Craftsmanship - Part I - A Question

I've been thinking about the nature of craftsmanship lately. Thinking and writing. I'm going to serialize my thoughts here over the next week and I hope you'll join me, in what I hope will be, a lively discussion about what it is to be a craftsman/person/woman. Please comment early and often, if you feel so compelled. Here is part one:

It's no mystery why the majority of people don't bother with, or even think about, craftsmanship. It's a difficult trip to take. It's a philosophy, and like most philosophies, it's hard to stick with one hundred percent of the time. You have to be ruthless with yourself in judging when and if something is good enough to leave the workshop, and that can be difficult. We long for a second opinion that would let us off the hook and just tell us when we're done. Most people would rather just succumb to mediocrity because A. craftsmanship is hard and B. because, honestly, there isn't much outside reward in it. In fact, in today's speed laden, break-neck, high-velocitopolis, craftsmanship is all but demonized. Slower and more careful, the craftsman is often accused of being "OCD" or anal retentive; of not knowing when the plateau of "good enough" has been reached. Not a very attractive thing to strive for if what you have to look forward to is scorn and derision.

A contributing factor to the devaluation of craftsmanship, I think, is that society (except for you, of course, dear reader) is no longer able to recognize it. We expect things to fall apart and when they do, we are happy to discard, rather than repair them. Planned obsolescence has conditioned us to revel in mediocrity and waste and if, heaven forbid, we do have to fix something, we have no idea where to start. We have grown accustomed to cheap replacements, shoddy work and instant gratification. Three things that craftsmen are not known for. So, if this is what society chooses to value, what's the point in pursuing the ideal of craftsmanship at all?


*Update - Call it coincidence or collective consciousness, I just found this article over at BoingBoing that speaks to this very subject.


  1. I work in historic preservation of both structures and objects, and I loath the comeing day when I will have to restore something made from or of particle board.....

  2. I agree with you on all points. I sometimes find myself singing "Living in a Walmart World" to the tune of Material Girl.

    Carbon copy mediocrity is disturbing. It would seem there is little passing down of unique skills and knowledge to the next generation. It is left up to the schools and colleges to determine what we're going to learn and do. People are left doing a lot of bookwork without any hands on work. Grades determine if you've done something of worth, opposed to a tangible creation that can truly indicate conceptual, craftsman, and usable skills.

    I suppose we simply need to make sure we aren't educated idiots. I would love to see people mentored in areas in which they are strongly inclined. I would love to see more mentors! I believe this would make many people more appreciative of the details in workmanship because they themselves have worked with attention to detail. I believe this would help us not settle for frustrating, subpar things/activities for ourselves and our children.

  3. M & R - Thanks for the comments. I agree wholeheartedly about the mentoring aspect and plan to include a piece on that in the series. MOrae - I hope you never have to.

  4. I think the key is that we have lost the notion of making things ourselves rather than buying them. This is the meaning of "consumer society". It extends to non-material things, too, like making music or writing. How many people know how to play a musical instrument nowadays, or tell a story?

    Instead, the model that we have is simple: We work all day to make money, which we exchange for all those things we want (or think we want). It's a perfect trap, because we can't make any of those things ourselves, since (a) we don't know how, and (b) we don't have time because we're too busy making money!

    All those comments about perfectionism or having OCD are mere rationalizations, I believe, of the basic model of the consumer society.

    If this is true, then for the craftsman one possible avenue is to approach the people who are not fully committed to the consumer society model.

  5. just an aside really... related to the idea of consumers not recognizing craftsmanship...

    after having worked for many multinational manufacturers, it never ceased to amaze me that along parallel production lines of sewing, the machinists would produce virtually the same garments from the same fabric from the same mills, but would later sew in different labels - walmart alongside dkny alongside eddie bauer alongside calvin klein...

    yet, the end consumer thinks the cheaper walmart garment is disposable and of less quality than the more expensive/higher quality dkny/eddie bauer/CK garment.

    hardly anyone notices/knows that the same number (save for maybe one or two) of applications were performed on the same garments: seams, buttons, pockets, appliques, screens, labels, etc...

  6. I disagree with the assertion that mediocrity is the only alternative to craftsmanship. There are many things that are well made, but which I wouldn't consider "crafted" in the fine sense.

    I think of craftsmanship as a personal journey, something you do only for yourself. If others benefit, then all the better, but that's not the point. Craftsmanship is finishing the side of something that no one will ever see. It's using tools that are a familiar joy to use though the finished product is the same. It's the pleasure in doing, not in the having done. Craftsmanship is done for the crafter, not for the end user, and that's why it has withdrawn under the weight of the Industrial Revolution. But that's also why it will never disappear.

