What the Fuck To Eat

Ever since my first terrifying encounter with GERD, food went from “things I eat that taste good and keep me full” to “things I eat to sustain me and my health”. Quite literally overnight. And ever since the gastroenterologist looked at the lab results of my poop sample and thought I would be happy with an Imodium prescription and a meaningless diagnosis of IBS, I’ve taken diet very seriously.

Nobody wants to start their journey to better eating habits like I did, but it was the kick in the ass I needed. Unfortunately, most of the landscape of dietary information out there consists of fad diets promoted by sketchy internet “doctors” and Amazon referral-powered blogs hoping to god that you buy that $60 tub of protein they claim to use every day. So I did what any reasonably neurotic person would do and started experimenting on myself.

The first thing I did was go vegetarian – almost vegan, actually, aside from the occasional piece of cheese a few times a month. It did a fine job of making me question the legitimacy of the Standard American Diet (SAD), and therefore the scores of doctors and nutritionists who upheld it as the gold standard of balanced eating. If my stomach couldn’t handle it, then clearly the problem was my stomach, and all I needed to do was take a magic pill to make it all go away. Nobody ever suggested that, hey, maybe the problem lay with my eating garbage. My GERD cleared up, though, now that I was no longer able to eat stuff like chili dogs, or buffalo wings, or Jack in the Box tacos. It wasn’t the meat that made the improvement, though. The culprit I’d eliminated was the sauces that are typically served with SAD-style meats, and the fatty ways they’re typically cooked.

No-no #1: Rich, greasy  preparations.

I did more exploring and decided to eat a low-fiber diet for a while to see what that did for my gut. By the end, I was mighty sick of eating nothing but tofu, eggs, rice, and mushy vegetables, but the results were pretty conclusive: my bowel movements were regular, I experienced no gas, and little bloating. Score.

No-no #2: Excess fiber.

Curing my GERD and mostly alleviating my IBS was good enough for a few years. I was happy, I didn’t feel like crap after eating, and I no longer dreaded going to the bathroom. But then I started having blood sugar problems: hypoglycemia, mainly, which is a symptom of metabolic inflexibility. My research told me that such symptoms were the beginning of the long road to insulin resistance, which scared the pants off me. The remedy for metabolic inflexibility? Metabolic exercise! I limited my intake of carbohydrates to a fraction of what they had been, “quitting” them cold-turkey. My blood sugar protested, but after just a few days of the low-carb flu, my hypoglycemia never reared its ugly head again.

No-no #3: Too many carbs… including sugar.

Unfortunately,  a side effect of going low-carb made me lose weight, which was never one of my goals. I dropped 10 pounds in a week, and started fielding questions from a number of folks about whether I was sick or not. I realized that, contrary to popular dietary wisdom, I needed to drastically increase the amount of fat in my diet, which returned me to my normal weight in short order. By this point my average daily carb intake was less than 60 grams, while my fat intake was nearing 100 grams. However, I still had to keep in mind no-no #1: no rich, greasy food. More research taught me the real differences between healthy and unhealthy fats, and the merits of saturated animal fats. The trick? No hydrogenated oils, no highly refined oils, and keep preparations simple – that is, no complicating the digestibility of lipids with things like acids (fruit, coffee), simple carbohydrates (white potatoes, beer), and too much spiciness. These are all things that IBS sufferers need to be keenly aware of anyways, though.

No-no #4: Too little healthy fats.

Those 4 rules have been my takeaway over the years I’ve been playing with diet, give or take a few quirks of my particular microbiome and genetic makeup: maize products, for instance, don’t bloat me nearly as much as bread does, and due to my long history of low blood pressure, I need a little more salt than the average bear. Unfortunately, some things that used to be OK to ingest are becoming increasingly intolerable to my gut as I shift away from old habits. Beer, for instance, is becoming more and more unpleasant to drink as time goes by. The heavy, malty stouts and porters I used to love so much are practically poison to me now: I can’t drink a glass of Rasputin or Victory At Sea without getting nauseous, and a pint and a half of the stuff will put me on the verge of throwing up. I can’t exactly say I’m not disappointed.

That all’s just the physical, biological relationships I have with various foods, though.

What about the ethical? The cultural? The economical?

As someone who still, for some reason, gives a damn about trying to live lightly, the rest is a veritable minefield. I could shop fair trade because I don’t want my food coming from slaves or sharecroppers or the otherwise economically destitute; I could shop local because I would prefer to keep my money circulating among producers in my bioregion, and because my food doesn’t have to travel very far to get to my plate; I could shop zero waste because I would prefer my food to not come in ridiculous amounts of plastic packaging; I could shop pastured or organic or biodynamic or whatever else, because I would prefer the producers of my food to not be actively destroying their local environment and reducing its biodiversity. Or I could shop cheaply and feed myself to my personal standards without breaking the bank.

And I have to choose wisely, because it’s a rare product that checks off more than one or two of these boxes. So what the fuck do I eat?

Price, obviously comes first. I’m no good to anyone if I’m starving and malnourished, if only to be able to say that I followed some lofty ethical ideal at the cost of my own health and personal finances. That’s a given.

The rest, as I’m sure many of you would agree with, are trade-offs. Personal negotiations. Triage. Where can I afford to do the least damage without compromising my health or sanity? This is something I’m still working out, but I feel myself getting close. Some unofficial “rules” that I’ve developed in figuring out which product should come from what source:

  • Chocolate is fair trade.
  • Meat is almost always local, as are vegetables when they’re in season.
  • Staples like cauliflower I get for cheap – most stores in my Vancouver neighborhood have bargain shelves of food that’s going south where you can pick up entire bags of produce for a buck, and there’s usually a glut of cauliflower someplace. I keep most of my “impulse” produce shopping limited to these shelves as well. In a sense, saving this sort of food from the garbage is sort of like buying zero waste. And if you’re lucky, sometimes it’s even organic.
  • Staples like vinegar, oil, and salt, I just pick one strategy based on my circumstances that day. Coconut oil must at least be organic; and as for animal fats, let’s just say we’ve got plenty of bacon grease in the fridge as well as a jar of homemade rendered fat from local product.
  • If tea isn’t fair trade, it’s either local or zero waste and package free.

You get the picture.

Health and food is such a moving target that it’s easy to either get overzealous with your favorite conscious consumer strategy, or just give up altogether. What I’m here to urge you to do is don’t give up. And don’t get overzealous either, nobody likes those. What all of these different food strategies have in common, including just plain focusing on your dietary integrity, is that they undermine the Standard American Diet. They question the reasoning (or lack thereof) that goes into eating a pound of steak and a baked potato slathered in I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! purchased from Walmart, and washing it down with a liter of Coke every day. Even if you still did that, but bought organic steak and an organic potato instead, you’ve got a small leg up. You done a good thing. 

