DIY

DIY

The thought, effort, problem-solving, and creativity I put into this project birthed in me the notion that, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to do something, there was a good chance I could figure it out.

By Emma Alvarez Gibson

At age 5, I found some scraps of wood, a few nails, and a hammer in the garage. I did the obvious thing and made a bed for one of my dolls. It wasn’t perfect, I thought, not by a long shot: the wood was rough and each piece was a different size and shape, so it didn’t stand straight (prompting me to realize that, actually, I’d made a cradle I could rock). Even at that age, I wasn’t under any illusions that anyone would find it beautiful or even charming, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, I had made a doll bed with my own two hands, with no help from anyone.
And that’s how I became a lover of all things DIY. The thought, effort, problem-solving, and creativity I put into this project birthed in me the notion that, even if I didn’t necessarily know how to do something, there was a good chance I could figure it out.

Next came ads, offering my services to the neighborhood as an accomplished weed-puller and a kindly baby-sitter, respectively. By age 9 I’d created a magazine (singular, as in just one copy) called SuperKid!, in which I wrote about books, actors, and fashion. Friendship bracelets came after that, and then collages. I scoured craft books (which, in the 80s, seemed to be the only useful resource for DIY projects) for ideas, then tried my hand at customizing the ideas I liked best. I studied art and fashion magazines and reconstructed the looks I saw, borrowing clothes and accessories from both my parents. (One piece I remember fondly was a velvet blazer from the 70s, which I turned inside-out to reveal its satiny, peacock-blue lining. My father was unamused when he discovered it.) In high school, some of my DIYs came from the pages of Sassy magazine (a dress made from the skirt of a thrifted sundress, a leotard top, a length of ribbon, a needle and some thread) while others came from fellow goth kids (take a pair of fishnets, cut off the feet, cut a hole in the crotch big enough for your head to fit through, put them on, add your favorite band t-shirt over it, ideally with the neck and sleeves chopped out).

It’s important to point out that there was nothing tidy about any of this. I wasn’t working from a checklist. I was just digging around, looking for stuff that seemed interesting. Often we didn’t have the necessary supplies lying around the house, so I substituted or made do without, and the result was sometimes a crashing failure. But I knew that the next one had the potential to be amazing, and anyway I’d had fun trying. That’s the spirit of DIY, that’s where it all comes from: curiosity, and a love of learning for its own sake.

In the mid-90s, DIY began to come into its own in the West, emerging as something to celebrate, if not flaunt. With ties to third-wave feminism and punk rock, the DIY ethos struck a chord with certain segments of youth culture. By the early 2000s, it was everywhere. There were TV shows about crafting; websites that talked you through making anything from a blank book to a house you could live in; magazines devoted to collaging; Stitch n’ Bitch groups all over the globe that met regularly to knit and crochet together.

What made it so revolutionary? After all, humans have been making things for as long as we’ve existed. But post-industrialism, the act of making becomes subversive at some levels. When it’s possible for you to buy nearly anything you need, choosing instead to make sends the message that you’re interested in learning, you take pride in hard work, and you’re willing to fail and try again. You’re interested, in other words, in growing as a human being. That speaks to a certain level of enlightenment, as far as I’m concerned.

On a grand scale, DIY fever cooled somewhat, for a number of reasons—including, notably, the stock market crash of 2008. But the impact of that fever remained—and then along came a global pandemic. People have been trying their hands at everything from gardening to woodworking to bread baking. Which neatly underscores the biggest benefit of the DIY ethos: hope. For as many serious problems this world has, and for as many realistic Doomsday scenarios as we’re currently facing, it gives me hope that so many people continue to make things themselves.

DIY is, if nothing else, an act of optimism.

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DIY: Kick Out the Middleman

A Conversation with Mason Mixx

Mason Mixx is a veteran musician, singer, and songwriter. Currently he’s a member of grace metalious and noise band Blim Noir. He lives in New York with his wife.

Photo: Lisa Brasier

 

EAG: You’re someone who believes strongly in the DIY ethos. Tell me about that.

MM: Well, what can I say, other than if you want to do something, then you have to do it. I mean, there are and were—I suppose there were more than there are now, but—middlemen people that you need to coordinate with or get permission from or have someone else sign off on what you’re doing. DIY kind of eliminates a whole heck of a lot of that. And for those who are motivated and energetic, it’s kind of the obvious way to achieve things. And you don’t have to wait for anybody but yourself.

