“I Can’t Even Tell It’s Handmade!” A Maker’s Dilemma

Is it a compliment to say, "that handmade item is so nice, it looks like it was bought in a store?" An interesting discussion of how to speak about hand-crafted goods. SuzyQuilts.com #handmade

If you’re a crafter of any kind – knitting, sewing, quilting, pottery, woodworking, underwater basket weaving – you have probably received some awkward compliments. Maybe someone has even said, “That's so pretty, I can't even tell it's handmade!”

Hmmm...compliment? When hearing that, it’s easy to get offended, or defensive, or downright annoyed. I turned to Instagram with a recent post asking this very question: 

Honest question: Is it a compliment when someone says, “This is so good I can’t even tell it’s handmade! It looks like something bought in a store!!”⁣

I want to say yes. Compliment FOR SURE, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel like a complete compliment. If we spend ALL that time making something, don’t we want people to know it’s handmade? BUT isn’t it a testimony to our skills if they don’t??⁣

These #maypolequilt pillows by @peggyjeanpatches are so classy and well put together, if I saw them in a store I would immediately want to take them home. So what compliment would you use here?

Is it a compliment to say, "that handmade item is so nice, it looks like it was bought in a store?" An interesting discussion of how to speak about hand-crafted goods. SuzyQuilts.com #handmade

The responses I got have made me think a lot. So before you launch into a lecture about the beautiful authenticity of handmade goods, I think it’s our responsibility as makers to ask a few questions about the person giving us feedback… and it might just boost our mental health. 

5 Questions to Ask Yourself After an Awkward Compliment

The Perennial quilt pattern is fun, modern and looks like a field of wildflowers! suzyquilts.com

#1: What experience has this person had with handmade goods?

Some people have received some really great handmade gifts in their lives… but honestly, some have not. For those who don’t know that handmade can be more beautiful and higher quality than anything in the stores, compliments like this are complicated!

@alissalovestoquilt said, “My dad always says he takes it as an insult if something he’s done looks “store bought” or “professionally done” because hand/homemade is always preferable.” 

I mean, WE know it’s preferable, right? But not everyone does!

@annuin says, “If people aren’t makers themselves they generally don’t get it, They also never understand the amount of time or work that goes into something. And I think many people in general also equate store items as “quality” especially if it’s being sold at what is considered a nicer retail place, and they’ve totally fallen for the marketing. Once you are a maker I think you also recognize more easily when store-bought is a racket (inferior quality that’s been marketed as awesome with a marked-up price point to match).” 

@theroofisonfire says, “I think people mean it as a huge compliment because they think of handmade as homemade and ugly.” 

Truth. So if your friend who has a closet full of wonky T-shirt quilts that she hates, tells you that it doesn’t look handmade… that’s a GOOD thing!

The Perennial quilt pattern is fun, modern and looks like a field of wildflowers! suzyquilts.com

Above I am using a hera marker to create guidemarks on my quilt. Read more about this nifty tool here!

#2: What do they know about you?

Are you talking to some rando on the street, or your best friend from childhood? Chances are, their knowledge of you and your maker skills is going to make a big difference. Whether it’s well made or a terribly finished knock-off, many non-makers just don’t have that discerning eye. That’s why they’re asking you!

Then again, if you’re fielding a compliment from your local barista about your knitted mittens, and he looks at you in disbelief when you say that you made them yourself… it’s probably because he just doesn’t know you, and the unbelievable knitting you’re capable of.

The Perennial quilt pattern is fun, modern and looks like a field of wildflowers! suzyquilts.com

#3: Are they… good with words?

Let’s be real. Some people just don’t know what to say in the face of crafty genius. 

When someone tells @diane_raspi that her work looks handmade, she has  “Mixed feeling for sure... but I do get giddy when someone says, ‘wow you do beautiful work’...” 

@judyjarvi says, “Maybe when someone says that [something is handmade], they just can’t find the right words, like, Suzy, your workmanship is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Thank you for allowing me to gaze at your pillow. I’m forever grateful.” 

Ok, ok Judy. That’s enough. I’m going to blush myself into a puddle. But I think she’s on to something… sometimes compliments are hard! People are just doing the best they can!

#4: What do they value? 

