The American West is still a place that more often than not, makes what it uses.
I recently read a little piece on a United States company that ships old wrappers from cookies and energy bars to Mexico, where they are stitched together into items such as umbrellas and messenger bags and then shipped back to the U.S. All this shipping back and forth brought to mind a common question that is rather au courant and looks us square in the face: Why can’t we do that here? How many things do we still manufacture completely in America? Is there still a sense of pride in making things here, things that are indigenous, that belong to America, and to the West?
The answer of course, is yes, but less— way less than there used to be— mostly due to labor costs. In the Western genre, the answer is a more definite yes, and for that we should be pleased. There continues to be a booming entrepreneurial spirit in the West that encompasses a broad spectrum of crafts and artisan-made products. Of course, there are “Western” products made offshore — all sorts of boots and shoes and apparel and leather goods — but there are a growing number of customers who desire fine craftsmanship and a product that is taken from concept to completion by a small group of makers or a single craftsperson here in the American West. From saddles, bits and spurs to fine silver-mounted headstalls, we can see a growing appreciation of things made in America that focus on the ways and the tools of the cowboy.
And the labor costs? Most artisan-made gear is made by a single craftsperson. Each wants to make a living wage (I’ve heard many say that they are in it for the work itself) and get by, agreeing in a sense to “Passion, is the wood putty of life,” a phrase my late father used to say.
Longtime Western historian, University of Oklahoma Press publisher and writer Byron Price spoke of this “craftsman renaissance” in his fine book, a tribute to all things Western, The Fine Art of the West. He described the decline of the number of fine craftsmen who produced high-quality cowboy goods after World War II and the seeming disappearance of the atelier system, in which craftsman and artists work out of a studio or shop. However, he stated that the flame wasn’t completely extinguished. Actually, it was far from it.
Price said, “A few precious artisans and apprentices kept the flame of craftsmanship flickering, and on the eve of the 21st century, with the help of a growing cadre of collectors, dealers, scholars, and museums, we experienced a revival of interest in the fine arts of the West that continues today.”
In addition to the collectors and scholarly aficionados Price described, further proof of the continued growing appreciation of Western craft is the fact that most of the finer items created today are used for what they were intended, not just catalogued in a museum or hung on a wall. Saddlemakers, bit and spur makers, silversmiths, rawhide braiders, bootmakers, hatmakers and all kinds of kitchen-corner creators are crafting items to support the activities of the cattle and horse business in this country. And so long as cattle continue to be tended from horseback, this appreciation of finely crafted gear will hopefully continue.
Yet there may be an even more basic reason why we are seeing this increased appreciation of local, handcrafted, Western items. That being that our basic human nature leads us to believe our personal work is important. Whatever our individual tasks are, we maintain our uniqueness through the craftsmanship we employ. In his book on the subject of the hand-made, The Craftsman, author Robert Sennett explained his perspective, “‘Craftsmanship’ may suggest a way of life that waned with the advent of the industrial society – but this is misleading.
“Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake. Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labor; parenting improves when it is practiced as a skilled craft, as does citizenship. It focuses on objective standards, on the thing itself.”
The qualities that define each person’s craft are unique to the individual. Equally important are the unique desires of each customer. How does the customer plan to use and appreciate the item? One such customer, who has always held a deep respect for indigenous craft, is former President Jimmy Carter, who described his particular passion in his prologue to the recent book, Craft in America.
“Craft, both historical and contemporary, is all around us, and it recognizes and communicates much about what we are as a country,” Carter wrote. “It is our identity and legacy. The things we hold most dear, often handmade, are a record of who we are as a nation. They stand for individualism and the satisfaction that comes from making something with one’s own two hands.”
America is a young nation by most standards. Yet as a country, we still cherish the uniqueness of our regional cultures and celebrate their roots. The West, especially, holds a large part of our collective hearts. And as our national focus on manufacturing evolves, we can rest assured that somewhere, out amongst the western sage, someone is working with care and understanding on a fine silver bit or a pair of spurs that are destined for an appreciative customer. These Western craftsmen and women are keeping the uniqueness that lives and breathes in the American West alive and well, one piece at a time.