I’m getting real sick of food aesthetics to the point where I’m this close to taking pictures of my crummy little galley kitchen with its white appliances and black, “granite”-veneered countertops that I can’t ever seem to get perfectly clean and posting them. I’d open up my kitchen cabinets so you can see my hodge-podge collection of mason jars and bags of shredded coconut, the mismatched boxes of salt and emergency cans of Campbell’s soup sitting beside a 3-year old box of half-eaten pasta. Like… fuck you, man, this is real.

We buy what we need to buy and eat what we need to eat. Sometimes it’s fucking delicious. Sometimes it’s mediocre. Sometimes it’s just plain necessary and we stick it in a glass jar to make us feel a little bit better about having bought it in the first place. Sometimes we get lucky and that bottle of fair-trade, wind-powered, biodynamic, bulk olive oil didn’t cost half our life savings and that’s something to be happy about. We enjoy it and move on.

I’m getting ready to go to the store right now, actually. We need more meat for the cat, and unless I want to make a smoothie, there’s no protein to go with dinner. I would prefer to go to the co-op since all their meat is local and they pay their employees a living wage with benefits, but it’s a 20 minute walk uphill walk to get there and the only places that carry offal around here are the local Chinese markets anyways. I also have a customer loyalty card for a coffee shop nearby that’s full and I want to redeem it if I’m going that way, too.

So, choice made. I can do one good-ish thing today, and another good-ish thing some other time. C’est la vie.

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Going Analog part 8: So you’ve got yourself an opinion. Now what?

This is a follow-up to my older post on dealing with belligerent incredulity, seeing as how I’ve run into more since then. This time it has been from online talking heads, so this has given me a better look at how the psychological machine works, what without the usual mediating influence of good social etiquette getting in the way. In other words, people feel safer running their mouths online than in person, and it’s easier to build a model about how the other side works when you have better access to their thoughts.

The first thing I noticed is that most of the vitriol came from people who were constructing very obvious strawmen – you know, the kind that results from projecting your own anxieties and prejudices on others, not unlike what gay-bashing politicians do before they’re discovered to be cheating on their wives with cute college boys – and then smugly tearing them apart.

The primary form this argument takes closely resembles Just World thinking: that, at the end of the day, all of my problems with technology, and all of my problems with people who have problems with my problems with technology, are self-inflicted due to some character flaw. Usually that flaw is that I have self-control issues and “need to work on those”, or am a “jerk” and therefore prompting others into being jerks to me, respectively. I mean, barring the fact that I haven’t had bread or sugar in 3 weeks (while working in a bakery where I can technically stuff my face full of delicious organic bread and cookies all I want), I don’t overdraw my bank account, and have been in a long-distance marriage for going on 6 years now, I clearly have self-control issues. Or, barring the fact that everyone at my job likes me, that I have friends who will bend over backwards for me because I have done the same for them, or that I’m an otherwise pretty chill, mostly selfless, and extremely private person, I clearly must be a jerk.

It’s a ridiculous assumption to make about somebody you’ve never actually interacted with. But that ridiculousness is the whole point: it’s impossible to disprove without over-arguing your point, and probably proving your accuser right in the meantime. Well, almost impossible. I gave it my best a few weeks ago on the blog here after getting quite tired of such cookie-cutter response (one of which was even posted to the blog’s comment section):

There are a lot of things wrong with this assumption, and frankly it serves as a very tidy little thoughtstopper.

A thoughtstopper, as defined by John Michael Greer, is:

…exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.

What you are essentially asserting, even though you don’t know anything about who I am, who I know, and what my life experiences have been, is that because I am frustrated here, in this blog post written for a specific audience with a specific goal in mind, is that I must clearly convey frustration in all of my interactions with everyone I meet, and therefore deserve the hostility I’m recounting.

That’s an incredibly lazy leap of logic, and I’m sad that I have to actually explain to you why.

First off, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on unless you’ve never spoken disparagingly of anyone in your life. Have you ever vented frustration about someone when not in their company? You have, just like everyone else on the planet? OK, then you know that such conversations have their place, that they’re perfectly normal, and moreover, they help to keep us sane when direct confrontation with the individual isn’t possible or worth anyone’s while.

Secondly, policing tone on a blog post about dealing with the recurrent rudeness of others doesn’t really make any sense. Moreover, you’re taking this post, which is only the latest installment of a multi-post series, and extrapolating an entire (false) narrative about how I’ve thus far conducted myself with people who aren’t you. I mean, I could write you an entire memoir’s worth of stories about all the bizarrely hostile encounters I’ve had with folks who had absolutely no reason to be hostile, and I could list off the names of everyone I know who genuinely find me to be good company, but seeing as how you will not take me at face value here, I doubt that you will take those accounts at face value either, and will be altogether a waste of both of our time. So like any good conspiracy theorist, you’ve made an accusation that is almost impossible to disprove. Not sure what tone policing is as defined by somebody other than tumblr? Here you go, courtesy of the RationalWiki:

The tone argument (also tone policing) is a logical fallacy that occurs when an argument is dismissed or accepted on its presentation: typically perceived crassness, hysteria or anger. Tone arguments are generally used by tone trolls (esp. concern trolls) as a method of positioning oneself as a Very Serious Person.

The fallacy relies on style over substance. It is an ad hominem attack, and thus an informal fallacy. […]

At best, it may be a way to point out rhetorical dishonesty in a formal debate, but at worst it is simply awarding victory to whoever is affected the least by what is being discussed.

Thirdly, you haven’t criticized or accepted any concrete foundation of the argument I’ve made here (nor have I see any other defender of smartphone technology do similarly either, interestingly enough), which makes this comment especially meaningless. Surely you’ve encountered rude, belligerent, and unreasonably hostile people before, ever? If so, how have you dealt with them repeatedly attacking you for the same thing? If you have, I’m all ears as to your input. Unfortunately, your gripe, again, seems to be with nothing more than the presentation of my ultimate goal with this individual blog post: how to deal with others being unduly threatened by you doing you. Irregardless of your belief and your own experiences (which is what the entire fallacy of Personal Incredulity is about, and is partly what this entire blog post is meant to address; talk about meta) these things have happened to me, and they have happened to others.

Now, with that in mind, do you have anything useful to say, or will you continue to be offended that some shmuck on the internet hates smartphones?

As far as I’m concerned, that’s that.

The problem goes deeper, though, and to no one’s surprise. It goes back, even, to that pesky Just World Hypothesis and the associated frame of mind where we assign moral values to things that maybe shouldn’t have any. It’s very easy to blame people for their own problems, I should note. It protects you from having to deal with the repercussions of accepting that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, among other tragic consequences of chance. That’s not to say that everyone is always powerless in the face of everything – this is hardly true either – but quite often we do not make our own lots in the grand scheme of things. Still, one person’s crippling debt may be a personal failure just as much as the next person’s was completely beyond their control.

