and most of the other day-to-day items would have been made by local craftsmen and craftswomen.
The transition from handmade to industrially-manufactured products is sometimes presented as being part of the story of human progress, but the truth is a little more complicated. The Industrial Revolution arose out of a very divided and class-riven European society in which, on the one hand, large numbers of people lived in abject poverty, deprived of even basic human rights, whilst, on the other hand, a small minority lived a life of luxury and idleness. Whatever the origin of this state of affairs may have been, it inevitably led to one class feeling superior, and another feeling inferior, due to their birth and situation in life. In order to reinforce this sense of superiority, upper-class people used their wealth and power to procure for themselves objects that the common people could not afford. Sometimes this may have involved trade, which allowed rich people to get things such as silks and finely-woven fabrics from far-flung corners of the world, and sometimes it involved employing local craftsmen to work full time on making elaborate objects for their private use.
Probably, this was always intended to generate a sense of envy amongst the classes of working people, and it seems to have been successful. The luxury goods owned by the upper classes were one of the factors that helped to re-enforce a two-tier system in which ordinary people were made to feel inferior to their aristocratic overlords.
European society was subjected to new pressures after the discovery of the New World. It is an uncomfortable truth that the driving force behind the early days of the Industrial Revolution was the demand for manufactured goods by the slave trade – sub-Saharan slave traders were generally not interested in gold and silver coins, so European sea captains stocked their boats with an assortment of manufactured products that they then sought to exchange for people as part of what became known as the Atlantic slave trade. This demand for manufactured products grew steadily over the course of two centuries, giving rise to new industrial centres, particularly in Northern Europe. Large numbers of people were needed to work in the new factories, and this led to the start of the great migration from the countryside to the town. In some instances, this migration was simply forced upon people who were physically expelled from their land, but more usually it has been brought about by a more subtle process: on the one hand rural economies have been plunged into poverty by taxation and pricing policies, while, on the other hand, young people in the countryside have been attracted to towns by the idea of having their own money, and being able to buy items that resembled the luxury goods of the upper classes for themselves.
From the outset, most people were probably at least vaguely aware that the manufactured items that they were able to buy with their wages, were inferior copies of the objects previously enjoyed by the rich elites, but they still seem to have been quite pleased to possess them. The demand for manufactured goods from a paid workforce was an important factor in the next stage of the Industrial Revolution, and eventually became the model upon which European powers built their colonial empires; it also underpins the theory of economic development.
Rich people, meanwhile, have sought to preserve their special status by continuing to pay skilled artisans to make things for them by hand. Over time, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the quality of these products, and the luxury-goods industry has moved closer and closer to other forms of mass-marketing businesses, with goods being distinguished by having special brands and labels, rather than being intrinsically superior to cheaper products.
This in turn has led to a special value being placed on older objects that have survived intact from previous centuries, when standards of workmanship were higher. Items such as antique furniture and porcelain now command a higher price than comparable newly-made products. Over recent years, this trend has spread to everyday objects such as tools, kitchen utensils, and baskets.
Naturally, this has led to a renewed interest in traditional crafts: objects that were once commonplace in the homes of ordinary people living in the countryside, and looked down upon as being vastly inferior to the rich trappings of aristocratic homes, are now being viewed as particularly valuable items; more aesthetic, better made, and more practical than anything available today. However, recreating these objects is not as simple as one might imagine. Firstly there is the problem that the old skills have been lost, and often no one actually knows how a particular item was made with the tools that were available, and what level of manual dexterity was required,
The second difficulty is perhaps even more revealing about the state of the modern world: the materials required for any particular traditional craftwork are simply no longer available. In order to understand the reason for this, one has to re-evaluate the difference between a traditional craft and a modern manufacturing process. In a modern manufacturing process, a designer has an idea of an object that they would like to create, and they then set about trying to find suitable materials. Often the materials themselves require some sort of production process, and even when traditional materials, such as wood or natural fibres, are involved, systems have to be set up to ensure a steady supply of the material in sufficient quantity. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, designers created things that looked similar to traditional items, and which served similar functions; as time has gone by, the process has evolved so that all sorts of previously-unimagined things (such as smart phones, cars, and computers, for example) have entered into the world, using substances, such as plastics and metal alloys, that require complex supply chains leading from mining and oil exploration sites, through various processing and refining centres, factories, and distribution networks, to the eventual manufacturing centre for a particular item.
People making traditional craft objects worked in a different way: in their lives, they had to work directly with nature to supply themselves with food, fuel, shelter, clothing, etc. In the course of this activity, they moulded the world around them to suit their needs, but also adapted their needs to fit in with what occurred around them. Thus different people in different parts of the world ate different foods, used different fibres for their clothes, and different materials for their buildings. Each community became skilled in using the materials that they had at their disposal to make the things that they needed, and this is how beautiful objects associated with particular places came to be made.
When we see one of these objects today, and think that it would be a fine thing to make something similar, we are still in the modern-manufacturing mode of thought, and are surprised that we cannot find the materials for the project in the craft shop, or online. Luxury-goods companies try to get round the problem by paying people to grow or produce traditional materials, but this also misses the point. The old crafts originally grew out of people making use of materials that occurred naturally in their lives. In order to re-connect with this tradition, one has to do the same thing.
This is not the same as using re-cycled products in order to make new things. Materials that occur naturally, are those that come directly from nature, as a result of a sustainable way of life. Straw is a common example of such a material. Most agricultural communities grow one form of cereal or another, and cereals produce a considerable quantity of straw as a by-product. If handled carefully, this straw can be put to a myriad of uses, ranging from thatch for roofing, to plaited hats, seats and beehives. Similarly, people all over the world have managed woodland for thousands of years, principally for fuel, but by looking after their trees in a particular way they make them suitable for building houses, and for making tool handles, furniture, kitchen utensils, baskets etc. Stones dug out of the ground can be used to make walls and houses. Commonly-occurring plants can be used to make fibre, and sheep’s wool can be spun into yarn. And so on.
Over time, the environment is moulded to produce more and more materials that are of specific use in one form of craft or another, and people become more and more skilled in using them to produce more and more refined items. In this way, provided that they are not disturbed by warfare, natural disaster or civil disruption, autonomous communities gradually evolve to produce magnificent buildings, fine fabrics, sophisticated tools and beautiful ornaments for themselves, all made from locally-sourced materials.
However, it is not so much the luxury of these items that provides a sense of well being, but rather the sense of harmony conferred by the manmade elements of one’s environment being interwoven with the living world itself. And this is what we have lost in our consumer society, with its manufactured products, and global supply chains.
Even one item, perhaps not even particularly well made, produced from your own materials, derived from your own work, and your own interaction with nature, can transform the look, and feel, of a home. Perhaps the main thing to be discovered is the fact that it is a simple item made from natural materials that has the greatest value and deserve the greatest appreciation.