Due North by Kyle Rancourt, Vol. 5

What is handmade? The simple answer, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is: “made by hand or a hand process.” However, many brands these days would like you to believe that their goods are “handmade” because it has been determined by some marketing executive that the term sells products. Based on their loose definition, if a hand touches an item at any time during the manufacturing process it qualifies. By this definition we can only count out products that are completely machine-made. I believe that this is an exploitation of the term and does not do justice to the history of handmade and handcrafted goods.

As I see it, the qualifications for being handmade or handcrafted run along a fairly narrow spectrum. On one end, you have a trade like basket weaving where the goods are made completely by hand, very few tools and no machines are used. In the small leather goods business, there are truly handmade products – small hand tools are used but very few or no machines. Shoes are kind of a hybrid, because while many processes are done by hand, especially the hand lasting/stitching process of genuine handsewn shoes, many machines are used as well. At Rancourt & Co. our philosophy is using whatever means necessary to make the best pair of shoes possible. At times this means using machines and at times this means using our hands.

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As a culture, we have grown tired of disposable goods, made cheaply and rapidly, with no unique characteristics. In the past five years I’ve seen immense growth in the handmade heritage business. More and more people are starting companies, opening workshops, or stocking their stores with products that are made using old world techniques and high quality materials. Unfortunately, as the demand for these items has increased, so have the attempts by disingenuous brands to exploit it.

Born shoes sell cheap, machine made shoes under the guise of being “handcrafted”. Timberland is making some of their shoes using the cheapest methods and materials possible and calling them “handcrafted” and using phrases like “handcrafted aesthetic” to describe them. Persol Eyewear claims their products are “hand-crafted” despite being owned by Luxxotica Group, which is not only the world’s largest eyewear manufacturer, but arguably the largest global monopoly.

To me, handmade means using your hands or small hand tools to make goods in small batches. When using traditional old world techniques leads to a finished good that is unique and skillfully crafted it can be called handmade. Handmade is about preserving tradition – otherwise we would end up making things with no character. If using cheap materials, machines, and automated processes could truly replicate handcrafted goods there would be nothing that defines our shoes as Maine-made or Alden’s as American-made. There would be nothing special about Frank Clegg’s bags because any factory in China could replicate them. Nobody would buy Thomas Moser’s beautiful and uniquely American furniture because it would look and feel exactly like pieces made by machines. Faribault Woolen Mills wouldn’t have revived a 140 year old mill if preserving tradition and old world techniques didn’t matter.

“Handmade” and “Handcrafted” are distinctions that are earned, and shame on those brands that are exploiting and devaluing their significance.

Literally born into the Maine shoe business, Kyle Rancourt chose to join the family trade and launch Rancourt & Co. Shoecrafters with his father in 2009. With a passion for quality and tradition driving him, Kyle strives to spread the gospel of American craftsmanship. When not in the factory in Maine, you might find him putting miles on the road on two wheels.

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  • Ted

    Such an epic and awesome post, thanks Well Spent!

  • Ethan

    I own a pair of Red Wing Wabasha boots. They are in desperate need of a resole. Recently I contacted Red Wing to have them resoled, but I was told they couldn’t do it. They suggested I contact Rancourt. The Rancourt representative who answered was extremely friendly and helpful. She told me that Rancourt did not make the boots, but that the shoes they made were made with the same type of construction. She called me back a day later, after talking with the owner/president, and told me that despite not making the boots that they would resole them for me. That kind of customer service is rare. I am pleased that companies like Rancourt and the ones listed in this article still exist. It’s exciting to see more companies putting an emphasis on their craft and the level of dedication in quality. Awesome article and awesome company.

  • yes

    Everyone is all crazy about slow goods these days and pretend to support it. Yet, they still think they’re too expensive and want them for half off. That’s not the way it works. So it will always be a niche. If a company has found a way to offer something to the consumer at a lower price then the handcrafted people start mouthing off that it’s probably bad quality. So in a circle we go.

    My personal beliefs are that good things can be made at a good price and in foreign countries. Quality goods come from China and Bangladesh all the time. As they do from Europe and the US.

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  • Yo Chi

    @yes: Quality goods can indeed be made in countries like China and Bangladesh, but one of the aspects that I really appreciate about companies like Rancourt and others featured on this site is the ethical one. Rancourt is pretty open with their production and workspace; finding that kind of transparency from an overseas factory is a lot more difficult if not nigh impossible in most cases. That’s not to say that goods can’t be made ethically in those countries, but they don’t really have the best track record when it comes to the apparel industry (see recent events in Bangladesh for example).

    Yeah everyone loves a sale, but at the end of the day getting something that’s well-made and not having to wonder if it was produced under horrendous sweatshop conditions is worth some extra cost to me. I suspect that a lot of other Well-Spent readers feel the same.