‘Make Do and Mend’

Family history

Some of you know that I – theoretically – have another blog besides this one, called Notes on a Family. I say ‘theoretically’, because I haven’t posted for ages, and I should. It details parts of my family’s history, as well as vignettes about growing up as one of the immediate post-war generation, This post, from December 2016 seems particularly apposite at a time when it’s rarely been more necessary to avoid rampant consumerism.

Notes on a Family

‘Make do and mend’

The excesses of Christmas have got me thinking about my childhood, as part of the post war ‘make do and mend’ generation.

Even without rationing being a day-to-day part of my early years, we’d have been a thrifty family.  My mother was a clergyman’s daughter, and priests were notoriously underpaid until quite recently.  They also tended to live in large vicarages which were fine buildings, but hard to maintain and harder to heat.  ‘Making do and mending’ was a core part of her life from her earliest days.

My father was a notoriously poor provider and I can’t remember a time when my parents got on well.  My mother did the housekeeping and bill-paying on her income alone.  She was a teacher, but until 1961, female teachers were paid less than their male counterparts.  Admittedly, there was  almost no job available to her that would have paid her on the same scale as a male colleague, but the assumption was that it was men who brought home the bacon. (As a little aside, my mother once failed to get a teaching post, because she referred to it during her interview as ‘a job’.  Her interviewer regarded her frostily.  ‘Miss Barton, teaching is not a job.  It is a profession, a calling’.)

I was brought up with the following skills:

Darning:.  I’m still not good at sewing, but I’m a dab hand at darning gaping holes in socks.  Though actually I don’t do it any more. Even stockings got darned in those days (tights still didn’t exist).

Here are some of the contents of my sewing box. I rarely use any of these things (stocking darning thread, anyone?) but I couldn’t get rid of any of it.

Turning sheets ‘sides to middle’: when sheets wear thin in the middle, they’re split in half and rejoined with the edges towards the centre.  I used to help with the cutting and tacking.

Preparing cheap cuts of meat: the meats  we bought during my childhood were tougher, often bony cuts requiring long slow cooking – breast of lamb; oxtail; pigs’ heads to be transformed into brawn; skirt of beef – all helped to go further by the addition of lots of root vegetables to the pot.

Cheap cuts of pork (image from Farms not Factories)

Hand-making clothes: my mother made most of my clothes, though she wasn’t a natural.  I used to help her, but I was even less gifted, and preferred choosing the cloth, and Butterick or Simplicity patterns, and pinning the pattern pieces to the cloth.  I lost interest after that.

Some of the instructions from a Butterick’s pattern. I remember the occasional despair in interpreting these.

Taking shoes to be mended: shoes had to last.  As there was a tiny cobbler’s shop near our house, I was usually the one that would take our shoes to be soled and heeled.  With growing feet, I was the only one to get new footwear fairly regularly.  And it was taken for granted that shoes would be polished every single day.  I still do clean and shine my shoes – fairly often.

Baking: it was inconceivable that we would ever buy biscuits or cakes, though that was more to do with our preference for good food.  Shop cakes and biscuits were pretty dire in those days.  Some of my earliest memories involve cake mixing – always by hand, never with a fork or spoon – with the delicious pay-back at the end of ‘licking the bowl out’.  Why do we ever cook cakes?  That raw mixture clinging to the sides of the bowl is so much more appetising.

Saving anything that might have a future use:

  • That includes string – to be carefully unknotted, wound tightly and stored.
  • Gift wrapping paper: presents had to be carefully unwrapped, and the paper it came in smoothed out and ironed later.  I still do this.  It drives my daughter mad. (Update: September 2022: I read the other day that the late Queen also did this. If it was good enough for her …)
  • Saving tiny portions of food left over from a meal.  I still do this too.  My son-in-law used to say that it was so I could have a clear out a few days later and throw the stuff out then.  He might sometimes have had a point.

