For scrappy upcyclers and would-be renaissance women alike, Erin Bried's DIY book, How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew, serves as a savvy guide to financially savvy, self-sufficient, and sustainable living. But why would a girl stop at just learning just what her grandma knows when she can pick up her grandpa's hard-learned lessons too? Thus, How to Sew a Button got a sequel of sorts: How to Build a Fire and Other Handy Things your Grandfather Knew, a more boyish set of DIY tips for the well-rounded modern man -- or woman!
How to Build a Fire lends a fresh new perspective on both men and women learning to do "traditionally" male tasks -- and even on what those "traditionally" male tasks really are! Erin agreed to answer a few questions about her latest book -- which she says is as much for women as for men.
How to Build a Fire certainly has some very male oriented tasks -- such as waxing mustaches -- but also includes what have been traditionally considered "female" tasks -- such as ironing or sewing. Did the grandpas you interviewed for the book really know how to do all of these tasks? Was there more gender crossover on these types of tasks than we imagine there was back then?
Of over 100 how-tos in How to Build a Fire, and only two pertain to men-only: how to wax a mustache and grow a beard. Every other skill, like changing a flat tire or making homemade ice cream, is gender neutral.
Of course, during our grandparents’ time, there was indeed a greater gender divide. Men typically worked outside of the home, while women worked within the home, and their skill sets do, in part, reflect that. But Lucile Frisbee, 80, taught me one of the most surprising lessons: She said that during the Depression, there was just so much work to be done that, when push came to shove, there was “no men’s work” or “women’s work.”
“There was just work,” she said, “and whoever was around was expected to chip in.” If there was laundry to be done or firewood to be chopped, then whoever was free, regardless of gender, took care of it. Everyone had to know how to do these things because their lives (or at least, the quality of their lives) depended on it.
Yes, the men surely did know how to do many of these so-called softer skills, like sewing and ironing. Many were taught these skills in the military and others, like Al Sulka, 88, learned even sooner. Sulka joined the Civilian Conservation Corp when he was 17-years-old. He told me, “When I was in the CCCs, I had a side job. I used to iron shirts for 15 cents and pants for 10 cents. I’d have to put three pleats in the back and one on each pocket. We had no electricity, so you had to heat the irons on a stove. Later, I used to iron my daughter’s pleated skirts for school. One day, the nun says to her, ‘Boy, your mother does a good job!’ She says, ‘My dad does it!’ I was so proud.”
I sensed from my interviews with the grandparents that the gender divide—and subsequent devaluing of so-called “women’s work”—came a little later. And unfortunately, I think it still persists. Women and men have rebelled against the idea of learning how to sew, cook and clean, because we find these skills to be oppressive or worthless. I definitely consider myself a feminist, but I’ve found that sustaining ignorance as a means of rebellion is only disempowering. I’ve learned that mastering as many skills as possible, from hanging drywall (I’ve done it) to baking pies (done that, too), only makes my life easier. Sweeter, too.
Most of your how-to are indeed technically gender neutral, but most tasks also seem clearly addressed to a male reader. How to dress for a date, for example, assumes a menswear closet free of heels or dresses. Which made me wonder -- have you gotten a lot of responses from female readers who would describe themselves as proudly boyish or butch, who may not have been able to find this type of practical advice from, say, the average women-oriented book or magazine?
Because the advice from grandfathers, a male point-of-view likely came through. For example, I don't how much Buck Buchanan, a former cotton farmer, could've told me about finding a good hair salon or choosing the right heels for a date. In order to not make the book clunky or the reading of it burdensome, I had to choose a point of view for some tips. Otherwise, every sentence would include "his or her," and that'd just get tedious. I, of course, hope everyone reads both of my books, but if one appeals more to one person than another, so be it.
As far as your last question goes, I've heard from a lot of women who have enjoyed Fire mostly because it reminded them of their own grandfather. And I've heard from one butch who loved the tie-tying advice, which makes me very happy. What else can I say? I love sharply-dressed people in shiny shoes and bowties, no matter their gender.
Going back to the idea of traditionally male and female tasks: Beyond task-oriented skill sets like sewing or ironing, I was struck by the number of more emotional skills included in this book -- such as "How to comfort a loved one," "How to apologize," and "How to leave work at work." From your interviews with the grandfathers for this book, do you get the sense that these emotional and relational skills were generally valued and practiced by men back then?
The grandfathers I interviewed were much more soulful, reflective and open than I had imagined them to be, and perhaps that's a product of their age. When you live to be 82-years-old or longer, you have a lot of time to reflect on what you've done right and what you've done wrong in your life, and you're more willing to admit your mistakes. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that if you asked a 30-year-old and a 90-year-old for the secret to a happy marriage, for example, you'd get much different answers. I think that perspective is reflected in the book and that's what you're picking up on.
Your first book, How to Sew a Button, seemed very girly in a lot of ways -- pink cover and all -- and marketed towards women who wanted to get more self-sufficient. I noticed, though, that How to Build a Fire is not blue -- but a more gender-neutral green! Who did you see as your audience when you wrote this book?
Though I’ve heard a lot of people label How to Sew a Button “the girl book” and How to Build a Fire “the boy book,” that was never my intention. I wrote both books for the same audience: someone, like me, who wants to learn to be more self-sufficient. I’d argue that everyone, male or female, should know how to cook dinner, sew a button and be a good friend, a good neighbor and a strong leader.
I’ve also noticed that people (of all ages) have picked up the books for many different reasons. Some simply want to master the tasks inside (or get a refresher). Others just want to reminisce. At a recent signing, I met a thirty-something man, who approached me, crying. He told me that his father recently passed away, and How to Build a Fire reminded him of the lessons his dad taught him. He said that he planned to read the book to his own six-year-old son, using it as a way to keep the memory of his father alive.
Another reader recently wrote to me, “The book had a special meaning to me because my own grandfather recently passed away and nearly every part of this work reminded me of him. He grew up in situations much like those described in your book. He and his brother climbed trains for coal, boxed for money in a traveling circus and he even lied about his age to join the Navy.” He went on to tell me how his grandfather met and fell in love with his grandmother and how he hopes to emulate him.
I’m very proud that I wrote something that helps people connect with and remember their own history. Two of the grandfathers I interviewed for the book, Bill Holloman and Angel Rodriguez, have passed away in the past year. It’s a stark reminder that if we don’t hear these stories now, they will indeed be lost forever.
Both How to Sew a Button and How to Build a Fire are available in bookstores now. A senior staff writer at SELF magazine, Erin Bried also updates her How to Sea a Button blog with new DIY tips and video tutorials.
BlogHer Contributing Editor Siel also blogs at greenLAgirl.com.
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