In the current, progress-addicted world we live in, technology is Good. Good in the way that charity and humility and patience and honesty are Good. No decent human being would ever argue against values like those, and so it has followed that questioning the march of technology is just as appalling a notion as questioning the very idea of, say, peace on earth and good will toward men.

To this unspoken ideology, the difficulty experienced by people who refuse to adopt the latest-and-greatest, or have chosen to downgrade after the novelty of such wore off, almost approaches a kind of moralistic karmic retribution: ‘you did it to yourself’, or ‘what’d you expect?’. (Note that karma in its un-Westernized form is simply another word for good ol’ Cause and Effect, not some cosmic force of punishment and reward.)

I remember my husband and I getting into a very unnecessarily antagonistic discussion about mattresses of all things at a family xmas party one year: cousins extolled on the wondrous virtues of memory foam, talking about how they couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly sleep on anything lesser. I shrugged and chuckled: “I actually like sleeping on my $100, 3 inch thick foam pad on the floor. I get the best sleep of my life.” I’d uttered something that made no sense to them. They balked, wondered if I’d ever even tried a memory foam bed, to which I replied “yes, and it was terrible”. This was unacceptable, and my husband and I looked on with fascination as they continued to escalate the discussion in such a way that made my opinion on the matter irrelevant. I made a passing evolutionary argument: that humans had been sleeping on hard or firm surfaces since we came down from the trees, and that you’d think millions of years of bad sleep would have wiped us out long ago. (You can’t exactly hunt mammoths with hundreds of accumulated hours of sleep debt, after all.) They responded with a hand-waved, Just World-type thoughtstopper: “Yeah, and cavemen had a life expectancy of 30.”

Ignore the fact that life expectancy figures often include infant mortality (which is the largest contributor to numbers like that) and average adult life-expectancy was considerably older; ignore the fact that such a rebuttal comes from a place of valuing quantity over quality (which is another tenet of this wide-spread, unspoken ideology); ignore the sheer irrelevance to the discussion in general and my comment in particular.

This is but one of many such experiences I’ve had, and they all have one thing in common: arguing from the implicit assumption that more and more complex is, like any storied triumph of Good over Evil, righteous and inevitable. If you walk away from that dichotomy, you simply become part of the temporary adversity that the believers will surely overcome in the end.

The problem with the Just World Hypothesis, though, is that it’s not true. Murderers get away with murder. Abusers die peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by loved ones. Wall Street kleptomaniacs get bailed out with public tax money. Children die. Wives get battered. Men, women, and children alike get cancer and slowly wither away as drugs and chemo fail to stop the spread of metastases.

Likewise, the Just World Hypothesis’ technological-determinist cousin is just as untrue. Social media use is just a likely to connect you to friends and family just as much as it’s linked to skyrocketing rates of loneliness among young people. Modern medicines are just as likely to manage your symptoms as they are to kill, cripple, or give you other complications that require further medicating. Firearms are just as likely to kill innocents as they are assailants or game.

It is, as philosopher and historian Paul Virilio had once said, that “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck”.

What I discovered was that I had an opinion about the whole thing. People don’t like opinions, even though everyone is up to their eyeballs in them and have no qualms about throwing theirs all over the place. It’s your opinion they just don’t care for. But I discovered that I wasn’t doing this just for frugality’s sake, or just for minimalism’s sake, or just for my sanity’s sake. I was doing this thing because I felt a deep moral obligation to opt-out, in any way I could, of what ‘gifts’ the modern world was trying to force me into receiving. I do my best not to convey that in casual discussion, but I do got out of my way as often as possible to make space and answer questions and support people who want to do what I did. Which is also a no-no, because to have two sides means having a debate, not a lecture. So unless I have negative things to say, unless downgrading ruined my life and proves the techno-optimists right, my experience doesn’t matter. It’s a court of public opinion where the verdict is decided before the trial even begins.

There’s really no way to win, is the bottom line. If it were a mere matter of weighing the pros and the cons, or looking at the numbers, or getting the facts straight, then these reactions wouldn’t happen nearly as often. There’s such virulent hostility because it is a moral issue, because there are sides, because there is loyalty, and because existential crises and entire social structures of self-identity are at stake when we talk about smartphone and modern technology in general. The importance of having the internet at our fingertips, 24/7/365, has approached levels of saturation, zealotry, and emotional dependence that the world religions only wish they had.

All you can do is keep doing what’s right for you, and others will come into it or they won’t. If you’re thinking about it, don’t get the opinions of your peers – it would be about as useful as asking your Southern Baptist preacher their opinions on leaving the church to practice Shinto. Would they weigh the pros and the cons, look at the numbers, and get their facts straight in regards to your needs as a person of faith?

No, they’d tell you to have fun burning in hell.

Book Review: The Organic Artist

I didn’t know what to expect when I bought this book, honestly. The cover makes it seem a little cutsey, and some of the pictures seem, in the tradition of craft a la Hobby Lobby, to be more novelty than anything genuinely useful.

Boy was I wrong.

First off, the author is described in the back as (more or less) equal parts artist, survivalist, and caveman. Or, to put it more accurately, stone age technology aficionado. What this should have told me is that the man takes his work seriously, and that his breadth of very real knowledge is to be found in this book. He lives this stuff, he works in these media, and he’s been doing it for years.

Most of what he shows you how to do will not be of any real interest to most folks, though I suspect zero wasters will find some of the projects immensely useful. For instance, his paper-making guide is much more thorough, and results in a much more useful finished product than Bea’s instructions in Zero Waste Home. He shows you how to make crayons out of nothing more than beeswax and pigment; he shows you how to source your pigment from the landscape around you; he shows you how to make felt-tip pens out of little more than sticks, twine, and a bit of hide; he shows you how to make glue; he shows you how to make charcoal.

And the list goes on. Those beautiful little paint pots featured on the cover? Those are all handmade by him as well, and he shows you how to make them too: every step from finding and tempering natural clay, to shaping and firing.

There’s even recipes in here for the zero waste, organic printmaker: he has instructions on how to make an all-natural brayer, and suggests an ink recipe thickened with honey to use with your woodcuts. And for painters, he shows how to make animal hair brush bristles, complete with quill ferrule. (Guides for which are difficult to come by, I’ve found.)