The soup pot: usually those left overs formed the basis of a soup.  Now, as then, there’s usually soup on the go in this house.  Usually it’s based on those vegetables lurking in the crisper that really need to be used up, or something else that’s too small to make a meal in its own right. Normally known as ‘old boot soup’.

Soap: this was bought a few months ahead of its being needed, so that it could be stored in the airing cupboard, where it would dry out, and therefore last longer. I still do this.

Though I’m no longer as thrifty as my upbringing demanded, ‘make do and mend’ is a core part of me still.  As I think it should be.

The feature photo shows my grandfather; my grandmother; my mother and her younger brother; and me, and is the banner image for Notes from a Family.

49 thoughts on “‘Make Do and Mend’

  1. What a lovely post. I too have an alternative blog about growing up but haven’t posted there for a while.

    This week I made a poor attempt at clearing out the shed. Reluctantly I disposed of a box of electric wires and connectors that I will never need again, until next week that is after the bin men have taken them away. I took the fuses out of the plugs and stored them in my fuses jar.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ll have to poke around and see if I can find your alternative blog. You and my husband should get together and pool your collections of electrical and other Man Shed things that Might Come In Handy One Day. But never do.

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      1. Needlework was the only subject I came bottom in. I detested sewing. In Year 1 we had to make a blouse, with cuffs and collar and buttonholes… by the time I had finished it in Year 2 I had developed breasts! The wretched blouse was never worn! However, as a young mother I was a dab hand at making curtains and blinds and baby dungarees from old denim jeans!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew, you sound like my brother-in-law who saves absolutely everything “just in case.” Admittedly, he can pretty much repair anything as he’s a qualified boat builder. I confess to saving wrapping paper andI rately through any food out but that’s probably because I plan our menus. I also bake a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a beautiful post.
    “Make do and mend” is I think a secret to success in life and business.
    I would say though that in many parts of Asia, the “cheap” cuts of pork are the more desirable ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this! And you have continued to use some of these thrifty practices and skills alongside embracing new ones. Well done you! I am now officially renaming my Leftovers Soup which will henceforth be called Old Boot Soup. I’ll be making chicken stock today – never waste a good carcass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly, Sandra. I can never understand why people don’ savour this best part of the chicken. I once talked to someone who regarded my efforts with disdain. ‘A stock cube is far less trouble, and just as good.’ I beg to differ.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. All but the sewing sounds like me. I still have that darning kit as well.
    The cooking is always the same but not to the extreme of brawn. Leftovers get used. If those that don’t end up in the compost.

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  6. Hi Margaret

    My reply on word press doesn’t work so using this method I loved you post on make do and mend. I’m the person with a similar heritage, Yorkshire teacher mother and Ukrainian/ Polish father (who wasn’t a great bread winner)- albeit living in Australia. My mother died last year at 101 and I spent many hours sorting the saved wrapping paper. We all knew to never write a name on a birthday envelope that could be recycled. Mum also had this sponge pocket she would put soap ends in for the bath. I’m so grateful I and now my children have learned not to waste and to follow the traditions of my mother and her parents ( my daughter grows rhubarb as my grandfather did, but cooks it for herself rather than selling it) Regards Margaret Owen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for persisting in replying. We seem to have a great deal in common, from our heritage to our upbringing. My children, sadly, are not half so thrifty, though slowly changing their bad habits as they get older.

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  7. I try to be thrifty, especially with food. I do save leftovers and most of the time I plan to overcook so that I do have leftovers for lunch. I confess I am a saver and could form a club with a few men mentioned in replies, though I am not very handy. Our mom made our clothes when we were young and even made bookcases and end tables for our rooms. She grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression and was always thrifty. Nice post, you made me think of how full of gratitude I should be. A great way to begin the day. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I recognise almost all of this – the darning (I used to darn my school tights in the early days of those garments’ existence!), the Butterick and Simplicity patterns (my mother made loads of lovely dresses for me over the years, from my toddler days through to early teens), turning sides to middle, home baking. But drying out the soap is a new one to me!

