Do you remember how I said I was building my daughter a dollhouse for Christmas? Back at the beginning of the month I carefully planned it out on graph paper, borrowed a friend’s power saw, cut the pieces and stacked them in the garage.

Then on my last Saturday afternoon off before My Man’s crazy test weeks, instead of diligently working on the dollhouse, I met a friend downtown to check out the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In between shows, we were wandering around the ridiculously charming art/punk part of town and got swallowed into the looming maw of an enormous junk shop. There were a few pieces of furniture for the 4yo’s dollhouse I wasn’t sure how I was going to make, so I asked at the front if they had any. Another wanderer overheard and practically accosted me, “Are you looking for a dollhouse? We still have my daughter’s up in the attic, it’s got a ton of furniture. I’d love to get rid of it.” He pressed his card at me.

I was still convinced I had enough time to make my own– hell, I’d already started! So I gave him an incredibly non-comittal answer and went about my day. A few days later, beginning to accept my oncoming fate of two weeks of 24/7 parenting, and listing in my mind all the things I would still need to do to make this dollhouse (let alone any other Christmas presents) I dug out the card. Maybe I’d just see how much he wanted for it.

The end of this story is evident, right? $75 dollars and a trip across town later, I had the 4yo’s present all taken care of and stashed in the back of the closet. No impending work, no need to borrow a jig saw, no tiny furniture to figure out. All done.

I was so sad I almost cried.

Perhaps you need some background for this story. You already know about my die-hard desire (unfulfilled) to make everything at home and by hand. You can probably guess at my dislike for the relatively low quality construction of the house I bought, and the two boxes of furniture and tiny accessories that came with it which will be strewn across the floor of our entire house by this time next week.

But what you are not likely to understand is that I adore dollhouses, and miniatures in general. I loved them far beyond girlhood, as evidenced by Dumpster Diver Barbie (yes, those are tiny bagels in that tiny plastic bag). In fact I have been waiting until my daughter was old enough, fantasizing about this moment when I would make her the perfect, sweet, old fashioned dollhouse. I’ve been cutting and sanding little chunks of 2×4 in my mind, and adding batting and squares of fabric to make tiny beds. No joke!

But in a heavy duty consumer world, where people buy more new crap all the time and consequently clean out their closets regularly to “pare down and simplify,” buying what you need second-hand is always easier, and usually cheaper than making it yourself.

Consider my dollhouse. I was going to use scavenged wood, beautiful 3/4 inch oak faced plywood that I found on the side of the road for free. That’s well and good, saved me at least $40, and I could borrow the tools I needed. But, I wanted to make this dollhouse a little bit fancy, since my girl is getting old enough to care now. I was going to buy scrapbook paper to “wallpaper” the walls and paint for the outside– an easy $10, probably more. And there were a few pieces of furniture I wanted to buy, mainly a toilet and bathtub– $20 right there. Then if I fell for the cast iron wood cookstove I ran across when I was looking online for the bathroom stuff, another $15. I could easily see myself spending $75 by the time it was said and done. And purchasing and consuming new materials, as far as that goes.

This lesson has been driven through my mind at least 94 times since I became an adult, and it’s still only half lodged. It’s why knitting never took for me. Spending $30 for yarn when I could buy a perfectly serviceable hat at the thrift store for $3? Why on earth would I do that? But apart from knitting, I am still hopelessly stuck in my youthful fantasies of almost anthropolgic handcrafting. Particularly once I started mothering, those fantasies blossomed with a whole new meaning. I would be that mother, the one who’s well mannered children are always wearing hand sewn clothing and playing with hand carved wooden toys.

Wow. Motherhood. If nothing else, parenting will lay bare your ardent (and often completely unrealistic) expectations for How the World Ought to Be. And then rip them to shreds.

Every project is different, don’t think I’m knocking DIY unilaterally. But of course it makes no sense whatsoever to spend 3 hours sewing my kid pants from $5 of purchased new material when I can buy good quality pants second-hand for $4. No sense at all to spend hours on handmade wooden toys that will just get shoved under the couch to make room for the plethora of brightly colored plastic toys that seem to breed on their own.

No sense at all. Unless I enjoy the making.

Because, all else being equal, it comes down to how we want to spend our time. When you are a mama, with the implicit drastic limitations on your time, it often distills quite clearly. Do I enjoy my DIY projects more than I enjoy say, an afternoon at the coffee shop to write? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are other important reasons that I believe we should keep doing this stuff. All kinds of handcrafting traditions are being lost, and anyone who can keep hold of one is a kind of living time capsule, an asset to humankind. And certainly all those handcrafted items offer a superior sensory experience. Even though a hat from the thrift store costs a tenth as much, it is vastly inferior to one hand knitted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But moralizing aside, it’s still a matter of doing what makes sense for the time and place we’re really in. Letting go of my wholesome handmade mama image has been painful, but I find more and more often it just makes more sense to B.U.Y.

19 thoughts on “DIY vs. BUY

  1. Wow. A similar thing happened to me this year. I was going to make a train table for my almost-3 yo. I had drawn out the plans, and figured it would cost about $60 in materials (I was still planning to buy the tracks/train). But then a quick, sneaky look on craigslist revealed a free one for the taking curbside a couple of blocks from my house. It’s nowhere near as good of quality as one I could have built by hand, but for FREE? The temptation was too great…

  2. For me, the problem is recognizing how close I’ve actually come to my ideals. I’ve bought a handful of articles of clothing for my child so far (granted, he’s only ten months old); the rest have been hand-me-downs or gifts. I haven’t bought jam in years. When Oz couldn’t fit into store-bought baby pants anymore (they don’t make ’em for his big, fluffy, prefold-covered bum), I worked out a pattern and made a bunch — they take me a half hour. I could buy American Apparel brand pants that would fit him for $15 a pop, but I recoil at buying $15 pants for MYSELF, much less a kid. The blocks he’s getting for Christmas are nearly finished; I just need to sew a bag for them and finish a couple that need the hand saw.

    But all I notice is the storebought wrapping paper I used this year and how full of plastic our trash can is. It’s so hard to take the time to stop and say, actually, I am doing a pretty good job compared to where I was a year ago.

    As for the knitting…when I spend $30 on yarn, I spend it at a local business selling locally-made products. 90% of what I knit is socks for me, and I love it. It’s my meditation. $30 for a gorgeous pair of wool socks that fits me perfectly, lasts years, and provided me with calm and relaxation in the making? Totally worth it. (Says the woman who won’t spend $15 on a pair of pants for herself…)

  3. Ah CJ, you sing to me. The ideal mother is killing me, and also raising me up. She criticises me and then she praises my efforts. She thinks she’s done an awesome job on the pants she made her daughter, then she notices that the gusset is not going to fit til the daughter is toilet trained. She buys books on sewing and permaculture, then sits on her fat arse reading blogs for free instead of actually Doing Things.
    BUT! I compare it to someone trying to quit a vice. You don’t often hear of people who tried just once to quit smoking or drinking. It’s always the fourth try, the fifty-eth try…so I try and remember that – especially tonight, while I make my kids stuffed toys for christmas, that have cost me $20 to blow up the patterns on from a borrowed library book, and even though the fabric was free or very close, I could have got knock-offs made in indonesia for, again, 10% of the cost, in 10% of the time.

  4. ahhh thank you!!! really.

    im going through what I hope to call later “my hard year” (i seem to remember you mentioning this?)
    i had a good long rant tonight about all the crap i had planned to do for xmas and how the stuff ive started hasnt worked out of lack of time or energy or “helping hands” burnt candied almonds for example. that was one of my great quick gift ideas… anyway months ago i told hubby we were going to make this beautiful wood kitchen for the 2.5 yr old and 8 month old… he is a carpenter this should be a cinch right? well you know a week into december i mentioned it again and he just looked at me with those exhausted eyes of a guy who builds all day and is often up all night with a 2 yr old. I shut up and that week we went down and bought an art easel and a small train set. new.
    damn it.
    but at this point its about the marriage and not the gorgeous play kitchen, right!
    maybe next year ;)
    I love the crafting though and dont think ill ever live up to my expectations. ive become a knitting monster- packing it around all over the place but i love it and at this point i need to have something for me that is relaxing. I get what you are saying though- if its something that speaks to you on a level other than “i should” if its more of a “I want to for me…” than hurray to keeping these skills alive!!

    thanks again for reading my thoughts and smoothing out the wrinkles!!!

  5. With you here totally. From having made everything from scratch 2 years ago, this year I have not made a single bit of festive cooking, nor have we made a gingerbread house, decoration or card. Not a jolly roger thing since the wreath on 1st Dec. NOTHING. And am I feeling guilty? YES. TOTALLY. I cut and laid out a fairy quilt for my 3 y-o last year. I still have not put a single stitch on it. And have no intention of it. Have totally abandoned handmade – not a single drop of energy or desire. And that’s odd for me. Crafty me. Xmas loving me. REALLY struggling with the Xmas spirit this year. REALLY struggling with handmade. Damn it, really struggling with being a mama at all, yesterday yelled at my tantrumming 3 y-o that I hated her, hated being a mother and didn’t want to be a mother any more. Full of the Xmas spirit and earth mama charm here ;)
    Phew – there’s honesty for you!

    1. oh sweetheart.
      i have been really flagging for the last few months myself in the mothering department. it feels like anything short of perfect angels i just don’t have the patience for. sometimes even when they’re being perfect angels, i’m still annoyed. my daughter and i were frosting christmas cookies recently and everything was going great. she’s old enough to be reasonable with that sort of project, it was relaxed and should have been fun. she was having a great time, but i found myself annoyed with the little happy noises she was making!
      as i was writing that just now she called me from the other room, “mama, i need you!” “what do you need?” i asked. “I just need mama-ness.” did she sense my bad attitude in the air?
      i think i am just really burnt out. i’ve never done any other kind of work for so long without a break. i too am questioning if i really want to be here (at home) doing this job (mothering) it’s so damn hard and just goes on and on!
      hopefully My Man’s month long break will give me the time away i need to come back to my babies with a better attitude.
      so long as we’re confessing sins, i once told my little boy ‘fuck you.’ it was an epic low. i am not proud of that moment.

