Wednesday, February 16, 2005

On Making Things

I'm working on a post about fertility and the current pro-natalistic wingnut ideas, but I hate the topic so much that I'm procrastinating. Instead of talking about making babies I want to talk about how to make things in general.

We tend not to make what we wear in the West, anymore, largely because it is cheaper to buy what we need than to make it from scratch. Take shoes, for example. If I wanted to make my own shoes it would take months of study just to get started. So I don't make them, though I once made flipflops:

Find a large piece of corrugated cardboard. Stand on it without socks or shoes and outline the shapes of your feet on the cardboard. Cut these shapes out. They are your soles. Then cut two strips from the cardboard, long enough to go across the top of your foot. Staple then to the soles at a suitable point. Now you have flipflops! Warning, I made these when I was six years old, and I can't guarantee that they work for very long. But you can draw pictures of cowboys and horses on them and they look good.

One of the consequences of us not knowing how to make things anymore is that it is harder to value and respect the skill that goes into the work. That is one of the reasons why I try to learn a new skill every year. The other reason is my eternal curiosity which will one day kill me.

But not yet. Among my recent experiments in making things are building a kitchen cabinet and making a suit from scratch. They both turned out ok and they both taught me to respect people who can sew or do woodwork. And they both left a few scars on me. A reminder: take your fingers away before you press the pedal on your sewing machine or before you hammer down on the nail.

Learning how things are made is very salutary. It makes me feel connected to whoever has made the object I buy, and it makes me very angry when the work is not properly rewarded. This is especially the case with many of the handmade pieces of clothing and home linens that are sold these days at a few dollars. Anyone who has embroidered or quilted knows that somewhere the creator of these products must be starving to death. Many of these creators are women and the wages they are paid may be customary in the producing country but the fact still remains that we are exploiting this work. The same is probably true of much of the work men in the developing countries do for us.

I tend to view the recent feminist interest in knitting and crocheting from this angle: that we are learning the skills which are no longer valued, and that many of these skills are regarded as female ones. Another side of me bickers about the fact that these skills are kind of parodied in the most recent fashions, because none of us needs to knit or crochet nowadays, and my grandmothers' skills were considerably higher than anything I see in the new knitting books and magazines. But that is the side that needs a good kick on its backside, of course. In any case, that is what I am doing with my forays into sewing and woodworking: just scratching the surface of something that requires years of study and experience.