Nick Neddo is a monster. And I mean that in the best possible way: he’s a person who knows his craft so thoroughly that you can’t help but let your jaw drop at the sheer absurdity of his knowledge, talent, and dedication. Included also are examples of his work made with the relevant tool or medium, and these proof of concept are not only astoundingly beautiful, but with no noticeable difference in quality compared to the plastic, commercially-produced equivalent that he is recreating. Most of these tools are so easy to make, so beautiful, and so personal, that in showing us how to make them Neddo almost asks, between the lines, why don’t more people do this? After all, up until very recently in human history (a period that can be measured in mere decades), most artists had to make their own materials.

Do I recommend this book? For artists looking to turn away from high-impact, toxic, and fossil-fueled-sourced tools and media, this is an absolute must-have. For zero wasters or organic households looking to replace a few of their casual art supplies, this is also a must-have. (Just about everything in here isn’t just non-toxic, but free of synthetic ingredients entirely, and probably also safe in the case of accidental ingestion, for those of you with children.)

For everyone else, this book is probably just a novelty – but get it anyway. It might inspire you take up doing even just one thing the Nick Neddo way.

Book Review: Second Skin

Second Skin: Choosing and Caring for Textiles and Clothing is part how-to, part manifesto, and part memoir by lifelong seamstress, dyer, and textile artist India Flint, made famous by her contributions to the world of environmentally-friendly dyeing and surface design. (I took a class last year to learn her ecoprinting technique from a local Vancouver artist.)

India Flint is a staunch and powerful, though still gentle, voice in the slow fashion movement. And by slow, I mean slow. She is unrelenting in her dislike of synthetic fibers, high-impact dyes, and consumer culture’s influence on design and wastefulness.

The official blurb:

Almost from the moment of our birth, clothing acts as our second skin, yet we rarely consider where our clothes have come from and the effects they might have on the environment and ourselves. This beautifully photographed and illustrated book is about easily achievable ways to care for the planet by living simpler lives and using fewer resources, specifically those to do with cloth and clothing. It discusses the role of cloth in how consumption affects the ecology; looks at what textiles are made from and examines their properties, with an emphasis on those derived from natural sources; and talks about how to make informed choices regarding clothing-including deciding how much clothing one really needs. It also covers how to mend and maintain clothing, repurpose fashion, dyeing, and when all else fails, instructions for patching, piecing, felting, and twining. One ‘gallery’ chapter is dedicated to clothing designers and artists who have made a practice of working with salvaged materials, including Natalie Chanin (Alabama), Jude Hill (Long Island), Christine Mauersberger (Cleveland), and Dorothy Caldwell (Hastings, Ontario).

Honestly? This book is a must-have for people interested in lowering the carbon footprint of their wardrobes. And I don’t use that term lightly. Flint is thorough in her explanations of even the fibers themselves, their histories, and their contemporary processing methods; everything from how to choose the fabric your clothes are made from, to what to do when they start breaking down is under her slow, careful purview. She leaves no stone unturned.

Some reviewers are put-off by her reverence for textiles, and many pick up her books looking for simple step-by-step instruction. But that’s not what India Flint is about – she will not allow herself to abandon the whole picture of the textile industry to focus on some little technical detail, and she won’t let you forget the big picture either. I don’t find this off-putting, actually. I find it refreshing and necessary, and as a low-impact zero-waster (the two are not one in the same!), this provides an important piece often missing from the dialogue we have concerning what, exactly, goes into making our wardrobes.

The book itself is beautifully designed, too, and as a hardback, should last for years to come. Flint’s writing can get a little precious at times, but it really does fit with her slower way of life, and if you take the time to read her stories, you’ll find yourself rewarded with relatable anecdotes and inspiration from where her own life has taken her.

It’s not just about technical know-how for making our clothes last longer. It’s about asking ourselves how many clothes we have, why our clothes look the way they do, why they’re made from the materials that they are, why we wear them how we do, and why we can’t put more care and effort into making them last until there’s barely little more than threadbare scraps left before returning them to the earth.

Second Skin is a book that concerns itself with philosophy and ethics as much as it does with tricks of the trade, chemistry, and why wool felts when you wash it in hot water. If that bothers you, then you might ask yourself why that is. And if not, if you’re looking for a text packed with environmentally-conscious knowledge about textiles as well as one that asks harder questions, then this is definitely the book for you.

Kansha: Appreciation, or, F— You, Fossil Fuels

Kimchi.

Fermentation is really, really in right now. It’s hard to gauge how much of this is due to the mere movement of trends throughout the culinary consumer zeitgeist, and how much of it will stick around and be absorbed into an American way of life that will persist for years to come.

I, like our ancestors before us, came into fermentation as a strategy because I’m a cheap-ass.

My husband likes soda; soda is expensive; who says I can’t make my own soda? If I can make my own tonkatsu ramen, surely I can make my own soda.

My several attempts at getting a ginger bug started didn’t amount to much, but the logic was sound, and moreover, I wound up discovering a whole world out there of fermented, probiotic, and shelf-stable food that once stocked the larders of peasant households the world over. (And if it’s one thing peasants and I have in common, it’s a lack of money.) My second foray into home fermentation was kimchi, something I learned to love (and live off) in college, thanks to some Korean roommates. It was wildly successful. After that, I was a fermenting machine. Well, as much as I had the time, energy, and counter space for.

For me, fermentation isn’t about being culinarily impressive – though it often is – but rather more about being less reliant on my refrigerator.

Almost everything I do with food now I try to contextualize in our vast, sprawling, largely invisible web of fossil fuel usage. How much energy goes into making my condiments? My alcohol? How much energy goes into keeping my produce fresh? How much energy goes into making a salad?

I bought myself a used copy of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions for my birthday recently. Not only did it immediately find itself in heavy rotation in my small cookbook collection, but it will have a place in the kitchen, I believe, for the rest of my life. The premise of the book is basically how to cook frugally and mindfully the Japanese way. The lengthy appendices talk about how to reuse water used to cook noodles or rinse rice (make a sipping broth with leftover sauce), how to use every single part of a daikon in the same way that the subsistence hunter uses every single part of a kill. In the pickles section, there’s also a few pages dedicated to the Japanese nuka pot, a pot of pickling paste made from rice bran, beer, and vegetable scraps that is maintained not unlike a sourdough starter.

Eventually, the husband and I want to leave the city. We want to leave the grid behind; the nine-to-fives, the endless hedonic treadmill of bills and debt, the noise and light pollution, the carbon-heavy, digitized lifestyles that every single person I know claims to depend on for sanity and survival. We want to remove the countless middlemen between us and that which sustains: the earth, the plants, the animals, and the quality relationships with other people that made most pre-industrial cultures worth fighting for in the face of enclosure, capitalism, and colonialist greed. (No really: most peasants through history had to be forced off their land and into the cities at sword or gunpoint.)

