Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World

Made by Hand, Searching for meaning in a throwaway world, by Mark Freuenfelder

Made by Hand, Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, by Mark Frauenfelder; Published by Portfolio, New York, 2010 RRP AU$29.99 (paperback). Currently available on Fishpond $14.55 or Amazon $10.38 (hardback ) or $14.98 (paperback).

There are at least three driving forces behind the cultural movement towards DIY activities.

One is frugality. In a time when there is so much financial instability on a global level, being able to make things by hand can bring a comforting sense of self-sufficiency, and can often be a real money saver. If you eat a lot of yoghurt, making your own can certainly save you money. On a much larger scale, if you can do your own plumbing, carpentry or sewing you can likely save quite a bit more.

Another is the desire to live more ethically and sustainably:  making your own clothes instead of wearing clothes made in sweatshops, cooking from scratch instead of buying food filled with preservatives and other chemicals, building your own hen house out of scrap materials rather than using up new resources dug out of the ground or cut down from a forest and then shipped to you at more cost to the environment. All these can make a claim of greater sustainability.

A third driving force is a certain disenchantment with aspects of modern life. It is a desire to slow down, smell the roses and feel the texture of the wood. To develop a stronger connection to the world around you, and a better understanding of the items you use everyday. It is largely this desire to experience life more fully, or at least, in a different way, that motivated Mark Frauenfelder to become a do-it-yourselfer.

Mark Frauenfelder is perhaps best known for his incredibly successful blog,, but he has other claims to fame. He is editor-in-chief of Make magazine,  father to two girls, husband to writer Carla Sinclair, and author of several books, among them Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. And once you start reading Made by Hand, it is no surprise to discover that Frauenfelder was a writer before he was a DIYer, because he is a master storyteller.

Finding the Time

Made by Hand is not an instruction book, and in many ways it’s not the story of an ordinary person. In the concluding chapter Frauenfelder comments that the most persistent obstacle he’s faced has been finding time. “I have to squeeze my DIY projects in between my work hours”, he says, “And the time spent dealing with other non-DIY-related domestic chores, like house-cleaning, driving the kids to school and paying bills.”

This will surely ring true for many of us who wish we could learn to do our own house repairs, make our own clothes or indeed make a three-string guitar. But as editor of Make, Frauenfelder certainly has access to resources that most of us don’t, and in fact working closely with the “highly skilled individuals who would create DIY projects” for Make does seem to have been a significant inspiration.

Also, as a successful writer, Frauenfelder has a degree of flexibility in his day and week that most of us don’t have, and this comes through time and again when he is telling the stories of his projects. However, as a successful writer he no doubt works very hard, and he is the father of two daughters, both still in grade school when the book was being written. So I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves that everything was so much easier for Frauenfelder.

The fact is, becoming skilled at anything does take time. And that’s part of the point: slowing down and taking time over tasks.

To fit something into our day that we don’t already do, we have to find something else we can stop. Whether it’s that half hour of sleeping in, the five minutes here and ten minutes there checking social media sites, or the hour of television in the evening, something has to go. That truth was no different for Frauenfelder, who says his DIY activities cut into his usual leisure activities including watching TV, painting, drawing and reading books. But it was all worth it.

The Courage to Screw Things Up

“People are afraid that they’re going to screw something up, that they’re going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it’s valid – they will. You will screw stuff up. Things will be broken. But that’s the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you.” (Mister Jalopy, quoted in Made by Hand, p. 23)

Made by Hand tells the stories of numerous DIY projects Frauenfelder has taken on, from building his own chicken shed to making a cigar box guitar, from growing his own food to tweaking the temperature controller on his espresso maker. He tells the entire story of each project, from who he visited or consulted with to help him get started, to all the mistakes he made along the way, how he managed to achieve the final product, and how well it is working.

But perhaps the most inspiring section is the one about making mistakes. “Because we’ve been trained to believe that mistakes must be avoided, many of us don’t want to attempt to make or fix things, or we quit soon after we start, because our initial attempts end in failure,” Frauenfelder writes. His did, he says. But, says Mister Jalopy of blog, “It’s that necessary step you have to take—the courage to screw things up—so you’re able to fix things, or make stuff from scratch, or refurbish stuff to live according to your standards.”

It was Mister Jalopy and his pinpoint accuracy about our fear that really inspired Frauenfelder to become a ‘maker’ himself, instead of just writing about them. And I must say, I find that idea rather inspiring myself.

We need to make mistakes in order to learn, so what’s there to be afraid of?

Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself ; Mark Frauenfelder, editor of Boing Boing and editor in chief of MakePreparing for a Different Future

In his chapter on growing food, Frauenfelder reports on his visit to the home of Julian Darley and Celine Rich, founders of the Post Carbon Institute. Staying with the theme of screwing things up, Darley and Rich talk about challenges.

“We find that at some stage of the process you get stuck,” Darley explains, “You get short of knowledge, short of time, you don’t know what to do with it, you’re missing the tools, blah blah blah. When you do a garden this complex, there are a lot of things to go wrong.”

But it’s more than worth persisting, because in their view, learning to ‘do it yourself’ is going to be essential in a world where energy is no longer a cheap commodity.

“When the pumps go dry, the people who survive will be the ones who are part of local comunituies that have figured out how to generate their own electricity and share it with their neighbours,” Frauenfelder writes, explaining their view. ”  ‘Our motto,’ said Julian, ‘is reduce consumption and produce locally.’ ”

Made by Hand is an entertaining read in its own right, but better than that, it’s an inspiring read.

Mistakes are among the best teachers. Peak oil is on the way, and even if it wasn’t climate change will dictate changes to the way we use energy in the coming years. And learning to do more for ourselves and depend less on things that are shipped in, energy intensive and unsustainable is just good sense.

What new skills are you working on? Do you feel confident or do mistakes still discourage you?

  5 comments for “Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World

  1. sarah
    August 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    this self sufficiency model is just like growing up in a rural community and how my grandparents lived ..through necessity, because they had and have the skills, because it saves time and money and brings enormous autonomy. it is part of a mindset that comes with an independent unregulated and sometimes scantily supported by government lifestyle.. rural oldfashioned and quite socialist in intent despite the freethinking practical conservatism. when the market fails and the internet and we need to feed house and clothe ourselves, better that practical awareness than a degree in economics or an ability to write ministerial briefs :). may our children know how to grow and cook food, build things, fix things and resist consumerism

    • August 3, 2012 at 8:10 am

      You’re right Sarah, and I think that comment about ministerial briefs really highlights how – to a large extent, though not always – the skills we need to ‘survive’ in the workplace, or to have the career we may want, are so divorced from the skills we need to survive in the world more independently.

  2. August 9, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Damn, I just bought a bunch of books for my birthday and then I find this! Sounds great.

    I think one thing that keeps me going is that tinkering and building stuff from salvaged materials is a hobby. It’s entertainment in itself. And it’s cheap entertainment.

    The key to finding time to do stuff like this is to turn of the TV (and increasingly, delete your social media accounts!).

    • Kirsten McCulloch
      August 12, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Yeah, unfortunately for me, turning off the TV doesn’t save me a lot of time. But, turning off the computer? Now that would be a different story, LOL.

  3. August 14, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Kirsten, great post. I find it very satisfying to make things from hand and I am so happy that Mr Fresh is handy and can make almost anything. In the kitchen this year I have been making more and more food from scratch. I have mastered yogurt, am working on sour dour, do pizza and breads, pasta etc. Next I would like to learn to make my own cheese. I am trying to work on the items that we would use most often.

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