Do Fix What’s Broken – Minimalism, Gender, Sustainability and Money

My grandmother and my mother, along with most women of their generations and societal classes, were sent to housewife school (in Swedish, husmorsskola) before reaching adulthood. All the while, my grandfather and my father were, of course, forced into military training. The gender construct and hierarchy inherent in this is acutely obsolete – no need to romanticise –  but the skills passed on through these respective rites of passage should be elevated and celebrated by all aspiring minimalists – and environmentalists. Shouldn’t we all, regardless of gender, acquire basic survival skills concerning nature, society and the household? In one or two generations, with the rise of industrialism and capitalism, many of the skills that were once common – raising animals, milking a cow or a goat, sowing and plowing a field, digging a well, building a house, spinning yarn, weaving and sewing garments – are now rare in northern European welfare states.

Born and bred in the rural working class, my foremothers were taught how to shop, cook, clean and sew in the most efficient, sparse and economic way possible. The ideology of the housewife schools were to skimp on absolutely everything – washing up and reusing plastic bags, using baking sheet papers until they dissolved into thin air, mending socks and all other garments until they consisted mostly of yarn and patches, and – which has recently come back in style – cleaning with vinegar, baking soda and pine soap instead of expensive chemicals. They were also drilled in buying the best produce and highest quality textile, so as not to be swayed by greedy merchants – or, all the better, producing it themselves. The gender hierarchy, then, is not only oppressive, but also – like all societal hierarchies – productive. The gender structure produces knowledge that we should be careful to pass on as we shed the structure itself. If the middle class of today were to behave like 1940’s working class women, many environmental issues would have never arisen. Many of the industries producing disposable items, cheap clothing, semi-manufactures and other consumer goods would have never seen the light of day.

I myself was not sent to housewife school, but some of the knowledge of my foremothers was passed on to me. Now, I realise this is not the case for all, or even most, women of my age. I’m sure that being raised in poverty has a lot to do with the keeping of frugal household traditions; they are the cheapest way of doing things. One example is mending clothes, upcycling curtains, pillowcases and towels, making them last for many generations. Any proper housewife seeing my clumsy efforts at sewing would surely give me a high five, in the face, with a chair – but I try.

The other day, a pair of shorts burst a the seam. At first, I thought “Well, I’ve had them for eight years, so that’s fine!” I figured eight years was a decent life span of a pair of ten euro shorts from an outlet. Then, a couple of days later, I tore them climbing a fence. Then, I came to my minimalist senses: if these shorts, that I like a lot and wear all the time, have lasted for eight years, how long will they last if I just mend them?

This is all I needed to mend my shorts.

I didn’t much care that I had the wrong colour thread and that my stitching is no good; instead, I decided to adopt a wabi-sabi attitude, according to which the beauty of an item lies in its history of wear and tear. In traditional wabi-sabi, of course, you mend ceramics with gold, but I love the aesthetics and ideology behind it. If nothing else, it’s very forgiving: you don’t have to be an expert and results needn’t be perfect.

A wabi-sabi-esque stitch in the wrong colour thread.

I found this tiny project very satisfying. I get to keep my shorts, which means I don’t have to waste environmental and human resources – nor my own time and money – buying new ones. As I was sitting on the roof terrace sewing, I also had some other, related, realisations. We’ve been discussing whether or not to renovate our small townhouse in Gaucín, and, should we decide to, to what extent. There are certainly some improvements to be made; especially for two extreme minimalists prone to clean lines and open space. There are some details in the house meant to be quirky, which bother me, and there are some inefficient uses of space that could easily be remedied. But, then again, why? I reminded myself that we probably won’t be any happier here than we already are, in torn shorts, roaming the countryside, eating brilliant food, sleeping like babies, or just looking at the view.

The old shorts, as good as new: you can see the stitches at the middle and to the right.

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