I like to think that the things I like are original! Unique! Things I thought of myself! Like most people, I do not enjoy the feeling of being a late adopter of a trend. But, let us face facts. I wear the same black plastic eyeglass frames as every other mildly hipster 30-something white woman. Additionally, I drive a Prius. And I enjoy running long distances. When I read the lists on Stuff White People Like, I think to myself, “My GOD. How does he KNOW me?” Still, I like to think I’m maybe midway along the continuum between insufferable yuppie douchebag and crazy hermit living off the grid.
There is no denying, however, that I like a lot of things that other middle-class liberal east coast ladies like. In particular, neutral toned homespun goods. The other day, I was perusing one of my very favorite blogs, Design*Sponge, and I happened upon this rhapsody of grays and browns in the nursery of a Tribeca baby named Gabriel. Simultaneously drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of this photo, and scoffing at its stagy preciousness, I began to contemplate the origins of my ambivalence.
It happened that the very next day, Christophe had me listen to a Open Yale courses history lecture on the Northern economy and the Civil War. The image of the Yankee Pedlar, going door to door selling northern ladies finished cloth made from southern cotton stuck with me. Those northern ladies were thrilled not to have to make their own cloth anymore! It occurred to me that all the current fascination with suburban homesteading, and making sweaters for your kids, and canning your own tomatoes is something of a faux nostalgia for the pre-Industrial Revolution era. I have many friends for whom even knitting is not enough–they want to shear the sheep themselves, card the wool, spin the yarn and dye it too, just as our colonial ancestors did in 1738 before the advent of cheap, factory made cloth. Here’s the difference though: we can do all that, and make one, precious, lovely thing, and then we can swing by Target and get the kids 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants and a Starbucks on the way out. In reality, we don’t want to have to make every stitch of our own clothing, because it would grow tedious and we would have only one pair of pants and two shirts each. And the ethereal muslin dresses with raw hems that make us think of a “simpler time” are really maximally charming when we have a closet of baby sized down vests and tweed coats to pair it with. The closet of Baby Gabriel in Tribeca seems to nag at me because there is so much in it. Five neutral toned coats? Fifteen earth toned sweater suits? and so on.
I have nothing against handmade, neutral toned sweaters for babies. I started this post partly because I just finished a handmade, earth toned baby sweater myself. But let us be honest with ourselves. We like growing swiss chard and tomatoes in the backyard because there’s no anxiety in it. If all the plants die, it’ll be a bummer, but we’ll just go buy some at the store. And if it takes me several weeks to make a baby sweater (and it does), that’s fine because my kids get their actual clothes from thrift stores. Let’s face the fact that a lot of the stuff white people like is stuff we can dabble in as a mere hobby, because the stakes are low. I suspect that migrant fruit pickers do not spend their fall weekends at an orchard picking their own apples. We like doing that because we don’t have to do it to survive. It’s a novelty. So, by all means, plant a garden, make a sweater (or buy the one I made on etsy), and learn to sew your own throw pillows. I genuinely love doing all those things. But I try to remember what the desire to do them means; I am so blessed with such incredible wealth that I can make a hobby of a prior generation’s subsistence.