The DIY Movement is Ready for the Apocalypse
I saw a post on twitter recently that said knitters are people who like to pretend the industrial revolution never happened. The other day, a friend expressed surprise when I told him that I want to take cobbling classes. “I like to pretend as many modern conveniences as possible don’t exist,” I explained, as I search for design schools in Atlanta on the tiny computer I carry around in my pocket.
Much has been made of the do-it-yourself craze that has encroached on our culture of late. It has become trendy to can your own fruit, brew your own beer, knit your own sweaters. I’m not convinced, however, that recent years have actually seen any marked increase in these activities as much as an increased visibility due to websites such as Pinterest and Etsy. Regardless, the permeation of the DIY aesthetic into our culture as a whole is undeniable. Even Walmart is selling mass-produced items designed to have that certain DIY feeling.
What is the appeal of doing it yourself? I argue that aside from the satisfaction that comes from having created something with your own hands, the desire do things the hard way is driven by a (perhaps unconscious) wish to defy our financial system.
Others have observed before me that DIY, despite its down-home aura, remains a luxury of the upper-middle class. DIY can sometimes be a cost-saving measure. For example, I coveted a $400 Kate Spade dress for months, and finally made a very similar one, with my own personalized touches (vertical stripes for the bodice instead of horizontal, to give it a slimming effect; a slightly lower waistline). Total cost: about $20, plus four or five hours of labor.
More often than not, however, it’s just the opposite, especially when labor is factored in. Knitting is a prime example. Good quality yarn can be pricey, and the time involved in making a scarf or a sweater is significant. It’s not quite fair to calculate the opportunity cost of the hours and hours spent pulling loops through each other because we knitters work on our projects at times when we just need something to occupy our hands: in transit, watching a movie, sitting in a waiting room. That said, hand knitting a sweater is certainly not a practical option and, unless you’re buying designer sweaters at Bergdorf, not an economical one, either.
Many DIY activities have a large start-up cost: buying homebrew equipment for beer, for example. Even after the initial costs have been absorbed, ingredients can cost nearly as much as a nice case of microbrew.
The appeal of DIY is not about saving money, then, nor is it about saving time. It’s about accomplishment: ice cream tastes better when I know I made it myself, that I decided the flavors that would go in to it. I walk a little taller when I’m wearing a dress I made myself.
Another underlying cause, ignored in other literature on the subject, can explain the appeal of DIY. DIY is not, as that person on twitter asserted, about pretending the industrial revolution never happened. Instead, it’s about anticipating a time when the financial backbone of our economy might not exist.
I wouldn’t go so far as to group DIYers in with the “preppers,” those people with fully stocked basements preparing for the apocalypse, but if the financial system ever collapses, we’re the ones who will come out on top. In an age where the best-paid people spend their days virtually moving money from one place to another, labor is underrated. People who work with their hands are at the bottom of the economy – the people who actually create the things that underwrite all those complex financial instruments. With the decline of domestic manufacturing, the number of people with mechanical skills dwindles further.
If we ever return to a labor-based economy—the kind of economy, yes, that existed before the industrial revolution—the DIY movement will be ready. Should the stock market collapse, should people begin storing cash in their mattresses, should manufacturing cease to be feasible, we will be the ones with the ability to make the things we need to survive. It doesn’t matter if our hobbies are impractical: what matters is that people who make things for themselves have maintained the ability to use their hands for something other than typing.
This is not to say that any of this will ever happen. But if it does, we will be there, knitting needles and mason jars in hand, prepared.