Thursday, 9 June 2011

The old cost and value argument again

The tea towel warp, fresh off the loom.

After moving the loom, I wove off the remainder of the tea towel warp in two bouts of a couple of hours each last weekend. One night during the week, I dropped in to the midweek meeting of weavers in the local guild rooms. Having been asked before, I took some samples for show and tell, and tossed the tea towel warp in as well.

The overwhelming comments amongst the ladies there, after exclaiming on their workmanship were "I don't have time to weave tea towels. They're so beautiful I'd never use them. Such a waste to use handwovens in the kitchen."

I replied that I couldn't bring myself to buy teatowels when I knew I could make them from items already in my stash. As many of the cottons I used for these ones were either cone ends from other projects of cottons I was given when I bought my loom, or came with another group of yarns I bought on ebay, these are effectively free save for my time. I estimate those tea towels have cost me perhaps 50c and an hour of my time, each. Some of the cotton was organic, natural-coloured cotton.

Compare this to the cost of a tea towel in the shops. Most will have been made in China, of cotton that's 68% likely to be genetically modified. We live in a world of strange perceptions, when even the people who make things can't appreciate a good home-made useful object. The general vibe I got from the weaver in my group was that their time was too valuable to waste on such a mundane item. It's the old art vs craft debate, perhaps, in a slightly different guise.

What about you? Do you make items for use around your house, or do you define weaving as art? If so, why?


  1. Pretty tea towels!

    To answer your question - I find I'm quite happy to use things I've made for their intended purpose, but it's a lot harder for me to put someone elses handcraft to hard use.

    I don't generally define weaving as an 'art', where art means that the only possible function is aesthetic. I think it can be art, but I like it to be art with a practical function. So, you can have some attractive tea towels that look pretty hanging in the kitchen, and make you feel good to use them.

    I'm not sure if that entirely sums up how I feel on this issue, but it's an interesting question, and one I'm probably going to continue to think about.

  2. I love making towels, and I love using them. Though I do like buying Indian woven towels, too - and they are very inexpensive, but well-made and I love their designs.

    Handmade towels, by me or by other weavers, are much more absorbent, longer lasting, and nice to hold and look at. I've no problems with using them. Though I admit I don't make them as often as I'd like.

    And I don't sell my towels, so they are always either gifts or exchanges. They hold a special place in my weaving, and I must say, I do put in as much time designing and planning them.

    Weaving utilitarian items makes us go back to the origin of the craft. In my mind, you can never dismiss the value of the experience.

    And did I say, my towels feel much nicer than most store-bought ones?

    Congrats on your beautiful towels.

  3. I too love to weave towels, and to use handwoven towels. In fact, all of the towels in our kitchen are handwoven (not by me, but received in exchanges with other weavers) and have been for 15 years or so.

    I also sell my dish towels, upwards of 75 per year. They are one of my signature items.

    For me, weaving and selling towels is a way to bring beauty (art, if you will) into the everyday. For me and for others.

    Your towels are lovely!

  4. It looks like you're preaching to the choir and I'll join the chorus. My interest in craft is in useful craft. I knit sweaters, sew quilts, weave dish towels. I don't waste valuable craft time on "art." Don't get me started on that art vs. craft debate. My personal opinion: you can't be an artist at all unless you are first a fine craftsperson. I strive to be a fine craftsperson. I have no ambition to be an artist at all. If you can't use it, why make it?

  5. I had to mark your post "unread" in Google reader and go away to think about it. I've never woven a tea towel, but then I don't actually need any towels - I have one from every holiday my in-laws have taken in the last 20+ years! However, I love to use handwoven things around the house, whether woven by me or by someone else. I think that growing up in a home where handmade things were part of everyday life may have a lot to do with it: my dresses were all sewn by my grandmother, my jumpers knitted by my mother and so on. But unlike Laura Sue I don't need a thing to be useful in order to value it - there are those things I simply believe to be beautiful, and they too have an important place in my home (and on my loom).

  6. You make an excellent point Cally. There's no point in making something you don't need and besides, the tea towels you've been given have been given with love. There are good memories in them and therein lies their value.

    Another thought: do you think that being beautiful and therefore food for the soul is a form of usefulness in itself?

    I think one of the things that troubled me about the initial statements was the devaluation of a useful handmade item. And this from women who were handknitting socks for toddlers.

  7. Is being beautiful a kind of usefulness? I probably do think that, although I am not sure I could come up with a good definition of either usefulness or beauty! In this country I think we have a bit of a grudge against art for "not being useful" and we're seeing it now in humungous cuts to budgets for arts and humanities subjects in universities on the grounds that we "need" science and engineering. While we certainly do need those things, I'm pretty confident we don't need *only* those things: a country which was all science and no arts would be a strange sort of place to live. Especially if we've taken all the would-be artists and trained them to be scientists whether they will or no...