This past week, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about canning. Tomato season is upon us and I want to make a lot of homemade pasta sauce while the tomatoes are good. There is no way to make this endeavor a money-saving one: the cost of the ingredients alone is going to make this way more expensive than the cheapest cans of sauce I can find at the grocery store. So why do I want to do it?
My first introduction to DIY was totally domestic. Learning how to sew and cook and bake from scratch from my mom was just part of growing up (my gender probably played a large role in determining that these were life skills I needed to learn, but honestly, these are life skills people regardless of gender should learn). Because I always had access to a stove and a fridge, these skills were framed in my mind as money-savers: I DIYed because mending a torn shirt was cheaper than buying a new one.
That sort of fixed DIY as something people did to save money, and let me tell you, TV shows about home improvement did nothing to shake this idea: they just reinforced it. With nothing but pluck and some paint brushes, you can increase your home’s value!
But talking about the monetary reasons for DIY doesn’t tell the whole story. To be glib, DIY can be about up-ing the punx aka buying into a punk ethos of removing yourself from an exploitative capitalist system (though I admit that it’s hard to up the punx at JoAnn’s Fabric Store).
To be a bit more serious about it, for the people who can choose to DIY beyond just the monetary reasons, doing things yourself is about regaining control over the products you use and consume. When I make a zine, I decide the content. When I can a tomato sauce, I decide the quality of the ingredients (but not quantity just yet because apparently that can end in botulism ““ can carefully!). If I knew how to sew, I’d be able to make clothes just for my proportions, not for the average extra-small, small, medium, large, and extra-large woman. See, there’s some of that punk mixed in there.
Even that doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s something meaningful about using your hands to produce something. Maybe I’m making this up (and my search terms are too vague for Google, so if any of you wonderful readers knows what I’m referring to, please tell me), but I feel like I remember hearing something about how the displacement of people from the production of tangible goods (this is sounding Marxian but I swear that’s not where I’m going) makes it harder to get satisfaction from work. It’s hard to contextualize what completing an important spreadsheet might mean, but it’s easy to see what creating a blanket would. Our progress through our work is harder to measure, too, when it is less tangible. Some people just need the satisfaction of being able to physically do something, to lean back (lean back) and say, “Yes, I created this, I put my time, work, and soul into it, and it is mine.”
But DIY can be spiritual in another way. This is still hard for me to talk about, but my grandmother passed away this spring. She would knit me sweaters (I have several, one of them still fits), and one summer, we did a project where she and I and my mom and my aunt sewed a shirt for me. I still have the shirt. Knowing how to knit and sew makes me feel connected to my grandmother. I am reminded of her when I knit something, and it makes me feel good to know that a skill she taught my mother, who then taught me has been passed on.
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (please stay with me ““ he is a well-respected evolutionary biologist, and it’s an important field and one not to be confused with evolutionary psychology) talks about how we need to think about evolution happening on the level of genes. Like, we should focus on blue whale genes, not on blue whales as a whole. Genes are fighting to be the ones who get perpetuated through eternity. He has a similar idea with cultural memes (which are ideas or behaviors or beliefs that can spread from person to person), and applies evolutionary principles to how they change and move from person to person. When I imagine it, I see this golden web of knowledge and ideas that connect people to each other, like we’re all meshed together, but not in a frightening spider-web-esque static way, but in this beautiful fluid way whereby our connections tie is to all of humanity. Creating things using this knowledge is a way to make intangible connections tangible. It makes us real to each other.