Artisans and Christianity

This past weekend, I was at an artisan market in Buffalo, NY. Though I only sold one item, it was a brilliant weekend. Why? Because I saw other artisans providing beautiful, handcrafted items at prices worthy of their time and energy. I met customers who understood that the quality provided was worth the price.

Saturday Artisan Market, 2014
The question, of course, is what does quality artisan items have to do with the church? Besides the ancient connection between art and faith, I think there is a bit more. The least of which is honoring work.

I grew up in a family that valued hard work as well as creativity. Three of my grandparents created items both out of necessity as well as desire. Grandma wove; both my grandmothers sewed, and Poppop worked with wood. To this day, we have a table Poppop made, and a few rugs and purses Grandma made. I have nothing from my Mommom, but she and Mom taught me to sew.

For my grandparents, sewing and carpentry were a part of life. They appreciated craftsmanship, paid a little extra for quality, and made certain the items lasted. They were willing to repair minor dents and tears, or if not, they would reevaluate the item. One of the items we have is a rag rug Grandma made with leftover materials.

Up until recently, Americans, as a culture, valued items. We fixed them, repaired them, and reused them. It was part of that Yankee ingenuity. Things have changed in the past two or three generations since World War Two. Things are cheaper now, and easily disposed. It is, in many cases, cheaper to buy a replacement for an item than it is to repair said item.

Quality vs Quantity


The recent changes have come through an insidious desire for more stuff. It is cheaper for us to purchase junk so we can have more of it. Who wants to spend $90 for a pair of jeans when I can have four pairs of jeans at $20 each? I can have more jeans! Because they're so inexpensive, I don't have to repair them. When they're ripped, I throw them out, and purchase another $20 pair of jeans.

Simple, really.

I began noticing the lack of quality in my clothes in recent years. I am currently trying to lose weight (a life-long struggle) to fit back down into my other jeans. The problem has been holes in my jeans - not at the knees, but along the seams. I repair them as best I can, but eventually I cannot anymore. Since I prefer not to have a great deal of clothes, I wear my clothes until they wear out. Unfortunately, wearing out occurs more often than I care to admit. It becomes a vicious cycle of purchasing new clothes because they're cheap, but having to repurchase them because they are cheap.

It isn't the best use of my money, and I wish I could utilize my income better. The problem, however, is more difficult to address which is part of the reason the church as a whole needs to become involved through individuals purchasing power as well as what the church teaches.

Having levels of items itself isn't wrong. We cannot all afford high quality items, and if we do, we will either save for it, go into debt, or figure out a way to make it ourselves. Much of the craft movement is a result of the latter: trying to make something we saw in a magazine without having to pay the price.

Understand me here: I see nothing wrong in price levels for quality. My problem is connected more to the lack of quality at the low-end price range.

When I create a poncho, and someone says it is cheaper at Wal-mart, it bothers me. My poncho is made from 100% cotton, and I'm paid $10/hour to create the item. My $90 poncho takes eight hours to warp, weave and sew, and another ten dollars for the material. It's a reasonable price. Ponchos found in the $30 range are made from acrylic or other man-made materials with only a little percent of wool or cotton.

One Level Upon Another


My desire to purchase quality items is high and lofty. For some reading this, I probably sound condescending because they cannot afford the items. A $40 pair of jeans is too expensive even if the quality is better. Believe me, I understand - I'm in the same boat. For me, purchasing quality is out of my price range.

It's frustrating. I'd rather purchase quality, but I cannot. I realized this one day, looking at my own items. I charge a reasonable price for my handwoven ponchos and wraps. The price includes the cost of my materials as well as my wages. It adds up to $90 for a poncho, $75 for a wrap.

I can't afford them.

If I went out to a market, I would not be able to purchase the items, and would have to bypass them. Even when my income was higher, I still wouldn't have had enough. I wear them because I can afford to make them. To purchase the yarn is easy. All I have to do is put in the time for the creation. Truth be told, I don't know if it is a bad thing - many artisans create items they couldn't purchase.