I once had a kid tell me that I smelled like “a dog park.” I immediately went home, showered, and burned my clothing… only to find out later that kid’s favorite place on earth was the dog park, and last time she was there they were giving out amazing-smelling free donuts. WHO KNEW?! 

All this goes to say, compliments really depend on the values of the complimenter. 

@sarasewsstuff takes all the “homemade” comments as compliments “because I think that is the intent.” 

I mean, people don’t usually try to insult and offend their artisan friends, right?

@sewelanor says, “It always makes me a little sad when someone places more value on something that is mass-produced over something handmade. It’s less about the overall quality and more about appreciating the work of someone’s hands.” 

So true. When “store-bought” becomes the best compliment someone can give, it means that they don’t always appreciate the blood, sweat and tears (ok, at least tears) that go into most handmade gifts. 

So if your neighbor values high-quality, thoughtfully crafted goods, and she shops at some beautiful boutiques, and she tells you that your handmade good looks store-bought… then yeah. You get to take that as a compliment. 

The Perennial quilt pattern is fun, modern and looks like a field of wildflowers! suzyquilts.com

#5 What was your goal?

Were you going for a professional, polished look? Or were you purposefully wonky or less formal in your design? I mean, you can’t blame someone for seeing your intentions correctly, right? 

@wifemade says, "Do you think that compliment speaks more about the chosen colour palette and design than the skill in putting something together, necessarily? I think when something looks bought it means it looks like it’s been designed by someone who has studied colour and form and who knows what technically works? Particularly at the moment when bought pieces are made to look handmade...? (Eg. chunky stitching, recycled fabrics etc) I aim for this compliment when I’m designing, so I like it when someone says that to me ☺️ I’m aiming for my creations to look professionally designed 🤷🏻‍♀️ i guess this speaks to how different everyone is and what our reason is for creating! 😁"

Good points for sure. I think we can all take it as a compliment that retail stores are going for the imperfect, unique, hand-stitched look that we all achieve naturally when making things ourselves, right?

The conclusion? People are probably really trying to compliment you, and doing it badly. Consider the wisdom of @stefanie_hilker and @jess_walters89:

“I think they mean to imply it looks “professional” rather than “crafty” but it comes across wrong. Plus, no fair that “crafty” has a negative connotation regardless. Crafts are awesome!” Preach it, friend.

“I see it as whatever the person saying it intended. If they meant it in a nice way, it was a compliment. Tone is everything. It’s not what you say it’s how you say it in my book.” 

Yep, that’s what we’re going to stick with. 

As makers, we must forgive our awkward fellow humans with questionable craft education and forge on, bringing more and more beauty into the world! But when in doubt, even if it’s hard, take it as a compliment!

Is it a compliment to say, "that handmade item is so nice, it looks like it was bought in a store?" An interesting discussion of how to speak about hand-crafted goods. SuzyQuilts.com #handmade

The fabric above is from the Alma line, designed by Ruby Star Society.

Learn to Sew with Different Fabrics!

15 thoughts on ““I Can’t Even Tell It’s Handmade!” A Maker’s Dilemma

  1. Haley says:

    I think one thing left out of this conversation is that things that you buy in stores ARE HANDMADE! There are PEOPLE making the things that you purchase in stores. Machines don’t make quilts and pillows people in other countries do. Everything is hand made gosh darn it. I think the fact that we don’t consider how professional store bought things look is so sad and it shows how much we don’t value the people who make our things even if they are bought in stores.

  2. Lea says:

    I think most people say it doesn’t look handmade mean it as a compliment. I think only a quilter (or anyone who makes things with their hands) understands the time, the skill, the high level of workmanship or at least the effort for their handmade work to be the best it can be.

  3. Catherine says:

    My daughter in law gazed in wonder at the cardigan I made my grandson. But it looks like it came from a Wimbledon Baby Boutique. I knew she was complementing me. People think homemade equals inferior, or a copy of a shop bought item, because its cheaper. Handmade on the other hand ( sorry pun not intended) suggests craftmanship and great skill. So the things I make are handmade! I add touches that a store bought one wouldn’t have, so in terms of knitting, some fun and unique buttons.

