I find myself using a distinction lately that reflects the change in how I am coming to understand the idea of labour, the distinction between the homemade and the handmade. Though these two terms are often used almost synonymously, I think that it is perhaps necessary to use them distinctly to describe those things that are made in the place of the home and those things that are made by means of the hands, because these things are not always the same, even if they are often related.
To me, the homemade is the more easily defined of the two terms, and it is also the one that is most practically defensible. The food that I prepare and the things that I create at home are often of a higher quality or of a lower cost or of a more exact variety than their mass produced counterparts. I can make a toy castle for my kids that is better than anything I could buy commercially. I can make bread more cheaply than I can buy it. I can make tomato sauce exactly how I like it. There are many practical reasons why I would choose to make things in my home, to cultivate the practice of the homemade.
The handmade, however, at least in the sense that I mean it, is not so easily defined, because there is much that we now do in the home that is no longer done by hand. We may make bread at home, but it will probably be with a breadmaking machine. We may do carpentry at home, but it will probably be with a whole assortment of power tools. We may garden at home, but it will probably be with powered mowers and trimmers and other mechanized tools. None of this is essentially wrong, of course, and I am a proponent of anything that will get people participating more active in the home, but I would argue that there is a real if not always articulable difference between these things and the things that I actually make with my hands.
I cannot demonstrate this difference. It is something that I only experience, something that I discover in the practise of using my hands. It is something that I can only call spiritual, despite all charges of idealism and romanticism, about feeling the dough or the wood or the earth in my hands, between my fingers. This tactility, this tangibility, this physicality, this intimacy, this is what I mean by handmade. It is something that can apply, for me, only to the things that I have made myself, with my own hands. It refers to the creation of something that literally has my sweat in it, something that has actually gotten beneath my fingernails, something that I have come to know by touch and even by taste.
Yet, this intimate contact with labour is something that many people find profoundly uncomfortable, at least once they pass a certain age. My young children are still very willing to bury their hands in the cookie dough, but even the teenagers I teach are already mistrustful of getting anything on their hands. Somewhere in the intervening years they have learned that it is unsanitary, undignified, and immature to abandon themselves to this kind of tactility, and most adults are far worse. They have lost the capacity for connecting tangibly with the objects of their labour, at least in the context of the home.
I am not proposing that we abandon all mechanized tools, of course, but I am suggesting that there is something physically different about these tools that separates them from hand tools, and that there is something even about tools as such that physically separates them from the work that I do with my bare hands. This difference is one of tactility, of tangibility, but it necessarily produces a difference in spirit also, something that I can neither satisfactorily define nor reasonably ignore.