Handmade Objects Meet Their End at Secondhand Stores

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Approximately 2 feet by 1½ feet of white crochet lace is pinned under glass, displaying an anniversary message bordered in a carefully stitched heart. It reads: “25 Years Together.”

I found the piece while rummaging through framed art at the Hope Gospel Bargain Center in Eau Claire. It is called a filet, which is the term for a crochet picture created using a combination of solid blocks of stitches and open mesh. The artist follows a chart to write letters or construct shapes and symbols. It takes incredible focus, attention to detail, and fine motor skill, and – depending on the size of the piece – it might take weeks or months of work. Cotton thread is harsh on an artist’s hands, and making thousands upon thousands of such tiny stitches can strain the eyes. This particular project likely called for two balls of crochet thread, which cost about $4 each.

Here was the sum total of all that work, those many hours and the artist’s love and celebration of a long marriage – affixed with a tag indicating a price of $5.89.

Mindfulness of the life of a beloved handmade item can transform a straightforward shopping trip into an exercise in connection and empathy, a memorial for the work and love someone gave another person.

Mass production has changed the way Americans value objects profoundly. In order to meet (and exceed) demand and price expectations, manufacturers have been downgrading the quality of craftsmanship and material for household goods – from clothing to washing machines – for generations. It culminates, in my view, in the winter hat. 

A durable, hand-knit, wool cap that can last a lifetime will cost a maker $10 in yarn and perhaps four hours of time. If you value the knitter’s time at $10 per hour (far lower than most skilled tradespeople charge hourly) the hat should cost $50. Most people would find such an investment ridiculous when they can pick up an acrylic machine-knit beanie in the latest fashion at a national chain store for $5.

Many tailors, knitters, crocheters, and other stitchers understand this reality all too well, so they channel their passion into gift-making: baby booties, mittens, afghans, and filets, for their families and friends. While a gift might find a home more readily than an item made for sale, any number of circumstances can rehome a hand-sewn quilt from someone’s bed to a local secondhand shop: children outgrow their clothes, friendships decay, families move, objects are replaced … grandparents with homes full of the handmade treasures of generations die, leaving their loved ones too exhausted to rake through the collection before bagging it for donation.

Stroll through any thrift store or antique shop with an attentive eye and you’ll find dozens of handmade items: crochet afghans, paintings, sculptures, pottery, clothing, and more. Few of them are so visibly personal as an anniversary filet, but they are each a little love story. Some grandmother knitted this baby sweater. These children’s pajamas were outgrown several Christmases after a parent sewed them. A weaver, just this once, selfishly crafted a shawl for her own use. A pre-teen discovered his knack for crocheting through his first afghan. The more loved the item, the more likely it is that the story ends here, among the discarded and unwanted.

It’s not a “problem.” In the grand scheme of things, the migration of “things” from the hands of a maker to the home of a loved one and eventually to a thrift store or landfill is insignificant. It’s a reality that doesn’t require a “solution,” any more than does the withering of trees in autumn. But mindfulness of the life of a beloved handmade item can transform a straightforward shopping trip into an exercise in connection and empathy, a memorial for the work and love someone gave another person.

One can tell a baby gown at an antique store was hand-stitched by looking at the seams. The fabric – plain, thin linen – speaks to the item’s age; it might have clothed many generations. A tiny scrap of lace, not long enough to reach around the entire skirt, adorns the front of the hem – all of the prettiness the tailor could afford to spare for the wearer. Despite the obvious care in creation, and the preciousness of the materials, a stain here and a tear there make it unlikely the dress will find another home. That’s all right. You and I will remember it.