What’s driving the current do-it-yourself movement?
Freezer jam. Canned tomatoes. A wood shop. Knitting needles stuck through a ball of yarn. These words might summon images of grandparents. Of idyllic country scenes. Of a place where time moves slowly. But they’re all objects turning up in the homes of urban professionals—many well under the age of 40—across the country. Is this new domesticity just “nesting” behavior, or something more?
Whatever the reason, there are signs that a do-it-yourself movement is underway. It’s rooted both in the agrarian and the punk—common sense practicality mixed with a rejection of the status quo.
During a nosediving economy, here’s what’s selling: seeds, canning jars, sewing machines and guns. While the gun sales are attributable to gun enthusiasts’ concerns over restrictions to firearms president elect Barack Obama could make, the other supplies have more to do with saving money by doing things yourself.
Retail sales of Bell canning products increased nearly 30 percent this year, according to the company, and sales of Bell’s plastic freezing containers doubled in the last year. Meanwhile, department store group John Lewis reported in November a 300 percent increase in sewing machine sales at many of its branches. Argos also reported some of their sewing machine sales were up by 50 percent in the last year. To explain the increase, Argos cited in The Guardian newspaper a growing concern for the environment, social issues and a backlash against the “throwaway society.” And W. Atlee Burpee & Co., the nation’s largest seed seller, reported twice as many seed sales this year as last.
Despite these numbers, and all the successful websites like Craftster.org and Threadbanger.com; magazines like Make; and television shows like Bravo’s fashion designer competition/reality show Project Runway and those on the DIY Network, the DIY movement is hardly sweeping the nation. There are still many people eating packaged dinners and hiring people to mow their lawns, raise their kids, cook their meals, and even plant their gardens.
“It’s definitely a subculture,” says Leslie Allen, a horticulturist at the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension office. She was chosen from among 15,000 applicants last November to spend this past year as a locavore—someone who primarily eats food grown herself or nearby—for the American Public Media program The Splendid Table. Allen, who’s in her late 30s, has been gardening, canning, making her own cheese, and raising chickens from her suburban tract home in Reno. “I have another friend my age who’s like, ‘Why are you canning when you can just go to Costco?’ So not everybody’s doing it, but there is a subculture of people opting out of the consumerism.”
Allen continues, “With the whole eating locally thing, if I wanted to do that through the winter, preserving my own food—canning—became really obvious, and freezing and drying became extensions of that,” she said. “A friend of mine in Davis [Calif.] said ‘Oh my god, you’re canning? You’re so old-fashioned!’ as she sat there knitting. … We were both doing these things our grandmothers and great- grandmothers did. So it’s sort of a resurgence of very Americana expressions of self-reliance and independence, I think.”
In addition to seed sales, farmers’ markets and organic food sales are also increasing nationwide. Tom Stille of the River School and Interpretive Gardens attributes that to more awareness about food and how it’s grown. “The chemicals from industrial agriculture are kind of like a time bomb,” he says. “There’s more and more information all the time about how industrial agriculture is putting [chemicals] into the food stream. As people become more aware, they become interested in knowing who’s growing their food, and secondly, in growing their own.”
The River School has held workshops ranging from beekeeping to canning, organic gardening, making compost and butchering poultry. “I think we’re riding a wave of national interest and regional interest about learning about our local environment, learning about the plants and animals and the hydrology of our immediate area, and learning about all kinds of home economics,” says Stille. “I definitely think it’s growing.”
But where did all this interest come from, and why now?
“The U.S. economy fell into recession last spring and will contract sharply this quarter as more than 200,000 workers per month were added to the rolls of the unemployed, a survey said on Monday.” – Reuters, Nov. 17, 2008
The faltering economy is certainly a driving force for people to make their own clothes, food, home repairs and forms of entertainment.
Rosalie Pelham, manager of Sew- n-Such sewing supplies store, says some of her customers have said they’re sewing everything for Christmas this year. Yet, while sewing can save money, she says that’s not why most people do it. “If you ask sewers why they sew, almost to the person, they will say ‘personal satisfaction.'” But Pelham adds that hard times often lead people to crafts. “When they’re scared, people start doing more home arts—I call it nesting; we want to feel secure—and it would include your knitting, your crocheting, sewing, canning. It’s like a hot stew on a snowy day; it’s a comfort.”
Allen can relate. “Having the knowledge that you can make something that’s required to live—clothing and food—I think that’s hugely important when we are facing an uncertain economic future,” she says. Allen describes a great satisfaction upon opening her pantry doors to find jars of food she’s grown and canned herself, and to see the bottles of beer her husband has brewed. “It’s just cool, like I run a little business, but the business is just for me and my husband.”
