Monday 2 May 2011

One of a kind

I'm still here - still bear-making. I am currently making four little bears of the same design - a little series for the craft fair in July. Hopefully, I will reach my two-a-week target for both last week and this week. Incidentally, I forgot to boast about reaching the target the week before last (belated HOORAY!).

I have been thinking a lot about this craft fair in July, and what I would like to make for it. A little series of mammoths, a little series of bears... and all these little series have made me think again about whether what I'm making is really one of a kind and unique. It is an anxious issue for me. I'm not sure if I ever mentioned it here, but when I made a series of little red Valentines bears, I had someone ask to buy one, and then change their mind when they looked at the website and found that there were three more very similar bears for sale. The Valentines bears were all slightly different in design - but all small and red, with similar features - so I can see how they might not have been as unique as she had hoped. It was a bit of a slap in the face at the time though.

In viewing different people's work, and following different art and craft blogs and websites, it seems that people have quite widely varying definitions of the concept of 'one of a kind'. When I first started making bears, I looked at a lot of bear-makers' websites, and one claim commonly made was that the bear-maker would tear up each paper pattern after they had made the bear, so the next bear would have to be entirely re-designed, and entirely unique.

I never quite managed to attain that level of originality: I keep all my patterns, and when I manage to make a bear with what I see as a particularly appealing shape, I will use that design - or elements of it - again, albeit in a modified form.

However, I think that my own definition of 'one of a kind' has been heavily influenced by these particular websites. I guess I tend to prize most highly those designs which are entirely one-off.

When I first started actually selling my teddy bears, I had a year of teddy bear shows, and it was common to turn up and find stalls with 20 identical bears staring out at you - all in different colours of mohair, but otherwise exactly the same. It seemed to me that it was cheating somehow to do this and still claim that the bears were one of a kind. It reinforced my impression that, to make truely unique bears, you really ought to rip up all previous patterns and start entirely afresh every time.

Having widened my reading though, to include many more, very different, soft sculpture artists, I'm not sure I believe in the 'rip it up and start over' approach any more. I still don't like the idea of 20 bears, identical except for the colour, but I have seen lots of instances of people using basically the same pattern but creating undeniably one of a kind items.

For example, in the New Year, Mimi Kirchner - who writes the Doll blog - did a lovely pictorial round-up of the things she had created the previous year - 20 of these, 40 of these, etc - and although she seemed to be using the same pattern for each group of items, they were all very different.

And what is it that made them so different? The use of different materials was certainly one factor, but it was more than that. For example, Kirchner makes dolls of big, muscular men with tattoos. For each doll, the clothes are different, the tattoos are different, the hair is a different colour and style, the faces - although always embroidered - also have many differences. It is not simply a case of making the same design in a different colour.

Certainly embellishment is a big part of it: you can make a design look very different with different clothes and 'styling'. I am not very good at embellishing. Probably partly as a result of my initial belief that 'uniqueness' originates wholly in the paper patterns, I have always tended to focus on creating interesting shapes and silhouettes - rather than the 'finishing touches' like clothes and accessories.

Really though, I should be putting more effort into these details. They do seem to be very effective in the creation of different personalities - which is surely what 'uniqueness' is all about; certainly in the context of bear-making.

I think perhaps, also, the particular definition of 'one of a kind' that you go for is influenced by how you sell your work. My initial definition was formed before I had a unit at the Art & Craft Centre, so I didn't have to factor in considerations of how I would fill a shop when working on a 'rip it up and start over' basis. Since I've had the unit, I've been actively looking for ways of making it pay for itself - and ways of making things more quickly, in a less expensive manner. That's when I first started using a sewing machine - another big decision, since you could argue that that contravenes the definition of 'hand-made' - and put in my first order for manufactured Paddingtons and other soft toys.

In seeking to make the unit pay for itself though, one obvious solution was to make the time I spent working on a design more worthwhile, by making several of the designed item, rather than just one.

So when I make my little series of elephants, and my little series of bears, will I be advertising them as one of a kind? No. Despite all I've said here, probably not. If I were to meet someone who regards 'one of a kind' in the same light as I did when I started, and who therefore doesn't regard my littles series' as being unique, I don't think I could come up with a succinct argument to the contrary - particularly when put on the spot.

I will however try to make clear that, although I do create more than one bear of the same pattern, they are all highly individual.

No comments: