Thrift and the Virtue of Home Made

It amused me this week, to read of the list of professions which have proved historically to always provide a living of sorts to those who practice them; fine carpentry, construction carpentry, metalworking, innkeeping and I don’t know what-all. Seamstressing was not among them, which is a pity … but since it his historically been an almost exclusively female-practiced profession/hobby/amusement, perhaps it’s one of those things that we can really blame the patriarchal establishment for. Women could make a living, even if relatively a barely marginal one from sewing, although if you glommed onto a high-visible and high-value client who patronized you extravagantly, a certain degree of prosperity would be assured  … but I think mostly that it was one of those things that women were expected to do anyway as part of keeping and maintaining a house, which brought the wages down for those exercising the skill professionally. Eh … never mind.

What brought on this meditation was the confluence of several things; the first being that I am attempting to reproduce the heirloom family christening dress, which was one of those elaborate, hand-wrought things, of exquisitely fine Baptiste lawn and a foaming of equal-quality embroidered lace; it was one of those items inherited from the great-grandfather who did very well out of property ownership and a high-end society catering business in Britain towards the end of the 19th century. Alas, this lovely and ephemeral item was one of those relics destroyed when my parents’ retirement home burned in the fall of 2003. Sometime after that disaster, Mom and I agreed that I should at least have a go at replicating it, but all I managed at that time was to buy a pattern which somewhat looked like the original dress … of which I have only some relatively indistinct pictures and the memory of handling it, four decades ago, when we stuffed the Daughter Unit into it, upon return from Japan. We brought her to the home parish church, and I changed her out of it as speedily as possible, since we had not expected it to fit her anyway. (I had made a simple white toddler-sized dress of Japanese-sourced muslin and lace to wear as an alternative, which is the garment she wears in all but a handful of the family pictures commemorating that event.) I am presently bashing away at replicating the heirloom christening dress, in order to have something significant to christen Jamie, the prospective grandson in. I bought lengths of vintage embroidered lace through various sources on eBay, along with some fine Pima lawn. At this point I can practically guarantee that his godparents will be standing at the font, clutching a bale of fine fabric and embroidered lace with a small baby marooned somewhere in the center. (The project is going pretty well, actually, even if what was available was not precisely equivalent to the original.)

But the whole thing – the imminent grandson and my various dressmaking ventures brought me to think of various things; of thrift, thrift stores and home-sewing, mostly.

Thrift and resale shops are a splendid and inexpensive means of dressing small humans, as they are absolutely guaranteed to grow out of those garments long before they ever wear them out. They are even an excellent way to outfit older children and full-grown humans. The resale shops generally curate the intake rigorously, and the local thrift and resale stores that we frequent seem to take a great deal of care in cleaning and presenting the donations – but still, there seems to still be a bit of stigma attached, although being a hard-headed consumer myself, I cannot see exactly why. There have been at least two occasions in family history where we spotted our own former garments on a fellow elementary school kid after donation to a local charitable concern. The Daughter Unit did the same in Utah, upon spotting another middle-school student in a familiar dress, one that I had sewn for her and donated when the Daughter Unit had outgrown it. “Hey, you’re wearing a dress my Mom made!”

In the first instance, I kept my mouth shut. In the second, my daughter blurted it out, in all innocence and intending to be complimentary – and the fellow student was hideously embarrassed at having been marked as one whose parents shopped at thrift stores. Which was really a bit sad. It was a nice dress. I do not do shoddy work, and the girl probably got a lot of pleasure from wearing it, until the Daughter Unit spilled the beans; that her parents shopped at charity thrift stores. The Daughter Unit says that the girl denied it and was never spotted wearing that dress, ever again. A great pity, that.

Money in Red-state Flyoverlandia does not grow on backyard trees, much as current national economic policy might appear to being going in that direction. The markdown differential from original retail is … astonishing, sometimes. The Daughter Unit recently purchased a very nice and apparently unused baby onsie for $1.50 which from the original sales tag attached retailed for north of $30. Of course, one is faced with the relatively minor challenge of finding something on the thrift store racks in the right size, flattering, and which would appeal, but frankly, that is most of the fun of bargain shopping. Any fool with lots of money can go to a high-end clothing store, splash out a lot of money and maybe find the perfect outfit.

It used to be that home-sewed garments were an even less expensive option than thrift stores. My own mother stitched all of her own clothing – that other than items like jeans, and Dad’s shirts and suits. I and my younger sister went to school outfitted in lovely and elaborate little dresses, with under-petticoats, ruffles and piped seams, all lovingly hand-made by Mom on the Singer sewing machine, in the day when it was cheaper, before all our garment manufacturing was farmed out to China and the far east. Since then, it seems that everything involved in this kind effort – the patterns, the fabrics and the notions and all … are by several multiples more expensive. A commentor noted sagely, when I posted about this previously, that once something becomes a hobby, rather than a necessity – than everything about it becomes more expensive. Comment as you wish.

57 thoughts on “Thrift and the Virtue of Home Made”

  1. As far as outgrowing instead of wearing out, I can still remember my mother ripping the leg seams of brand new jeans to install a second layer in the knees. She was ecstatic when Sears started to offer the same thing ready made. Probably the difference between a daughter and three boys within three years.

    My rudimentary sewing skills and a sewing machine only a few years newer than me meant that I could mend work clothes instead of having to buy new. I remember finding a store that sold cheap work clothes from uniform rental places, often new since the pants were unhemmed.

    You used to be able to fix car starters and alternators for a couple of bucks if you knew how to replace the brushes and bearings. That’s gotten a bit harder and good luck finding a auto parts store that doesn’t give you a blank stare when you ask for a alternator bearing. They might have them but the kid behind the counter doesn’t know anything that isn’t in the computer. For me it was the difference between walking and driving more than a few times.

    A friend at work had a flat tire yesterday, I overheard the conversation as they gave her the hard sell for a new set of tires. The big chains have a deal where they won’t charge you to fix a flat but rarely seem to find one that they can fix “safely”. Probably works a lot better for them when you don’t have a spare. I know a local dealer that fixed one for me for $10 when a different chain pulled the same stunt and offered to take her there if they kept giving her grief. They also sell decent used tires that would match the diameter of the remaining tire on the axle until you needed new tires or had a chance to accumulate the money.

    My parents and grand parents survived the Great Depression, I survived the ’70’s that included both stagflation and Jimmy Carter.

  2. Our Mom made a lot of clothes for my sister, but me, not so much. She recut some of Dad’s WWII US Navy clothes for the cloth, and made my sister several outfits.

    And congrats on the grandson! We go to our local thrift store, run by a local non-profit. I see what my wife pays for kid’s clothes there, and then look at the retail, and YOW!

    I’m more into repairing stuff. I just fixed her 1960’s Panasonic hand mixer for about $6. An industrious person could make some nice pocket change repairing things like vacuum cleaners, sewing machines and other small things.

  3. Repairing can even be enjoyable. This coming Sunday, I shall be replacing the front brakes, rotors, calipers, and shoes, on my F-150. I will Dave about $200, by doing so.

    I make 1/6 scale wooden vehicles. I even make some of the tools I use, like a sanding saw.
    It is satisfying, to start with lumber, and end with a functioning tool. This summer, I will try to make a trade powered lathe!

  4. When I was growing up, we were pretty poor. Every single piece of my “new” clothes either came from the Salvation Army or hand me downs from my older cousins.

    I never really thought of it as weird or odd. Mom would just shove us into the station wagon and say “we’re going new clothes shopping”. Later I got teased a bit (I think we call it bullied these days) but I never even thought twice about it and just shrugged my shoulders. The little kids version of giving them the finger, I suppose. Our situation was our situation, I accepted it, and on we moved.

    It was a good place to come from as it taught me to keep things that you have nice and clean and maintained and to not take things for granted. Sure, clothes eventually fall apart, but other things can last longer if you maintain them.

    Now, I donate money to the Salvation Army to show my appreciation for helping us through the tough times, which weren’t so tough to a little kid. I just thought it was “shopping”.

    On the seamstress side, my grandmother was a master seamstress in Germany and when she came to Chicago I have heard that she made some decent cash making dresses and such for well off people in that once proud city. No real evidence of that, but the mountain of things she made from rugs to doilies to dresses bears it out.

  5. I get the same satisfaction from repairing and modifying clothing as I get from repairing and modifying cars and houses and landscaping and computers. And maintaining an older sewing machine such that it’s good enough for occasional use is satisfying too.

  6. Sgt, my grandma grew very much in that tradition: she was the older sister in a family of 4 children, and her assigned chores was making clothes for the rest of the kids. (that – and cooking…and cleaning…and white-washing the walls…and starting working outside of home at a factory when she was 15)

    As long as I remember her, she was making me dresses. Among reality of Soviet retail (when it was easier to list what was available in the stores than otherwise – everything was at a deficit, for decades and decades) she was our family’s source of new clothes (and mended old ones). Her biggest treasure when they were evacuated to Ural during the War was her sewing machine – which she bartered for a cow. The machine was kept a secret: if the authorities learned she made a living by it, charging modest fees for meticulous alterations she worked on at nights (with no light other than kerosene lamp) for her neighbors in the barracks they were sent to – she will be arrested and sent to camps. That sewing machine kept alive a family of 5 for four war years. And not one of her barrack neighbors snitched! That in itself was a miracle – and a tribute to my grandma’s mastery as a seamstress.

    Her biggest regret, when I knew her, was that she only had 4-year education in a Jewish school (“kheder”) and didn’t know how to mathematically design a pattern. For her dresses she needed to go to a patternmaker, to cut the cloth first – but from that point on she was flying.

    I am not that proficient, of course. Years of relative stability – no war, no revolutions, no camps – spoiled me.
    But it looks like that is going to change – now, in this country.
    So I better plan a visit to my closest thrift store (this time to buy, not to donate) and start refreshing my home-crafting skills.

  7. Drjim: “An industrious person could make some nice pocket change repairing things like vacuum cleaners, sewing machines and other small things.”

    You are ahead of the curve. When China stops shipping goods to the US in exchange for depreciating Biden*Dollars, there is going to be an explosion in the demand for the lost art of Fixing Things that the US no longer has factories to make.

    We may see abandoned shopping malls converted into urban scrapyards, where people will bring in their broken toasters & TVs and trade them for repaired items. This could be a good time to start accumulating some tools and building some expertise.

  8. Thrift and resale shops are a splendid and inexpensive means of dressing small humans, as they are absolutely guaranteed to grow out of those garments long before they ever wear them out.

    Our daughter had her first (and probably only) child at age 40. It was last summer and her mother presented her with several large plastic containers of her 40 year old baby clothes which had been washed, folded and perfectly preserved since she had worn them. She was almost overcome, never having expected it.

    My wife had four boys in her first marriage, and her oldest son, the only one married, had three boys. I promised her a girl and kept my promise. Now our daughter has presented her mother with her first grand daughter and she is the best dressed kid in California. Among other things, she has two doting grandmothers for whom she is the only granddaughter.

    Not really about repairing things but sort of in that tradition.

  9. “An industrious person could make some nice pocket change repairing things like vacuum cleaners”
    Could you though? I’ve had probably a half-dozen vacuums in the past decade, and I’m up to the fairly expensive ones (not the absurdly expensive ones). The ones today are absolute garbage products. Why would you bother to repair something like that? Just shrug your shoulders, buy a new piece of junk, and know it will die within two years. That’s the way we’ve been trained now, unfortunately. Not like a few decades ago when we had one vacuum that lasted my entire childhood.

  10. The problem with fixing stuff is getting parts. There is a certain level of personal satisfaction fixing your own things, but it really, really depends on the thing and your time value of money. Brian’s example of the vacuum is an interesting one. If you can’t get the belt, how much time do you want to search for it and how much spare time do you have in general? I have basically none so we would toss the vacuum and get a new one.

