Today’s do-it-yourself movement is exciting to watch. Young people are salvaging discarded mid-century furnishings. Empty lots become into community gardens. Thrift store sweaters are raveled, their cashmere and wool yarns re-knit and woven into luxurious hats and scarves.
|Palais de Tokyo, Paris, March 23 2013|
But we baby-boomers had our own DIY movement back in the day. In the seventies, we focused on creating an alternative universe as far away as possible from our hometowns. We weren’t interested in re-fashioning our parents’ discards; instead, we went back a few more generations, to our grandparents or great-grandparents, determined to recover a more authentic relationship to the natural world, unhooked from the plastic, mass-produced consumer goods flooding store shelves during those prosperous times.
We were all about self-sufficiency, living without gas or electricity, raising our own food, making our own clothes, starting over from scratch. Looking back on us now, I have to admit that most of us were fundamentally hedonists, not so much concerned with saving the world as with the quest for better-tasting bread, richer, more saturated colors, for the charm of hand-carved banisters, the gleam of old linen. In our quest for such pleasures, we began learning to bake, dye our own yarn, brew beer, knit socks, and weave rugs, acquiring some badly needed discipline along the way.
When I set out to knit my first pair of socks in 1978, no sock yarn was available in my local yarn store, and double-pointed needles came only in large sizes. I produced my first socks from sport-weight, marled wool on size five needles. The socks fit beautifully and lasted for years, but like our seventies pottery and loaves of bread and macramé plant-holders, they were a bit crude.
Apprentices at first, we seventies DIYers became more proficient with practice. Living in Denver in the late seventies, I was lucky to find a fiber renaissance going on around me. In Boulder, the Schacht Spindle company was just starting up, in Loveland, Interweave Press had begun, and in Denver, shops like Skyloom Fibres introduced knitters and spinners to the best equipment and materials available. I’ll never forget the weekend Sidna Farley at Skyloom invited Elizabeth Zimmermann for a two-day workshop. In her mid-eighties then, Elizabeth rode into town on the back of her husband’s motorcycle with her wit and knitting know-how in impeccable order.
A decade later, having moved first to LaCrosse Wisconsin and then Birmingham Alabama, I could find not only a wide range of good sock yarns at my local yarn shops, but also finely crafted spindles, elegant spinning wheels, and fibers ranging from local, organic wool fleeces to exotic varieties imported from all over the world, and now, thanks to the internet, yarns and tools from all over the world are available at the click of a keypad.
Sadly, for our late-baby-boom generation that came of age in the early seventies, what had started as a humble movement based on simplicity and a rejection of consumerism evolved for some of us into a more effete kind of materialism. We had rejected Cheese Whiz for boutique Brie on a bed of grape leaves, we traded Betty Crocker for Martha Stewart, and we spent more on artisanal yogurt than our mothers spent on Thanksgiving dinner. At its best though, our version of DIY ushered in a new era of craft in cooking, textiles, gardening and home furnishing and design. One of the presiding deities of the Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth century, William Morris, once advised, “have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” In out finest moments, we tried for that.
Today, when I look around at the young DIYers, I can see they’re different from our generation. Instead of rebelling, they connect skillfully with their elders and each other, and use social networks to share ideas, opportunities, and skills. Instead of running away, they work to improve their communities by starting urban recycling programs, practicing black-belt frugality, finding ways to make something beautiful out of discards, something of permanent value out of the disposable.
They are more likely to re-knit an old sweater than buy a sheep farm, more likely to re-finish an old coffee table than build one out of old-growth pine. I’m impressed, astonished at their ingenuity. But sometimes, at a neighborhood yard sale, I want to turn to the young woman beside me and ask:
Are you sure about that imitation-Pucci minidress with those black tights and combat boots and your granddad’s fleece-lined helmet? You are? And I see you found Grandma’s black vinyl clutch bag. You must take home this copy of The Vegetarian Epicure, in perfect condition except for a slight stain on the page with the incredibly decadent chocolate cake recipe.
Oh, OK. You’re a locavore vegan and you don’t use ingredients grown more than twenty miles from your home. Got it. Look, here’s some locally grown organic cotton at the next booth. Let me lend you a spindle!