When I Used to Make Things

I remember when I used to make things.

It wasn’t that long ago, really, although it feels as though it’s been a million years. I grew up making things. My grandmother taught me how, and then I taught myself. When I was a child, I learned to crochet, embroider, knit. I learned how to make macramé and papier-mâché. Some things I learned in summer camp. Some things I learned in art class, in my elementary school. Some things I just figured out, like how to make my own paper dolls, and the dresses for them. Once I took an old shelf and turned it into an elaborate dollhouse — or at least it was elaborate in my mind, because it was filled with stories. I made clothespin dolls to live in it: a family, in which the father was a vampire, the mother a witch. The grandmother was a mummy, whom they called grandmummy. There were two girls, one angelic, one devilish, and a little boy named bat, as well as an assortment of servants. Their clothes were partly painted on, partly crocheted. I papered the walls with fancy paper, made furniture. I would have liked to live in that house myself . . .

At various times I have knitted scarves, hats, and sweaters. In law school, desperately unhappy, I made an entire 1820s dress by hand, sewing every cartridge pleat, from an old pattern. Once, for a present, I traced my daughter’s hands on a pillow and embroidered the outlines, then asked her to write her name (she had just learned to write it), and embroidered the letters just as she had written them. I have made countless Christmas ornaments and children’s toys. I have painted in watercolors and oils, refinished furniture, sewn decorative pillows . . . But all this feels very long ago, when I used to make things. Now I’m so busy that I no longer have time — it feels faster to buy the things I need. Faster, but it gives me less pleasure, and I don’t have the same affection for the things I buy as for the things I used to make. I still have all the things my grandmother made when she was alive, acres of lace and embroidery, a portfolio filled with sketches and paintings. I still have her hand-written recipes. Someday, I will try to translate them from Hungarian.

Somehow, I don’t think it’s just busyness, which is why I’m writing this blog post. I think many of us are getting out of the habit of making things. Not all of us — I have friends who post photos of the scarves they’ve knitted, the cakes they’ve baked (because that’s a kind of making too, and yes, I used to bake, once). And of course I have friends who are professional artists, who are always making things, with a kind of joy I envy even though I know those paintings and sculptures will be for sale, that their making is part of their livelihood. I think it was easier to make things before we were all online, all the time. When there was still silence, and even boredom. When, sometimes, there was nothing to do but make. Nowadays, we have to create a space for ourselves — not just a physical space, but a mental space. We have to create the silence.

Over Christmas, I made something. It was only a little thing: I found some laser-cut snowflakes, and I thought, these would make good ornaments for the tree. So I painted them (my daughter helped), first with an acrylic paint, and then with a glossy spray paint to give them a little shine. It was very little effort, and took almost no skill, but it gave me a particular sense of satisfaction to hang them on the tree.

Somehow, I need to find more time to make things, physical tangible things, whether I’m sketching or stitching or looping yard together. I live so much in the intangible — online, in words, even in teaching, which is about the passing on of ideas. If that’s a kind of making, it’s entirely mental. Sometimes I forget that I live in the world. But making things reminds me that I am embodied — a made thing myself, continually being remade by physical and psychological forces. I am stitched together, knit together, flesh and bone. It’s easy to forget . . .

So that’s my resolution for this year, or at least one of them: to make things. And to make time in my life for making. I wish you, not just a wonderful new year, but the space to make and be made, to become — whatever beautiful thing you want to be.

These were my snowflakes, painted:

And here was one hung on the tree:

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5 Responses to When I Used to Make Things

  1. mapelba says:

    I love to write and to make things. I mostly make things with paper. I don’t know if it was easier before the Internet though, mostly because back then I had no money and no space. It’s not like I have plenty of money now, but I have a bit for pretty paper, glue, and string. It helps to take a step back from writing to make something more tangible, more easy to show others.

    There seems to be a hunger generally these days for making things. There’s that American show, Making It, which is has been a hit, and there’s that British show The Repair Shop, which is not exactly about making things, but it is about repairing things, knowing a craft, having things that last. The digital world has its wonders (like my ability to connect here), but there’s something so satisfying about something handmade in the real world.

    Those are pretty snowflakes. I hope you find time for making more things.

  2. Nancy says:

    Your snowflakes are beautiful, Theodora, intrinsically so. I am not the prolific writer you are, but I find that I must create things with my hands in the interim, between my writing “spasms.” Like going on long walks in nature, it allows my writing ideas to incubate, while my hands create. Happy New Year to you!

  3. Beautiful and satisfying — even small projects!
    I brought my knitting to school to provide background when my sophomores read “House Taken Over.” After class a favorite student told me “my grandma wanted to teach me to knit, but I wasn’t interested. Now I am, but she’s gone.” I said, “I’ll be your grandma.” She came to my room at lunch, and within days was knitting up a storm. ❤

  4. Patrick Murphy says:

    I loved the grandmummy idea, and thinking of you translating, and making recipes from your grandmother. Happy New Year, and hopefully a very creative one.

  5. My wife makes quilts while I write books. It seems fewer people make things these days because their parents never learned (or lost the habit.) And then there’s that joke on Facebook about choosing between buying the item for $8 or spending a $50 on craft supplies to make it yourself. Buying it premade is less therapeutic!

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