Families use Internet to learn vintage skills to save money, reconnect with past

Families use Internet to learn vintage skills to save money, reconnect with past

November 10th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Laura Mountain, left, and her daughter, Emma, 7, feed their chickens. Mountain purchased the animals as part of an effort to make her family more independent and to teach her children responsibility.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.


Modern homesteader Erika Winn, 21, offers the following tips for using common household items in some unlikely ways.


• Add a few drops of lavender and eucalyptus oil to a bottle of vinegar to create an air freshener that "destroys the foul smell better than Febreze."

• Freeze slices of lemon or orange in a vinegar bath and drop one into the garbage disposal once a week to kill bacteria and leave a fresh scent.

Baking soda

• Wet a shower or tub down, sprinkle baking soda along the wet surfaces and spray it with vinegar to create a foaming cleaner similar to Scrubbing Bubbles.

• Mix 1/2 to 1 cup of cat litter with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of baking soda and pour into the bottom of large trashcans to absorb leaks and bad smells. Replace once every six months.

Essential oils

• Add 15 to 20 drops to an air filter to freshen the whole house.

• Fill half of an empty Pringles can with baking soda, add 15 to 20 drops of essential oils and sprinkle on carpets to deodorize twice a year.

On its own, a single blueberry barely counts as a bite. But four gallons of them? That presents more of a culinary conundrum.

Five years ago, Nicole Scott's father offered her a berry bounty from her grandfather's farm, and, at first, she was hesitant to accept.

"It was absolutely intimidating," recalls the 33-year-old from Rome, Ga. "I told him I didn't know what to do with them, and he said, 'Well, make jelly. It's not hard.' I hadn't done it, but I said OK."

Unsure of how to start, Scott turned to YouTube, where she found a video recipe that detailed, step-by-step, how to turn her blueberries into jelly. Her father was right; it was surprisingly easy. Buoyed by her first success, she began jellying other fruit - cherry, apple and grape - before moving on to canning corn and green beans.

Since then, Scott has further expanded her domestic tool box, honing her skills as a seamstress, quilter and gardener. She even makes her own soaps and laundry detergent. Next up, she says? Knitting.

Scott's passion for rediscovering the lost domestic arts is a trend across the country, mainly with young women who are on a quest to become more self-sufficient by mastering skills that were common knowledge during their grandmothers' generation.

Some call this do-it-yourself movement "modern/urban homesteading," "permaculture," "sustainable living" or "craftivism." Practitioners say growing and canning their own food, raising livestock, sewing their own clothing and making their own cleaning supplies offer a cheaper, healthier way to live, even if these activities are no longer a matter of survival.

"I realized that the skills that every woman had to have to survive are ... going away, and I don't want to see that happen because they are so amazing," Scott says. "I'm more in love with the nostalgia and the history and the art and artisanship that goes into them."


Despite its roots in 19th-century practices, modern homesteading does not mean having to abandoning modern technology and conveniences. Most DIY fans say that, like a hoe or a pitchfork, the Internet is just another tool.

"If you've got the resource to be able to help you do something ... to better your life and didn't use it because it's on the Internet, that would be a shame," says Laura Mountain, a 31-year-old mother of two living in Charleston, Tenn.

"The Internet is a good tool if you want to learn something right now," she says. "All I have to do is sit on my couch, Google 'gardening' and it pops up to tell me how to do it. I think they go hand in hand, but do you absolutely have to have it? No."

When Mountain, her husband Eric and their children Emma, 7, and Luke, 5, moved onto a three-acre plot two years ago, they decided that it would be wasteful not to make use of the land. The only problem was, they were out of their element.

A self-described "city girl," Mountain had to start learn sustainable living skills from scratch. This spring, she started a small garden with some helpful tips from her neighbors, one of whom brought fruit trees for her to plant. She also purchased a handful of chickens to provide eggs and, eventually, meat.

When she decided she wanted to learn to knit scarves and hats to save money, however, she went online.

"I'm learning all this through the power of the Internet," Mountain says, laughing. "I ... bought a book that shows how to do things, but I'm a visual learner. I found a YouTube video that ... showed me the correct process of knitting, and now I just do it."

A burgeoning community of modern homesteaders has sprung up online. MeetUp.com has dozens of listings for homesteading group gatherings, and hobbyist network Pinterest has hundreds of posts related to sustainable living. Modern homesteaders on these services share sewing patterns, read articles and offer each other advice on everything from how to make soft cheese and build chicken coops to tips for storing produce during the winter.

