Made by hand

Creative entrepreneurs are reinvigorating an industry of makers 

For many, 2020 will be the year when we rediscovered the art of working out what to do when we’ve got time on our hands. If the pictures of banana bread, sourdough and macramé plant hangers on social media are anything to go by, many of us used that time by putting our hands to work.

However, as the world returns to something resembling normality, the mixing bowls and balls of thread haven’t been abandoned. Instead, it seems their legacy could prove much longer lasting, sowing the seeds of new lives, new ventures and new communities.

Neal Wallace, a film producer living in north London, was one of the many who took his time at home as a chance to have a go at making sourdough. ‘I’ve always found baking very unforgiving, but there was nowhere for us to get nice bread on the weekend and I saw everyone having a go on Instagram, so I thought I’d join in,' he says. Neal bought a starter pack on eBay from a man called Steve who included a recipe in the Jiffy bag – ‘printed in Comic Sans’ – and had a go. ‘Surprisingly, it worked quite well.’

Encouraged by his initial success, Wallace’s bread-making has become a regular practice, underpinning the days with a welcome shape and rhythm. ‘At first it was just a pleasant way of passing the time,’ he explains. ‘But now it’s a routine. It’s been good to form a new habit in a weird situation.’

For photographer Joe Woodhouse, this year's disruption has created space to 'scratch that creative itch'. Woodhouse spent the summer learning how to brew beer using wild ferments. ‘It’s artistic because you design the process and set it in motion, but there's quite hardcore science going on too,' he says.

It was a long-held desire of his to have a go and, with time on his hands, he realised this was the moment for him to give in to his earlier curiosity. He settled into a gentle rhythm of researching and experimenting on quiet mornings, with his new baby strapped to his chest. Now, after producing several successful batches (and a couple of experimental disasters), and gaining lots of positive feedback from those who’ve tasted it, he’s looking at the possibility of starting a micro-business.

Stroud Green Market in North London

He’s not alone in stumbling on a possible new venture. At Stroud Green Market in north London, market manager Edmund May has seen an uptick in people taking stalls – people like Woodhouse who’ve had the time to play with and perfect a long-held idea.

‘What they love about the market is the chance to test out what they’ve made and to meet people,’ he says. For May, the market is a crucial part of the ‘made by hand’ economy, creating space for people to share and evolve what they make or grow in a supportive community. ‘They get to talk about what they do, and they get feedback, which I think is more important when you're starting out,' he says. 'The social side is as important as the money.’

So far, perhaps, so hobbyist. But there are those for whom necessity was the mother of invention. Edinburgh-based interior finisher Matt Iles started making ladder desks for new work-from-homers – because he had a lack of space.

‘My wife is a schoolteacher and we were both trying to work from our dining table, along with the kids,’ he says. ‘We lasted for about 15 minutes before she said: “I need a desk”. I could tell she wasn’t happy, so I told her I’d make her one.’

Using carpentry skills he’d gained as an apprentice before the last recession, he went to his lockup that evening and built her a ladder desk. He shared a photograph of it on Facebook and, by the end of the week, had 10 orders.

‘With my existing business basically on hold, I thought I might as well do something. It was good for my mental health – everything was at a slower place and it was really enjoyable being able to use the skills I’d gained years ago. It was good for my wife to have me out of her way, too!’

Now the restrictions have lifted, Iles has two businesses on his hands, and has been able to employ people who have lost their jobs – to build a website for the ladder desks, for example – as well as giving work to local joiners to help meet the demand.

Ladder desk by Matt Iles

In the case of baker and supper club host Martha de Lacey, necessity led to reinvention. As someone whose livelihood was already firmly in the ‘made by hand’ category, lockdown was initially catastrophic for her business. ‘I had 50 sacks of flour and 20 classes of nine people each booked up, all of which I had to cancel,’ she says. She began using up the flour baking loaves for key workers, posting pictures of them on her Instagram feed. Lockdown’s nascent bakers began messaging her and asking questions, looking for tips on how to make their own loaves better.

‘Though most people eat a lot of bread, they think it’s a strange mystical beast to make. It’s actually quite simple, if you’re at home and you have the time,' she says.

Although entirely unplanned, de Lacey started a subscription-based Instagram feed – MuffKitchen – where she filmed how to make bread, and what to do with the discard. In a matter of days, her business had moved almost entirely online and now it continues to grow.

‘Lots of people have written to me saying how much they love it,’ she says. ‘Making bread is quite cathartic. When you’re kneading or mixing, you have to concentrate and be in the moment. I think that’s helped people.’

James Rowell, founder of creative agency Wonderosity, agrees. He believes the way making things by hand becomes so absorbing is something that’s been important to people in a time of uncertainty. Pre-COVID-19, Wonderosity created immersive experiences for clients including TOG. But with people no longer able to be together inside as they were, he also had to pivot his business almost overnight.

‘All of a sudden the freedom to touch people and things was taken away because obviously we had to abide by the guidelines,’ he says. His response was to create workshops in tactile skills that satisfied this need for touch – self-portraiture, making dream catchers and flower crowns. Though they were still being led over Zoom, everyone taking part received a parcel with the materials they needed through the post. ‘We’ve been able to experiment with ways of satisfying the need to engage with senses other than just the visual,’ he says. ‘The way it’s helped people has been quite moving to hear.’

In a tumultuous year, hands-on crafts and skills began as respite, rhythm and a return to slower ways of being. Now they’ve gone beyond the realm of the hobby, proving their value as vital life patterns for better mental health, as outlets of creative expression, and as opportunities for innovation and new business.

While desk life will inevitably summon us back to the office, the experience of learning what we can make by hand is reshaping the way we’re choosing to live – slowly, more mindfully, more creatively. Perhaps, you could say, for the better.

Johanna Derry Hall is a food and travel journalist who writes for the Evening Standard, The Telegraph and Mr Porter, among others

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