  6. I relate to so much of this. Although I am not very good at the crafty homemade, I *want* to be, and part of the reason is to have and be able to pass on those heirloom skills that are disappearing right along with the heirloom vegetables.

    But. I currently crocheting a blanket for my nephew for Christmas, at fairly large expense, but then a saw a perfectly good hand crocheted blanket at a thrift store the other day for about $10! Now, mine will be nicer (a beautiful rainbow pattern design), plus it will be made with love especially for him, but in terms of function? No better. Very possibly worse, since it’s not machine washable wool, and plus I am a novice crocheter. Still, I am persisting :) Four days to go…

  7. Wow, your doll-house sounds like my sensory garden that I was going to build with secret boxes, home made musical instruments, pots and pans strung up onto frames, all beautifully landscaped and colourful and artistic and cool. And you know what? Instead we are visiting said garden of my dreams ….. at the local outdoor mall which has the most amazing gardens, designed by TV garden celebrities, and the closest thing to what I imagined! Cheesy but actually quite lovely. Sculptures, woodland, christmas lit night-time walk, a visit to santa. Hey ho. My dream did sort of come true but not how I imagined….. *sigh* so I completely get it, and you know what, it’s ok…….. we’re not the first to dream things for our kids that don’t quite come off…. generations before us have done it, and so will generations to come….

  8. Oh the stories I have going through the same thing! I figure time is the most precious. When I was a kid my fav memories with my folks weren’t the things they managed to make/buy me, but the times we had doing stuff.

    Hang in there, CJ. And thanks for sharing from the front lines.

  9. Hi there. Haven’t commented in an age but felt the urge to pop by tonight and see your latest thoughts. I agree with/empathise with you and all the others. However, I know this is going to sound barmy as batsh!t in the current economic climate we all find ourselves in, but it’s not all about the money. (Which I know isn’t your only point but one mentioned.) I have thought about this ever since I picked up my first crochet hook and wondered how much I would charge for something I have made if I factored in a decent hourly wage for myself. I realised pretty quickly that handmade gift giving had to be about something quite different than saving money. For me it’s about giving something completely and utterly unique that I took time, effort, thought and love to do. Something they couldn’t get from anybody else but me. For that to matter, I had to question the dominant paradigm that we are soaking in that says that the economic value of things is the only measure that matters. As we know with environmental causes, as soon as we only look at things through economic eyes, we immediately skew any other value that it might have. Handmade gifts have value far beyond their material value. If we value originality, thoughtfulness, care of and for others, craftpersonship, skill, creativity, imagination, time etc. etc. then we can see beyond whether it was cheaper to make than buy and see that there are other wonderful things to be had with handmade. That said, I too am a frazzled, tired Mum and know that there are limits to what I can offer. I just haven’t entirely given up on the ideals of handmade yet! (Not that I’ve finished anything this season…)

    1. do you buy your yarn new or do you unravel second hand sweaters to re-crochet? my point is not that handmade is something to give up on, but that it is a complex subject and that when it comes to the very real choice of spending time with your kids or making them handmade christmas presents, we might should at least pause and consider rather than continuing with this black and white, the holier-than-thou, how many of your christmas presents did you stay up until 5 am handcrafting ethic our alternative little world seems to have developed.

      1. Yes, I agree, and it’s a great point. You just made my little mind tick a bit and reminded me of thoughts that hover around in my consciousness everytime I set to to make something and wonder why I am.

      2. hey there emma,
        just wanted to say sorry if my reply was a bit harsher than i intended. it was 7:30 am, the coffee hadn’t sunk in yet. this internet is a dangerous business, the way we can just blurt things out and press send so darned fast!
        if you read the blog regularly, you know i agree with all your good points. i am in a continual process of trying to cut myself, and all my very high ideals, a little slack.

      3. When I need to spend quality time with my crafting, here’s what I tell myself: My kids see me making things. This teaches them they you can make stuff, and that it’s fun! I totally count my sewing hours double, because I am teaching them important things. Such as, NO! Don’t eat the pins!!!

        But yeah, I try to only take on projects when I win more than I lose by it, whether that’s money, getting just what I want, or whatever it might be.

  10. i like making things too (although i’m really not talented and my projects are often disappointing…) but, in addition to the time/$ consideration, it seems to me that a 2nd-hand dollhouse is going to be a lot easier to leave behind come May than something you poured your heart and soul into. just sayin’. i make quilts for s but he doesn’t really “stay” with toys. which is fine by me bc once he tires of them back to the thrift store they go. we donated 3 grocery bags last night.

    re: clothes, however, i’m hoping you revisit the kid re-purposing because my monkey is getting into size 5 and pants/jeans get awful scarce at the thrift store. plus, he seems to be supersensitive to polyester. i really need to make him some wool tights like you did for yours and maybe start sewing some pants out of 100% cotton. arggggggggggggg.

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