EAG: Is it something that grows on itself? When you first said, I’m just going to do this, did you then you find yourself looking at other avenues where you might apply that same thinking?

MM: Absolutely. I mean, the only limitation is the basically the amount of time you can devote to something. And the level of devotion to the task, I guess. There are people who want to do a lot of things in order to accomplish whatever it is. And then there are those that don’t. I mean, anybody who’s been in a band knows that you’re going to have to rehearse, you’re going to have to have a space to rehearse, you’re going to need equipment, you’re going to need material written. You’re going to have to contact clubs to book gigs, you’re going to have to promote it. You’re going to have to make flyers and staple them to telephone poles or whatever that entails. You need to put together a fanzine and develop a mailing list and get that out to the fans and recognize them and be gracious and thankful for the fact that they’re paying attention to you. So all of that requires maintenance. And that’s the nature of DIY. I mean, it’s certainly not easy and it takes more work than people can probably imagine. But the rewards are many.

EAG: What are some of those rewards that you’ve seen?

MM: Well, the rewards are realizing that there are people out in the world that are, to some extent, in sync with what you’re doing and spreading that kind of excitement and being able to cultivate that from the standpoint of either connections related to recording or interviews on radio stations, interviews for newspapers, whatever. I mean, so all of that, if you’re continuing to reach and connect and interact and network and so on, the rewards are there.

EAG: That makes me think of something. You started doing all of this in what, the 80s?

MM: Well, without letting anyone know that I’m 120 years old, I would say I was definitely doing it in the 70s.

EAG: Since the internet came along, it seems like we all spend a lot of time talking about how much smaller the world’s gotten. Do you think that’s something that DIYers were already aware of? That we’re all interconnected?

MM: Well that’s an interesting point. I wonder if the world really has gotten smaller. There’s a lot more noise. There’s a lot more static in the air because there are so many choices and it’s so easy to decide what you want or change your mind. So I think it’s really a different playing field. Although, there are aspects that are exactly the same. There are people who will invest enough energy and effort to realize whatever it is they’re out to realize. And there are those that will give up halfway there. So it’s still up to the individual to decide how far you’re going to go with something. And I mean, it can and does get to the point at times where your health is suffering, your finances are suffering, your social life is suffering. There’s no way you can be aware of everything. And so there is, to some extent, a lot of subjective isolation, if you will, involved with pursuing this one thing. I mean, take for instance, how many bands can you be aware of? How many records can you buy? How much time do you have to absorb all of this? And in the meantime, you’re writing your own material, you’re organizing rehearsals and recording sessions and gigs. There’s only 24 hours in the day.

EAG: Thinking about the mindset that’s required to do things yourself, would you say that there’s a unifying characteristic among people who do a lot of DIY stuff?

MM: Yeah. There’s a tremendous amount of unification out there. It’s kind of the essence of getting into anything that’s off the mainstream. And that’s generally where most people start. Nobody can jump directly into the mainstream, if that happens to be where someone wants to end up. But even finding off the wall, non-mainstream music, you’ve got to hunt for it. You’ve got to put the time and effort into exploring and discovering where that resides. And that’s incredibly exciting because you’re going to end up interacting with a lot of other people who are doing the same thing. And so you can end up discovering scenes that aren’t really recognized, if you know what I mean.

EAG: You’ve got to kind of follow the trail of breadcrumbs.

MM: Yeah, absolutely.

 

“I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is.”

EAG: As a kid I spent tons of time reading about bands, and actors, and movies, and fashion and art. And I tracked all this stuff down by myself because none of the other 10- and 11-year-olds I knew were interested in that kind of stuff. As I followed these trails, I would stumble on other things, and make other discoveries. And one of the ideas behind this project was, wouldn’t it have been cool to have a little guidance? I’ve actively been indoctrinating my son into various parts of culture, like, Okay, look, you have to know this artist. You have to know this school of thought. You have to know X, Y, and Z. How great would that have been to have some of that structure, those underpinnings?

MM: Right.

EAG: Of course, by the same token, I’m probably robbing some people of the opportunity to look it up themselves.

MM: Well, I would suggest that from the standpoint of being a young person in relationship to the older person who’s providing this enlightening information that the young person is going to invariably at some point say, “I’m just way, way more fucking cool than this.”

EAG: Yeah. Absolutely.

MM: “This stuff is maybe, maybe 10% there, but I’m 80% there.” Which is good. We want everybody discovering the golden nuggets however, and wherever they may find them.

