On our own: Forgotten household skills, revived for new use

Julia Rubin

AP – Mending clothes. Cutting hair. Fixing a squeaky door or a dripping faucet. Baking bread.

A generation or two ago, household skills like these were common, learnt at home and at school. Then it became easier to toss things out rather than fix them, quicker to call the professionals.

Now, in an unsettling era of staying at home and not knowing what will be available tomorrow, the old ways are being dusted off and relearned.

Since the coronavirus has shuttered many small businesses that do our work and supply our things, millions of people trying to stay home are driven by necessity — or boredom — to do more cooking, cleaning, fixing, grooming and other practical skills themselves.

“It’s during uncertain times like these when we take stock of all the basic life skills we’ve forgotten, or never learnt in the first place, because they sure could come in handy right about now,” said a magazine editor in Brooklyn and author of How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew (Ballantine) Erin Bried.

Erin Bried with her daughters Ellie, nine, and Bea, four, as they sew masks
File photo taken on April 1 by Bill Hughes shows one of Hughes’ shirts on an ironing board at his home in University Place, Washington. PHOTOS: AP

In a dark and difficult time, it can be an emotional lift to find that you’re more capable around the house than you thought.

“I accomplished something real today!” Maria Kernahan, a real estate agent and children’s book author, said after installing a new thermostat herself in her Castle Park, Michigan, house. She followed online advice to figure out the wiring in the old house. Her husband, meanwhile, has begun chopping wood.

“We’re making this up as we go along,” she said.

Bill Hughes, a business consultant in University Place, Washington, had to wash some shirts and didn’t want to put them away wrinkled.

“When I was a graduate student, I would iron my own shirts to save some money. It was tedious and I looked forward to the day when I could afford to drop off my shirts to be cleaned,” said Hughes, 59. “Since my dry cleaners is closed, I dusted off the iron and ironing board, turned on some Huey Lewis and the News, and went at it.”

Janice Simonsen, who works in corporate communications in Philadelphia, helped sew masks for medical personnel, following instructions on a YouTube video. “I haven’t pulled my sewing machine out for many years. I never really had the time,” she said. “Those junior high sewing classes kicked back in.”

She plans to keep the machine out and try some projects, like pillow covers, that she’s put off for years. “It felt good to create something useful again,” said Simonsen.

Yes, you can still order takeout in most places and call the plumber or electrician. But more people are trying to do that only when absolutely needed. Hardware stores have seen high demand for home-repair and lawn tools.

Social media feeds everywhere are full of posts from newbies planting vegetable gardens, giving themselves haircuts and baking bread.

Especially sourdough. Lots of sourdough. YouTube has seen a spike of more than 100 per cent in average daily views of videos with Cook with Me in the title since March 15 compared to the rest of the year, said spokeswoman Veronica Navarrete.

“We’re seeing this trend across several verticals,’’ including cleaning, she said. For her book, Bried interviewed women who had lived through the Great Depression and imparted lessons on how to make do and get by.

“I feel a new, closer connection to all of their stories now,” she said. “It was a difficult time, and it left its mark on all of them. I think this pandemic, too, will leave its mark on us much in the same way. It’s caused us all to halt our lives and reevaluate, maybe for the first time, what is truly important and what we’re equipped to handle.”

Jeanne Huntley, who taught high school home economics for 35 years in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, thinks society lost something important when schools phased out home economics and shop classes in favour of computer science, robotics and STEM.

“A lot of younger people have been brought up in a consumer society — `You don’t fix things, you replace things’,” she said.

“Parents are busy too, and there’s not a lot of time to pass on those skills. But knowing you can make things and fix things gives us a sense of confidence in ourselves.’’

This is not new for everyone. There’s always been a countercurrent of people yearning to get back to basics. The DIY movement has blossomed in recent years, and long before the coronavirus “urban homesteaders” experimented with backyard chickens, homemade dyes, wooden toys and organic food.

Concerns over climate change have kickstarted a strong movement toward buying fewer things and leaving a lighter footprint on the environment: “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. Now, in a time of feared shortages and limited mobility, this emphasis on self-sufficiency is going wider.

Sharon Bowers, co-author with her husband, David, of a book about life skills called The Useful Book (Workman), embraces the trend. But she cautions people to be smart — and check out books and YouTube videos before plunging in.

“I’m urging you to boldly go and try something new, but not something that you know is way outside your ability. … You could probably wire a lamp, but don’t mess around with the circuit board in your house,” she said.

“If you make a mess — assuming you don’t break something you really need — you can always call the professionals when we’re out the other side.”

Even the Bowerses, fix-it pros who live outside Dublin, Ireland, with their two teenage sons, “have a plumbing problem that’s complicated” to deal with. “And,” she said, “we’re just going to have to wait.”