    In my world of HVAC, it’s sort of a mixed bag right now. Minor parts are still relatively cheap, but the vast majority of Americans have no clue how to install them or how to use a multimeter, turn a wrench, or do much mechanical of anything. When you start entering the realm of major parts it is a personal decision on repair/replace, a decision as old as time. Anything with metal in it such as motors and the like is moving up in price as of late, however.

    So, if anyone wants a reliable career, I would echo what some of the above have said – learn how to repair. A good HVAC mechanic will always have a job. Any mechanic for that matter.

  11. Thrift and resale shops are a splendid and inexpensive means of dressing small humans, as they are absolutely guaranteed to grow out of those garments long before they ever wear them out.They are even an excellent way to outfit older children and full-grown humans.

    Having recently found his mother’s teenage diary in a box in the attic, childhood friend recently published a short biography + teenage diary excerpts of his mother. I had long known she liked to purchase low-cost clothing at thrift or antique shops. She loved telling about purchasing an article of clothing that didn’t fit her, but she had to have it because of the low price.

    Her youngest son, then in high school, told his mother he was tired of getting hand-me-downs from his 3 older brothers or used Goodwill stuff. He wanted some new clothing, for a change. She went to Goodwill to purchase some “new” clothing for him. “Mom, that is the same used clothing you just gave back to Goodwill. You bought it twice!”

    She could afford new clothing for her son. Purchasing cheap was a matter of principle for her.I didn’t always agree with her ultra-liberal politics, but found her a kind-hearted soul. Unlike many liberals, she could laugh at herself.

    I purchase shorts for ~$3 at thrift shops, which suffice for half the year in Texas.

  12. Parts can be a problem.

    Ball bearings are standardized and widely available. Small motors with bushing type bearings can often be revived by replacing the dried up oil, I like Marvel Mystery Oil and it smells like peppermint. A lot of small belts are really just o-rings or an o-ring will work. For better belts, you can buy urethane stock and heat fuse it together. A lot of vacuum cleaners are just clogged with dirt, who’d guess?

    A lot of the stuff from China, even with fancy labels, is made in a batch at one factory, the next “model” at some other and “factory” parts just aren’t available. A warranty item will be replaced with whatever is selling this week.

    The real problem is how can anybody live off what someone is willing to pay to fix a $20-$50 item? Back when TV repairmen made house calls, TVs cost the equivalent of $1000 and more but the repairman probably made about $5 an hour. The last job I had where I had a service rate was $65 an hour and $2 a mile and that was 20 years ago. I watched a video of a guy “restoring” a pair of Florsheim shoes for $900.

    Dell ships their warranty parts back to China or wherever by the container load for rework. There are places here that do the same sort of work but they don’t pay much above minimum wage.

    There are a whole lot of machine shops, some quite sophisticated, in garages and basements all over the country. Right now, they’re building things like model steam engines, but push comes to shove, they could produce car parts or whatever.

  13. Actually, there was a vacuum-repair guy that I read about a couple of years ago; had a gift for tinkering, and went about collecting busted vacuum cleaners set on the curb. He broke down the unfixable ones for spare parts, and fixed the fixable for sale on (IIRC) eBay. He was doing very well out of it all. A lot of that he collected off the curb only needed cleaning from massive clogs. And he had a stock of spare parts galore…

  14. Forgive an old perfesser-librarian a book recommendation: Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization– mind-blowing in many ways, not least the way she makes clear that “women’s work” with fibers and fabrics has been essential to the development of humankind. An excellent read, a bit Winchester-y or Kurlansky-esque IYLTKOT.

  15. Dan From Madison
    On the seamstress side, my grandmother was a master seamstress in Germany and when she came to Chicago I have heard that she made some decent cash making dresses…

    An elderly friend of mine is a Sephardic Jew from Morocco who came to the US when she married a US Navy man. Her husband later became an alcoholic and after divorcing him she had to support her 3 children with her seamstress work. Her seamstress work paid the bills and enabled her to purchase 3 houses. Even in her 80s she still does some sewing.

  16. Dan from Madison:

    Our washing machine croaked a while back and I was able to diagnose it as a faulty lid switch. Popping the control panel off was easy, and they had put the lid switch in an easily accessible place. Sure enough it wasn’t working and wiggled back in forth in the sheet metal hole in the top of the housing. I popped it out and was able to make some shims to wedge it more solidly in place from some plastic plant markers lying around the garage. I put a new switch on order right away…

    …and found out that while the switch itself was only $14.95, the lowest shipping charge (ground-pound) was over 20 bucks! Well, at least I know how they’re making a profit. I ordered a new switch.

    In the meantime the “fix” worked for exactly 20 cycles of lifting the lid, then the switch failed completely. I made a jumper to bypass the switch, basically telling the controls that the lid was forever closed and kept running the washer. Hey, we never stick our hands in there with the lid lifted anyway.

    The switch eventually showed up and was a drop-in replacement. Pulled the jumper, installed and wired the new switch, and the washer is back in operation.

    I have to wonder how many people would bother to fix a washing machine like this? For less than 40 bucks and a total of probably an hour of fiddling with it I got it back into operation. Just getting an appliance repairman out here is a one hundred dollar service call, plus some sky-high hourly rate with a one hour minimum, and he probably wouldn’t have had the switch in stock anyway. That would have been a second service call and one-hour minimum. I’d have ended up paying all of that (plus the cost of the switch too), and still had an out-of-service machine for the whole time it took the new switch to arrive.

    My attitude is that since the thing is busted and not working anyway, how can I make it worse? And if I do manage to fix it, I’ve saved something on the order of 400 bucks. Maybe I’m just a cheapskate (the description depends on who you’re talking about: I am “frugal”, you are “cheap”, that guy ‘way over there is “stingy”) but it strikes me that most people are just plain lazy.

