Saturday, 25 January 2014

Doing it by Hand: Learning Domesticity

There is, in my opinion, a lack of "doing things by hand" these days. We are a throw away society, especially in well to do, Western countries. Things must always be instantaneous. Here, in the middle of the North Sea, on an island that looks rather like it is stuck in 1935, I have learnt to take life slower, and to "make do and mend."

In the weeks leading up to my imminent move to my new room, in a new city, in a new country, I've had to get a lot of things organised and sorted. Sifting through clothes, old letters from friends, that poster I just had to have about four years ago...oh golly, do things pile up. And with moving to a new place you need things you were sure you had, but now can't seem to find.

I arrived at my grandmother's with all my bits and pieces, feeling rather like a vagabond. Worn clothes, holes in rucksacks, and very travel weary - I am sure those around me must have despaired. So, it was with immediate effect that all my things were pulled out and washed, examined with scrutiny, and I was stuffed to the gills to bring back the glow of healthiness. (Thank goodness for family!) It was during all this, however, that I realised I didn't know much about anything at all. How, for example, should I wash that old, but favourite, wool jumper? How on earth do I set about mending that well-used bag? What, in fact, is the best way to cut up chicken, or even to slice fruits and veg without a cutting board? And really now, how have I gone without learning to hang up laundry properly?

I was about to learn quickly. Did you know there is actually a way to properly hang laundry? (I certainly never knew!) Growing up in the States, hanging up laundry was something you saw only in films. Everyone had a dryer (or a drycleaner's). I honestly had no clue. In my nearly four years in England, my washing was always rather in a state of hopelessness - not to say it wasn't clean, but the drying process was rather hit and miss. This was partially due to the weather (thanks, rain), and in part due to a lack of a clothes horse. Chairs and radiators it was then. I came to my grandmother's and suddenly realised that hanging up washing properly could save you mountains of time. 

It's also bloody hard work. My shoulders ached after the first two loads. My grandmother, being a sailor's wife, has a wonderfully rigged laundry line both inside and outside, all with twine and sailing knots. (Of which I also had to learn). Hauling the line up with heavy, damp cloth is hard work! Never have I seen such white and pristine whites, nor such un-faded darks though - it was a washing revolution. Hanging it correctly can also mean you can get away without ironing (BIG plus for me, as I'm rubbish at it).

Then came the jumpers. How to wash wool and not ruin it? Like so: get a bucket of lukewarm water with a drop or two of colour washing liquid. Knead the jumper in the water like you would dough; let it sit for five minutes; squeeze out water and soap, dunk in fresh water, again kneading (this time kneading out the soap). Again squeeze out, rinse with fresh water, repeat. Then here comes the fun part: lay out jumper on a towel; roll it up then place on the floor and stamp on it (such fun!) - this gets out any excess water, leaving the jumper only damp. Then lay flat to dry (may take up to two days depending on thickness of jumper).

In preparation for my new room, we washed all sorts of linens and towels (I'm quickly discovering my new calling in life); we also washed out old pillows (similar process to above, actually.) What's lovely is that my linens now consist of things handed down from my great-grandmother, my great-aunt, my grandmother, and my mother. Everything is nearly twice as old as I am, and yet, it doesn't look it. It's been well cared for for over 50+ years. I've never had anything so old (nor perhaps anything so nice.) The quality of these linens is astounding - it is no wonder they are still looking great.

And this brings to me to my gripe - today, trying to find decent materials isn't easy. Things I bought four years ago in England are now disintegrating; favourite clothes I brought over from America are feeling shabby. Things aren't made to last anymore. In this week alone I've washed, scrubbed, threaded and dusted things that I would have once said no to. Amazing what a bit of soap and elbow grease can do! And vinegar! There should be whole books on the wonderful properties of vinegar!

To look around me and see these women who can sew, knit, mend anything you like; who can cut up a chicken before you can say Jack Robinson; who know the many ways buttermilk can be used; who know all there is about flowers; who understand the mysterious properties of making jam...the list goes on and on. It's like magic. I am stunned by it, in fact. This is not to say my dear mother didn't try her best. I just wasn't interested - there were trees to be climbed, books to be read, mud to jump in, and these domestic things all took patience that I never had.

But it is a eye opening thing when you realise in your late twenties that you really know nothing at all about the simple things in life. During my twenties I have learned more than I thought possible about "making a home" - how to make cakes and bread from scratch, how to rotate linens (and now wash them!), how to polish leather shoes, how to mend a cotton shirt.

There will be whole groups of people shouting that I shouldn't be worried about these things, but I am in fact. I know this isn't 1950 any more, but don't people realise how useful this knowledge is? How giving a child applesauce or mint tea can calm an upset tummy better than some modern pill? How being able to sew up that new shirt you've worn only once but is so badly made that it rips easily is handy? How, in fact, to "make do and mend" is something we should heed in this day of overwhelming waste? Would it be such a bad thing to have entire classes on cookery, needlework, gardening, and how to look after others in modern schools? (Granted, these may still exist in some places, but I can't name one person that I know of my generation that had such a class).

All I know is, I am extremely grateful to be heading off to my new city armed with old linens and the knowledge of how to hang laundry.