New Old Skills

New Old Skills

By: Peyton Frederickson

October 19th, 2021

When we have spare time, we often turn to video games, TV, or sleeping. But there are other relaxing things to do, such as sewing, cooking and even calligraphy, all skills that many people relied upon prior to the 21st century.

Traditional home economics courses, where we used to learn such skills as sewing, knitting and embroidery, are being offered less and less in K-12 schools because the skills are no longer seen as necessary. After all, why learn to do work that can be easily outsourced? A button fell off? Take it to the dry cleaners to fix. Don’t feel like cooking? Doordash. Need a sweater? H&M.

For some, though, the do-it-yourself spirit lives on, whether for hobby or function.

Perhaps the most prevalent way of keeping these skills alive comes from those who turn them into hobbies or a side business. Such pastimes are becoming increasingly popular with Generation Z. These hobbyists explore traditional skills to craft for themselves, their loved ones, or even to sell. Some have been learning since middle school while others began when the pandemic inspired them to do something other than (or while) binge-watch television.

Iliana Cosme-Brooks, a student at Michigan State University, Shelby Smith, an MSU alumna and Jacqueline Bell, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High School, all revitalized antiquated skills as a hobby in their free time. Iliana sews and crochets, Shelby does embroidery and Jacqueline knits.

Q: When did you get into your new skill?

Iliana: I didn’t do many of these sorts of crafts before the pandemic—most of my skills surrounded hat making and woodworking. But, after being stuck at home for a few months, I picked up embroidery since I had some experience with hand sewing. That turned into getting a sewing machine over the summer and learning how to crochet over winter break. And now it’s turned into a bit of an obsession of mine. 

Shelby: I embroidered for the first time in September 2020. 

Jacqueline: I started knitting back in sixth grade when my aunt gave me a knitting loom for Christmas.

Q: What motivated you to learn the skill?

Iliana: I’ve never had any real hobbies outside of reading; I have a bunch of extracurriculars under my belt, but reading was the only thing I did for myself. I always wanted to expand on my needlework and fabric crafting experience, especially after landing a gig as a costumer with the Roial Players, a student-run theater group on campus. So, when the pandemic hit, I saw it as the perfect time to learn these skills with the main goal being that I want to be able to make my own clothes and costumes.

Shelby: The day I brought home my cat, a friend commented I should pick up embroidery to round out the picture, and I thought it sounded like a fabulous idea. It helped that I was living alone many months into a pandemic, so the methodical nature of hand embroidery was a fabulous way to pass time and create finished pieces to smile at.

Jacqueline: I love crafts. It’s really all I do besides read. What got me motivated was when I made a hat for my sister’s birthday and she loved it. I wanted to keep learning so that I could learn how to do more.

Q: What was your learning process?

Iliana: For the most part, I learned everything online. With embroidery the learning curve wasn’t that bad—I just looked up YouTubed tutorials for different stitches—and it was a similar process for crocheting, though I didn’t have any previous experience with yarn crafts. Learning how to use a sewing machine was a whole other beast since I was reliant on the machine’s manual instead of online resources. I still reference it from time to time because there are an insane number of settings, and I don’t know if I will ever be able to remember them all. 

Shelby: I began with kits that came with fabric with a pattern on it printed on it, all the string you need and detailed instructions to get you through the project. I looked up how to do different stitches online and learned from YouTube videos and also purchased a few books on the craft. I found one from 1973 at a used bookstore that has hundreds of pages of stitches I never would have learned otherwise, and it has really illustrative pictures and useful explanations. That has been a great resource. Now I make my own designs on Photoshop and by hand and work with a much wider variety of mediums to put my stitches on. Once you become comfortable with the basics, the possibilities are as wide as your imagination.

Jacqueline: I learned mostly through watching YouTube. And by watching so many tutorials, I went from knitting on a loom to needles.

Q: Do you see yourself continuing to do it in the future?

Iliana: I do see myself continuing to make clothing, but probably not at the rate that I’m doing it right now. Once life returns to in-person things, I don’t foresee myself having a ton of time to put into making clothes, costumes and crafts. I will still have books to read and homework to do over the next few years, but after that, I don’t know where life will take me. I think there is a very good chance I will keep up with this, because why would I buy something if I can make it myself?

Shelby: With how much I love it, I don’t think I’ll ever drop the craft entirely, though I’m sure it’ll wane when life gets busy. It’s my new favorite way to make gifts for people, too, and that’ll always be fun. It has become my favorite way to wind down at the end of the day and I suspect that won’t change.