Ooltewah resident and hairdresser Nabila Nevils, 32, says her sustainable living education started with gardening tips from her mother-in-law, but she also has padded her skill set through instructional books, DVDs and websites such as FrugallySustainable.com and MotherEarthNews.com.

Nevils styles herself as the "Homesteadin' Hairstylist." Over the last several years, she has taught herself to garden, quilt and make her own shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent and salves for bug bites and scrapes. She also grinds wheat into flour to bake bread and other goods, some of which she gives to her clients.

"A lot of [taking on these skills] was to help with living a more frugal and simple life," Nevils writes in an email. "I find a rhythmic beauty in pausing to be in the moment of creating and learning, [from] stepping back into the quiet and slowing to appreciate the simple ways of life."

Although she's not hesitant to look for advice online, she says she prefers to seek out a flesh-and-blood instructor whenever possible.

"It's sad that we don't have the sense of community that we used to have, which was the foundation of learning these skills," Nevils says. "The beauty of technology from 100 years ago was learning at the feet of the old and wise - learning step by step beside each other, being mentored into the knowledge of skills."


Modern homesteaders say there are many reasons for pursuing a lifestyle some might consider outmoded and antiquated. Many, like Mountain, say they appreciate the opportunity to save money by using a little sweat and elbow grease to make something themselves.

Erika Winn, 21, says the smell of the chemicals used in off-the-shelf cleaners is so intense that it makes her gag. By making her own cleaning supplies, she spends less and - literally - saves herself a headache.

"I can clean my home for one-fifth the cost ... and never get sick from the chemicals," she says. "I can wash my windows and floors, scrub and wipe my bathrooms and clean my kitchen and never feel faint, nauseous or have a migraine."

The modern homesteading movement has no definitive starting date, but it saw a surge in popularity with the onset of the economic recession in 2008. Many homesteaders say that living-expense increases and the uncertainty of the economy were directly responsible for pursuing a more frugal lifestyle.

"We don't know what the future holds for us, but I want to be prepared," Mountain says. "I don't think we can ever be entirely self-sufficient in this day and age ... but with prices going up, anything I can do to help my family keep our money flow closer to home, I'll do it.

"I don't have to spend money on gas to drive 10 miles into town to get something I can grow right here in my yard. When I need it, I can go pick it."

Like Scott and Mountain, many homesteaders began pursuing a frugal lifestyle with little to no experience with the necessary skills. Learning to do something for themselves and making something tangible were powerful incentives, they say.

In a generational turning of the tables, Dunlap, Tenn., resident Emily Prestley, 22, learned to crochet in a 10th-grade home economics class, then passed those skills on to her grandmother, aunts and cousins.

"I've always liked making things with my hands," she says. "I think it's fun to be able to see the fruits of my labor, which I think a lot of people are getting away from.

"It's easy to say 'I care about you' by buying you something. [If I] make you something, that's something I put my time and effort into, and that's really valuable."

Some say preparing their children for an uncertain future, not a desire to reconnect with their past, drives them to take up modern homesteading. By involving her children in caring for the family's flock of chickens, Mountain says, she hopes she's teaching them that they don't have to rely on others to survive.

"By the time they leave the house, I want them to be self-sufficient in everything," she says. "It's really a very scary time for our society, and anything I can do to empower my family to be independent, I want to learn to do that.

"I hope I'm instilling into my kids that, 'Look, you may have to work harder at some things, but the end result will give you fulfillment and make you feel very proud of yourself.'"


Although they have found value in becoming more independent, most homesteaders agree it's a lifestyle that isn't for everyone.

"Taking up these types of skills takes time to learn them, time to incorporate them into your life and money for equipment," Winn says. "Doing something like this isn't just for everyone to run out and just start; it takes effort. Some people just aren't committed enough for that ... and that's OK."

The key, Scott says, is to ease into homesteading. Don't make a beeline for the country and start dreaming up designs for a root cellar, she says. Instead, start with something simple.

Like jelly.

"Jelly is the easiest thing in the world," she says. "I can make jelly with my eyes closed. Start with boiling water. If someone can boil water, they can can food. If someone can hem a pair of pants, they can make a quilt or a Halloween costume

"Is it for everybody? I don't think so. Could it be? If they're willing to try, yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.com