Uniqueness in series

I want unique things, as long as they are identical! My magazine page home decor demands it! Serial production of uniqueness???

“I want you to make another one of these for me, but the white color should be like this one and the size should be like so.” This is an anonymized message my wife received. She does needle point felting in wool. I regard her work as art: Each piece is individually crafted from a pile of loose wool. She does not weigh the wool or use any measurements, plans or guides. She grabs some wool and start forming it. Sort of “the shape becomes what the wool wants it to be” sort of thing. She has quite a few designs that she makes and then sells through her Instagram and Facebook accounts. Here’s a few of her creations:

This is not the first time such requests has been received. This got me thinking – have we arrived at a state where uniqueness is unwanted? Are we become so used to the serial production world that we expect and demand copies over unique objects? Or perhaps the answer is that we are used to be able to order what we want – I want my things like this or that, I don’t care about the vision of the maker.

Although I do understand the reasoning behind such requests, it is at the same time a bit sad that people cannot appreciate uniqueness and accept that a hand made item won’t be a duplicate of something. If it is, I think it looses its charm as a hand made item. Could’ve just as easily have been made by a machine.

Maybe I am being too romantic about the hand made thing? I own an Omega Speedmaster watch. Not a particularly expensive model, but it is put together by a human being (or a couple of them, since Omega (and ETA) do serial production. No robots, though). This means something to me, and is the reason why I bought it. It is self-winding and fully mechanical. It keeps time perfectly, which I find impressive from a set of springs, gears and various other components housed in such a small package. It is, however, a serial production unit. Nothing unique about it, really – but it IS put together by another Homo Sapiens. Since I prefer to keep both kidneys, I could not afford a one-of-a-kind thing from Patek Phillippe. Feel free to gift one to me, preferably a tourbillon model…❤

I recently made a small side table for our living room. I had a few “-ish” measurements I targeted, but was not overly concerned about exact numbers. I did however spend time ensuring the squareness of the table top, which came out perfect. With machines, one gets repeatability almost as a part of the deal. Of course, repeatability is possible with hand tools too – easily! However, to me it removes some of the freedom if I have to work to a certain degree of accuracy in my measurements for repeated projects.

Say I wanted to make 10 of that table, about 40x50cm and roughly 50cm in height, for sale. On the one I made, the measurements came in at 42.1 by 50.9 cm and 49.6 cm in height. Close enough.
If I were to make those 10 tables by hand, I doubt that all of them would be the exact same size. I could if I would, but the work flow would be a lot more fun and easy if I could allow myself some discrepancy. And nobody would ever know lest they buy two or more and place them next to each other. Even spaced slightly apart, nobody would see a difference in a few mm. I would, however, bet a decent sum that IF anybody were to buy two tables from me, chances are good that they would notice and make an issue out of it. Even if it really would not matter one bit. I am also pretty sure that a small difference would be considered a lack of quality and (/or) skills by most.

One end of one of the rockers on the rocking cradle I made. The others are intentionally left blank.

When dealing with hand made items, should we really expect and demand a high level of accuracy and repeatability? Where should we draw the line? Or should we accept that a one-off is just that: a one off. Everything else becomes a copy of the one-off, and if those items are made by hand there should be a bit of leeway tossed into the mix.

Don’t get me wrong, if I’m commissioned to make two cupboards that would stand on either side of a hall table, they should be a very close match – but a few millimetres discrepancy should not matter at all. This is not an excuse to be sloppy or lazy about it. For the table top I made, I stopped planing the edges when they were perfectly parallell and the corners were 90 degrees. The diagonals were identical to within less than 0.5mm (1/50”). That extra 1mm in width does not matter – and it will change throughout the seasons anyway due to swelling and shrinking in the wood. That fact alone means that two identical tables will, in time, still be different. Two pieces of wood won’t act the same way, even if everything around them stays identical.

Returning to those woolen creatures from the hands of my wife: This person had bought two of a particular design, and not wanted the third one. Now, asking for a specific tint of white wool… Unless we shave the sheep ourselves, there is no way to get exactly the same color. Let me put it this way – certain parts of the sheep are naturally more… earthy… in color. I know. We live next to a sheep farmer. Even dyed wool will not be exactly the same color from batch to batch. Even paint cans says you should mix batch numbers! Color differance. Not a new concept.

Maybe the issue here is the lack of understanding – or knowledge – of the fact that natural materials do differ, even the wool from a single sheep. It is similar to asking for two identical table tops. Even with extremely careful planning, that is practically impossible to do. Bookmatched veneer comes pretty close, as would using neighboring planks (but then the end grain would not match…). Likewise, hand made objects will have variations in them, even if the craftsperson tries to make duplicates. The minute variations within a single plane stroke in an of itself will produce a slightly different result. The lateral angle of the plane, the pressure, the stance, the muscle that tires, breathing… thousands of factors that come together and make no two strokes alike. No machine can ever be made to recreate all of it. The variations set the man and machine apart. It becomes organic and natural in stead of synthetic.

Any hand made item will always be a one-off. If that is not acceptable to you, go to IKEA.

Uniqueness – it SHOULD stand out!

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