The Making of Things

Remember when we used to make stuff? Maybe it's time to get back to that
Illustration: Emma San Cartier

Big woodworking machines stood silent in the sunlit shop behind Bob’s house.

I looked up at the mahogany hutch he had built — at seven feet wide and more than seven feet tall, it towered above me. Once shipped to his second home in Flat Rock, its shelves would be filled with dishes and pottery.

Against the back wall were stacks of planks for more projects. He was building beds, dressers, nightstands, benches … thirty pieces of his own design that also included kitchen cabinets and millwork. He would do this while managing a full-time job that required travel around the United States, while keeping up with a son in elementary school, and while accompanying his wife to countless events for her high-profile job.

Bob, like my husband and me, makes things with his hands. His inner drive trumps point-and-swipe (point to an object, pull out credit card, and swipe). He wants to figure things out and engineer his own solutions. He loves the satisfaction, when all is finished, of stepping back to admire his work. I love it, too. Whether stenciling a room, building a mosaic, baking a cake, sewing children’s clothes, or marbleizing paper, the pleasure of figuring out how to do something is fundamental to my enjoyment of life.

It’s an American heritage, making things. Now that some of us have more time on our hands and less money to spend—thanks to the recession — maybe we can find out what we’re capable of. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a little fun, too?

Let’s take stock of our resources. Consider the hand. Each has four fingers and a thumb, and we get two, one the mirror image of the other. In each are twenty-seven bones covered and connected by tendons and muscles, and one can work alone or in partnership with the other. Add two feet and you have a team — ask anyone who has had to brace themselves to pull in a sail. Furthermore, the hands could not function without directions from the brain, reached by an inconceivable and microscopic world of nerve fibers informed by touch and sight. Two hands can manage something as tiny as the sewing of fine stitches or as rough as slamming a sledgehammer to split rock. They can make music; they can perform surgery. Can you imagine your body without them?

Hands play an essential role in our language, our thinking. An opportunity is close at hand, if we help others we give them a hand, a person who is competitive tries to gain the upper hand. To apologize we come with hat in hand, to surrender something we hand it over, and to participate we have a hand in it. To hold up a hand, palm out, means "Stop," or sometimes, "Talk to the hand." Offer a limp hand and it’s a dead fish, too strong and you’ve got an iron grip.

Sadly, our hands have been neglected like fields left fallow. We should find out the possibilities they hold (excuse the pun). Rarely do we take time to make things with our hands—it’s just easier to buy them.

We buy ready-made food, clothing, and shelter, not to mention art and music. Maybe we’ll buy craft kits, to entertain ourselves, but that’s about it. Young men use their hands for video games. Young women use theirs for text messaging. Making things with our hands seems like such a luxury, or a waste of time, or, even worse, proof of financial incompetence and inefficiency. Why knit a sweater when it’s cheaper and faster to buy it?

In moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, we’ve focused on designing things for our brains, like computers and iPhones and movies and video games. Hands that once touched and felt things, that held or pushed things, got busy dialing phones and tapping keyboards. We’ve put our hands to work, all right—making money. And unfortunately, the more we’ve made the more we’ve spent, becoming, in Barbara Ehrenreich’s words, "the world’s designated shoppers." In a 2008 essay for The Nation, she made a funny and insulting observation about what has happened since we gave up making things in the 1980s. "Remember Bush telling us, shortly after 9/11, to get out there and shop? It may have seemed ludicrous at the time, but what he meant was get back to work."

Our talent for spending and making money is being seriously challenged at present. This would be a good time to redefine "work" and to resurrect the legacy of an American who knows how to make something with his hands.

In fact, when was the last time you heard the term "American worker"? I’ve heard "American consumer" enough to make me sick. We have consumer reports and consumer guides, consumer protection and consumer confidence. We have the Consumer Price Index and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, consumer research and consumer updates from the FDA. We even have Consumers Digest for those short on time. Consume, consume, consume. This is not good for our country, our mental health, or our kids, to define ourselves by a word that means to squander, use up, destroy, or devour (according to Merriam-Webster).

"From the time of colonial settlement, American labor has been recruited from abroad, from Great Britain, the European continent, Africa, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from Asia and Latin America as well," wrote Richard B. Morris in his introduction to The U.S. Department of Labor Bicentennial History of the American Worker. A century ago in Charlotte we transformed cotton fibers into yarn, towels, sheets, and gingham. North of here, in places like Hickory, Lenoir, and High Point, furniture production earned us the reputation of the furniture capital of the world. Not any more. We’re not American workers. We’re American consumers.

Lately, I’ve been intentionally making things with the kids in my life. It’s a lot of fun to see them discover their capabilities. A few months ago the daughter of a good friend came over to make slippers. We measured her foot, cut out a paper pattern, and pinned it to light-blue felt. We agreed that it was a mystery how these flat and oddly shaped pieces would become three-dimensional. She picked out a polka-dot ribbon to embellish them, and also made polka dots of white felt. We sewed these on by hand to the blue felt and then used a sewing machine to stitch everything together. Although only eight years old, she was capable of completing every step once shown what to do. Her competence was delightful. It was all worth it when she pulled on the slippers and walked about. She had that joy of making something with her own two hands.

Figuring out how to do something is powerful, and using one’s hands unlocks a mysterious link between mind and body. It empowers a person with a sense of industry and self-reliance. For our friend Bob, the skills he uses to make furniture are the same ones he employs as a consultant. He helps people figure things out. He looks at a problem, studies the options, and designs a solution that evolves one step at a time. As Americans, I hope we’ll use the recession to get back to making things. We’ve got a lot to figure out.

E-mail, or comment online. Laurie Prince’s essays appear regularly in this magazine.

Categories: Life Lines, Opinion, The Buzz