It all started with an awl.
I have a personal sewing project that will (once I finish it — which will be a while as it’s pretty complicated) be a functional piece of art, as well as tie into my new illustrated graphic-novel version of The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. For that I needed an awl.
But not just any awl. Most awls are straight and even, somewhat like a very large needle or a very sharp pencil, but I needed a tapered, tailor’s stiletto one. (This is what I was originally considering — it’s what I read as the recommended version). So I did a quick Google search to see what came up for this little tool, not thinking any further than that I wanted something, obviously, functional. Well, Google had everything from plain to really, really odd (like a plastic awl you attach to the end of your finger, which is apparently useful for everything from quilting to pressing seams open… and definitely not what I was looking for) to new and shiny, new and toolbox-y, new and fancy, and also a few… old ones.
Wait a minute, I thought. Hadn’t I had an idea a while ago to be more waste-conscious? For me, this has meant focusing on avoiding plastics, because it’s easy to identify (unlike a lot of other problems)… but it’s still really hard to avoid. Plastic is everywhere, even in clothes. Check the tag on the clothes you’re wearing now, or the clothes in your drawer. How many of them are a blend with synthetics in them, if they aren’t 100% synthetic?
I became aware of the superior Clothing Power of natural vs synthetic fibers while watching seamstress and historian Bernadette Banner on YouTube. She talked about how wool is basically waterproof, and how cotton and linen are breathable, and so, in the middle of summer, when it’s way too hot anyway, you sweat less. Clothes that help you stand the weather, imagine it!
But what makes me the saddest about synthetic fibers in clothes is actually the fish. When those clothes are washed, or even as they’re used, those teeny, tiny bits of plastic — because that’s what those fibers are — drift away from the clothes, float away into the dust, pile up and pack their bags and decide to take a trip to the ocean. A trip that, unfortunately, comes back around as those little pieces of plastic end up in fish that live in the water, and even in us — as we eat the fish.
Which, of course, reminds me of the amazing knowledge in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, translated from the German by Jane Billinghurst. Who knew that trees send messages to each other, to other plants, and to insects, or support each other so that each tree has enough food to survive? I certainly didn’t! But how did I even miss it? The English edition was published in 2016! Basically, forests are cities, trees are neurons, and the more you learn, the more you realize everything is connected.
Obviously, it’s time for a personal philosophy large enough to encompass it awl.
My sister was the one to bring it up, actually. She told me she’d been inspired by the awl I had bought from Etsy, (secondhand, vintage, and supposedly Victorian, with a beautiful bone handle and a brass tip — sturdy, but also art) which had solidified ideas she’d been considering for a while. That wouldn’t it be nice if…
• everything you owned made you happy, like Marie Kondo espouses? (I mean, who isn’t looking for more joy? And who isn’t trying to sell it to you, as though a certain product can give you… it awl?)
• everything you owned felt like you?
• everything you owned was used?
A set of thoughts that seemed to combine multiple arenas.
“You mean… an awl-encompassing philosophy?” I joked. We laughed, because it was an awl-ful pun, and the name stuck.
I read Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste by Bea Johnson in April of last year, and it, along with The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski has probably, looking back, been my two most influential books of 2019. While the zero waste book had a lot of practical tips and was a good “handbook” so to speak for making small changes I’d never even thought to consider, it felt very extreme, very much an ideology I wasn’t sure I was on board with. Johnson’s life worked for her, but to me it sounded stifling, punishing, and artistically barren. If we’re talking sustainability: that’s not sustainable. If I can’t live with something, how can I expect anyone else to? People just aren’t that uniformly self-sacrificing. We’re just not. We need something to feed our soul, along with our body.
In the beginning of my Zero-Waste inspired journal, dated Sunday, April 7, 2019, I had the working title for a similar idea to the awl-encompassing philosophy called “Waste Not” which just never had the same ring to it. It’s hard to say, for one. Plus, it has the word waste in the title, which is depressing.
The Lost Art of Dress, which is about the history of clothes in America before fast fashion, has a lot of resonances with zero waste. There are countless stories of women reusing, making-do, making clothing to last for years while still embracing the beautiful and comfortable, the artistic and expressive, the scientific and entrepreneurial. Climate breakdown is happening. It’s already making changes, weather we like it or not. We need to try to mitigate the disastrous consequences the best we can, but I can’t believe that the right way to do that is to give up everything. After all, we’re living right now, not in the future, and though we want to make a future that’s livable for our descendants, we also need a present that we can live with.
Before Zero Waste became trendy, off-the-grid people were already preparing for the possibility of impending apocalypse. As with any extreme group, it’s easy to look in from the outside and say, that’s a bit… weird. But of course, as with (almost) any group, there are always weird people and normal people and perfectly nice people; and on a blog from the early 2000s I found a refreshing sort of philosophy that’s hard to come by these days, in the environmental movement or anything else. Which was, we’re all trying. But we’re human, we’re never going to manage it all. Climate breakdown will continue to happen, and maybe we aren’t in the position to change the big corporations or the world, but we can change something. We can change the way we live in the world. It was forgiving while still being idealistic. It was uniting instead of dissenting, and it recognized that there are so many more variables in the world, in whole systems, than any guidebook could ever account for.
Here’s the thing: the mass market is easy. And useful. And places like Etsy couldn’t ship everywhere, and I’d never get my awl at all, if we lived in little towns and never traveled. And people still shop on Amazon… and try to make money from it, me not excluded. But do endless rows of dollar stores, each with the same handful of breakable, back-to-school items in it, actually make anybody happy? Do supermarkets full of shelves of food (so much more than we can even imagine eating) actually make us feel fulfilled? Eh, more or less. More when you’re there with friends, having fun. Less when you notice all the plastic. And the sugar and additives. And the food that sometimes lacks nutrients at all.
Why shouldn’t something you acquire be used, instead of new and shiny, especially if it still works perfectly well? Why shouldn’t it have a history and a past? Why shouldn’t even the simple, functional items you own be pieces of art, something that makes you happy? Bea Johnson says, and I agree, that at this point in the world there are so many things that adding to it by making more things, even if done sustainably, isn’t really the direction to aim for. But there are so many gorgeous and wonderful pieces of craftsmanship already in the world, and they’re not all ten billion dollars either. Perhaps, it’s worth it to become a collector of useful-beautiful things, especially the things that you will need and use anyway. Perhaps it’s even worth it to think not merely about functionality, even sustainability, but also about art.
An awl-encompassing philosophy.