“Humans are warming the climate, and the impacts are already being felt across the world … So concludes the latest UN climate change report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which was released Friday, 6th April in Brussels.” –Science Daily, April 8, 2007
While other sources of print media struggle, the bimonthly magazine Mother Earth News is growing with a circulation of about 440,000 and another 1-2 million hits at its website every two months. The magazine has been teaching readers how to milk goats, make cheese, use wind and solar power, and garden organically since 1970. Via phone from her office in Kansas, editor Cheryl Long discusses the increased interest Mother Earth News has received.
“We don’t know exactly what to attribute it to, but we feel fairly confident that some of that is related to the state of the world these days—concerns about climate change, fossil fuels, rising gas prices, and on top of that, it’s helping to trigger the recession,” she says. “It’s always true that when times are a little tough economically that people look at self-sufficiency as both a way to save money but also as a way to feel more secure.”
“One of the summer’s greatest pleasures, a juicy tomato slice, has fallen victim to a food-borne illness outbreak that has sickened at least 167 people …” – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 9, 2008
Disheartening, though relatively rare, reports of health scares by groups entrusted to protect people’s well-being—be it hospitals or the Food and Drug Administration—provide further incentive for self-reliance.
“With all of those things, you start to wonder, how much are people looking out for us?” says Allen of news reports of tainted food and food-borne illnesses. “How much do I need to look out for myself and trust other people to look out for my health and welfare? I think some people are really questioning that.”
One of them is Amber Sallaberry, cofounder of the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno and an RN&R contributor. “I think a lot of people prefer to grow their own food because we’ve become a distrustful nation,” she says. “Some people, rather than live in fear, they take it upon themselves to create their food system.”
In 2006, the Great Basin Community Food Co-op opened its storefront out of the back room of Sound and Fury Records, a now closed hardcore and punk music store. The space was donated by Sound and Fury owner Joe Ferguson. The connection between DIY punks and a group growing, selling and promoting local food wasn’t such a stretch. A musician doesn’t have to fit a rock star mold or have a record label to make music; and if you have seeds and water and some land, you don’t have to wait for grocery stores to supply all your food. You can be independent.
“I think for a lot of the punk kids with a DIY attitude, a lot of it is growing up in a culture where you’re kind of oppressed by the things you’re supposed to fit into,” says 27-year-old Sallaberry. “A lot of kids fit that and say, ‘I don’t want to support this industry anymore,’ and ‘I don’t want to give my money to that person because they have stock in that,’ so it’s doing everything grassroots and realizing you have your own autonomy, and you are responsible for doing what you want to see in this world.”
The average price of regular gas crept up to $4 a gallon for the first time over the weekend, passing the once-unthinkable milestone just in time for the peak summer travel season.” – Associated Press, June 9, 2008
While Bob Tregilus is into gardening, he’s mainly interested in a different realm of the DIY movement: Electric vehicles. “I dumped my motorcycle because I wanted some environmentally friendly and carbon-free transportation and something cheaper,” he says. He’s now cofounder of the Alternative Transportation Club and Electric Auto Association of Northern Nevada. He describes its 30-40 members as “shadetree mechanics” who’re converting their vehicles to electric themselves.
“The reason most electric vehicles you see on the road today are made by their owners is because there’s very little available commercially, or that which is, is extremely expensive,” he says. Converting these vehicles themselves is a direct, grassroots reaction to the lack of response from government and industry leaders. Tregilus says local energy policies “don’t seem to be promoting sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions as much as they could be.”
Stille says that while some of the interest in the DIY movement is due to the economy, it’s not a new trend. He refers to poet Gary Snyder as having said years ago, “One of the most radical things you can do is stay at home.”
The apparent difference now is that the image of the DIY movement is no longer dominated by the middle-aged, off-the gridder seeking an escape from the modern world. Instead, it’s often young, urban professionals seeking a nostalgic connection, as well as cheaper bills and a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
“People in their 20s are sort of more aware of some of these issues, like global warming, so that would prompt them to be more interested in some of the things we’re talking about than [they would be] 10 years ago,” says editor Long.
Laura Zander, owner of Jimmy Beans Wool, says that while she has a storefront in Reno, most of her sales—which are up 50-80 percent from last year—are done online. Her biggest customers? “What I’ve noticed is it seems to have moved down a generation; it’s popular with people in their 30s, mostly professional people with a high-stressed job,” she says. “Our biggest go-to areas are Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where people are working a ton, so it’s working women.”
Erika Cole O’Malley, 32, was choosing a ball of organic wool at Jimmy Beans during a recent visit. She’d brought along a basket full of a half-finished sweater. A professor of art at Sierra Nevada College, O’Malley learned to knit not from her grandma, but from YouTube.com.