EAG: And that’s as it should be. God forbid you have youth without ego. That’s useless.

MM: Right. Yeah. And as long as it’s not some…I’ve always really despised the “10 Easy Steps to Whatever,” you know what I mean? Never was anything that attracted my attention. I just, I hated that concept.

EAG: “Here’s your kit. Now you’re a cool guy.”

MM: Right. I think the reason that DIY matters is that it’s just phenomenally liberating. You grow up and go through life with a huge list of why you can’t do things, and DIY allows you to, if you’re, you can put your money where your mouth is. You can start, you can just begin, no matter what it is. And if you’re bold enough to get out there and interact with people that are doing the same thing, then if you stay committed, you’re ultimately going to be involved with a larger group doing that. And to a certain extent, it’s all about getting more and more people aware of it, getting attention, getting recognized, and that can be a hell of a lot of fun because it’s not going to be all positive recognition.

EAG: Sure.

MM: Which is a significant part of the learning process. You’re going to hear a lot of no’s. The ratio of no’s to yes’s is daunting. So you learn to not take things personally and keep your eye on pursuing your DIY mission.

 

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The DIY Mindset: Vickie Howell

 

As told to Emma Alvarez Gibson

Vickie Howell is a well-known craft expert, author, designer, instructor, founder of the subscription box business YarnYAY!, and broadcast personality in the DIY world. She lives in Austin, Texas.

 

I was mostly raised by a single mom. My dad was around, but even then, my mom was a teacher and my dad was an airplane mechanic. So even before they were divorced, we were never rolling in it, especially moving from Colorado to California. We were never not money conscious. And there’s something about that. I guess that can affect you in one of two ways. You can just sort of hold on to everything, or you can think about how to make what you’ve got work, and go seek what other resources are out there for it. And that’s the route I’ve always taken. Thankfully I’m not in the same place that we were back then, but it’s definitely a mentality that’s stuck with me.

So that’s part of it. But I’ve just always been really drawn to the uniqueness of hand making, the sort of special-ness. And that can translate from the traditional heirloom to the cool-and-unusual anything. For me it definitely did not start as something like me crafting or being just a general DIY-er. It didn’t really start as any sort of scavenger hunt for cool. It was more either something that I could do with my mom to spend time, or if we didn’t have the extra cash for gifts, it was a way that I could still give. And then later it was just sort of how I channeled my energy. I’ve never been great at just sitting around.

It’s funny, a handful of years ago, a childhood friend of mine turned 40 and she was sort of giving general shout outs to folks from her childhood. And I had no memory of this and didn’t even really think of myself of being as a super DIY-er as a kid, even though now I look back and of course I was, it was just so a part of me. And she thanked me for telling her that boredom was a choice, that you could always walk to the fabric store and get ribbon to make bows, like oversized bows—this was probably in the 80s, I should say that!—or whatever else you could come up with.

And it was something that I had no memory of, but I think that that speaks to sort of what has pushed me my entire life, and then career, is that, “Okay, what can I do now?”

 

“Cool is being able to create for yourself what you want. For me, that’s been a career, a ridiculous career that doesn’t make any sense on paper.”

I think that’s where the cool seeps into it. I mean, other folks’ definition of cool is different, which is something I’m sure you’re exploring. But for my personal definition, cool is being able to create for yourself what you want. For me, that’s been a career, a ridiculous career that doesn’t make any sense on paper. But I wanted specific things. I wanted to not have to answer to really anybody. I wanted to be able to be home with the kids but still have a complete career. I wanted to be able to do something that seemed different all of the time. I wanted to be able to not have to follow the rules of getting X, Y, Z degree and using this timeline or whatever.

So for me, DIY gave that bit of cool to my life. For me, that’s cool: that I’ve been able to create something that fills all of those buckets.

When I was young, crafting wasn’t cool in any way, shape, or form. It’s only been since the internet that it has been, and that’s because of community. That’s because we’re not in sort of this myopic village of people anymore. Your community can span as wide as you can type. And so, as soon as you could pick up—whatever, a Bust magazine—and then look and find a URL, you could connect. And some of the women that were in there would have been considered outcasts, but I think the internet has been the great unifier of, “Oh my gosh, that’s so great that she’s doing that. I might put a little more of a mainstream spin on it, but now I see!” It’s more of this collaboration of ideas that really has widened the scope of what hand-making and DIY means.

And to me that’s super cool.

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