Jacqueline: For sure! Knitting is a very relaxing hobby and it actually helps with my anxiety a bit. Hopefully in five years I will be knitting sweaters for myself and my friends. 

Q: If you could make a profit off of the things you make, would you?

Iliana: I don’t know if I would. This is something that I like to do for myself (and to make gifts for other people, of course). I’m definitely not a business-savvy person, and I don’t think I could produce items fast enough to keep up with any level of demand. And besides, none of my pieces are ever “perfect.” I have been doing all of this for less than a year, so I see every project as a learning opportunity, rather than a way to make money. 

Shelby: I don’t have the time to keep up with an actual business from my embroidery pieces, and I don’t want to morph something fun into something exhausting, but it’s nice to earn a little money when I’m up to it. I’ve sold and commissioned a few pieces to friends.

Jacqueline: I definitely would. I have wanted to open an Etsy shop to sell my crafts for about three years now. From a young age, I’ve always loved making and selling things. Just the thought of someone buying and liking something I made makes me really happy. 

Q: Did you ever feel like stopping? What kept you going?

Iliana: Part of the reason I am so willing to invest my time and money into crafts like these is because they give me a chance to test my patience threshold, as well as my problem-solving skills. Because I learned all of these skills by myself, there is no one who I can ask for help when something isn’t working; I have to figure it out myself. And, as someone who isn’t generally patient, I can appreciate how practicing crafts like these help me visualize solutions and work-arounds instead of rage-quitting (which I have been guilty of in the past). When I do get frustrated over a project, I will usually let it sit for a few days before going back to it, giving myself time to mull over the issue before sitting down again to work on it. Because I never have deadlines for my projects, I can take as much time as I need to be able to make something that I will be happy with.  

Shelby: At first, a lot. In order to get good at it, though, I had to swallow my perfectionism and keep going when my stitches were less than perfect. It’s difficult but important to remember that the beauty is in the joy of creation more than the perfection of the product. Have I entirely abandoned certain projects that became more frustrating than fulfilling? Many times. Sometimes I’ll return after a few months away. I’ve only been doing this for about a year, but the process of dreaming up and executing a project is so fulfilling I keep going back for more. 

Jacqueline: Sometimes I do feel like stopping. Knitting takes a lot of time depending on what it is you’re making and it can get a bit frustrating. The looks on my friends and family’s faces whenever I show them what I just knit, keeps me going. 

Q: If someone wants to try to learn how to do your skill, what tips would you give?

Iliana: I would start by watching lots of videos. Before I started any of my crafts, I would just sit and watch videos of people making things—tutorials or otherwise. Being able to visualize something before buying supplies and sitting down with a tutorial gave me a good idea of what I was getting myself into. Watching skilled makers makes it clear that you are not going to learn a new skill in a day, but they also display the mechanics of the craft, which really helps when you get to the stage when you’re working without patterns or instructions. Also, crafting isn’t the cheapest, so I would recommend getting good at couponing and thrifting. 

Shelby: I always told myself I wasn’t an artist outside of writing and could never do something like this, but the reality is that I went from novice to pretty damn good in mere months. It requires precision and impeccable lighting, but I think embroidery is a really accessible medium that anyone could learn if they desire to. YouTube videos are really useful in showing you how to work your needle and kits with instructions are available all over the internet to help get started. 

Jacqueline: YouTube is going to be your new best friend. You can learn so many tips and tricks on the different kinds of stitches you can do and it will really help you get started. Trust the process, it takes a lot of practice to get the hang of knitting.  

These three young people picked up what were considered traditional domestic skills and turned them into modern hobbies, which aren’t limited to needlework and knitting; crafts such as jewelry making, traditional and westernized calligraphy, and metalworking are also gaining momentum.

While for some, hobbies are just for fun, many crafters make a profit off their wares. E-commerce websites and social media networks like Esty and Facebook Marketplace have become a hobbyist’s best friend if they wish to sell their items online.

Many online businesses sell handmade jewelry, ceramics and interesting art pieces. Consumers can also find people who do calligraphy to write invitations or posters for events like weddings and birthdays. There are countless hobbyists who love to make things with their niche skills and share them with their communities, and purchasing through small shops helps support artists and local communities.

Peyton Frederickson is a third-year student working towards a degree in public and professional writing with a focus in editing and publishing. She dreams of being a successful author but wants to first work professionally in a publishing company as an editor. One of her career goals is to translate and edit books from foreign countries, specifically Japan. In her free time, she is either reading, writing or working on her Japanese.