Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thoughts on Things & Making

Update on the Seamless Pledge:

As predicted, it was not all that hard to stop myself buying new clothes.  In fact, I hardly noticed; I had to think really hard about my purchasing habits to remember whether I'd bought anything new or not.  As it turns out, I didn't buy any new clothes, mass-market or otherwise, until early June, when I got a couple of bras at JC Penney (using this excellent guide to tracking down 1940s-style bras, thanks Tasha!).  And that was it.  I haven't bought any clothes since.

I've sometimes considered doing the Fashion on the Ration challenge, like Susannah and Ali, and I may still, but I'm not sure the challenge format is really for me.  When I approach sewing (or any other "making" process) with rules or rigidity, the fun seems to go out of it.  I love to challenge my skills and my capabilities, but the broader picture--the relationship between consumption and production in my life--seems to have its own energy.  I feel as though I am watching something evolve very slowly and mysteriously, and without any particular direction from me.

A year ago, I wouldn't have anticipated my current relationship to clothes, food, personal belongings, and all the other "things" in my life.  Now, I find myself valuing more those things whose making I had a hand in, or whose maker I know.  I'd rather eat homemade mustard, local eggs and honey, rather drink homemade mead and shrub and currant wine.  I'd rather wear a skirt, a dress, a hat that I made.  Correspondingly, my day-to-day life is different now.  I grocery shop once a week because that's when the farmer's market is open, and I don't eat tomatoes in March or cabbage in July because they just aren't available (and if they are they're not very good).  There are some compromises--through April and most of May the "green vegetable" portion of our diet was filled almost entirely with spring varieties of garlic and onion--but even the compromises are liberating, because they remove choice.  When there is rhubarb to be bought, I buy rhubarb.  When there isn't, I don't.

The same is true of clothes.  My me-made wardrobe is small still (but growing--I counted it all out for an upcoming post on wardrobe planning, and was pleasantly surprised!), so when I get dressed in the morning I am often choosing between a couple of outfits, with minor variations--more if I've just done laundry.  I know my students got very tired of seeing this skirt, since I wore it at least twice a week--if not more often--from January into April.  But the thing is, I love it.  I made it out of fabric that makes me happy, in a style that flatters me and a cut that fits perfectly.  I wore it twice a week not out of artificial deprivation but because it's the best thing in my closet--just as spring garlic in April beats out California bell peppers or Mexican tomatoes any day.

There's nothing objective about any of this.  There's nothing special about cream from Ithaca or blueberries from Baldwinsville, except that they are my cream and my blueberries and so I love them dearly (especially in combination).  There are probably much nicer skirts out there, made from better materials with more sophisticated detailing, but I don't care because I want to wear the skirt that I made.  There is something intangible about it.  It has to do with quality of life, and it makes me wonder what we are all missing in our alienation from the fulfillment of our most basic concerns--what to eat, what to wear, what to sit on, where to live.  I'm not pretending that I can be fully self-sufficient--I wouldn't want to be.  But there's a qualitative difference in my relationship to the things I've made versus the things I've bought.  I never, ever let homemade jam grow mold in the back of the fridge.  When my clothes lose buttons or pop a seam or start to wear out at the knees, I fix them.  My investment in the things around me is heightened, because my labor is more valuable to me than money, and to treat my things lightly is to disrespect that labor.

For the historically minded among us: there are a number of excellent scholarly books that cover the changes in the home production economy post-Industrial Revolution, but my favorite sources are as always primary.  The English Housewife assumes that farm wives will malt their own grain, distill their own perfumes, and spin their own thread (but not weave their own cloth, which was outsourced to a weaver).  And I think I have a whole post in me about the changing definition of "economy" in home economics texts from the 1910s to the 1960s--many practices that are heartily recommended into the thirties and forties (like remaking a man's suit into a little boy's, or darning your stockings) are cheerfully denounced twenty years later as "false economies" that deflect the housewife's energies away from presumably more valuable consumption activities (like shopping for bargains).  I'm secretly compiling the syllabus and reading list for the class I will one day teach on this subject, called something like ""False Economy": Rhetorics of Home Production 1912-1965."  Would you enroll?

1 comment:

  1. Yeah I'd enroll in an "Analysis of Home Economics" class but only after actually taking a home economics class first!
    I can feel what you're talking about in terms of personal labors here. I became a homeowner a few years ago; this year we made a raised garden bed for vegetables. Last year I had so many tomatoes I figured I'd need to can this year - so this year I was gifted 20 lbs of plums then canned jam with only the assistance of the internet. This year I learned to make a lattice-crust pie. I can make ice cream and all manner of delicious treats. I am learning to work with wood for building. And of course I sew - from self-drafted patterns and commercial patterns. I buy fabric new and thrifted. I refashion things into baby clothes (for some reason).
    I don't have a whole lot of money, so maybe that's why I'd rather spend 20 or 30 dollars on fabric and notions for a garment for myself - because then I'm getting a whole project to spend my time on in addition to a skirt. Buying a garment as-is is spending money with just the one product. I have a lot of free time lately so this works for me. I do buy things I can't sew (such as athletic wear & bras).
    I don't think the DIY, buy local thing is for everyone, of course. I do think that homeowners ought to be familiar with many Home Ec type things, from budget balancing, basic repairs and household troubleshooting, basic yard maintenance, vehicle maintenance, and of course cooking, cleaning with simple ingredients, laundry and clothing repair. Even people with more money than time would benefit from knowing about these things in order to know when it's worth calling a seamstress, mechanic, or handyman.
    I will refrain from delving into the gender dynamics of domestic expectations but suffice it to say, it would be interesting to discuss in a college course.