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  9. Ooh, I used to love pigs trotters! Dad was a farm labourer so we often had rabbit, especially during harvest time when they were inadvertently driven in ever decreasing circles until they were “harvested” by the machinery. Being in the army I was quite adept at darning, sewing etc and everyone was issued with a “housewife” when joining.
    https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30016350
    I very rarely dispose of any excess food, apart from offcut fruit and veg which goes into the compost and I’m afraid I cannot join the man cave club as my shed is quite organised. (28 years in the army has a lot to answer for!)

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    1. Oh yes, rabbit too. Amazingly, in those post-war years where my Polish father could not at first find work, we had a car, and he was a dab hand at driving past giving the poor creatures a glancing blow which killed, but didn’t mangle them. He then brought them home for my mother to skin and deal with.

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  10. Oh, I’d forgotten all about pigs’ trotters! I loved them. Something about the glue which stuck itself everywhere as you attempted to eat them (with a loose slurry of dried peas or split peas for you too, Peter?). The ‘housewife’, or something very similar is familiar to me too. The only thing that isn’t is organisation. I’m irredeemably untidy and have no wish to change.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A different generation and different motivation, but I see a lot of my own lifestyle in this post. Although I appreciate that I’m blessed in that, for me, it’s been a choice. I don’t do the cheaper cuts of meat though. I’d happily be full time veggie and prefer to cook vegetarian meals with lots of beans and pulses. If the husband turns up with a rabbit or pheasant that goes in the pot. Funnily enough, I am capable of getting game from the field to the table- I’ve just no desire to eat it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hardly eat meat at all now, but I still like the cheaper, tastier cuts when I do – probably because I prefer the veggies, pulses etc that are part of such a meal. Yes, game is often, though not always a sustainable solution. I just don’t like it.

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  12. Absolutely loved this Margaret. I must admit that many of the things you still do I also do! not because we cannot afford not to do them but because of an upbringing that taught us not to over-indulge. While I would never cut/sew sheets as you did, nor did I know soap when dried out lasts longer, I do save the tiniest bits of food for leftovers and re-use gift wrapping (it’s ungodly expensive these days!!) Your post is a treasure!

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  13. I enjoyed reading this one. I remember darning socks, but wouldn’t do it now. Never did that thing with sheets, but I did use old ones to cut down into cot sheets and I actually made my own duvet covers when duvets first became popular so I could choose the colour! I do make soups and use the chicken carcass always! Doesn’t everyone? And I’m with you on the baking, licking the bowl was the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It looks as if none of us darns socks. I’m impressed with your making duvet covers! So unwieldy to handle … You’d think everyone would use chicken carcasses, but – apparently not,

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  14. Looking at the current rises in energy costs and everything else!! I think make do and mend will be the sensible response and a better outcome for all (people and other life on planet Earth) than rampant consumerism.

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    1. I think my post-war upbringing stood me in good stead – I’ve simply not been able to shift my habits. Whether I’ve learnt enough to get us through current times is entirely another matter.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My grandparents moved out of London during the Blitz and at that point began growing vegetables seriously and it became part of my grandfather’s life until he died at 87. And also, interestingly, they didn’t have a fridge until the mid 1980s which my sister and I found both amazing and weird, but they did have a wonderful smelling larder.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Flexible? Or lazy? Who knows? But it works for me. Planning wouldn’t have been any good for me yesterday because I came home from a walk lugging an enormous puffball. That hadn’t been on the menu when I woke up, but it sure was by the end of the day.

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  15. I loved this post Margaret as much is familiar to me too. The effects of wartime rationing on my grandparents imprinted not only on my mother but also on to me. For some time I have had a similar post on the virtues of mending on the backburner featuring photos of all sorts of sewing and darning goodies that I have inherited from both sets of grandparents and my mother-in-law. I might still do it (and reference your post and a post on the same theme from another blogger that I read not so long ago). Btw, I still darn socks!

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