  17. Blackwing1
    Maybe I’m just a cheapskate (the description depends on who you’re talking about: I am “frugal”, you are “cheap”, that guy ‘way over there is “stingy”) but it strikes me that most people are just plain lazy.

    My take is that most people don’t know what the heck to do, so call in skilled,expensive labor to fix it. In the last year or so the “Check Engine” light on my 25 year old auto went on twice. Decades ago, I would have gone to a garage to get the issues resolved. Nowadays, using an OBD2 scan tool to diagnose the problems, and YouTube videos on how to fix the problems enabled me to fix the problems myself.(spark plug replacement and transmission fluid level. Try the simplest first.)

    I’d add that my past experience with a local garage didn’t give me confidence in its competence. My battery kept dying, so the local garage replaced the battery cables. That worked for several weeks, but the battery kept dying. I took the car back to the garage. It kept dying. Finally, the towing company my insurance company provides told me that a $3 copper connector to the battery should stop battery drain. Which it did. Why didn’t the garage figure that out?

    Congrats on your fixing your washing machine.

    I found Dell Forums useful for fixing my Dell computer, which is still going after 9 years and some major part replacements (fan and hard drive.)

  18. My father could fix anything but he has been dead 50 years. I first smashed my thumb with a hammer when I was 6. My mechanical skills served me well as a surgeon but appliances have moved on. I called an appliance repair shop a couple of months ago when our oven stopped working. He replaced a motherboard. WTF? Now our dishwasher is not working. Might be a small motor and bearing but probably another mother board.

    I was never good at car maintenance because I was not allowed to have a car until college. Can anyone fix a current model car ? I had the timing belt changed on my car recently because it was past the mileage number to change it. I did so partly because I had a timing belt break before it was due (60k miles) to be changed. $6,000 later I was paranoid.

    I wish I had my 1996 Toyota truck back. I gave it to my daughter when it had less than 60k miles on it. She was going to sell it to Obama’s cash for clunkers but I still had title.

  19. Main board problems on washing machines and dish washers always seem to come down to moisture. It’s not like anyone would guess they’d be exposed to water some how.

    Voltage surges and the consequent current surges do for a lot of components. A mechanical switch that was rated for 20 amps could take a 1,000 amps for the few microseconds of a surge without a problem, solid state devices will be destroyed. I use a special type of fuse that might cost $50. It’s cheaper for the manufacturer to just replace the whole board, replacing an expensive fuse would take the same service call.

  20. Blackwing 1 – “My attitude is that since the thing is busted and not working anyway, how can I make it worse?” I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard this from one of my tech customers over the counter. You can 100% make things worse when working with a machine that basically controls explosions in your basement (i.e. a furnace/boiler) or a machine that has a non flammable gas under pressures of around 400psi (condensing unit) if you do not know at least a little bit about what you are doing. This is multiplied in the commercial world.

    The key thing to remember is that the vast majority of the population has basically zero experience with how things work, whether it be electronics, mechanics, physics, and the like. You are an exception and were able to diagnose the simple lid switch – that’s one thing. But when you get someone who has no experience in any field starting to monkey with switches, wires, controls, and the like, it is VERY easy for that person to cost themselves a lot more money than a service call to a professional in the first place. I’m a great example when it comes to my car. I have literally no clue about anything. It either runs and I drive it, or has a problem and goes to the shop. There is no in between because I would just make things worse if I started to mess with it. I can put in windshield fluid – and that’s the end of it.

    This isn’t really anything new, however the longevity of the products is. Basically for a furnace or air conditioner, you start losing parts support after 10-15 years (a lot of times before the warranty runs out on major items like heat exchangers and compressors) and with the imported things like ductless mini splits you start losing parts support maybe at the 5 year mark. Cheap crap like home center window airs and dehumidifiers, you can basically forget about parts support at all, as MCS noted above.

  21. I prefer to leave things to “experts” as well, but I live in relatively rural Central New York, and it can be difficult to find competent contractors. About a decade ago we installed one of the new “hybrid” water heaters, and after less than a year it started acting up, and we had to wait a few weeks for someone to be able to come look at it, and the first guy GE sent walked in, looked at it, said he had never seen one before, and walked out. I can’t even remember if they still charged us for the visit. The next guy who came fixed it. When the same problem happened again (something about the “hybrid” part failed almost immediately…) a few months later, we just decided to deal with our expensive “hybrid” water heater just being a “regular” water heater, until it dies and we put in something else.
    A couple years ago we bought a refrigerator that stopped working properly after a few months. Took about six months and a half-dozen visits before GE accepted it as unfixable and sent a new one. Having no refrigerator, just a glorified ice-box, for an entire summer is fun. Hate hate hate the fridge–the “efficient” compressor is insanely loud. Just got a new dishwasher a couple months ago–had to wait ~5 months for it to be delivered, when it was installed we found out the reason the previous one never seemed to work wasn’t because it was a “low water usage” model, it was because the guy who installed it had pinched the water line so very little water was making it through.
    What you gonna do? I don’t know these guys–the seller, the installer, etc.–and they don’t know or care about me.

  22. Cheap crap like home center window airs and dehumidifiers, you can basically forget about parts support at all, as MCS noted above.

    Interesting. In 1995 I was driving back to CA from New Hampshire where I had spent a year getting another degree after I retired from Surgery. I stopped in Chicago to see my mother who was 97 that year. When we arrived (My daughter rode with me), the temperature in Chicago was 105. It was June and the building management of my mother’s building had not yet converted the heating system to air conditioning. Her apartment was hot and she was basically living in her underwear.

    I immediately drove out to a big box appliance place and bought a big window air conditioner. I got a kid who worked in the small market in the building to help me install it in the window. Her apartment was in the 18th floor and I had visions of dropping it and squishing some pedestrian. We got it going and she had the only air conditioned apartment in the building. She had never been so popular with her neighbors.

    Eventually, the building management got the central AC going. I think Chicago had about 500 heat deaths that month. Actually, it was 739.

