Every generation thinks they have found a better way of doing things than the people who came before them. It’s one of the reasons teenagers ridicule their parents and why the contribution of older people is so often undervalued.
But we turn our backs on traditional skills and knowledge at our peril. “Progress” rarely runs in straight lines and right now there may be more U-turns ahead than we bargained for.
The gradual dawning of the need for more sustainable living has cast “old ways” in a more favourable, and indeed fashionable, light. The soaring cost of living is a new pressing reason to count the cost of convenience.
There are signs of a new appreciation of how our parents, or at least grandparents and great-grandparents, could turn their hands to creating and repairing, before life became an ever-quickening cycle of buy, throw away and repeat. The trouble is that once these abilities skip a generation or more, it’s much harder to revive them.
Granted, it seems there’s a “how to” YouTube video for almost any conceivable human endeavour, but that’s a poor substitute for real life, parent-to-child transfer of expertise. What life skills are being lost to technology and time pressures?
Here are just a few:
Self-sufficiency may be out of the question but how many families have lost the ability – or at least the inclination – to cultivate even the occasional contribution to the dinner table?
When Michael Kelly founded the Grow It Yourself (GIY) educational initiative in 2008, he reckons the positive response then was a “recession thing”. In that downturn, people who found themselves with more time and less money were attracted to the idea of growing food – if only they could learn how to do it.
Horticultural know-how in Ireland nose-dived in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when there was a sense that food growing was for poor people, he suggests, and the affluent middle class wanted to avail of supermarket culture. By the time there was renewed interest among the affluent in cultivating fruit and veg, along with buying quality produce at urban farmers’ markets, a knowledge gap was evident.
More recently, Kelly believes concerns about climate change have motivated engagement with the GIY message. “People feeling we need to do more and food is a great opportunity in our daily lives – we can make more sustainable choices three times a day or by growing our own food.”
A current surge in interest “is more akin to the recession in 2008”, he says. “Again it is a food security concern. A general sense that when the pillars of society are wobbling a bit, I think people tend to latch on to things that make them feel more in control – growing and cooking help us feel that way.”
Take the recent shortage of peppers, tomatoes and lettuce and salad leaves, attributed to a “perfect storm” of issues: principally rain in Spain combined with rising fuels costs. “I think that is just the tip of the iceberg for disruption that climate change and an increasingly chaotic world is going to visit upon us,” says Kelly. One solution, that can tick the three boxes of supply, sustainability and saving money, is to grow your own, and he is always amazed at how daunted people are by that idea.
“They seem to be afraid of looking foolish or silly if they get it wrong because we are all about succeeding in life. There are some basic skills you need for sure – but you can be taught those and that is where we see ourselves as an organisation, helping people to do it successfully. The good news is that you will be able to produce food even in your first years when you’re trying to figure it out.”
At Grow HQ in Waterford, there is a model back garden where the RTÉ series Grow, Cook, Eat was shot. This is a 10m sq space, not much bigger than your average car park space, and in it they grew 50kg of vegetables over 10 months.
“To put that in context, a family of four eats about 250kg veg a year,” he says. “So it’s a quarter of your veg need from a very small suburban back garden. If you can set yourself up with a little bit of space and knowledge, you will probably be surprised at the output.”
No matter what your family attempts in a small garden, allotment or even with a few containers, you’ll be learning what GIY Ireland calls “food empathy”.
“It really unlocks a deeper system thinking when you start to grow your own,” says Kelly, explaining that GIY research has shown people who grow their own food eat more plants, waste less food, tend to support local producers and buy more organic food. “Increasingly, I have realised over the years that the real impact happens maybe outside the veg patch.”
His own two children were into growing vegetables when they were younger but, at ages 13 and 15, they’re “not too pushed now”. However, they have learnt a lot, not least how home-grown food tastes better because it is fresher and comes out of living soil.
“I have probably bred food snobs inadvertently; they are very knowledgeable about food, where it comes from and the effort that goes into it,” he adds. “I think that will stay with them, whether or not they go back to growing at some point, but I think they probably will.”
Keeping knitting and crocheting going through families is one aim of a community arts project, which was conceived in Kilkenny in lockdown. Now in its third year, Knitted Together is focusing on in-person intergenerational learning for 2022, with the pandemic having kept grandparents and grandchildren apart for so long.
For the past two years volunteers have knitted and crocheted squares in their own homes to contribute to the creation of blankets for sale in charity shops. This year the project team in the Kilkenny Arts Office is encouraging individuals and community groups of all ages to come together to share and learn new skills, as they once again produce handmade blankets for charity. These will also be displayed during an exhibition planned for Culture Night 2022.
Knitted Together is spreading its reach beyond the Marble City too. Contributions of eight-inch squares can be posted from anywhere and various supermarkets are acting as pick-up points for blankets. (People are asked to register their interest in participating online at kilkennyartsoffice.ie between now and August.)
“It is what I would refer to as a ‘bigger than self’ goal,” says Mary Butler, arts officer with Kilkenny County Council. “It really gives people a strong purpose, where they are actively making for a charitable purpose.”
In-person gatherings will facilitate the transfer of skills and knitting ambassadors are being sought to lead teaching in the community. “Intergenerational work is really powerful,” she says, explaining how Knitted Together is also partnering with the Education Centre in the city so teachers can learn to knit and crochet, and pass on those skills in the classroom.
“We are going to do a lot of work with them around working with children to improve their manual dexterity through craft-based activities.” There are also social and play-related benefits with a bit of mindfulness thrown in.
She has a vision of teachers, students, parents and grandparents working together and nurturing mutual respect among the generations. Some children are lucky enough to have very good relationships with grandparents who are in their lives, she acknowledges, “but not everybody does and this is a way of challenging ageism”. The project is funded through Creative Ireland’s creativity in older age programme.
Research shows, she says, that the dexterity of the human race is not as good as it used to be and, incidentally, one of the best skills a surgeon can learn is needle point or embroidery because that’s “very good for the finer dexterity”.
In pursuit of gender balance for Knitted Together 3, Butler approached the Men’s Sheds.
“I mentioned knitting and crochet to the men and they ran a mile, which I kind of expected but you had to ask.” They are going to make small stools instead and, as participants sign up for the blanket-making, some more experienced knitters will be asked to make cushions and stool covers.
Butler has seen how fast fashion has devalued the home-made and the hand-made of her mother’s generation but growing up amidst that creativity has left its mark. “My mother was a maker and I will give anything a try.”
Paul Alexander never had the opportunity to do sewing as a child but after he had studied fashion design and created his own label, he became passionate about returning a skill to the upcoming generation. Sewing was lost, he says, when technology changed and clothes became much more disposable.
He set up Project Fashion in 2014 to run after-school classes and camps for children aged seven to 15, as well as sessions for birthday parties, and it is now operating in eight counties. Not only do “the kids love it” but teaching sewing is a sustainable act, as it sets them up for a life of making and mending.
Consumers’ “right to repair” goods, including clothes, will be strengthened by an impending EU Commission move aimed at encouraging producers to design goods that last longer and are more easily mended, he points out. Details are due to be published in the second half of this year.
A native of Cardiff in Wales, Alexander met his wife-to-be, Paula, from Portmarnock, Co Dublin, when he was studying in Bristol. They now live in Swords, Co Dublin, with three children aged 16, 12 and 10. The youngest, a girl, loves sewing, while her two older brothers are sports mad.
Sewing is a great learning skill for the brain and, in a screen-filled world of instant gratification, it teaches children patience and how to make something authentic that they can be proud of, he says. A few may go on to study fashion but for all the others it is something they will carry into the rest of their lives.
Typically, parents of the children coming to Project Fashion say they can’t sew a thing. “Everyone in a blue moon will be able to do a bit of something but they don’t have the time to teach their children.”
Convenience food at every turn might have made life a lot easier for hard-pressed working parents but it has undoubtedly led to an increase in waistlines and a decrease in culinary skills.
People are time poor and just surviving, says food educator Deirdre Doyle of the Cool Food School, who works with children in pre-schools and schools.
“We’re no longer that society where the mother stays at home and has hours to produce home-cooked meals. In that way cooking has been lost – by some people, not everybody.”
The children she works with “love doing anything with food, anything at all”. When asked if they cook at home, chocolate chip cookies and banana bread seem to be the staple repertoire “but very little cooking, in my experience”, she says. “Baking is all very well and good but cooking is an essential skill.”
Cooking is about much more than preparing food, she adds. “It’s connection in the kitchen and learning how to nourish yourself. That’s what it’s about. That’s why baking doesn’t nourish you the way cooking does.”
There’s no shortage of TV programmes, new recipe books and online tutorials aimed at putting more cooking and less microwaving back into our kitchens. All you need is time and energy but it is a lifelong gift to children.
There’s an app for that …
As mobile phones get smarter, their users, it could be argued, just get dumber. There is no need to work the brain now to remember phone numbers, or indeed any fact that can be Googled; to write a letter when text or email will do; or figure out any sort of maths computation when there’s a calculator app in your pocket. Sat nav has made the need for map-reading and using a compass redundant – at least until the phone battery dies, or you’re out of range, as unprepared hill-walkers and water sports enthusiasts have learnt to their cost.
On the flip side, people use apps to enhance a wide range of skills, from physical exercise to language learning and more.
Across the water, Care UK launched a “long lost hobbies” campaign in March, encouraging older people to rediscover past-times and to share their skills with younger generations. First it surveyed 2,000 adults to produce a top 50 list of lost skills, in which sewing/making your own clothes comes in at number 11 and knitting at number 20. Writing letters tops the list, followed by map-reading and “knowing proper grammar”. Also in the top 10 are “handwashing clothes” and “lighting a fire from scratch” – just the skills you’ll need in a power cut.
DIY tasks a 12-year-old is capable of doing, according to the website schoolrun.com, include: sewing on a button; changing a plug; mowing a lawn; changing a fuse; using a screwdriver, unblocking a sink, defrosting a fridge and changing a lightbulb. But first they need a competent adult in their life to show them how it’s done.
Are you up to the job?