Monthly Archives: October 2011

Jumper Ethos

In the past couple of years I have got more and more interested learning to make anything and everything, from furniture to clothing. Basically, I’ve been keen to make any item that would be cheaper, more personalised, or more fun than the same item if I’d bought it. I’ve always quite liked making things but as a youngster I was usually disappointed with the results, and so gave up trying. But now, with such a huge resource as the internet and especially youtube, it’s possible to research how to make almost anything.

Now, it’s come to the point that several of the things that I use on a weekly or daily basis are things that I’ve made myself, from parts or from scratch: a shoulder bag that I use all the time (the first ever bag that’s had all the right compartment for my stuff), a leather keyring I can keep guitar picks in; two of my electric guitars; some of my clothes and hats (that fit me better than the shop bought ones); the pencil case I take to work; the leather cover for the notebook I carry everywhere; and of course, almost all of the interior of my van.

Life seems distinctly different for me since I’ve been using all these things that are of my own creation. I feel strangely satisfied in a way that I’ve never felt before, and take such comfort in the things that I have made that the desire to own more things fades. I have had a suspicion for some time that humans feel disconnected from their own homes because they are populated by objects that are mass produced, not of their own creation, and not even made by a person.

Whether you believe in “energy” or not, it’s certain to me that things which are hand made by people, “feel” different to the touch than mass produced things. There is something warmer and more alive about them, and not just in their slightly wonky human-made edges. I’m starting to believe that mass production has more evils to it than I’d previously thought – I now see how it begets dissatisfaction. Let me tell you about how I came to that conclusion.

At first, my desire to make things was quite shallow – I thought it would be cheaper. Soon I realised that unless I was able to get recycled materials, then it wasn’t necessarily cheaper to make something myself. However, by that point I was hooked and couldn’t exactly explain why – despite the fact that it wasn’t saving me time or money, I kept on making things. Having said that, with access to a good charity shop and car boot sale most things can indeed be made from very cheap recycled materials. But for me, as my level of workmanship improved, it became apparent that I could make things which were better than shop bought items; better designed and more hardwearing… and so it made sense to go to the extra effort of getting good quality natural materials as well.

So if it wasn’t cheaper, what was the point? For this, I will be explaining through the power of jumpers.

Every year I get out my winter clothes and I’m appalled. There are a couple of nice jumpers that look good on me, but aren’t very warm or comfy. Then there are always about 4 more which are appalling colours AND don’t fit well, but that I remember buying in desperation when the snow started last winter. So every autumn I give the worst ones back to the charity shop they came from, and hope to find some nice ones this year… only to end up buying some equally awful ones later on when the snow starts, because they are the only ones I can find in the shops.

This year, I decided that I was going to put a budget aside to buy a real 100% wool jumper, in whatever colour I liked, even if it was quite expensive. But after a bit of internet shopping, it became apparent that such things are either made in “one size fits no-one” hippy shops, made for men, made for grannies, or made with fleece lining – what’s the point of lining a breathable material like wool, with sweaty polyester I ask you? So, I concluded that the only way would be to knit one myself instead of buy one. I ordered the wool, learned more about knitting on the internet, measured myself, and began. I finished the jumper last week and I can tell you that I’ve never had a garment that has fitted me so well or been so warm, and in such good colours too. Also, it somehow feels like mine, and there’s something comforting about it. Knitting is very slow, and many hours went into that jumper, so I suppose it feels like home.

In contrast to that, mass production puts people through a much more negative relationship with “stuff”. Here’s a process that many people go through with a variety of different possessions from clothing, to furniture, and even houses:

First they buy something cheap that they can afford, but that doesn’t quite fit their needs. The jeans in the sale, that you think you’ll slim into, or the shoes you hope you can pad out with thick socks.

Then they save up for a better one to replace it – one that fits them better; A stereo with more functions, or a kitchen with more space for pots and pans. But usually, that new thing simply doesn’t fit in a different way. So they still feel dissatisfied.

Sometimes rich people actually manage to earn enough money to buy the EXACT thing that they want. However, they usually find that they still feel unfulfilled when they get it. Something is not right or something is missing…. Also, people often cling to these perfect things, worrying immediately that they will lose or break them, and not be able to replace them.