    Once the building had AC, the manager told her that tenants were not allowed window AC and I took it out of the window and gave it to my sister in Beverly. I think it is still working. My mother lived until August 2001, no doubt as a result of that window AC.

  23. Good points about the “Repair vs Replace” conundrum. What we need to keep an eye on is the availability of replacement equipment and parts. Today, when something breaks down, “Replace” is often the smart choice. We all tend to assume that things will continue much as they are now. And things will continue … until they don’t.

    We are desperately dependent on foreign sources (mostly China) for things that we no longer have the factories & machinery (or skills) to make. And we have an unsustainable Trade Deficit. That is not a stable situation which will continue indefinitely.

    When this Cargo Cult economy breaks down (because China decides it is no longer in their interests to subsidize us), two things will happen. First, we will all be poorer — much poorer. Second, the only alternative to “Repair” will be to do without. Scavenging parts from broken-down equipment and using those parts to make essential appliances work in at least some kind of primitive fashion will become a significant line of business. Not because we like it, but because there will be no other choice.

  24. the temperature in Chicago was 105

    On a 100+ day I went for a bike ride with two frozen water bottles. The contents were liquid and hot in 20 minutes. I stopped at a convenience store in Evanston to buy something cold and Mike Royko came in to pay for gas. The cashier said “Hello Mike”. Royko didn’t reply.

    As Mike K notes, many old people died from the heat. If I recall, most of the deaths were attributed to a lack of AC in older buildings. Statistically, the 1995 heat wave was like a 100-year flood. The death toll was much worse in Europe.

  25. Yesterday my rental’s six-year-old Amana (Goodman) furnace quit. The draft motor started and ran but no fire, and no ignitor glow. Pulled the ignitor and found a tiny crack in the element and it was open according to my ohmmeter. Since it was freezing and snowing, I had to turn the gas fireplace on low to keep the empty house warm. Ordered a new Robertshaw ignitor on eBay for $28 shipped. No doubt I could have got one locally for more money but the house is currently in between tenants so no hurry.

    If my rudimentary troubleshooting skills hadn’t pinpointed the problem I would have happily called my local HVAC company, the folks who installed the furnace, and paid them to fix it. But having control over aspects of one’s environment is valuable.

  26. When I was living at Lake Arrowhead (I say “at” rather than in although it is a town) about ten years ago, my water heater kept shutting down and I would have cold water. When I bought that house, I got one of these “Home Warranties” (Don’t) and each time it quit, the warrantee outfit sent a guy out to tell me a draft was blowing out the pilot light. Twice that happened and I finally called a plumber, who told me the pilot light had a magnetic switch to shut off the gas if the pilot went out (or something like that). The magnet had lost its magnetism and that was why the pilot kept going out.

    Unfortunately, he told me that after I had bought a new water heater. I had never encountered that phenomenon before.

  27. As among doctors and computer programmers there can be big skill differences among repair people. The worst ones go by trial and error and waste your time and money. The best ones solve problems on the first attempt and don’t cause other problems. The consumer of repair services may not be able to tell the difference between a difficult problem and an inept repair person, and should probably have a strategy to deal with problems that aren’t easily solved. Typically this strategy involves hiring a different repair person.

  28. The Yelp web site can be helpful. I went to a garage that I had not used before to do the timing belt job on my car. We drive to CA about every three months or so (not last year) and I was paranoid about the timing belt. The garage I chose did a good job for a fair price.

    I was looking for a dog/house sitter since our dog sitter is in the VA hospital but the recommended alternate did not do overnight sitting. I just don’t trust Yelp that far to have someone living in our house. We are going to have to board our basset, Nick, and he has separation anxiety being a rescue. We are going to give him a tranquilizer and hope for the best. Only 4 days.

  29. When you bought an appliance at Sears, you used to get a complete illustrated parts list. You could order the parts and fix it. I still remember taking my mother’s washing machine apart to to fix it when I was about 14. Got it back together and it worked.

    If you take something apart carefully, you’ll know how to put it back together again. Finding out how something is supposed to work will tell you where to start looking. I’ve been making my living either building machines or fixing them since before I was making a living so my view point might be a little odd.

  30. If you take something apart carefully, you’ll know how to put it back together again.

    Cellphone cameras are ideal for documenting the “before” state. I rarely do complex repairs w/o snapping some pictures before ripping into the object of repair.

  31. MCS: “If you take something apart carefully, you’ll know how to put it back together again.”

    Some things in principle have become much easier. There are an amazing number of videos on YouTube on “how to” repair topics — even for equipment with fairly limited markets. When taking something apart today, it is very easy to take photos with a cell phone or digital camera from several angles prior to each stage of the dismantling, and then to drop all the small parts from each stage into numbered & marked plastic baggies. It makes reassembly much less of a hit-or-miss affair!

    Of course, if the problem is with your cell phone …. :)

  32. If you take something apart carefully, you’ll know how to put it back together again.

    Tried that with an outboard motor. Nope. Of course, why are you taking it apart ?

  33. There’s surely information much more accessible than for most of my life. The quality is a little variable and some of it quite good, I haven’t run across anything actually malevolent. There are still times I wish for a simple, well executed drawing and a short written description instead of 20 minutes of shaky poorly lit video.

    I still tend to make simple diagrams instead of pictures. Probably habit, but I’ve spent some time trying to decipher pictures that just don’t quite show what I want. Often, once I’ve made the sketch, I never look at it again.

  34. MCS —

    Re: drawings vs photographs:

    In the 80’s one of my friends was in art-college majoring in ‘Medical Illustration’. I of course asked why such a thing was needed in an era of color photography, and got quite a lecture of all the ways in which drawings are superior for conveying knowledge.

    Superior enough that there are even Masters programs in the US (Including at Johns Hopkins) and abroad.