And even though that goal will be years in the making, we’re doing all the mental prep work we can. Right now, that means taking a long, hard look at the refrigerator. If we break down what a refrigerator is and what it does, its workings becomes less mysterious and the prospect of going without one less terrifying.

So what is a refrigerator? A refrigerator is a heavily-insulated box that plugs into the wall which makes food cold so it lasts longer, basically. Or, to put it a slightly different way: a method of food preservation that depends entirely on unsustainable energy* and dangerous chemicals to function. Once you frame it in those terms, it suddenly becomes just one in a variety of methods of preserving the harvest. And when that happens, why, again, are we collectively choosing the most expensive, most environmentally suicidal option?

That’s where kansha and fermentation come in. The two seem to go hand in hand, really – if you have a deep love and appreciation for the bounty of the earth, then frugality should follow, no? Kansha the book is full of tricks on not only preventing food from winding up in the garbage, but from the compost bin too, even. Obviously, the recipes are Japanese in origin, but many of the ingredients, from cabbages to root vegetables, fresh greens to foraged mushrooms, are staples across much of the temperate world, and the author’s careful consideration of the daikon could be applied to almost any sort of root vegetable.

Nuka pots, if diligently kept, can last for decades, even generations. They are a common sight in many Japanese kitchens, and where food scraps that Americans would have no second thought about throwing away are given another lease on life in the form of a crisp, delicious pickle.

Nuka, the Japanese word for rice bran, needn’t be made with the stuff – I hear that wheat bran works just as well, and only needs a little tweaking in how its used. I plan on starting a nuka pot myself in the next few days, as I explore the household feasibility of fermentation as a viable alternative to refrigeration, and as I get my taste buds used to the slow introduction of more and more fermented foods in my diet. (Because someday, pickled vegetables may be the only vegetable I can eat for a good chunk of the year. I’m learning to be OK with this in practice.)

S in addition to kimchi, my list of successful ferments are steadily growing, and I’m getting better at sussing out the particulars of each kind, its strengths and weaknesses, the culinary niche that it might fill in my diet. Here’s what has stuck so far, or will absolutely need to stick before we pack up and head out, like some kind of parallel universe, anti-matter Beverly Hillbilles:

Kimchi

I love the taste of kimchi. It’s tangy, spicy, crunchy, and fantastic on a bed of warm rice. It’s also dirt cheap to make and almost impossible to screw up. (Seriously, I don’t know why anyone buys the stuff. It’s as absurd to me as buying water.) My latest batch I made with gochujang paste instead of chili flakes, because it’s all I had on-hand, but it worked really well all the same. I also replace the shrimp paste with miso in my batches, being vegetarian and all. As for its versatility, there are as many kinds of kimchi as there are vegetables in Asia – this is good news for those of us who might be growing things other than napa cabbage.

Sourdough

I’m still not great at making bread from a sourdough starter, but maybe that’s because I’ve only tried with stone-ground wheat. I can make bread that tastes good and very edible, but it’s dense. The starter, though, is also absurdly easy to cultivate, and is edible at just about every stage of the fermentation cycle.

Kvass/Sima/Cider

I don’t know what to call this stuff, to be quite honest. I’ve got a post written up about it, but the jist is this: it’s chopped fruit mixed with sugar, warm water, and whatever herbs/spices you like to taste, and left to get fizzy on the counter for a few days. It’s a little like the Finnish sima, a fermented lemonade, minus the added yeast… and all those other complicated steps.

Mead

Yes, I’m a burgeoning mead-brewer now. I’m going by a sort of eyeballed, wild-yeasted recipe that an acquaintance of mine wrote about a few months back, and it’s also easy as dirt so long as you know how to adequately sanitize your equipment. It’s one part unpasteurized (preferably local) honey to three to four parts warm water. Add fruit, aromatics, or what have you, and let sit at room temperature for a few months until the mead turns clear, making sure that your containers of choice don’t explode. Taste, rack, enjoy. It’s not cheap alcohol, but boy does it mean more when you make it yourself. And it tastes damn good too.

Nukazuke

If the magic happens in a nuka pot, then the magical result is the nukazuke, rice bran pickles. Again, I haven’t actually done this yet, but I see this being a seamless and delicious addition to my fermentation scheme, and a really good way to prevent otherwise good food scraps from winding up in the compost pail. (This is good for those of us who have a jar in the freezer specially dedicated to broth scraps, and don’t know what to do with the leftovers from cruciferous vegetables, spines from leafy greens, or other miscellany. Pickle ’em!)

Vinegar

I have also not made a vinegar yet, though I intend do as soon as I amass enough apple scraps or wine remnants. From what I’ve read, it sounds similar to making my fizzy fruit drink, except you let it turn alcoholic, then let the alcohol turn into acid. By all accounts this is also ridiculously easy.

Miso

Homemade miso paste is actually really easy to make, it just takes a long time – at least a year – and requires inoculation with a special culture found in a product called koji, where the fungus aspergillus oryzae is grown on specially prepared rice. The inoculated rice is a required ingredient in miso of any type (I’ve seen miso made from all manner of beans, not just soy, as well as barley, which is another traditional variety), though it too doesn’t take too much effort to make if you’ve got koji spores on hand, and the dried koji lasts a long time if stored properly. I love miso and use it in a lot of my cooking, so I can see myself doing a big koji/miso-making spree once a year, maybe entirely out of barley if it’s easy to grow.

With the help of a root cellar, a smoke house, and icy winters, I think we just might pull it off. One caveat: we will probably have a small deep freezer for helping store larger amounts of meat and processed game, which we will likely be able to get away with turning off when outside temperatures are below freezing.

We’ve already committed ourselves to living in a ‘dry’ house – that is, a house without plumbing – thanks to Berkey water filters, and strategically-located cisterns around/under the house and their associated hand pumps, and compost toilets. We’ve already committed ourselves to living with as little electricity as we can get away with also: a DC solar arrangement for a laptop or two, record player,  and occasional light bulb, perhaps. But it definitely won’t be enough to run appliances, let alone one that needs power 24/7.

Yeah, it’s going to be a huge change. But that’s why we’re starting here and now, with the concept of kansha. 

From the book’s dust jacket:

The celebration of Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions begins with kansha – appreciation – an expression of gratitude for nature’s gifts and the efforts and ingenuity of those who transform nature’s bounty into marvelous food. The spirit of kansha, deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy and practice, encourages all cooks to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that avoid waste, conserve energy, and preserve our natural resources.

It’s not about saying “no” to the comforts of a modern Western home. It’s about saying “yes” to a different way of doing things, because if you don’t welcome it with open arms and appreciate it for what it has to offer, then… well, you’re up shit creek, aren’t you? Nothing worse than changing your life for all the wrong reasons.