Making things comes with whole different set of emotions. There’s the excitement of conceiving something to make, and the creative process of designing and making it, and the end result of having something personalised and full of human energy, made to one’s own exact specifications. Also, since you’re the one who’s made it, you’ll be able to repair it. So there’s no more throwing out of perfectly good things because that plastic bit that they don’t sell a replacement for broke on it. I’ve found that I don’t worry about losing the things I’ve made even if they took hours of my time, because I can always make another one if that happens, and make it better.

Although I agree that mass production has its uses, but I believe that everyone would find themselves feeling more satisfied if they made more of their possessions. I’m not talking about making something for the sake of it, I’m talking about considering the things you’re about to buy, and seeing if you can make any of them instead. I’m also not talking about the uncreative process of following a design without personalising it – that just leads to making someone else’s item, not your own. I’m not saying that busy people necessarily have the time to make many things at all, but it seems they can still spend 2hrs on a Saturday shopping for the perfect handbag (and not finding it). I made mine from a 2nd hand pair of corduroys and it took me an hour and a half.

I’m making a contentious statement here, to say that everyone would be happier if they made their own stuff. But here’s my case to back it up. First I refer to Jay Shafer (who I will probably talk about in my next post), who has a business making “tiny houses”. He subscribes to the belief that having unnecessary excess gets in the way of our happiness. After all, if you have stuff that you don’t need to use, it’s just in the way. Having mass-produced stuff means we need much more of it, since none of it is purpose built for our needs, we end up needing 4 different not-quite-right things to do the job of one “right” thing. Either that, or we have something that fulfils so MANY unnecessary functions that they get in the way, like the mobile phone that your dad never answers when you call, because he can’t work out which button to press. So, by making our own tailor made thing, we can make it for our purposes only, which according to Jay (and Buddhist teachings) should make us happier.

Secondly, I would put forward that everyone genuinely does enjoy the making process. When people say that they don’t enjoy it, their reasons are usually because the things they make are failures. But I would also put forward that everybody (unless they are physically unable to) CAN make some things successfully, and feel a great sense of wellbeing in doing so. I will admit that I have a particular skill for picking up new methods, but there have been times in history where all people have made their possessions themselves. Many people today claim they are no good at making anything – but cut yourselves some slack. It’s not as if you’ve been taught leatherwork and sowing by your family from the age of 5, like people from history were. The tools we have today mean makeage is 10 times quicker than it would have been in medieval times, and what’s more there’s the internet to help us, if not our tribal loincloth wearing parents. Whilst we may be NEW at making, 21st century technology makes it easier than ever to learn.

A final advantage to making things, is environmental. Buying recycled stuff is tricky – hard to find and offering little choice, but making recycled stuff is cheap. When it comes to new materials, I have found it easy to source one that are ethically produced, and what’s more I’m unlikely to throw away the things I make because I can repair them if they break. When they reach the end of their useful life I can dismantle them and make something new, or dispose of them ecologically since I’ve been able to choose all natural materials. I also feel more satisfied and less interested in buying more stuff in general. So overall, I’m consuming less as a result.

Let’s apply this again to the jumper. So, previously I’d throw out a few jumpers per year and buy a few. Instead, this year I spent £25 on real wool, and made myself a jumper. Ok, that’s not much of a saving since a cheap fleece from Primark or a Charity Shop is about £5. But a real wool jumper would be much more of course, probably about £70 a good one. But anyway, maybe I’ll make another one and then I’ll have enough, and will have spent £50. Since they are quality wool they will probably last at least 10 years, if not 20. After that, I could unravel them and make something else from the wool if I wanted to. Compare that to the mass production model: 20 years of buying and throwing out 2 or 3 jumpers per year, and the time needed to shop for them.

At first I had said that making things turned out to be neither cheaper nor quicker than buying them. In the end, I’ve proved myself wrong – over all, its both quicker and cheaper, and I believe it’s happier too. And it could also bring down consumerism and mass production as a biproduct. What more could you want?

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