Buying New or Making Do?

fabric and threadIt’s time to start a new project!

How will you approach it? Will you buy new or make do?

Will you shop for the love of shopping and stockpile fabrics, yarns, beads, foodstuffs on speculation? Will you choose a project, and then go looking in the stores for the perfect materials? Will you look at what you have on hand and plan a project from there?

And, if you choose the latter, will you feel you’ve settled for less?

As a maker, I’m faced with these kinds of decisions all the time and, honestly, my first instinct is to go to the fabric shop or the craft supplies website and shop.

I’m trying to consciously re-evaluate that impulse. When I wrote a post recently about why do we do the things we do, I got thinking about all this and about what motivates me to make. Two of the things I mentioned were that I liked to solve problems and I liked the idea of connecting with people who came before me.

What I didn’t say, but a commenter did and I realized it applies to me, too, is that making things is a way to step outside my reliance on “store bought” and to make do with what I have and what I can make.

Our consumer culture has taught us to buy, not just finished products, but also lots of pretty materials with which to make things. We buy fabrics and craft supplies the same way we buy electronics and clothes and home décor items. We choose new and plentiful over that which we already own.

Sometimes we don’t bother to choose at all; we buy it all.

But, you see, I’ve always been disdainful of this consumer culture. Or at least I talk that talk.

When you get me talking, I’ll say that one of the things I admire most about vintage handmade items is the evidence of “making do” that resides in the pieces. I love old quilts that are imperfect because the maker used scraps or obviously ran out of fabric and substituted another one instead of buying more.

I love reading an old recipe, with notes in the margins about substituting ingredients.

I love the idea of dividing and otherwise propagating new plants from the ones I already have, to fill in the bare patches is the gardens.

Making do leaves its own marks of loving hands—I look for those marks and they make me smile.

My love of these things reminds me that, when I myself am gathering materials for a project, I should look around at what I have to work with. I should more consciously walk the walk of making do.

This isn’t easy for me. I realize that, to some extent, I’ve unlearned the ability to make do, or perhaps I’ve never really learned it to begin with. And I also think that, in our minds, “making do” equates with “settling for less.”

I wanted to make do with my last weaving project. I wanted to make dishtowels and I wanted to use material I had on hand, from the stash of yarn we got when we bought the secondhand loom.

If I had bought new yarn, the packaging would’ve told me how many threads to use per inch, based on the weight of the fiber. But I used what I had, made a guess about how many threads, and ended up with pretty striped fabric that more closely resembles mosquito netting than dishtowel. I felt like I had settled for less.

Disappointed, I immediately decided I would buy new, “right” yarn, and re-do the project. But wait! Maybe I should use what I still have on hand and figure out how to make do and make better! To do so would give me the chance to a) solve problems, b) connect with people who came before me and who had to make do, and c) step out of the cycle of buying more.

Hey! Those are the things I claimed motivate me to do the things I do! Walk the walk, girlfriend, walk the walk.

I could learn a lot from my foremothers, whose choices were constrained by practical considerations. They often made their choices from what they had on hand and re-used scraps of old fabric or used ingredients available on the farm to decide what recipe to make. They used highly developed problem-solving skills to substitute and piece together and adapt materials and still create beauty.

They still had choices aplenty but different kinds of choice. They made do, out of both necessity and temperament.

But I’m no purist on this subject. In an age where we have so much available to us, the choice between making do and buying new doesn’t have to be absolute.

Sometimes, buying new makes total sense. If, as makers, we are motivated to make purely for expressive and creative reasons, then buying the exact right materials is probably necessary.

When I made the “Cot to Coffin” quilt recently for a War of 1812 bicentennial, the constraints were so specific that it made sense to buy new.

In so many cases, though, for those of us who look to build on a tradition and to get in touch with history and rely less on store bought, why not re-evaluate our impulse to go shopping?

So, for my next quilting project? How about if, instead of starting a new top with new materials, I finish one of the dozen vintage quilt tops I have in the cupboard? Or use up some of the myriad of leftovers pieces of fabric from the quilt I finished last year?

How about I weave with what we have on hand, and just think harder during the planning stage?

What if I “shopped” my pantry before deciding what to bake?

I’m saying all of this out loud not to judge or promise or set anything into stone. I’m only seeking to remind myself, imprint in my own thoughts, the value I see in making do so, when I’m tempted to buy a lot of stuff, I might think twice.

Because making do might mean settling for more.

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37 thoughts on “Buying New or Making Do?

  1. I don’t like having to make-do, but it’s nice to have the choice. Do you have far to go to the shops, or do you do lots of mail orders? One of the best ways to stop me from shopping would be to hide the car key.

    • I do most of my shopping online–I really don’t like to walk through stores and browse, especially for clothing! We don’t have any good yarn/weaving shops anywhere nearby and only one quilt shop that would tempt me at all. Now, flea markets and garage sales are another story–love to shop those!!

  2. I’m definitely a “make do” kind of girl. It’s a challenge for me to search the pantry and come up with something delicious for dinner. I hated buying a new washer dryer combo recently but it only made sense as the cost to repair the old was ridiculously expensive. When I shop for clothes, it’s Salvation Army or Goodwill. Hey, I even planted last years left over pole beans which are growing like crazy even now as I type!

    • I had you pegged as a “make do” type! The recipes you post are brilliant in the way you figure out how to use what you have! I wonder if the love of vintage/antique stuff goes hand in hand with choosing to make do . . . ?

      • I think you might be right about making do and the love of antique and vintage items. I know some people who are constantly shopping for new clothes, new furniture and household items , making many trips to the grocery store and throwing out stuff they already have in the fridge. They have no interest at all in anything vintage or antique…it has to be new, new, new!

        That makes me think of Steve Martin in “The Jerk”. He’s at a French restaursnt and orders a bottle of their finest wine. He is presented with a bottle and looks at the label and says something like “I don’

      • Sorry, my finger went a little spastic in my message below…so Steve Martin tells them he doesn’t want this old wine, he wants new wine…the newest wine they have!

  3. In truth, I find buying “all new” very stressful and not much fun, and certainly not something I can do in one shopping trip. And since I’m not a shopper, by nature, the idea of extra trips just makes it worse.

    Using what you have on hand leads to a different kind of creativity than buying all new. For me, it’s also more fun. My decision process has changed somewhat in the last year, because I’m making quilts for different purposes. But generally I either have an idea and shop stash first, filling in with new, or if I need a different kind of inspiration, I look at my stash and wonder what I can make with this? I think it is much like deciding my menu based on the ingredients I have on hand, rather than finding a recipe and then shopping for ingredients.

    BOTH ARE GOOD. But you seem to be rethinking your motivations. And if your motivation is toward the problem-solving process, and toward “making do,” at least some of your projects should reward that.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • I think we are a lot alike in this–I really hate to shop so that helps me tend toward using what I have on hand. But, if I DO go shopping I can’t seem to help buying stuff. Writing the post was really a way to help me sort through my thoughts on the subject!

  4. Yes, like Queen of Sienna, I’m definitely a ‘making do’ kind of person. As you must know by now, I don’t sew (though you’re beginning to make me think that PERHAPS I could: it was such a negative experience at school – I ought to get over myself.) My ‘making do’ is about the cake made from what’s in the cupboard, the supper from must-use leftovers, the skirt adapted from the treasure discovered in the charity shop (‘thrift shop’?) – see, I can sew when I have to. I’m a post- WWII baby, and imbibed the need to ‘make-do-and -mend’ with my mother’s milk. I definitely find it more fun that shopping-for-new, which I find stressful. And what are home-made Christmas cards for if not the opportunity to use up all those unconsidered trifles that pad out the house?

    • To sew or not to sew . . . For me, it was finding the right kind of sewing–I have a terrible time with a sewing machine, don’t like making clothes or doing repairs. But I DO like hand embroidery, hand piecing and hand quilting. Maybe you just need to find the right match for you! And, yes, I find shopping stressful, too–I’ve never related to the idea of “retail therapy.”

  5. I wonder if you are maybe going through the process backwards? During the war make and do was driven by a need. What I need is…..what can I use? Maybe by thinking what it is we want to make and then looking at what we can use is a bit wrong. The end product is never going to be quite as good as if you bought the materials. We have too much choice. Take pleasure in the process and your achievements and don’t compare.
    Sorry for going off on one. I admire you and you have got me thinking….

  6. I gurgled with delight, recognising myself in so much of this post! While I don’t relate so much to the phrase ‘making do’ – as you so rightly point out it smacks of going without, deprivation and not good enough – I do claim to recycle, up-cycle and makeover with minimal expenditure. [It’s the same thing, just another way of looking at it, isn’t it?]

    Yet I find myself browsing on-line or in-store for ‘things to add to the stash’ I impulse buy ‘bargains’ for the stash. I have a room that is alarmingly short on working space due to ‘the stash’. I admitted to myself a while back I had a problem. “Hello, my name is Pauline and I am a crafting stash addict” type of problem. I cold turkeyed………. and while I have the problem in hand, I am still tempted by colours and textures and shapes and ‘sales’. Sigh!

    The odd thing is I gain the most satisfaction from completing projects that reuse old stuff and minimal supplies. I loved the gift bags from newspaper that I made last Christmas for example. I used newspaper, paint and a few items from the stash and the recipients still keep them prominently displayed – how great is that! I made a book from a box and that went over well also – these are things I must remember when the magpie in me warbles ‘Ooooh, pretty, shiny things…..’ 🙂 Great post, you have made me more aware today, thank you!

    • You’re tempted by “colours and textures and shapes”–therein lies the problem. The very thing that makes us good at making pretty things, our affinity for the visual, gets us into buying trouble! For me, I think being more aware and deliberate about “making do” will help . . . at least for awhile!

