Today is Black Friday… an American retail term that has in recent years arrived in Britain. From what I understand, US retailers typically offer discounts on the day after Thanksgiving to encourage a flurry of spending and many British shops have started to follow suit. This time last year Make Something Month was launched as an antidote to mindless buying and as a way of encouraging us to fall in love with things in a more meaningful way.
As a seasoned maker I embraced the idea wholeheartedly, even after Christmas had been and gone.
The experience & know-how armoury
Making things, whether it’s growing vegetables, preserving fruit, baking bread, knitting woollies, throwing pots or just turning scavenged woods into a cold frame is inherently satisfying. Yes, it may involve a little effort and dexterity but it plays to my curiosity, creativity and the very human desire to understand our world.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, when we garden, bake, mould or construct…, we are more actively engaged with biology, chemistry, physics, maths or engineering than we ever were at school. Baking a cake or loaf may not seem to have much in common with the test tube experiments of my schooldays but it is a very real form of reorganising chemical elements. Nurturing the soil and plants in a few pots on the patio involves a closer observation of chemistry and biology than I was probably capable of as a teenager. And regular readers know that I consider hand-knitted socks to be a fascinating piece of engineering.
Although I may not be able to articulate what I’m experiencing in scientific formulae, the more I make, the more I understand the world, or rather the more bits of half-forgotten information suddenly make sense. I recognise patterns and discover the characteristics of different materials. Like many who regularly bake bread, hands-on experience (literally) has taught me how to tweak the ratio of water depending on the type of flour I’m using. As a gardener with a few seasons under my belt, I can tell by looking, feeling or smelling the soil or compost what types of materials I need to add to achieve a healthier, more nutritious balance. And with a little practice, even an occasional dressmaker like me knows how to adapt a pattern for different types of fabrics, much as an engineer or architect knows which materials can support which structures.
Does this type of knowledge actually matter? Arguably not in days when we can buy pretty much anything we need. However, the more insight I have into everyday processes and materials, the more capable I am of recognising quality products and avoiding wholly unnecessary goods and services. Thanks to a little hands-on experience and curiosity about how things work, I can spot when builders or plumbers are over-specifying; when marketers try to sell me three products where one, or none, would do; or where supermarkets try to scare me into disposing of produce because of random “best before” or “display until” dates.
Making skills and hands-on experience save me pennies at the very least and in many cases bring a lot of personal satisfaction, especially when I stumble upon a skill that, to my amazement, I’m better at than I could ever have imagined.
Making and generosity
Making not only makes us more savvy. It makes us more generous, a sentiment that Make Something Month plays on most beautifully. It urges us to make something for ourselves, something for a relative, something for a friend and something for a stranger or somebody we’ve never met. This last suggestion is a particularly delightful twist as it extends the generosity that is common to many makers.
Like many other bakers, growers and makers of things, I’m forever sharing weekend baking and home-made preserves with family, friends and visitors. Surplus homegrown produce, even something as simple as a bouquet of herbs, is regularly left on my neighbours’ doorsteps. And hand-knitted items are routinely bestowed on family and friends.
I enjoy both making and giving and believe that both the item given and the act of receiving touch family, friends and relations. It therefore stands to reason that making something for a stranger or somebody I’ve never or barely met, can generate this double delight too. In my experience, however, it does so much more.
It starts conversations, whether it’s a conversation between me and the recipient or a conversation between the recipient and a third party. In many cases I’ll never know the details of those conversations but I know they will ripple out and on. This type of giving also sows seeds. In a society with structures and institutions that try to reduce us to cogs in a GDP-generating machine, it suggests we might be more than consumers. In an ever-faster paced world, a handmade gift from a (near) stranger suggests we have been noticed, that we have, however fleetingly and simply, touched somebody’s life. Most importantly, it reminds us that generosity is incredibly precious and powerful.
For all these reasons making things, including something for a stranger or someone I hardly know, is a regular feature of my life and, if you haven’t tried it yet, I would encourage you to… You would be amazed at what it can unlock!
In the last few years I’ve seen lots of references to ‘gift economy’. Whilst commentators who use it have the best of intentions, the term makes me cringe and I avoid it at all cost. I am a big fan of barter as an alternative means of exchange, a different type of negotiated currency. But “gift”, like hospitality, is a much wider concept. Gifts and hospitality are the foundations of a reciprocal culture, which is much wider than a simple quid pro quo or another form of debit or credit logged in those parts of our life that are scrutinised by double-entry bookkeeping accountants. The real worth of gifts lives off the page. They build value by being spontaneous and random and taking on a momentum of their own!