    While traveling in Kyoto I had my most profound "Craftsmanship" experience. While visiting one of the many immaculate gardens there I saw two different men at work. These were older men, probably in their 60's. The first was pruning a fir tree. His only tool was a ladder and his fingers which he used to pinch individual needles and buds off the tree. He spent all day on one small branch, then he would go on to the next one. His goal wasn't to finish the workday or even finish this one tree but to work with it as it grew to make it, and by extension the whole garden as beautiful as possible.

    The other man was crouched in a small patch of moss. His tool was a small sharpened stick that he used to tend the moss garden. He had over a dozen different kinds of moss that he maintained in the garden and he tended them all, not only clearing weeds and debris from area but moving the tiny (less than 1cm) plants to areas where they'd flourish.

    Both of these men had a curious mixture of being intensely proud and intensely humble of the work they did. While they seemed gratified that I appreciated their work they made it clear they did it for themselves. Talking with those guys for just a few minutes was a real lifetime experience.

  7. A great discussion to start, Paul - looking forward to all your posts on this subject.

    Interestingly, in craft book publishing, I think we're just coming out of an era of pretty terrible craftsmanship. In the gold rush to articulate the whole "Not Your Grandma's" concept (shudder), an awful lot of craft books have represented only the broad strokes of craft, and none of the details that make a work truly special.

    (Garment sewing comes to mind in particular - I'm amazed how rarely a modern sewing book covers such important subjects as finishing seams and pressing.)

    My hope is that, as more craft books and magazines return to a focus on good technique, we'll see less of a gap between "old school" crafters and the supposed "Not Your Grandma's" (shudder) set.

    After all, there's a real joy in practicing until you can do it beautifully.

  8. To me "good enough" does not have to be the opposite of "craftsmanship".

    There is a lot of value in good enough. I have known lots of people that failed at a project because they could not get off high center and get working. They got stuck endlessly trying to perfect something when "good enough" would have worked just fine.

    Good enough comes from good judgement.

  9. Must be collective consciousness. I've seen this subject brought up in different forums over the years.

    My question would be, is it really OCD, or is it true pride and concern in the crafter's workmanship? I'd rather spend extra time making sure what comes out of my studio looks good, and if that labels me as OCD, then I'm ok with that.

    And to tack on to what Rhiannon brought up (Love the "Living in a WalMart World" comment!), the "blue collar" jobs are somehow looked down on these days in favor of "cushy" white collar jobs.

    I'm taking the welding tech program at a local college to bring my metal skills up to the next level. My welding instructor brought it to the class' attention that there is an entire generation of welders that will eventually retire, and that job market is hard to fill. Why? because there aren't enough people out there who want to take the time to learn how to work with their hands. Yet the "vocational" programs are the ones that are the first to be cut, underfunded, and generally kicked to the curb like the proverbial redheaded stepchild. Its horribly shortsighted to think that these programs are unnecessary, especially when every class fills up with people waiting to get in.

    Another example in that vein, my husband is a mechanic. Another "blue collar" job. Doesn't have a degree, but through the years of hard work and determination, he's a master tech at the dealership he's at. He's also bloody brilliant when it comes to creating a tool or gadget that he needs to make his job easier.

    Ah heck, you've inspired a rant, but I think I'll have to put it on my own blog. ;-)

  10. Steve,

    Thanks for that. Yeah, I agree that mediocrity is not the only substitute for craftsmanship and also that craftsmanship is a largely solitary journey (which I'll bring up in my next post). Thanks for the story of the gardeners. Wonderful.

  11. Tim - I agree. God knows that in the theater world (where I come from) one has to be a skillful judge of "good enough" because there's lots of other work to be done. Trick is, being craftsman enough to know when your "good enough" is good enough.

  12. Diane - Yes! Thanks for chiming in here. There certainly are a lot of craft books out there that make me cringe in the way you describe. I think the pendulum is swinging, however, back toward "granny may have had something there".

  13. Mamzilla - Yes. Good points. Thanks! Good to have an insider's viewpoint on production!

  14. Phoenyx - Rant away. We don't mind.:-)

  15. Diane, I thought you would like to know that their is also a sub movment of "sewers", if you will that dig through the books of our gandmothers and their mothers who cant stand the thought of not hand making lacing holes, who would shun the thought of not finihing off a slit without binding it... I taught a class at our local history center for a while and used "the Lady's Guyd to Plain Sewing" as the text book. The class was always full.
    Pheonyx , your sentament is what keeps places like Penland and the John C. Campell folk school alive. and for that I'm gratefull. I came into historic preservation via the aprentice system, and later went to school, I found the later dissapointing in the lack of hands on training. Crafts of all sorts need to be taught by people who love the crafts, not just the money, and I find it a shame when people say things like those who can do and those who can't teach. Its a horrible thing to perpetuate.