    Sgt. Mom —

    Re: Vacuums:

    There was a month when expensive vacuums kept finding me. On my walk home from work they were curbside right there, or put out next door to a friend I was visiting. On several occasions I had to convince my wife that if it was fixable it was better than ours, and if it wasn’t we were no worse off as we could as (still) easily put it out for free trash collection.

    In EACH case, within 2 days of my fixing the clog or belt, we learned of someone’s need for a vacuum cleaner. I helped about 10 people with free vacuums in the course of that month.

  35. To all:

    First, thanks for all of the replies to my silly little tale of a washer lid switch.

    An interesting side note. The door switch on our kitchen fridge/freezer started going bad intermittently in July 2020, and went completely toes-up in August. I ordered the part from SearsDirect (no connection to the actual Sears company, apparently) and waited with a dark fridge until it showed up. Installation was simple (flip off the breaker, a putty knife to depress the little integral plastic spring that held it in place on the inner wall, pull the connector and replace the switch). Total of maybe five minutes of effort.

    The new switch just started to die this morning. I had torn apart the plastic housing on the old one to see what was wrong; the contacts had fused together. This despite the fact that it’s a low-voltage circuit with almost no load going to the fridge’s digital control board and some power relays. I’m guessing it’s the same problem on the new one since I can jar it into operation by flipping it violently a couple of times. Percussive maintenance, it’s called.

    I called them to see if it was under warranty (less than a year old) and found there was exactly zero warranty on replacement parts. Sigh. Well, only $12.85 plus 6 bucks shipping, so I ordered yet another one.

    I’m hoping that it was just a fluke that the replacement crapped out so quickly. I’m assuming that a cheap switch like that doesn’t use silver oxide for the contacts. I’ll see how long the next one lasts. It still beats having to pay for a whole new fridge/freezer.

    To Dan from Madison:

    I don’t work on anything that can go “boom” inside the house. I’ve fixed old gas grills, even holding together a fractured burner pipe with a hose clamp, but a furnace is a whole ‘nother world. Heck, we called a local plumber to put in a new expansion tank on our hot water heater even though I knew the problem and figured I could fix it myself. Some stuff I leave to the experienced people.

  36. Along with the lid switch, the agitator drive coupling is another thing I’ve fixed on older washing machines, all based on internet how-tos, and like I said above, I’m pretty non-adept with that sort of thing…

  37. There are an amazing number of videos on YouTube on “how to” repair topics…

    This. I was able to successfully replace the timing belts on my current and previous two cars using a combination of YouTube videos, car-specific forums, and factory service manuals, which are always available online.

    Crowd sourcing is one of the major benefits to society of the internet.

  38. All my life I’ve loved Thrift Stores – my daughter even found a St. Louis Goodwill that takes things that other Goodwills haven’t been able to sell. The prices there are truly cheap, though there is a lot of dreck. She filled their boys’ rooms with children’s books – some that she bought or gifts at full price but a lot of great old ones the boys loved from those shops.
    They are wonderful – partially because shopping is an adventure – you look at things and they are cheap, of course, but you seldom can go there with a very solid idea of what you want – it becomes a “how can I use this thing I like to solve one of the various problems in my house.”
    Singers! My childhood was filled with them. My mother and both aunts had portable but remarkably sturdy machines. My mother made clothes for four children, her own, and even one year matching heavy duty suits for father and her. And I used it for years of 4-H, where I did not excel and came to truly hate sewing, since I ripped out most seams more than once. Now I take incredibly simple things to a seamstress – like hemming boot cut pants. There was a guy in a nearby town who specialized in fixing those old Singers – I ended up with one of them. He delighted in them. Singer emancipated women, he truly did – whatever his somewhat shady private life he did a tremendous amount for women. We didn’t have much money and sewing was cheaper, but I think it expressed skill. Towards the end of her life my mother bought fancier, more computer-intensive machines but I don’t think she loved them as much as she did that old Singer portable.
    My husband’s uncle is left on his farm, a farm that the three single brother lived on for decades and kept equipment and, well, as in not good health and reaching their eighties, they let kind of disintegrate. Lately, his first cousin has taken a hand in trying to bring it back to life and a group of people has begun working there off and on – leveling the house, wiring rooms, fixing tractors and two-wheelers and four-wheelers that have seen better days but now run. The joy all are taking in reviving a herd, implements, and machines is really a pleasure to see.

  39. My wife lives for the thrift store. One year I gave her $400 fun money on winter vacation which she spend ALL at the thrift stores. For some reason the store kept having 50 cent sales. She spent all the money. Do the math. We had to put things, too many things in the boat to make it all fit on the way home. Plus the truck was so full I couldn’t see out the back window. We blew a trailer bearing on the freeway. She’s proud of that story.
    She went from thrifter to hoarder, now. Is there a pill for that?

  40. While I agree in part with the commenter who said that it is unwise to attempt repairs of things that can go “boom” in your house, I would make two recommendations for anyone having problems with either gas furnaces or central air conditioners. For furnaces, particularly when starting up after a long spring and summer of inactivity, it is quite common for the heat sensor (a 4-inch metal rod) to have acquired a patina of corrosion. This will prevent it from receiving enough heat, in enough time, to allow the flame sensing circuitry to determine there actually is a flame. That means the furnace will cut out and will have to be restarted, and will probably go through the whole cycle again.

    The quick and easy repair for this is to pull the heat sensor, which usually entails removing ONE screw, and rub the outside briskly with something like a Scotch-Brite pad. Do this until it looks shinier than it did originally (maybe 30 seconds), then reinstall and try it again. Many times that simple process will permit a furnace to start again and run for a whole season.

    The other quick repair I have is for air conditioners. If your AC stops being cold, it could be a number of things, but the first thing to check is to see if the compressor is running. If it is not, and you actually do have power to the compressor, you would do well to check the starting capacitor. I have lost track of the number of those I have replaced and which brought a “dead” unit back to life. There are a lot of cheap Chinese capacitors running around, and they have a bad tendency to fail long before other parts of the equipment.