  7. Making do is such a great thing to aim for, but I agree that it is hard! Even when I want to make things from second hand, and search the charity shops for the things I want this can be frustrating because it takes longer, and there’s no garuntee that I’ll find what I’m looking for. But working with what we have pushes us to be more creative and to think outside the box and I think you’re right, that does mean settling for more! xx

    • I agree that it can make us more creative and help us look for more interesting approaches! I’m sure I’ll never stop buying new but I hope I can use up some of the pretty materials i have around, too!

  8. Dear Kerry, first of all, I think you should do as you please ;0) You are a great artist, you make beautiful things and you take care of the world with your life style. Enjoying it is equally important. For me, personally, having a lot of stuff and unfinished projects weights me down. I feel blocked in creativity by unknit yarn, pieces of fabric, half finished drawings of even worse beautiful items in boxes and closets in a cramped house because there is no room for it anywhere and people cannot let go. I live quite disciplined with two rules: whatever I want to make, cook or furnish, I first scurry through the whole house to see what I can accomplish with “what I already have”. That often makes a trip to the shops unnecessary.
    And my second rule is : ” If something comes into the house…something else goes out.” And of course sometimes I cheat: buying a big vase and wineglasses and putting a little vintage costume jewelry in the out box ;0)

    • I could learn a lot from you, Johanna, and I admire your discipline very much! I have too many unfinished projects and yet-to-start-but-hoped-for projects. I end up feeling stressed about the very things that are supposed to be fun.

      • oh, kerry, really you might make too much of it. Focus indeed on the fun. I twas certainly not my intention to get you more stressed out!!! you are doing more than fine, just in your own way!

      • My stress could never come from you, Johanna! I’ll admit my world is a little haywire right now but it has nothing to do with my creative life (except for not having enough time to enjoy it!)

  9. Making do is most of the time more fullfilling. For meals I always look at what I have and what I can make from that, maybe I need something additional from the (super) market. I love how that makes me think more creative (and maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t have unlimited options to choose from). And for DIY projects I like to reuse things or supplies that are already in the house. I also shouldn’t go to craftstores too often, those places are dangerous 🙂

    • My downfall really is going to the stores or to crafty websites. I don’t want what I don’t know about! But, oh my, once I start looking, I can come up with a million excuses to buy!

  10. How about blending what you have on hand and buying new? I agree with using scraps but it’s always nice to give yourself a treat to shop and see what else is out there that might inspire you. Either way, I applaud your creativity. Maybe I’ll pick up stitch work again someday.

    • I really think blending both is the most sensible approach. For me, since the act of shopping is kind of stressful, I think I’ll keep tending toward trying to find something I can use at home, but I shouldn’t sacrifice quality because I’m making do! If you start stitching again, I hope you’ll keep your readers posted!

  11. I love to make things out of previously owned items, a friend is currently making a rag rug for her daughter using old discarded family garments. I adore the fact that this rug will be a reminder for all her family when they recall gatherings when they were wearing a particula garment tht can be spotted in the rug.

    • The rag rug sounds great! It makes me think of all those patchwork quilts that were assembled from last year’s Easter dress and grandma’s apron–so much more than just a rug or a bed covering.

  12. You have expressed what I have been thinking to myself these past couple of months. I enjoy buying new fabric when I get great deals but lately I’ve noticed that I’m beginning to accumulate more than I should before using up what I already have… Does that make sense? I recently told my daughter (she loves to quilt, too) that I was going to finish my unfinished projects and the fabrics I have in my sewing stash before buying any more. I think my husband will be glad to hear that our house is not going to be taken over by fabric after all. Thanks for your great post! I’m sure it has inspired all of us to think and be a little more intentional – whether we buy new or use what we have.

    • Thanks for such a nice comment–I can tell you’re in the same place I am on this subject! I’ll be interested to hear about the projects you complete with this resolve–I hope you’ll make the point to say that you’re using up what you had when you write about your work!

  13. My high school art teacher gave me some the best advice I have had over the years. He said “Work with what you’ve got.” It applies to so many things, but definitely has defined the direction I take with making things. Having limits forces one to be more creative!

    • Your high school teacher was very wise! And I do think you’re right about constraints fostering creativity. The stores seduce us with bright, shiny things and it’s easy to forget that the artists is within us, not in those things.

  14. I can agree with every word you wrote. I think about it the same way but couldn’t formulate it better. The main challenge for me this year is to use as many fabrics for sewing and quilting as I can without buying new and I am very good at it so far. Besides I recycle and DIY what I can. Thank you for this post, good to know there are other people who think similarly.

    • It’s so nice to hear from you on this subject and to know that you are doing well with your challenge to “make do”! As some commenters have said, making do encourages real creativity–I’m going to go check out your blog, to see what you’re working on!

  15. I want to use what I have rather than accumulate more things. But it doesn’t always work out that way because my sewing and stitching desires have changed and evolved over the years. So when I do buy, I like to have a purpose in mind and not overdo it.
    Since you’re starting a new craft I think it’s perfectly reasonable to buy some new materials and not just make do with what you have. It’s an intriguing concept that making do involves more creativity.

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