  4. Idonna says:

    There’s a big difference between home made and hand made. Lots of people throw things together and they are home made. We folks that really take pride in our work perhaps do not complete as many items in a month/year as those who are lackadaisical. If someone says they can’t even tell it is handmade that , to me, is a great compliment. Say than you and give them a big happy grin.

    • Deborah McColloch says:

      As with all compliments, if they are given with sincerity, accept them and move on. If they are not given with sincerity, ignore them and move on. No need to fret or over-analyze.

  5. Patricia McAnally says:

    Wow – talk about a “back-handed” compliment ! I think that some people, who don’t do any type of craft, really think that if they look hard and long enough they will find some flaw in your work. I always say, “You do beautiful work”. Because to me any craft work is beautiful – flaws and all. I quilt, embroidery and crochet.

  6. Sis says:

    It is a minefield imo how to compliment craftsmanship. I prefer to say that I feel a lot of love has gone into the piece because as Haley points out everything we buy is handmade but the wonky t-shirt has been made by somebody who can hardly put a meal on the table at the end of the day. It is just a job. A quilt with points that does not meet is still beuatiful and is made with the skill set the maker has at that point in time. It is also made with a lot of love either for the person who is going to receive it at the end of the day or for the process. We all craft for various reasons (some of us to try to keep sane in a mad world) and none of us set out to make something ugly and badly made we all do it because it gives us something in our life – at the end of the day that is what is important (certainly for me) and what other people think – does that really matter?

  7. Joy F says:

    You are so right about taking a comment with the intention (by tone), not necessarily the words used. I also think long and hard about whom I give handmade gifts to. You can tell who will appreciate the work gone into them and who will not. If you want your work to be appreciated, gift it to someone who will appreciate it. You can be assured it will be treated with respect as well. For those others, I purchase a gift from a store.

  8. Sherry Keller says:

    I spent about two years working on spinning the perfect sock three-ply, fingering weight sock yarn, and when I finally accomplished it, I was so very proud of myself. For about ten minutes. And then I thought, what’s the point of spending all that time handspinning something that you can buy from a manufacturer for a tenth of the cost it took you spin that in terms of time and materials? It was such a funny moment because I had truly worked SO HARD on this end goal. I think what I learned from the experience was that “mistakes”, “inconsistency”, unplanned “features”–they are to be treasured rather than apologized for. I am so much happier with all the imperfect things I make, now!

  9. Pat S says:

    I like to tell people “it’s beautiful” “you did a wonderful job” or “it’s stunning” all depending on the project at hand. However, I’m having trouble not drooling on my keyboard over that mango quilt. The colors are so gorgeous and then I hopped over to the link you provided and saw the baby quilt in various shades of raspberry and I’m just blown away.

  10. Marianne says:

    This post reminds me of why I gave up making clothes for myself. About 90% of the time people would say, Oh, did you make that? Definitely not a compliment. This was all decades ago. Today I see clothing patterns on websites and some look great but others do have that “handmade” look. And just because you like to make things does not mean they turn out well.
    So, I think the “I can’t even tell it’s handmade” comment is a compliment, meant to convey that you did a nice job (and not everyone does).

  11. rose says:

    the difference is easy… home made is a cardigan made from an unravelled jumper with the worn bits avoided and buttons saved from some other piece of clothing, hand made is brand new carefully chosen wool and new buttons ….
    home made quilts are from pre used fabric and old blanket for wadding and hand made is all new fabric and wadding… not everyone knows the difference unless they are a maker themself..!!

  12. Cheryl Blevins says:

    And in the olden days, being able to afford something store-bought was a big deal (whereas most people made their own clothes, quilts etc out of the materials at hand or bought material and made it themselves) – being able to afford buying something made by someone else was expensive. Nowadays, a lot of people just don’t have the skill to create a well-made item unless they practice, practice, practice and just love creating. I agree with the comment above that there are those who realize the amount of work, skill and love that goes into making something and there are those who do not.

  13. MC says:

    Well, lets just say that now I am very discretionary about whom I give handmade gifts to. I made a very complicated, time consuming quilt for someone once. A mutual friend thought it would look great on the large empty wall in her family room and I agreed. The thank you I got was that it would be good for the camper!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *