Threads of Making

In tracing the threads that connect to the recent surge of interest in home economics, we should not neglect to pick up threads laid down by our own selves, at some point in the past. I am a member of the Generation named X. This means that I was raised during the last resurgence of interest in home economics, the 1970s. My childhood in a mountain cabin with no electricity and plumbing was punctuated by helping my admittedly hippie mother cook healthy meals in a pressure cooker, clinging to her legs while she pumped the treadle sewing machine to make us adorable garments (complete with sunbonnets) and watching my bemused patent lawyer grandfather straddle our nanny goat so that mother could sew up a torn teat.

How was this different than the similar childhood of any Coloradan in generations previously? The year I started kindergarten, my mother stitched up a few pencil skirts with matching vests and headed off to her career as an aerospace engineer. The threads that Home Economics had laid, all those years ago at the MIT Women’s Laboratories, helped give my mother access to her calling as a scientist, as a woman in love with flight. Our adventures in pioneer homemaking were informed by science but soaked in a deep respect for the life that my grandmother next door had built without a high school diploma or the ability to drive.

We are heading to a future where women like me or my mother will no longer be split by what we love, separated from our passions by disciplinary definitions. In the next 100 years, I see a future where the great engine of the industrial revolution, Engineering, will pull in Home Economics as itself seeks to become adapted to a world that is Post-Industrial. Engineering is already seeking to live up to the democratizing spirit that first led many a boy to tinker with wires, engines and blades by creating spaces that are open to girls. They need our help of course, but we are the most natural of allies. The dichotomy of home/work is already fading, why should we separate the making of robots from making of clothes, the making of drones from the making of jam?

The Maker Culture is defined by Wikipedia (more on this in a moment) as “a technology-based extension of DIY culture”. Of course, Wikipedia is itself a technology-based extension of the DIY culture and this definition can change in a mere moment as opinions among Wikipedia editors evolve. But we cannot reference books, made of paper, in a building made of bricks, to discuss the future. The Open University electronic text on “Innovating Pedagogy” published online in 2013 describes Maker Culture as one that “encourages informal, shared social learning focused on the construction of artefacts ranking from robots and 3D-printed models to clothing and more traditional handicrafts” (Sharples, et al., 2013). The discussion acknowledges that the “movement” may be just hobby/handicraft in new packaging, with new marketing opportunities, but the proponents argue that the insertion of the internet into design creates a sharing aspect that has important potential for learning.  In Home Economics, we have known that inserting everyday life along with design into the pursuit of science increases the potential for learning, for oh, at least a century.

I see a future where engineering and home economics both recognized that we have the same problem, we are deeply rooted in an industrial past where gender was an important binary that ordered life. Engineering has a girl problem, it is perceived as not leading to careers that welcome women, and Home Economics has a girl problem, it is perceived as less relevant because it leads to careers dominated by women. Can’t we team up, head back to our shared MIT roots and start again together? I see a future where “making” home is something that everyone wants to do and where the emphasis on Quality of Life that has dominated the history of Home Economics makes “making” appealing to everyone.

Sharples, M., McAndrew, P. Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., and Gaved, M. (2013) Innovating Pedagogy 2013. Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers. Open University. Online Report.

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