Allow me to take this out of clothing and artisans and point our direction to teachers. A bit of a background first: I attended Protestant schools for ten years; my mom has taught in a variety of schools including Catholic, Protestant and public. In her experience the public schools paid teachers a reasonable wage; Catholic schools did the same. Protestant schools, however, did not.

If teachers aren't paid a decent wage, they cannot afford quality, and must sacrifice somewhere. It isn't just one level, but level upon level. Quality, wages, prices, and a variety of other elements add to each other creating a situation in which the solution does not include only one portion, but must be attacked through all layers. To ignore the layers is to address one symptom, but never fix the problem.

Protestants and Work


There is a concept called the Protestant Work Ethic where work is sacred. In my observation, using the schools once again, that work isn't paid well. We must sacrifice for the Lord's work, and everything is the Lord's work.

Now, this isn't true across the board, I understand that, but I've had more friends choose to work in public schools because the pay is better than at Protestant schools. This concept of paying individuals is where the church can make a start: pay teachers better.

Why should Christians working in Christian ministries or for other Christians sacrifice their income? Where is it God-honoring to pay a worker less than he is worth? I don't know.

We can teach that work is sacred, but we cannot teach that then turn around and not pay individuals well. This doesn't include teachers only, but pastors, missionaries, church secretaries, and whoever works for any Christian regardless if the business is sacred or secular. To do less than pay fair wages is hypocrisy.

See all of this circles back around to each other: if we want to use our money wisely, purchasing quality items it the best use. If we aren't paid a wage that doesn't support quality we hurt ourselves, and often spend more, and that is only in regards to how far the money goes. When you look at the cost of producing a large quantity of junk opposed to producing a smaller quantity of quality, other costs become apparent in environmental resources, cultural loss, and economic sustainability.

It is layer upon layer, and solving one problem doesn't work without all layers being attacked.

Solutions


I have none, though I wish I did. It is, to be honest, a big picture deal that requires more than one person's intelligence and will. All I can suggest is what I'm attempting to do:

  • Choosing quality construction when I can. 
  • Creating what I can.
  • Investigating the process, so I can make an informed decision.
  • Evaluating the economy.
  • Working hard to produce quality items without over-pricing them.
  • Educating others about the benefit of using all-natural materials and paying a living wage.
My challenge for you is to evaluate what you have in your home. See what you can repair. Find ways to use items you might otherwise throwaway, clothes can be reused in new ways, food can be composted, and equipment can be torn down.

Learn about how your items are made. If you can, purchase items from local artisans. Most communities have some sort of festivals, Etsy is always a good starting place.

Take time in your life to understand what is quality. Look at tags on your clothes, like food the fewer materials the better. Learn what materials are natural as opposed to man-made. Cotton is good, polyester is not.

All in all, it takes time, ingenuity and commitment to change how we use our money and resources. It is never easy to change how we live, but the time it takes us to develop a new habit may be the time we need to improve our lives and the world around us.

In the long run, it is worth it.

Comments

  1. I agree with you totally Bridgette. However, people still do and will not spend money for an item they feel they can purchase at , let's say Wal-Mart for less. That is why I closed down my quilting business. Artisans understand about labor in a product, but the general public does not. China, India, etc pay their laborers the equivalent to our 50 cents for a hour of labor. Hence, prices are lower. I feel your pain, and I wish you the best for trying to make your business thrive.

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    Replies
    1. See Deb, part of China's and India's lower minimum wages (actually Bangladesh pays some of the lowest prices) are part of what, I believe, the church needs to address. It is quite possible for Americans to recognize cheap items hurt not only themselves, but others. Part of the reason minimum wages are low in other countries is because Americans demand cheap items. The materials are all worth the same price, but labor is where savings can be made.

      Unfortunately, it isn't just us appreciating quality, but us acting upon that appreciation. It's individuals making a concerted effort to change, and it takes a great deal of education. Even though you closed your quilting business, you were still able to teach others about the time and energy put into the quilts.

      In the artisan community, it's hard because we have "weekend crafters" charging outrageously low prices for their work. If they're covering the costs of materials, they're lucky. That practice doesn't help those making a living off their artisan abilities.

      You're right though. It is a tough road to chose, and I wish I had a better way to address the issues. Running into brick wall hurt.

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