“I like to do it because when I’m done, it makes me feel good because I’ve made something,” she says. It’s meditative for her, each stitch a literal marking of time. Her husband plays videogames when he comes home from work to unwind, while she knits. When he’s finished, she says, he has nothing to show for it, “but I have a sweater afterwards.”
"‘You make cheese yourself,’ she repeated reverently. ‘You are a real housewife.’ It has taken me decades to get here, but I took that as a compliment.” – Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
A feminist starting a knitting craze may seem strange to some. But it was Debbie Stoller, editor of the modern feminist magazine Bust, who published what’s become a series of Stitch n Bitch books on knitting, and popularized the catchy phrase. The books helped start a new generation of young hipsters—mostly, but not all, female—digging out their grandmother’s knitting needles.
Be it knitting, sewing, cooking or canning, skills once solidly in the realm of the domestic housewife are reemerging among some modern women, who occasionally find themselves having to defend their new hobbies. Some mothers of women now in their 20s, 30s and 40s didn’t want to teach their daughters these skills—they wanted their daughters to advance in the professional world, something they and many women before them fought to earn the right to do. Skip ahead a few generations, and their daughters want to learn a few resourceful skills. They find it an enjoyable escape from the stresses of professional life. The difference now is that no one is forcing them to do it.
“We have so many more things available to us that our roles aren’t defined by cooking, cleaning and having children,” says Allen. “When the obligation is taken away, then it becomes a choice, and the choice becomes pretty cool. … I think if I had to can [food], it would be work, but because I have the freedom of choice, I choose to can, and it becomes fun.”
Zander says women are longing for a simpler life, and do-it-yourself tasks are a historical connection to that. “It seems we’re coming around full circle and deciding it’s OK to do things that don’t advance us on the socioeconomic ladder. That’s not as important as maybe we all thought it was. I see the same things with our friends and myself, we’re just trying to get back to a simpler life. Our society has just gotten out of control.”
"'Third World America,’ declared the headline in the Daily Mail in London on Saturday. ‘Law and order is gone, gunmen roam at will, raping and looting, and as people die of heat and thirst, bodies lie rotting in the street. Until now, such a hellish vista could only be imagined in a Third World disaster zone. But this was America yesterday.'” – as quoted in the Washington Post regarding Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 3, 2005
Not so long ago, anyone who talked of self-reliance in case society was thrown into chaos was viewed as some kind of conspiracy theory gun nut. Now, the sanest of the sane can be heard to voice such thoughts. They might say it with a sheepish smile, almost like a joke, and yet, it’s there. Those comments seem to pop up more often when something like hundreds of earthquakes a week shake the ground in Reno, or Hurricane Katrina leaves thousands to fend for themselves, or news reports speak more urgently of climate change’s effects on the Earth and of the government’s decreasing coffers to deal with federal emergencies.
“I’m not trying to be too fatalistic here, but … a lot of people want to get to a place where, if we have a shift in the way our food systems are, if we were to lose fossil fuels for transportation, to know we already have the resources intact,” says Sallaberry.
In the past few decades, many Americans have become specialists, yet no longer know how to preserve food or even change their car’s oil. As long as the economy is going well, the environment is humming along, and the government seems to be doing its job, few worry about this knowledge gap. But when it’s not, one response is the desire for self-reliance.
“With the way we’ve all been pushed and have been moving to succeed and rise up the ladder, we’ve kind of lost our way,” says Zander. “Like, ‘god, can we even feed ourselves? Can we do this basic stuff that we all used to know how to do? We need to feel like we could and not depend on everyone else to do it for us. To know we’d be OK if it becomes Mad Max.”
“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.” – Michael Pollen, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
While much of the DIY movement may be attributed to fear, the good thing is that it can turn the fear into fun and satisfaction.
“It’s one thing to be motivated by anxiety, but we feel pretty strongly that some of the remedies for the anxiety—finding ways to be more self-reliant—are an awful lot of fun,” says Long of Mother Earth News. “They’re more engaging and satisfying than doing something like watching a lot of television.”
DIY doesn’t have to mean a step backward. It’s learning from the mistakes and the knowledge of the past, mixed with the technology of the present and future, and finding a way for those things to coexist.
Sallaberry thinks do-it-yourselfers don’t want to give up what they have, necessarily. They just want to do it in a way that makes more sense in order to pass down a world worth inheriting. “I definitely feel like a lot of people are moving in a direction of wanting to be more resourceful and understand how to not only sustain ourselves, but to do that in an urban setting,” she says.
“I think fear and concern has a part to do with it,” says Stille. “It certainly does in my situation. The difference between when you worry about something—to me that implies you’re not doing something about it.”