    Full disclosure: I am a retired Chief Engineer from the U.S. Merchant Marine and now run a property management business, so I’ve been working with this stuff for a LONG time!

  41. I do almost all my clothes shopping at thrift and consignment stores.(not lingerie!) I have to look nice to go to my professional job, but especially since this ‘unclutter’ craze people donate new unworn or barely worn clothes. I got a pair of perfectly fitting brand new tags on Bandolino jeans for a quarter! And with prices that low, if something doesn’t fit like I want I just redonate. One local consignment store has agreements with big name retail outlets so I can get brand new for like 20% of retail. I got a set of poker chips for my husband for 50 cents. Best of all my money is going to local business and charity and not big corporations that support liberal causes.

  42. My mother’s grandmother was a seamstress. She would take a few measurements, look at a drawing of the dress desired, and freehand cut the fabric, pin it on the person for a final check, then do the finish sewing. I have one dress she made: a black silk chiffon flapper dress that was done in picot stitch and cut on the bias. I have worn it many times. She made it for my grandmother’s 16th birthday. My great uncle’s mother was a tailor and made mens suits. Her treddle sewing machine, with all the attachments and findings sits in my mother’s dining room. My mother and I made much of my clothes, or modified ones we bought because I never fit in anything in the women’s department. My legs and arms are very long. I add 6″ to the standard pattern on the shirts. Sewing my own clothes was not less expensive, but necessary. I still do a lot of repair work and modifications, especially to tactical clothing and gear.
    My husband and I built our machine shop. We have a lathe, mill, vertical and horizontal bandsaws, drill presses and full line of welding equipment. We know how to use it all. We do a lot of repair and refurb work but could do prototyping and small run manufacturing but that part of the business has not taken off yet. Metal is sooooo expensive now since the steel mills in the US shut down. I can’t afford to just practice my welding. I have seen the wood mills coming back in my native Oregon when I visit, so that is good.

  43. It’s actually a complex issue. I grew up poor and hated thrifting. Now I am not poor and my kids appreciate the treasure hunting aspect of it. I think it’s because they dont have to. They happily share their finds with peers because it makes them feel clever and if a bully tried to call them poor they’d laugh. I wish I could sew better, but I havent found enough hours to learn, and the raw materials are expensive.

    I prefer to repair appliances that work because Ds make everything perform worse by messing with regulations so new in inferior (if they somehow get the “fast dishwasher” through before Ds kill it, I’m buying a dozen and selling on ebay in 5 years). We’ve both made repairs ourselves (I have always been able to find parts diagrams and lists online) and called in pros (Sarah’s Appliance Repair has never let me down, including one gentleman, finding nothing wrong in the dryer, found a problem in my vent that everyone else missed). But some things are simply made to be replaced. Replacement parts a ridiculously expensive and many casings you have to break to fix.

    Right now my time is worth more at work than fixing most things. But if it’s not worth my time I try to find a good home for things that are still usable or fixable.

  44. On a book case in my living room in Tucson (We are in OC right now) there is a Seth Thomas clock that I found in a trash can when I was ten. It was part of some items discarded from an old house. Probably after the owner died or moved. That was about 75 years ago. It was probably more than 50 years old then. I took it home and my grandfather got it going again. It has been on a mantle piece or book case since then. It keeps good time and chimes the quarter hours and hours. I will have to reset it when we get home but that is pretty easy. I wonder what will happen to it when I am no longer here to care for it?

  45. In 3 years (early 90’s) I made my million $ investing in real estate. Most of my clothes are given to me or just turn up. The rest acquired from lower tier thrift stores for $1 a bagfull and yard sales.

    My partner in a 5 property deal is now a multimillionaire. He agreed to meet with my niece for her investment coaching. She buys the finest, most expensive stuff including clothes and accessories. During the session he mentioned that he gets all his clothes at the thrift store on half off day. Niece was devastated knowing that she will never qualify to invest in real estate. Sad.

  46. I can make, and repair, lots of things. (The people in my building come to me if it’s their computer.) But if I can buy it for a reasonable sum, I just go out and buy it. If it works and does the job, I keep it. I don’t get a new one if I can help it; tech progress and government regulations keep making things worse in unexpected ways. (Replaced a faucet. The new one barely dribbled. Some disassembly, removal of flow restrictors, and behold! it was a proper faucet.)

    Being able to sew, and other types of make-and-repair, has other uses. If I can buy it reasonably, I do. If I can’t – I make it. Where else am I going to get medieval clothing in my size?

  47. I made my living repairing machines, so when something like an appliance fails, I at least give it a try.

    My wife once complained to me that our 2 year old electric dryer wasn’t drying the clothes as well as it should. She said she had to run them through additional cycles to get anything to come out dry. Well, I thought, that has to be a clogged vent. So, I pulled it out and disconnected the vent. Nope, it was clear, all the way to the outside. I then checked the vent piping *inside* the dryer, and there was the problem.

    We bought the dryer from one of the big-box stores and it came with free home installation. Two guys showed up with the new dryer and proceeded to hook it up and all seemed well – until two years later.

    What I found was that rolled up and pushed up inside of the internal dryer vent was a “Quick Operation” instruction booklet and a complementary packet of dryer sheets. I pulled all of that out as well as a big gob of lint and… Good as new! Actually, it was *better* that new!

    How we managed to not burn the house down is anyone’s guess.

  48. Alongside Jefferson’s Declaration, 1776 saw the publication of Adam Smith’s _Wealth of Nations_ detailing, among other things, the virtues of specialization. One worker stretches wire and cuts it to length, one sharpens a point, and one blunts the end. The three “specialists” make many MANY more pins than one general pin-maker.

