Home quarantines boost DIY renaissance

Americans are rediscovering DIY hobbies like sourdough breadmaking, home haircuts, or fixing household items – skills that were once a way of life during the Great Depression.

Bill Hughes/AP
A shirt waits to be ironed in the home of Bill Hughes in University Place, Washington, on April 1, 2020. Mr. Hughes, like many other Americans, has resorted to ironing his own clothes now that his dry cleaner is closed during the coronavirus quarantine.

Mending clothes. Cutting hair. Fixing a squeaky door or a dripping faucet. Baking bread.

A generation or two ago, household skills like these were common, learned at home and at school. Then it became easier to toss things out rather than fix them, quicker to call the professionals.

Now, in an unsettling era of staying at home and not knowing what will be available tomorrow, the old ways are being dusted off and relearned.

Since the coronavirus has shuttered many small businesses that do our work and supply our things, millions of people trying to stay home are driven by necessity – or boredom – to do more cooking, cleaning, fixing, grooming, and other practical skills themselves.

"It's during uncertain times like these when we take stock of all the basic life skills we've forgotten, or never learned in the first place, because they sure could come in handy right about now,'' says Erin Bried, a magazine editor in Brooklyn and author of "How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew."

In a dark and difficult time, it can be an emotional lift to find that you're more capable around the house than you thought.

"I accomplished something real today!" Maria Kernahan, a real estate agent and children's book author, said after installing a new thermostat herself in her Castle Park, Michigan, house. She followed online advice to figure out the wiring in the old house. Her husband, meanwhile, has begun chopping wood.

"We're making this up as we go along,'' she said.

Bill Hughes, a business consultant in University Place, Washington, had to wash some shirts and didn't want to put them away wrinkled.

"When I was a graduate student, I would iron my own shirts to save some money. It was tedious and I looked forward to the day when I could afford to drop off my shirts to be cleaned," says Mr. Hughes. "Since my dry cleaner is closed, I dusted off the iron and ironing board, turned on some Huey Lewis and the News, and went at it."

Janice Simonsen, who works in corporate communications in Philadelphia, helped sew masks for medical personnel, following instructions on a YouTube video. "I haven't pulled my sewing machine out for many years. I never really had the time,'' she says.

"Those junior high sewing classes kicked back in."

She plans to keep the machine out and try some projects, like pillow covers, that she's put off for years. "It felt good to create something useful again,'' says Ms. Simonsen.

Yes, you can still order takeout in most places and call the plumber or electrician. But more people are trying to do that only when absolutely needed. Hardware stores have seen high demand for home-repair and lawn tools. Social media feeds everywhere are full of posts from newbies planting vegetable gardens, giving themselves haircuts, and baking bread.

Especially sourdough. Lots of sourdough.

YouTube has seen a spike of more than 100% in average daily views of videos with "Cook with Me'' in the title since March 15 compared to the rest of the year, said spokeswoman Veronica Navarrete. "We're seeing this trend across several verticals,'' including cleaning, she said.

For her book, Ms. Bried interviewed women who had lived through the Great Depression and imparted lessons on how to make do and get by.

"I feel a new, closer connection to all of their stories now,'' she says. "It was a difficult time, and it left its mark on all of them. I think this pandemic, too, will leave its mark on us much in the same way. It's caused us all to halt our lives and reevaluate, maybe for the first time, what is truly important and what we're equipped to handle."

Jeanne Huntley, who taught high school home economics for 35 years in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, thinks society lost something important when schools phased out home economics and shop classes in favor of computer science, robotics, and STEM.

"A lot of younger people have been brought up in a consumer society – 'You don't fix things, you replace things,''' she says. "Parents are busy too, and there's not a lot of time to pass on those skills. But knowing you can make things and fix things gives us a sense of confidence in ourselves.''

This is not new for everyone. There's always been a counter-current of people yearning to get back to basics.

The DIY movement has blossomed in recent years, and long before the coronavirus "urban homesteaders'' experimented with backyard chickens, homemade dyes, wooden toys, and organic food. Concerns over climate change have kickstarted a strong movement toward buying fewer things and leaving a lighter footprint on the environment: "Reduce, reuse, recycle.''

Now, in a time of feared shortages and limited mobility, this emphasis on self-sufficiency is going wider.

Sharon Bowers, co-author with her husband, David, of a book about life skills called "The Useful Book", embraces the trend. But she cautions people to be smart – and check out books and YouTube videos before plunging in.

"I'm urging you to boldly go and try something new, but not something that you know is way outside your ability. ... You could probably wire a lamp, but don't mess around with the circuit board in your house," she says. "If you make a mess – assuming you don't break something you really need – you can always call the professionals when we're out the other side."

Even the Bowerses, fix-it pros who live outside Dublin, Ireland, with their two teenage sons, "have a plumbing problem that's complicated" to deal with. "And," she says, "we're just going to have to wait."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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