*All energy that relies in any way on electricity at any point during it or its components’ sourcing, manufacture, use, upkeep, and disposal, is unsustainable in my book. My book is very strict.

BIFL Drawing and Writing Supplies

A few months ago I emailed Jetpens to suggest that they consider moving away from plastic shipping materials, or to at least give the option of using entirely paper-based shipping materials, and to also ask if they might someday put together a zero waste product guide. They kindly took my suggestions into consideration, but we’ll see if they’ll ever make them happen!

In the meantime, here’s my own product guide. I did a long suggestion list for more zero-waste friendly art supplies a while back, but didn’t get into specifics much. So based on my own experience making art, here’s the closest thing to a Buy It For Life list of drawing/writing supplies that I can think up. (Most of these are Jetpens links; I’m not an affiliate, they just happen to be the only US-based merchant that sells a lot of this stuff. I’m also a happy customer of theirs, FWIW.)

Rollerball Pens

Rollerball and other ballpoint-types, while convenient, are not the most eco-friendly option out there. Ballpoint ink is made via highly complex industrial processes, and is comprised of oil, solvents, and dye. Gel pens are worse, though, and I recommend staying away from them. Their opacity is due to many more chemical additives, gums, and other thickeners. If a ball-type pen is necessary for your use, at least try to stick with a regular ballpoint style ink.

  • The space pen:  This handy pen has been around for years and years, and was immensely popular a decade or so ago (ask around and you’ll surely find someone who still uses theirs). It’s reported to be one of the more durable ballpoint pens on the market, and AFAIK, it can take a good pounding. The refills are not especially cheap, though, and can only be bought in packs of one on a blister card. $20
  • Karas Kustoms Retrakt Pen: This pen made it onto the website’s own BIFL list, but the neat thing about it is that it’s compatible with a huge range of refills from a bunch of different manufacturers, and takes a bunch of different kinds of inks too. It comes in a brown craft box with little plastic packaging. $50-100
  • CW&T Pen Type A: “Over-engineered to crazy town”, this pen seems to be built like a tank. It uses Hi-Tec-C refills, but the pen itself comes packaged in a cardboard tube instead of plastic. $160

Fountain Pens

Ink-wise, fountain pens win the environmentally-friendly race, hands down. Fountain pen ink is, comparatively speaking, simpler to make because its water-based, and it is possible to make them with 100% natural materials (if you so choose to make your own!). A such, there is a much wider variety of inks on the market to choose from, in a wide range of colors, compositions, and amounts (for the bulk nuts among us). For a much greener, BIFL option, I wholeheartedly recommend a fountain pen.

  • Lamy Safari: Yes, this is a plastic pen. But it’s an ABS plastic pen – the same thing Legos are made from, and we all know those things last forever. This model of pen, as I understand it, is a well-loved EDC pen for many people, and may just be the cheapest BIFL fountain pen option out there. $30
  • Kaweco Brass Sport: You didn’t think you could get away without hearing about this pen again, did you? As an owner of this amazing writing and drawing tool, and someone with first-hand understanding of how durable this thing is, of course it’s going to make the grade. This Kaweco – versus the plastic Kaweco Sports – comes in a very nice metal tin. (There is also a Sport pen made with an aluminum body that runs about $80, which I imagine is just as durable.) $96
  • Kaweco Liliput: A few of these have also made it to the site’s BIFL list, and they’re all metal-bodied pens, so there’s not too much more to say here I think. $58-175

Honorary mentions: J. Herbin inks, which are purportedly made from 100% natural components, and dip pens, which are cheap, durable, and rely on even fewer industrial manufacturing processes than fountain pens.

Pencils

Pencils are a bit tricky. Because on the one hand, you’ve got your mechanical pencils/lead holders, the bodies of which could probably withstand a nuclear blast, but whose refills come overpackaged in ridiculous amounts of plastic; and on the other, you have the generic #2 pencils, which are much simpler, but will inevitably wind up a near-useless little stub of wood and graphite. What’s a green BIFLer to do? So here are a few options, depending on your needs.

  • #2 pencil, sans eraser, + pencil extender: I learned to make use of a pencil extender in art school, where sharpenable drawing tools would get used up faster than toilet paper, and throwing away 3-inch stubs every week was like throwing away money. A pencil extender is just a piece of wood or plastic or metal that clamps onto the end of your too-short pencil, and lets you use it some more. I recommend doing this with eraserless pencils, just so you don’t have a metal/rubber end to deal with afterwards.
  • 100% recycled #2 pencils: Another option is to just use pencils with 100% recycled body content. They make them out of wood pulp, newspaper, and other stuff nowadays. Unfortunately, they always come with eraser heads.
  • Carpentry pencils: You know the ones: they’re sort of oblong instead of round, chunky, eraserless, and need to be sharpened with a knife. You can get these by the handful at hardware stores, and if they’re durable enough for use at a contruction site, then they’re good enough for you!
  • Graphite stick: Also known as woodless pencils, using a graphite stick eliminates the wooden body altogether and doesn’t really need sharpening. Not so great for writing, since the larger ones are usually very chunky and not especially sharpenable, but if you really just need to draw with graphite for some reason, this is a good way to go. The other downside is that they usually need to go in their own container, otherwise they’ll get graphite on whatever they come into contact with after a while, and everything in your bag will wind up black and shiny.
  • Lead holder: A lead holder differs from your typical mechanical pencil in that they usually make use of larger lead sticks: several inches long, and at least several millimeters in diameter. These refills last a long time. (A tip on making your leads last longer: go with the lighter, harder leads, as the softer hardnesses break down faster and release more mineral particulate when scraped across paper. So when shopping for leads, be sure to pick out something with an “H” instead of a “B”. But not too hard, though, otherwise you’ll have difficulty erasing.) Here’s a selection of metal-bodied lead holders$20-112
  • Good quality drafting pencil: If you insist on mechanical pencils, then at least pick one with a thicker lead. 0.5mm pencils sure do make you feel like a sophisticated writing machine, but they’re fragile, and their leads are easily broken – and therefore wasted. I recommend at least 0.9mm simply for the robustness factor. If you have a choice of lead hardness, again, go with something on the H side of things. Here’s a selection of metal-bodied drafting pencils. $16-20

When it comes to Buying It For Life, you don’t always get what you pay for – a $30 Lamy Safari will probably prove just as trusty as my brass Kaweco over the years, let alone something well into the three (or four!) digits that was designed with the collector in mind. Meanwhile, none of the pencil options listed above will come as close to being as BIFL as a simple $3 chunk of graphite.

Either way… let’s ditch the disposable pens, yeah?

