By now, we’ve all gotten the memo: the economy’s not looking so good. So maybe it’s time to trade in the Saturday afternoon shopping sprees and take up a new hobby. Have you noticed the gathering hordes of crafters at the art stores, the new shops springing up devoted entirely to scrap booking, the plethora of hand-made totes on the streets? They’re all hallmarks of the growing interest in D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) culture.
When I was a kid, my favorite past time was building things from random found objects. I loved making little model houses from shoe boxes and filling them with tables and chairs made from various-sized knobs (the wooden or ceramic drawer-pulls from the hardware store were the best!) and fabric-scrap curtains. Cotton balls made nice beanbag chairs (it was the ‘70’s, after all). When we tired of that, my best friend and I would ransack the bathroom cabinets for ingredients to make special potions, usually beauty aids of some sort. We found that Blue Grass lotion, rubbing alcohol and Jean N’ate made a pungent and invigorating facial tonic. I no longer recommend that recipe, however.
Once adolescence hit, though, my free time became more structured and scheduled, and that curiosity and innovation got redirected into more conventional tasks, like math homework. I bought Oil of Olay (and Clearasil!) at the drugstore instead of making potions, and I purchased nicely packaged Herbal Essence instead of pulling chamomile weeds from between the sidewalk cracks and boiling them to make hair highlighter. Yes, we really did that.
At its core, though, that curiosity and innovation is what human ingenuity is all about. Humans are builders. We like to make stuff. Throughout the history of our species we have used our hands and minds to create, improve and beautify our surroundings. In fact, we got so good at making things that over the past century we have created machines to do almost all of our building and making for us. We have developed efficient systems of operations and production that streamline the manufacturing process and minimize the need for handcrafting. For those items that do still require human touch, we have specialized so that each person does just one highly honed aspect of the making of a thing.
Brilliant! Now we have way more time for watching TV. And we have more uniform products made much faster and more cheaply. We have allowed the industrialized world to focus on more elevated pursuits: technology, education, branding and selling (to us, while we’re watching TV. See how efficient that is?)
But somewhere in our rush to rid ourselves of the drudgery of actually having to make things, we might have lost touch with an important part of our human makeup: the need to make things. We are all creative beings, and creation, whether it is dinner, a throw pillow, a dress, a bio-fuel vehicle, a bike or a garden, can be a deeply fulfilling experience.
I believe that many of us are hungering for what our culture has labeled as labor and drudgery: the act of putting your fingers to work and making something that didn’t exist before. And to fill this need we seek out inspiration and motivation through familiar channels: Martha Stewart, Home-Reno reality TV, cooking shows. But so much of our free time is spent passively consuming – shopping, watching TV, following the endless web of cerebral stimulation lurking on the Internet – that the simple and meditative physical act of something like knitting seems a revelation!
It’s hard to justify making things yourself. We are so used to tallying up dollars and cents, and hand-made items are not necessarily cost-effective. It’s really hard to make things cheaper than you can buy them at Wal-Mart. But that’s not really the point, is it? For $20-30 of fabric and a few of your nightly TV hours you can sew a fabulous one-of-a-kind dress. But more importantly, you have made something with your own hands that didn’t exist before. It’s a great feeling. Yes, there are frustrations, and yes, you will have to rip out seams and re-stitch and sometimes start over. But that’s what makes it so much fun when you’re finished and it fits you perfectly.
Last year I sewed my own wedding dress. Let me just say that it took way more than a few of my TV hours, especially since I’m relatively new to sewing clothing. It took me a solid week to get the pattern right, and I sewed 2 muslin trials before I started on the real silk. But the experience was incredibly rewarding, and the image of my then-fiancé sitting behind me with his mouth full of pins as he helped me fit the dress is one that I will never forget. Plus, I ended up with a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind, 100% silk wedding gown for $300, for those of you tallying.
The rewards of D.I.Y. are not limited to sewing, and certainly not to women. This is something I believe we all need to find time for in our lives, and the making can take many forms: building, painting, cooking, gardening, writing and getting crafty with the glue gun, just to name a few. They can all bring the joy and empowerment of creating things yourself. When you make something by hand, it is a form of self-expression, and quite often it becomes much more meaningful than anything you can buy in a store. You know it was made ethically and safely. And best of all, it’s something unique and tailored to you.