Do It Yourself - Part 3 - Stewards of Materials

There's more. (At Swap-O-Rama-Rama, our motto is: There's always more!)

As Susan Strasser points out in her essential book Waste and Want, A Social History of Trash:
"Fixing and finding uses for worn and broken articles entails a consciousness about materials that is key to the process of making things to begin with. If you know how to knit or do carpentry, you can understand how to mend a torn sweater or fix a broken chair. you can appraise the materials and evaluate the labour of the original maker; you can understand the principles of the object's construction; you can comprehend the significance of the tear or the wobble and how it might be mended; you know how to use needles or hammers; you can incorporate scraps from your own previous projects or consign object beyond repair to your scrap collection. Even at the end of the 19th century, when factory production was already well established, many Americans possessed the skills and consciousness required for repairing. Women, who continued to sew and to mend clothing, preserved the skills longer than most men."

Strasser uses the term "steward of objects and materials" to describe people who possess such "skill and consciousness". I savour this idea - that we can actively, lovingly care for and manage the materials we have within our personal realm. It wasn't so long ago that women sewed all the clothes for the family. Cloth used to be precious, a valuable commodity. This knowledge isn't far out of our fingertips, it is still carried in our bodies. The idea of stewardship takes it farther: DIY is not just for yourself, DIY can be for the greater good, for others. Making, mending and repairing are not just practical skills, they reflect an attitude, an ethic of care.

Strasser also refer's to Claude Levi-Strauss's description of the bricoleur. This is a person who works with his or her hands, using scraps or odds and ends, the materials at hand. The bricoleur collects tools and materials because they might come in handy, and always considers new projects by engaging in a conceptual dialogue between the toolbox and the junkbox to determine how they might best be put to use. Obviously, the feminine counterpart here is the sewing basket and the scrap bag. Women used to routinely make and mend clothes for themselves and their families, and when the cloth couldn't be taken any farther it was turned into rag rugs and quilts.

"In cultures based on handwork, handmade things are valuable without being sanctified as art; they embody many hours of labour. People who have not sewed, or at least watched others sewing, value that labour less than those who have, and lack the skills and the scraps that enabled so many women to see old clothing as worthy of remaking. It is easier to discard a ready-made dress, cut and stitched in an unknown sweatshop, than it is to throw away something you or your mother made." says Strasser.

And I agree. I had the experience of visiting a woman this weekend, a very well-to-do older woman who was selling an old Singer sewing machine as part of clearing out her house in preparation for a move. (My entire house would have fit in her driveway.) She had a lovely old treadle machine as well, but said she would never sell it. "My mother sewed all her children's clothes on this machine, she sewed my wedding dress... .I don't sew myself but I have so many memories of my mother at her machine." I wondered how many of the luxurious furnishings of her house would spark that kind of attachment.

Just as Swap-O-Rama-Rama founder Wendy Tremayne says in her essay "Unbounded" it is our birthright to know how to make things.:

"It is a task of our time to take back creativity from industry, reclaim independence, replace ignorance with knowledge and accept our own birthright as creators.

Breathing life back into living is no easy task but it does offer great rewards of the spirit. Revivifying the human experience is a mission of purpose, something commodified life has taken from us. What we have to gain is intimacy, creativity, the revival of community, a healthy planet and ultimately happiness. We can each embrace a do-it-yourself spirit and use it to break down the barrier between consumer and creator and by doing so begin to reclaim the creativity that has been lost to industry.

Like all magnificent things the journey begins with a leap of faith, arms in the air, falling back while questioning if there is a net to catch you. This is the task of our time, to scream with full lungs "we are unbounded" not limited and mechanistic. We are creators."


  1. Thank you so much for this essay. It's the most provocative piece I've read in a long time.

  2. I've loved these last 3 much so that I used them as a jumping off point for my own post about raising chickens! Thanks!

  3. this is a great series of posts...i have not been visiting blogs lately... summer and very wrapped up in my little world. i have enjoyed reading here this evening and i will read these again in order to absorb the content.

  4. Anonymous6:32 PM


    When I did my Bfa and Mfa at university back in the 80's the air was full of post-modern this and that and although the art world was breaking down a little (New York's center was beginning to uravel a tiny little bit), I still got the message that being an artist was about following whatever some "authority" somewhere else said to do (stick smashed plates to a canvas). It was quite discouraging and made me wonder what the point of attempting to be an artist was.

    How I wish I had heard someone say the things that you have said in these three recent blog posts. It rings true and is so simple and is truly revolutionary. What a great message and, of course, it comes from outside the mainstream of galleries. A breath of fresh air! Keep it up.


  5. Thank you for this series of posts. It's such a worthwhile topic, especially as people (some at least) begin to think more and more about sustainability, and the problems of a consumer culture and economy.

  6. Susan's book is one of my absolute fav's!!!!

    Can't wait to meet you on Sunday at the Kohler!

  7. Anonymous2:38 PM

    I enjoyed these last three posts - directed here by spirit cloth. I agree totally with what you write. I have moved away from my RRR ideals a bit at the moment - i thinnk i need to re-assess my priorities. thanks for the nudge!

  8. Yes---to all that is here---and I particularly liked this phrase about HANDMADE things that are valued "without being sanctified as art." "ART" (as opposed to the handmade) is often viewed as untouchable. I want to touch, to take in with all my senses that which has been made by hand.


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