    The original manufacture of a clock or a car or a computer is the product of many MANY *M*A*N*Y specialists, some doing little more actual work than one of B.F. Skinner’s pigeons could be trained to accomplish. Take the assembly from the prior worker; poke this particular wire through that particular hole; and pass the assembly on to the next worker. Tighten the bolt on the nut. Even, yes, roll up the instruction book with the dryer sheets and tuck it into the exhaust vent hose…

    Any complex device is subject to break down in any part or any linkage of parts. The wire might have abraded insulation. The nut may have worked loose. Dust or lint may have built up in a constricted location. Detecting and correcting such a problem requires a vast and very generalized experience and skill set. Generalists — repair workers — are therefore more rare, and more expensive, than specialized manufacturing workers.

    If the manufacturing specialists are essentially slaves in a low-labor-cost system and the repair generalist is respectfully paid in a free-market, high-labor-cost system, then the question of “repair, or replace?” is going to lean “replace” for most manufactured items. Hard on the repairman, isn’t it?

  49. Pouncer,
    I’ve heard the pin story many times before but this is the first time I have been struck by how unlikely it is to be true. I don’t believe that pins were ever produced by any person painstakingly producing one pin before starting on the next. Certainly no one like black smiths would do the same thing for something they produced in quantity. They would have been produced in batches. While a continuous flow might be marginally more productive, batch production would be more compatible with the technology of the time.

    The sort of production that provides employment for left rear lugnut specialists works with mass quantities but becomes horribly inefficient for shorter runs. The Chinese advantage in manufacturing rests almost entirely on being able to provide thousands of workers at a time to do these sorts of jobs on short notice rather than on any innovation. China is now being underbid for this sort of thing. Africa probably represents the last great frontier of cheap exploitable labor if all the other problems can be somehow reduced.

    If I put on my tin foil hat, malaria, after corruption, is probably the greatest obstacle to making Africa the next great source of sweat box labor and look who is trying to fix that?

    Replace versus repair falls apart quickly when you tell a plant manager that he’ll be shut down for a week or two while the replacement makes its way from wherever. In the industrial world, you also find that there are a great many things that are built one-off and that there aren’t a stack of them in some warehouse. Maybe, they’ll build you another in 6-12 weeks if they still build them at all and are still in business. Try getting anything from France in August.

    Not that I should complain, it’s how I’ve made my living all these years. If some of our darker predictions come to pass, I’m not likely to lack for work and I won’t be fixing toasters.

  50. MCS…”The Chinese advantage in manufacturing rests almost entirely on being able to provide thousands of workers at a time to do these sorts of jobs on short notice rather than on any innovation”

    It was claimed on one occasion that Apple couldn’t make iPhones in the US because in China, when they had a new design modification on short notice, they could get thousands of workers out of their dormitory beds at 4 in the morning, given them their tea and dry crusts of bread (or whatever) and put them to work on the new version. This doesn’t strike me as either a sophisticated or a necessary approach to manufacturing.

    It was also claimed…by Steve Jobs himself, talking to Obama, IIRC…that there were **fifty thousand** industrial engineers involved in making iPhones in China, and that it would be impossible to find anywhere near that many in the US. But I can’t imagine what you’d need or want 50,000 IEs for in his situation, or what you’d do with them if you had them. Shift supervisors and such, yes.

    I think must of the *real* driver for offshoring to China is not so much the relative costs, but the desire to keep that (very large) market open by helping their government create jobs and revenue.

  51. As I read down the comments (52 at the time I write this), I found myself wondering if a correlation exists between the political philosophy I think as roughly characteristic of ChicagoBoyz posters (at minimum leaning conservative) and the willingness to repair.

  52. My Mom had an old Singer pedal sewing machine, and made great costumes for us for Halloween, among other things. I still have bits and pieces of my old Robin Hood and clown costumes. The knowledge you speak of can actually be a lifesaver. My wife’s grandfather was a mathematician in Russia, and he was arrested and disappeared into the Gulag in the 30’s. His wife managed to survive by sewing and repairing clothes for party officials and the more favored workers. FWIW, my mother-in-law, who was descended from German immigrants, married a German soldier and left for Germany in WWII. As a result, she had the “privilege” of living under both Hitler and Stalin.

  53. David F: “I think must of the *real* driver for offshoring to China is not so much the relative costs, but the desire to keep that (very large) market open by helping their government create jobs and revenue.”

    Maybe not most of it — but that certainly is a factor. The interesting aspect is how China’s Best & Brightest have played the card of access to their (potentially) huge market versus how their US equivalents (if I can degrade the word “equivalent” by using it in this context) played the card of access to the US existing huge market.

    China’s rulers adopted the “Make it in China” ethos. If you want to sell in China, build the factory there. This built up their industrial base and their worker skill base at the same time as allowing those workers to earn incomes which moved the Chinese market from potential to actual. US Political Class adopted the “Make it Elsewhere” attitude — so that they did not have to deal with the messy trade-offs in manufacturing and instead could boast about how they were cleaning up the environment. In reality, those evil fools were simply de-industrializing the US, reducing the real earnings of the US population, and contributing to worse environmental pollution in China.

    Maybe instead of China sending its smart young people to Ivy League schools, the US should be sending its best students to Chinese universities? Just judging by results.

  54. It’s revealing that Jobs thought needing 50,000 engineers just to manufacture a product that Apple had already designed was something to brag about. So much for design for manufacture.

  55. Roy Kerns
    As I read down the comments (52 at the time I write this), I found myself wondering if a correlation exists between the political philosophy I think as roughly characteristic of ChicagoBoyz posters (at minimum leaning conservative) and the willingness to repair.

    It appears that compared to the average person, the commenters here are more likely to repair things. The tendency to try to figure out repair stuff yourself may be correlated to also trying to figure out news and politics stuff yourself. Such as going to primary sources instead of accepting as gospel whatever the MSM is trying to tell you.

    On the other hand, a relative and his wife are quite adept and practiced at fixing up houses and doing electricity, plumbing,or carpentry themselves. In their “retirement” years they have repaired and flipped several houses. They had done such repairs before retirement, also. They are also yellow-dog progressives/Democrats who refuse to stray from the NYT/WaPo MSM news sources.

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