  16. oh for a spell check when I'm writing sorry for the lack of craftsmanship in my last post.

  17. An interesting idea I heard about the difference between the arts and crafts movement in England and the US. In England it was all about creating everything individually, by hand. Even a home had to be lovingly crafted in every detail.
    Here in America, commerce won out, take those wonderful design concepts and produce them in a factory. Today England has a handful of beautiful buildings and homes and a few museums with some incredible crafted items.

    In America, we have whole neighborhoods of old craftsmens' houses that are now being lovingly restored. Stickly is still manufacturing it's signiture chairs.

    At the same time you had people like the Greene Brothers created the ultimate in craftsmans homes down to the smallest detail in Pasadena CA (Gamble House, Blacker House).So that industrialization did not destroy the ultimate craftsman.

    btw, the crazy movie industry here has helped save both the Blacker House (Back to the future) and the amazing 1893 Bradbury building downtown. (Blade Runner).

    I guess I'm saying I like the symbiotic relationship between great craftmenship and industry.

    Seeing the crafting revival of the last 20 years, I don't think craftmanship will disappear. Those of us who do it, need to stay true to our ideals, and not be surprise when industry 'rips us off'.

  18. I'm not sure I agree that people in general don't recognise or value craftsmanship anymore.

    There's no doubt the disparity in cost between standard, good-enough items and goods that show craftsmanship is much higher than it has been in the past because of the manufacturing processes that are commonly used today. This leads to the trade-off that most people make as consumers (including myself). You can buy a standard-quality item that will break eventually, or will just get the job done, or a high-quality item that costs much more, but is of a higher build standard, or brings a higher quality to its intended role. But to get the crafted item means you can't afford the other things that matter to you.

    I think most people have areas where good enough is good enough because it just doesn't matter that much to them - the ability to do other things with their money is more important. But most people I know have an area where they really care, where they appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into a good quality item, and where they're willing to invest in something of a higher standard. The good-enough items in the rest of their lives are by and large what makes it possible for them to have the luxury of indulging when it comes to their passion.

    As makers / producers, it's more of a problem. Because we're constantly surrounded by mediocrity, it's harder to find inspiration, or examples to aspire to. I think to produce true craftsmanship takes more than the desire to make something of high quality. It also takes the ability to tell the difference, and the vision to see how to achieve a better result. To me, it seems like that's the downside of the mass production era. I can generally tell and appreciate the difference between craftsmanship and crap by the look, the feel, or the way it works. Knowing how to produce it myself is harder. It's like the difference between being a good sportsman, a good coach, or a good umpire. A different type of vision and mindset is required for each role.

    Incidentally, that's one of the reasons I follow this blog - I make a concerted effort to surround myself by beautiful examples of high quality work to try to stay accustomed to the details of what can make things great instead of just good enough. So it could be said that you are playing a part in the preservation of craftsmanship yourself, Paul (and commenters!) by helping to increase the visibility of craftsmanship.

    It's an interesting discussion. I'm really enjoying reading the comments, thanks everyone =)

  19. Something I hear a lot is "They sure don't make 'em like the used to". And I would like to put forth the argument that its simply not true. A: Their are thousands of craftsmen and women out their who lovingly create their work in the same standards that most people regard the work of old, but at the same time... B: not everything of those fancifull rembered times was lovingly crafted to those standards, those things simply didnt stand the test of time.
    Endurance is its own beauty, what you make today that your pour your soul into will be there for generations. What you make that you don't care about will disapear into the sands of time.

  20. Everyone - First of all, thanks so much for contributing so much to this conversation. While I certainly have opinions about the subject, I am really trying to figure this stuff out too, and your input makes for invaluable grist for the mill.


    Morae - Thanks for your comments on teaching. The reason I left a lucrative job and decided to devote three years of my life to teaching High School was for the very reason you state. I wanted to pass on my passion for making things and try to show kids that doctor/lawyer/scientist/blahblahblah was not the only career path available to them. That, in fact, one could make a very decent living in the arts and there was both pleasure and pride to be had in doing a good job. Also, I agree about the "don't make 'em like they used to" sentiment.