#EverydayCarry

edc

This has been my writing/drawing/organizing #EverydayCarry arrangement for about a month now, and I love it. It’s everything I could possibly need for basic writing tasks, as well as casual drawing and professional comic-making. (Minus the brush and ink.) Moreover, it all fits into my traveler’s notebook.

My Everyday Carry consists of the following (from left to right):

Not pictured: my trusty Opinel penny knife. I left it in the notebook and the TSA had to take it last time I flew to Vancouver. Boo. I’ll be buying another one, though – they’re very handy, and still made in France.

To make your own sketchbook, just divide your sheet of paper up, leaving a little extra as possible, cut, and fold the resulting sheets in half to form your book’s pages. For slipping into a traveler’s notebook, you don’t even need to bind them together – the elastic band or rubber band or whatever you’re using to hold it in will keep the pages together also.

What’s your #EDC?

*A 25×30″ sheet of Canson paper gave me a 24-page booklet that would fit in the notebook (about 4.5×8.5″). Any decent art store should sell sheets of paper like this individually and without packaging. Sometimes without even a barcode sticker! I recommend heavier weight paper like this for writing or drawing with a fountain pen, though – normal paper will undoubtedly bleed.

Baking Substitutions

The hubs and I made a trip to Costco a couple weekends ago and treated ourselves to a box of brownie mix – it came with six bags of mix! No, not particularly zero waste, but it should last us a long time.

A few days ago I visited our local market and saw they had bags of bruised apples on their “day old” produce shelf – everything there is a dollar and would otherwise get thrown out – so I grabbed some, hoping that I’d get a chance to make some kind of baked dessert before they headed too far south. I didn’t get a chance to do that, so I whipped out my manual puree grinder and made some applesauce out of what was left. It wasn’t exactly great… kinda starchy. So I got worried. What the heck would I do with it?

And then it occurred to me. Brownies! Apparently you can substitute applesauce for not just eggs in a recipe, but oil too. So I did, and it got me to thinking about all the other “simple food” substitutions there are out there. Because lets face it, aside from eggs, a lot of what we need substitutes for in recipes tend to be the highly specialized, processed ingredients like oil, butter, or certain flours or starches. While these things are indeed staples, they are far from simple foods – a lot of energy goes into making even the plainest bottle of olive oil, for instance. Or bag of all-purpose flour. Their ubiquity betrays their labor and energy intensive processing to get from plant to shelf. (So all things considered, a half-dozen local apples in a plastic bag is less wasteful than even bulk oil when you take processing and manufacturing into consideration.)

Anyways, enough of that. What other interesting baking substitutions are there? Well, poking around the internet, here are a few I’ve run into:

  • 1/3 c. applesauce for 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seeds (FRESHLY ground) in 1/4 c. warm water for 1 egg
  • 1 ripe mashed banana for 1 egg
  • equal amounts applesauce for oil called for
  • juice for oil called for
  • mashed (not refried) beans for oil called for (match bean color to the recipe!)
  • avocado for cheese or butter
  • mashed sweet potato for cheese or butter

Got any other wacky ideas, readers?

Ecoprinting

Ecoprinting

I took an ecoprinting class last night at the Homestead Junction, a local joint here in Van that is pretty much one of my favorite stores in the world at this point. The class was taught by Caitlin Ffrench, a super nice, tarot-reading, punk-hippie local textile artist who started the class by acknowledging that Vancouver is, in fact, unceded Coast Salish territory, and that whenever we go out foraging for plant material to print with, remember that this is their land.

And then I proceeded to learn about ecoprinting, a technique developed by – if I remember correctly – India Flint from learning about traditional egg-dyeing in eastern Europe.

All in all, the technique is ridiculously simple: soak your fabric in mordant, find yourself some leaves and flowers, arrange them along the fabric as you fold it (so that no part doesn’t have stuff touching it), roll it up very tightly with a stick, wrap it very tightly with string, and stick it in a pot of boiling water for about 15 minutes for every inch in diameter your bundle is. Let rest, cut off the string, unwrap, and voila! A beautiful, utterly unique, and low-tech work of textile art.

Above is my piece, about 24″ square – perfect for furoshiki, for turning into a bag (to collect more plant material in), for wearing, to cut napkins or kerchiefs out of…

What struck me about this technique is just how low-impact and zero waste it is. It’s not wholly non-toxic – natural mordants, while often more or less safe for skin contact, should be disposed of carefully because they are solutions of metals – but it’s as green as fabric-dyeing can possibly get. And about as easy, too.

So I’m going to tell you how to do it!

You’ll need:

  • Water
  • Fabric
  • Mordant (see below)
  • Plant material: leaves, husks, berries, flowers, rinds, bark, etc.
  • A jar or large metal pot that won’t touch food ever again
  • A stick
  • String
  • Heat source

1. Buy or make a mordant.

Some mordants, like alum, need to be purchased, but others you can make yourself. Copper and iron mordants are easy enough to make at home, and I’ve read that you can even use an aluminum pot for your dye bath instead of alum, or just use plants that have a high tannin content – like crushed acorns, oak galls, pomegranate rind, juniper needles and others -as tannin also acts as a mordant.

But for now, we’ll stick to the basic iron/copper mordant.

To make some at home, grab a glass jar, fill it full of nails (for iron) or pennies (for copper; sorry Canadians, you’ll need US pennies), and fill the rest of it with half water and half vinegar. Set it sit until the metal starts to rust and the water starts looking really, really gross when you shake it. Strain out the metal pieces, and the resulting liquid is your mordant!

2. Pre-soak your fabric.

Gather up your fabric and throw it into a container that you can from here on out designate as not food-safe. Cover it with water and add a splash of mordant, letting it sit for a half hour or so.

3. Gather your plant material.

We used what Caitlin provided, which were leaves she’d collected in autumn and stored in a freezer. But green foliage works great too, and she even recommended going to florist shops and asking for their leftovers, especially when it comes to using plants from other climates like Eucalyptus. Leaves, husks, berries, and flowers will all work, assuming they have some kind of pigment to contribute.

4. Arrange your pattern.

Remove your fabric from the mordant, and wring it out. Lay it down on a flat, protected surface, and begin arranging your plant material onto half of the fabric (assuming something wider than 8 or so inches). With leaves, put the top-side facing down. Fold it in half, like a sandwich, and arrange again. Repeat this process of arranging and folding until you’re left with a long strip no wider than your dye container is tall. Arrange your last set of plants along the top of your strip.

5. Tie the bundle.

Grabbing your stick (which also shouldn’t be longer than your container is tall), start at one end of the fabric and wrap very tightly – as tight as you possibly can – around it. The fabric should still be wet, so it won’t loosen so easily if it’s sticking to itself. Then grab your string and wrap it around the fabric, also as tightly as you possibly can. the fabric doesn’t need to be covered with the string exactly, just tightly bound.

