Fabric, paint and Youtube

It seemed almost traitorous—a tech worker desiring an unplugged, hands-on life. In a delayed disillusionment with my adult life, I had come to see my technology-driven world as a detached place, where inhabitants did not socialize but “networked”. In fact, truly investing and interacting with the physical elements of our environment were luxuries afforded during rare off hours. The industry celebrated the digital as center, but I wanted to feel more present, both in a temporal and spatial capacity, and create tangible objects that I had a connection with.

I decided to take some time off from work to recognize and explore my desires. This is a story of the first experiences of a person of theory attempting to become a person of experience.


The sewing machine

My first project was simple enough: decorate pillows for my severe, slate grey IKEA couch. The underlying objective was to learn how to use a sewing machine, which I had bought four years earlier while under the influence of a one-hour workshop. Since the time it was shipped, I had not touched the machine once and it had remained idle in its box until now.

Setting up the machine was surprisingly easy—I was thankful I had not lost the manual during any of my several moves over the last four years. The outdated, refurbished Janome I had purchased from Overstock.com was the perfect starter machine for an eager beginner like myself.

The first kind of pillow cover I made was an envelope cover. A giant square with a short overlap of fabric was not as easy as I had imagined. The fabric snagged, the thread I used to stitch it together was a terribly conspicuous choice, and the final product was too big for the pillow form I had procured for it.

But, I was not to be defeated.

To ease my anxiety over the ugly taxi bright yellow stitches along the forest green upholstery fabric I had chosen, I painstakingly read a plethora of tutorials on Pinterest to learn a new skill I had never intended to learn: embroidery.

I went back to the fabric store and bought a larger, fatter pillow form at an extra $10 expense to myself and my credit card.

When I had flipped the poor sagging envelope around and stuffed it properly, I was elated to find it looked very presentable. Some might say even sellable by Etsy standards.

My newfound confidence triggered a chaos of activity and I became a one-woman sweatshop of pillow covers. There were some with zippers, some with buttonholes—and I learned it all alongside blogs, Youtube, and the machine’s own user manual.

But, I bored quickly. I desired bigger DIY fish to fry.

Hubris and the console table

Most of my friends considered my renewed sewing interest an appropriate hobby and skill for my gender. I resented this attitude, and decided that what must come next must have some existing stereotype of masculinity.

Furniture making, with words like “sandpaper”, “nails” and “varnish” evoked ideas of a more neutral perhaps even manly endeavor.

I had long needed a mini console table for my room. It was one of those minor furniture pieces that I told myself I would get at some point, but having never found the right kind or the right price, had left the idea of a console table on the wayside.

But, in fact, I desperately needed it. Over the years I had collected a number of jewelry pieces that, with no table to rest upon, laid on the floor like trinkets at a street art fair. There, they had begun to tarnish, though I could never figure out why. Whatever the reason, it was clear that I needed to grow up and take better care of my things.

My budget was $40 for the table project. It was how much I would have ever wanted to spend at retail, so I figured that was a much as I was going to get for project itself.

At first, I was going to build the table—a bit of polished drift wood atop hairpin legs spray-painted eggshell white. That was, until I saw the price for a single hairpin leg online—a whopping $25 a leg. With four legs and maybe a lucky find at Ocean Beach, my dream table would be $100 without tax (or any additional tools save for my bloody hands and a rock).

On a friend’s suggestion I visited Urban Ore in Emeryville, hopefully to find a full set of slightly rusty but usable hairpin legs for nothing more than a few dollars.

I had no such luck. But, instead, I found a shabby little table that may have been a small desk or a nightstand for $15. My project turned from building to refurbishing—it still seemed like a great DIY opportunity in the making.

Next I made a stop at the local Loews. I had some antique white paint at home that the landlord stored for wall retouching that I would use to patch up the table, but I needed a sealant, wood filler, sandpaper, face mask, a puddy knife and a brush. In addition, I wanted to add some flair to the table—a bit of gold to decorate the top.

I was aghast at the prices of what I considered to be just a “few small things”. After the $13 high quality brush which I insisted on having to slap a fine even paint coat on, the $5 each for face mask, sandpaper, and wood filler, and $10 for the sealant and puddy knife, my Loews supplies topped out at almost $48 without San Francisco’s incredibly high sales tax.

I hadn’t even bothered with the gold paint, the cheapest supply, at only $3.

Licking my financial wounds, I decided that it would be all right—I had needed a small stool stand as well, so really all of these supplies would last for two projects, and not just one, potentially evening my costs out at roughly $40 per object.

And, obviously, I would be a success the first time around.

Everything was going great; I had filled in the table’s nicks, sanded the entire baby down, and slapped on a primer and a first coat of a beautiful off white paint.

Then I laid down the paint tape, got “artistic”, and brushed on my gold paint.

One hour later, the moment of truth revealed itself: my gold graphic was a disaster. The paint had bled under the tape, and in general the design was a mess.

My greatest fear, that my DIY would look like an amateur wreck, had come true. Over budget and with ugly on my hands, I sat in my garage covered in paint, demoralized and chilled to the bone.

But, I took one more look at my ugly console table and thought, “Well, at least I learned something. And I am 75% there to expert. Next time, it will be 100%.”

When embracing DIY, one must accept inevitable disappointments that comparatively look underwhelming to our Pinterest and Youtube dreams. Knowing how something comes into being is a large part of the lesson and the stepping stone to development of any handy skill.

Do not be deterred—and maybe post some of that stuff on Craigslist. How does the saying go? One man’s garbage could be another man’s treasure? So it may be in a world trying to remember what hand made means.

Upcoming projects

As I said, do not be deterred. Myself, I have to do at least one other furniture project to make the cost of my supplies worthwhile. I’m thinking a stool for a sitting place on my porch, or for inside as another surface where I can throw my clothes on.

There’s also my ambitious goal to grow a tiny smattering of edible plants on said porch. I know the odds are stacked against me: I live in an urban environment unfriendly to most vegetation, and I have never been able to successfully support an indoor house plant for more than six months. This is just two points of a long, wince-worthy list of points that all lead to sad pots of dead things in a few weeks.

Still. I’d like to try. And try again, and at least know how it all comes together, and even how it can all come apart.