We read the words "handmade", "hand poured", "hand cut", "hand crafted" on so many products these days that as consumers we may have grown tired of the over use of these terms. Does it really matter whether something is made with actual hands? And if it turns out that it does matter, the burning question is "How can I tell if something is genuinely handmade?"
Let's start with the first question. Does it matter whether something is handmade?
By its' very nature handmade cannot be mechanised so when you buy handmade you're supporting small business, often based in small and rural communities.
The hand craftsperson is usually committed to their product first, with profits a secondary consideration. Mass marketed products are designed with profit as the primary purpose. The companies that make those products are owned by shareholders who are principally concerned about the bottom line.
Handmade products are unique. No two are exactly alike because they're made by humans. When you give someone a handmade gift they appreciate that you've gone to the trouble to find something that you won't find on every city high street.
Handmade products are often made locally, utilising local resources. They aren't made in an industrial factory (in fact, in the case of Washpool Farm we produce enough solar energy to power the whole enterprise).
When you buy handmade you connect with the artisan. You get to offer feedback, which will often directly lead to new products, tweaks to existing products or whole new tangents (ask me how I know). You tell us what you want in a product - not the other way around.
You are important to the artisan. Your support allows them to feed their family so they're committed to making products that suit you. You are not a nameless, faceless person - you are important because you allow the artisan to practise their craft. And more of each dollar you spend actually goes into the product you're buying, because there aren't huge marketing, accounting, legal and sales departments to pay from product sales.
Now to the second question about how to tell the difference. Sadly, this isn't easy and we've even seen examples of industrially made bars stamped with the words 'handmade'. I know how much extra time it takes to 'label read' while shopping but I've decided it's worth it, as I hate getting home and finding I've bought something I don't feel comfortable using.
Obviously, my area of expertise is soap so I'll stick with that and offer up some helpful hints.
The picture you see is a soap made by the 'French Milled" or "Triple Milled" method and is made in a factory from pre-made soap 'noodles'. I paid $15- for this soap but you can also find the same product for $2- in a 'dollar shop', for $6- at a local pharmacy, for $8.50 at a gift shop. The price is different but it's basically the same skin drying product, made by the same mechanical process using the same palm and palm kernel soap base.
I wouldn't encourage you to scratch this type of soap but if you did you'd see that it comes away as a 'powder'. Industrial soap makers have already removed the naturally occurring, lucrative vegetable glycerine to sell to the food and cosmetic industries. Once the noodles have been ground up, fragrance, colour, vegetable glycerine (ironically), chelating chemicals (to prevent 'soap scum') and other additives are included before the mixture is shaped either by extrusion of by pressing into a metal mould.
Apart from the slightly shiny, neatly cut appearance of industrially made bars and the fact that they'd form a powder when scratched you would need to actually find a list of ingredients to really be sure. If the ingredients aren't on the product packaging they should be made available at point of sale. They may be discreetly printed on the back of counter top display boxes, so you may have to ask.
Watch out for these primary ingredients: palm oil (sodium palmate), palm kernel oil (sodium palm kernelate) and/or coconut oil (sodium cocoate). This is the base for soap noodles. You'll also note glycerin, parfum (fragrance) and Tetrasodium EDTA as common ingredients. Perhaps the easiest way to identify a quality bar is to look for olive oil as the primary ingredient. Olive oil is way too expensive to be made into an industrial soap noodle so there is a good chance the bar is handmade if olive oil dominates the formula.
Unfortunately companies that market soap might use words like 'therapy' and 'aromatherapy' and use names like 'wild mint or pomegranate'. These sound good but are usually not backed up by the ingredient profile. A picture of an apple, melon or acai berry doesn't mean that any of these things are in the formula, just that the scent or perfume has been designed to represent these fruits. Again, check in the ingredients. If you just see the word 'parfum' or 'fragrance' and no hint of pomegranate, acai or apple extract we know the name refers to the scent only.
One of my long term clients told me about a 'milk and coconut' shaving gel he was using recently. Curious to know more about the formula I found that "Milk" referred to the brand, not the ingredients and coconut was actually cocomidopropyl betaine (a synthetically made surfactant derived from coconut). This reminded me just how easy it is to be duped by names, packaging and marketing and prompted me to write this blog entry.
So, just to clarify. Washpool Farm does actually exist. I live there. When I name something "Lemon Myrtle & Patchouli" - there is actually Lemon Myrtle & Patchouli in the formula. The goats milk comes from a farm just down the road and the coconut milk is organic - the exact same milk I feed my family. I don't claim that our soap 'nourishes' your skin' but I do claim that it will gently cleanse your skin. As an artisan, a formulator, a small business owner, a rural woman I place enormous emphasis on making sure my product is perfect for YOU.
If you've made it this far - thank you. I'm a bit 'wordy' but it means a great deal to me that our clients are informed.