6. Prepare the bath.

There are a few ways you can do this part. We did ours in a huge stock pot on a hot plate, and the liquid was just remnants of some of the instructor’s other dye baths – she doesn’t like to waste dye! This is why the fabric turned out gray instead of stayed white. But dye isn’t necessary, and we could very well have used water too – or hell, we could have omitted the water altogether also, since this only requires heat, and not necessarily steam or boiling water.

You can do what we did, and boil your water on the stove or a hot plate, and set your bundle in the bath, and let it sit for about half an hour – roughly 15 minutes for every inch in diameter of your bundle – and remove it when done.

The other method is the one I’m interested in: using a jar. For this, get a heat-resistant jar, throw in your bundle, and cover in boiling water. Screw on the lid, and set aside for two weeks – this is similar to solar dyeing – and remove it when done.

7. Enjoy your beautiful fabric!

Once cool, unwrap your fabric and take a peek. That’s what so wonderful about this method: there’s no telling what you’ll get, and it’s almost impossible to get nothing. Every piece is unique. Caitlin said to let the fabric “rest” for a few hours or overnight before hand washing with dish soap and hanging to dry. After that, feel free to launder as normal.

In conclusion?

Ecoprinting and natural dyeing is freaking rad. It can be done on less than a shoestring budget, accomplished with random junk you find on sidewalks and in parking lots, done with fabric or garments you get at the thrift store (bedsheets, anyone?), and the results are impressive every time.

Oh, and it’s also a damn eco-friendly art form.

Give it a go!
IMG_20160129_120945

Manual Monday: Treadle Sewing

So Manual Monday is a project that I’ve been thinking about ever since I bought my breathing hand washer, but what really sealed the deal was a post featured on a favorite blog of mine, wherein the author talks about learning to use a scythe for his volunteer work, the history of it and the sensation of using such an ancient tool.

Manual Monday posts will feature a near-lost bit of technology or methodology for getting something done, or even a more contemporary manual technology – like the aforementioned breathing washer. I’ll reference some of its history, how it was used, and how it is or might be used nowadays. Sound fun? It does to me!

Let’s get started!


man•u•al
1. done, operated, worked, etc., by the hand or hands rather than by an electrical or electronic device


 

I could have done a feature on hand-sewing, which is even more manual than this – but embroidery, sashiko, and other similar skills are all the rage right now, and information on that sort of thing is easy to find.

History

In 1790, the English inventor Thomas Saint invented the first sewing machine design, but he did not successfully advertise or market his invention.[3] His machine was meant to be used on leather and canvas material. It is likely that Saint had a working model but there is no evidence of one; he was a skilled cabinet maker and his device included many practically functional features: an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for short lengths of leather), a vertical needle bar, and a looper. […]

In 1804, a sewing machine was built by the Englishmen Thomas Stone and James Henderson, and a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland.[5] An Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, began developing his first sewing machine in 1807. He presented his first working machine in 1814.

The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch like Saint’s model, and in 1830, he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings and submitted a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on 17 July 1830, and in the same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood following the issuing of the patent.[6]

A model of the machine is exhibited at the London Science Museum. The machine is made of wood and uses a barbed needle which passes downward through the cloth to grab the thread and pull it up to form a loop to be locked by the next loop.The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832.[7] His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down, requiring the machine to be stopped frequently and reset up. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it. In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States.The British partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position, in 1841.[8]

The first machine to combine all the disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine, was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, built by Isaac Merritt Singer and Elias Howe in the following years. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher’s patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine in the legal disputations of priority between the two Americans. […]

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers, and used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. In the 1860s consumers began purchasing them, and the machines—ranging in price from £6 to £15 in Britain depending on features—became very common in middle-class homes. Owners were much more likely to spend free time with their machines to make and mend clothing for their families than to visit friends, and women’s magazines and household guides such as Mrs Beeton’s offered dress patterns and instructions. A sewing machine could produce a man’s shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 1/2 hours by hand.[18]

In 1877 the world’s first crochet machine was invented and patented by Joseph M. Merrow, then-president of what had started in the 1840s as a machine shop to develop specialized machinery for the knitting operations. This crochet machine was the first production overlock sewing machine. The Merrow Machine Company went on to become one of the largest American Manufacturers of overlock sewing machines, and continues to be a global presence in the 21st century as the last American over-lock sewing machine manufacturer.

In 1885 Singer patented the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine, which used Allen B. Wilson’s idea for a vibrating shuttle and was a better lockstitcher than the oscillating shuttles of the time. Millions of the machines, perhaps the world’s first really practical sewing machine for domestic use, were produced until finally superseded by rotary shuttle machines in the 20th century. Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s.

The first electric machines were developed by Singer Sewing Co. and introduced in 1889.[19] By the end of the First World War, Singer was offering hand, treadle and electric machines for sale. At first the electric machines were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side, but as more homes gained power, they became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Treadle machines aren’t found only in history books and antique stores, though: there is exactly one company, Janome, that makes a single model of treadle sewing machine that is currently on the market. Though why buy a clumsy plastic machine for almost $300, when you can buy a used one for a fraction of that which will last for generations?

Public Domain

Public Domain

Technique

Depending on whether you use a modern or vintage treadle machine will determine how you sew. Vintage machines don’t have any fancy settings like modern machines do – like zigzag or button-hole stitches – and many of them don’t even have a reverse setting, allowing you to do just a single, basic, unidirectional stitch. Want to go the other way or secure the end of that stitch? You’ve got to turn the whole piece around, or do it by hand.

The other consideration is, obviously, the treadle itself. There seems to be a groove you fall into with pushing your foot, and figuring that out just takes practice.

Basic overview:

How to thread a vintage machine and check tension:

How to treadle:

How to do freehand quilting with a treadle machine:

One of the things I love about these is just how QUIET they are compared to the roar of powered machines. You can actually have a conversation while sewing!

Feasibility

How feasible would it be to go back to using treadle machines? I think very – there is a thriving market for vintage treadle machines and tables, and not just for decoration. There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but from what I’ve seen, it seems to be no steeper than learning to use any other modern machine. The tables themselves are large pieces of furniture, but I see no difference between that and any other kind of surface that you’d need to put your modern machine on anyways. And the modern ones don’t have the benefit of being small, either. the vintage machines seem downright tiny in comparison.

I think for the hobbyist sewer, treadle sewing wouldn’t be much more difficult or inefficient than what we get with our modern machines. If you run a business, though, or do more than a few hours a week, I can see how using the pedal would get tiring after a while.

Further Reading

Interested in learning more about the treadle technology? The history of pre-electricity sewing? Or interested in buying one for yourself? Have some links!