    Matt - I agree that we all have a threshold for "good enough" because we all have to make trade offs. However, I still stand by the statement that, as a society, we have become more accustomed to things that are poorly designed and constructed. While I have no doubt that you are able to tell the difference between quality and crap, you are obviously on a different path from society as a whole. The fact that you formulated such a considered response to this post virtually proves it. I think the common person has a harder time with this. For example, I've spent a considerable amount of time in Stockholm. Our friends there think it's hilarious that Americans get so excited about IKEA. To them, IKEA is crappy furniture for college kids. They might buy a hall rug or some silverware there, but they generally avoid buying the furniture because they know it's crap. On the other hand, when they come to the States, they all want to go shopping at outlet malls and stock up on as much of our crap as they can get their hands on. In both scenarios "different" trumps quality. We assume that IKEA is good because it comes from a hip and groovy country known for it's well built, utilitarian goods. They make Volvos for god's sake. Conversely, the Swedes I know are buying clothes here because they have bought into the American mystique. Because it comes from the land of cowboys and Marlon Brando, it must be good. In both cases there is a "blindness" happening. Perhaps both groups are even still able to recognize quality work, but there's something that each of them value even more.

    Also, I have a couple of co-workers who just LOVE Wal-Mart. They would buy everything there if they could. They are forever talking about how cute or good things are that come from there. The idea of making the cheap v. quality trade-off doesn't even enter their minds. They honestly believe what they are buying is top notch stuff. I think that they are a more accurate sampling of American society than we are.

  21. Oh, and Matt, I also meant to say thanks for both the compliments about the blog and for stimulating the conversation.

  22. Hmm.. you might be right. I discussed it with a some of my friends over the weekend (they agreed with you, by the way), and realised that my circle of friends is made up almost entirely of two types of people. One type is like myself, in that everything they come across, they're always trying to work out how it could work better, or look better, or be more reliable. The other group work in visual-based jobs - graphic designers, that sort of thing, where to be good at their job they have to have an appreciation of aesthetics. So my circle might not be an accurate representation of society overall.

    I agree that your ability to tell good from bad is heavily reliant on being exposed to top-quality stuff regularly. Constantly surrounded by poorly-made cheap stuff everywhere, it's harder to spot the quality around us.

    It's nice to hear your comment on why you changed to teaching high school. The over-emphasis on white-collar jobs and academic success really annoyed me in high school. Soft skills or hands-on work were largely ignored in my education, which I think is related to Pheonyx's comment about the lack of respect for blue-collar jobs. I think it's only when it's of direct influence that people think about the level of skill or craftsmanship that goes into a lot of those jobs. Another good essay discussing this aspect of it is at, and I think it also applies to craft and craftsmanship in general.

    I've come across the difference in perception of IKEA before too - my German friend also described it as 'college student furniture', and said most of her friends wouldn't dream of getting anything from there once they were working. Instead, it's the go-to place for stylish items here in Singapore =)

    Maybe there's something in that about the novelty or other impression of it playing a part in quality perception of an item (or in the actual quality in a holistic sense), but I'll leave it for another time, before I start sounding too much like Robert M. Persig.

    Anyway, looking forward to your next posts on the subject. Sorry for my overly-long comments, I'll try to be more concise =)

  23. Matt,

    Thanks so much for the response. First, let me say that I'm pretty honored that you found this conversation stimulating enough to bring it up with your friends. Awesome. Second, you don't ever need to apologize about the length of your comments. Bloggers live for comments, and I am one of them.

    re: the NYT article...Have you read his book (Shop Class as Soul Craft)? It's pretty great. I've also been reading a book called The Craftsman by Richard Sennet. Delves into these selfsame questions that we are wrestling with here. You also mentioned Pirsig and made me realize that I really need to go back and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence again. It's been far too long.

    As for your other comments, I'm going to be posting about most of them soon.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful response.



  24. No, I haven't read either of the books you mention. I'll have to look into them, they look like an interesting read. Thanks for the suggestions.

  25. I have to say, I don't necessarily agree that craftsmanship or well-made items are often "demonized" for being anal-retentive. I more often see people express great admiration or awe for something that is extremely well-made.

    Perhaps the only vilification I see has to do with perceived "elitism" as related to the high price/value assigned to well-crafted items. People who adore a gorgeous set of children's building blocks will then turn around and scoff, "they want $30 for six chunks of wood?"

    Justified or not, I think this reaction is only natural as more and more of us are unable to afford all but the cheapest merchandise. On the other hand, I think the recession has also led to more fixing, mending and handmade gifts, so I think craftsmanship may gain even more appreciation in the long run.

  26. I also agree with Matt and Phoenyx's comments regarding non-white-collar education. I was a middle school teacher for six years and I was always encouraged to run computer-based elective classes like digital photography or web site design, because "that's where the jobs are." I find it appalling that our education system is still about preparing kids for "the workforce" the same way we did during the industrial revolution, instead of preparing them for a life well lived. Forget web design class. I brought back Home Ec.

  27. bizmiss - Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Perhaps demonized is too strong a word. I have certainly seen speed valued over craftsmanship time and again in the workplace. I'm not just talking about handmade items here, I'm talking about craftsmanship across all professions.