july 800

There is a joy in making something work again, or giving it a new life, that people have been consumerised out of in the last 20 years. I have a weakness for £/$ shops, as I often find bankrupt stock there, but increasingly, the goods on sale have been produced in China/sweatshops to sell there. I remember seeing a documentary on how they are changing the thinking of mainstream factories too  – if a chocolate bar is made smaller, they can sell 4 for £1 etc., And as austerity drags on, there are crowds of people looking for something new and shiny (to get the consumer hit) but affordable.

And some of the craft and children’s play goods are quite inspiring, more basic materials with room for imagination, less shiny uselessness. 2 dozen skeins of embroidery silk for £1 will keep a child happier for longer than one kit of friendship bracelets for £6.99 (or more!) and the workers will have been paid the same, you are paying for a box, a TV ad and profit to some company. If that money was ensuring fairtrade, it would be worth every penny, but paying for advertising and boss bonus, hmmm…

Those boxed kits became very popular in the 70s, as sewing and knitting began to drop from the curriculum, and by the 90s as art and workshop skills became CDT (craft, design and technology) some very traditional skills began to fall out of public awareness. The internet with the huge resource library of youtube videos means everyone has an aunt or uncle to share skills (I’m biased, my favourite aunt taught me everything from butterfly cakes to picture knitting!)

So first people learned 1-to-1 or 1-to-small group of family or guild (where you went to live as an apprentice in a craftsman’s family for several years till you could work as well as your teacher) for millions of years; then 1 teacher-to- 1 class, with the extended family backing up those skills; then 1 teacher- to- 1 crowded class, then no one, so the box kits had instruction cards to replace family knowledge/community skills. A new product was created from people no longer having a skill bank at home or knowing each member of their interlinked community well enough to trade for those skills. And now that product is losing its market, as youtube tutorials provide the information for free, so you only need the materials again. Meanwhile lots of those materials are harder to find as the market shifted to kits and people found it hard to learn from them (learning from a printed sheet is the hardest of all approaches – the most successful for the greatest number is to watch someone, see the process broken into units, then try each unit, then be supervised as you string each unit together, after which, practice makes perfect 😉 ) so for instance, haberdashery stores are few and far between and many people have no clue what one would sell anyway! (Findings for sewing, small domestic tools like tailor’s chalk, needles and crochet hooks, ribbon and other finishing materials)

And people now work in very dull call centres, supermarkets and factories, shelving and picking and packing, who have a very particular set of skills, including the mental stamina not to go wappy with boredom, but who get out of work desperate for some release. A lot of people get hooked into working to buy what’s next on the list, rather than enjoying free things already within their reach. A century ago, lots of these people in Britain would have been “in service” meaning working in a household, fulfilling a very particular role eg boot cleaning boy, nursemaid, dairymaid, footman. The servants hall was full of people with a huge skill bank though – ladies maids and valets had to understand tailoring, dry cleaning, fashion and hairdressing. Butlers and housekeepers knew thousands of recipes, food hygiene rules, ways to remove stains, how to manage staff… A good household staff  kept a ‘great’ house (think of the National Trust properties that belonged to private families) in constant good repair, and were often very critical of bad husbandry/estate management by the most senior male and female members of the family. Somewhere the baby got thrown out with the bath water as my granny would say! Being in service was to be appallingly vulnerable to abusive employers, but to live very well, esteemed for one’s particular skillset, among other skilled people in a ‘good’ family.

Luckily we can have skills without feudalism nowadays! And by consciously choosing to expand our skillset, self esteem based on what we can do and be, not on what we can buy or own is within most people’s reach…small projects make bigger ripples; the frugality/ upcycling and environmental movements are all having an effect. Today I will be at a local marketplace, offering sewing advice, garment repair and upcycling of textiles and yarns and letting people use my scissor sharpener, all as part of Nottingham Fixers (luckily there’s some cloud cover today, but I’m still taking sunscreen and ice water!) The fixers movement and Hackspaces, where people can share space, tools and other resources to be able to make things/fix things beyond what you can do in your own small space promotes the best of community sharing – individuals can make their own things, but often become very useful community figures, gathering likeminded people around them. Being visible in a popular Saturday market (and being on the radio to promote it) will hopefully encourage people still trapped in the rat race to brush up their own skills, develop what they feel is missing, and again find contentment in doing and being…and that has to be good…