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DIY: why women should pick up a hammer

Christine Ottery

29th June, 2010

Getting practical can save you money, make you more self-sufficient and gives you the potential to have a broader green impact too. So get that tool box out...


Women are doing it for themselves when it comes to being handy around the home, and this is having all kinds of consequences for the environment. Fixing things around the house has the potential to feed into ‘transitioning' local communities into greener and more self-sustaining places to live - as advocated by the Transition Town network.

Three quarters of women surveyed in a 2009 report by DIY chain B&Q were more likely to tackle DIY because of the economic recession. Recently the Women's Institute ran a DIY masterclass to teach its members basic skills, such as fixing taps, tiling, plumbing and mounting wall hooks.

Andy Gerrard, owner of The DIY School, based in Stockport, England, says that many of the women that come to the school are recent divorcees or single women who have never picked up a hammer before and can't afford to get tradesmen in.

These social and financial factors, along with a bid to become more self-sufficient, all might play a part in why women are picking up toolkits rather than the phone to their estate agent, tradesman, or any other man for that matter.

Hidden benefits

As it turns out, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. In her book Sucking Eggs: What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift and Going Green, author Patricia Nicol explains how women were encouraged to be their own handymen. Wartime pamphlets positively encouraged women to have the confidence to fix things in the home themselves and government advice informed women about basic plumbing, soldering, and using tools.

Whatever the social situation or government propaganda, DIY expert Andy Gerrad thinks one of the main benefits of knowing what you are doing is less waste. ‘If people know how to do the job, they won't waste materials from making mistakes and starting again and also because they will know in advance how much they need to use. Doing it yourself discourages a throwaway attitude,' he says.

‘Mend it, make it last longer, buy less...' says Sian Berry, author of Mend It! and Green Party spokesperson. She advocates re-using and re-fashioning stuff you've found. And obviously if you can fix things around the home you will not need to replace them as often.

Do it green

Although on the whole women who sign up for DIY courses are probably more interested in their independence or the recession than the environment, buds of eco-awareness are sprouting.

‘Women on the courses ask about environmentally friendly paint and what kind of wood is hardwearing and comes from sustainable forests,' says Collette Dunkley from Chix and Mortar, which run women's DIY weekend courses endorsed by the National College of Construction.

As an added bonus, Gerrard thinks that women on his courses learning skills such as plastering or tiling may become more comfortable with the idea of investing in energy-reducing work, such as loft insulation - and maybe even doing it themselves. Although he says that bigger jobs such as cavity wall insulation will need to be done by a professional.

Spreading skills

Learning DIY skills can have a wider impact on the community too. ‘If there are more people out there taking charge of their homes,' says Sian Berry, ‘this kind of mindset is very closely related to the kinds of things that the green movement wants people to be doing on a local level, for example, looking after green spaces and building Guerrilla orchards.'

One of the people encouraging female volunteers to get practical is Jenny Hall, a timber frame designer who works with The Timber Frame Company. She teaches them how to build structures for festival exhibition and garden spaces, and even for projects such as compost toilets. She hopes that as a result women feel empowered.

Berry thinks a focus on practical skills workshops could help the green movement by getting people to act practically to make their personal environment better - and then bringing it out into the community.

'The Transition Town movement is very much on the same kind of spectrum, psychologically,' says Berry. 'It's all about being practical and using your hands when a lot of us have jobs that involve sitting in front of a computer all day. Doing practical stuff with real people is good for your soul.'

DIY TIPS

  • Build confidence by starting with small jobs. Sian Berry says: Millions of really simple electrical goods like toasters, kettles and irons are chucked away every year. But they usually fail because of a loose wire that you can easily reconnect by tightening a nut or a few seconds with a soldering iron. Don't be afraid to open up these things and take a look to see if the problem is obvious. Colette Dunkely agrees: 'A huge sense of satisfaction can be gained if you know a new washer for a tap costs 15p and you know how to fix it rather than get a tradesperson in to do it.'
  • Go on a course such as one of the ones mentioned above. Alternatively, run an internet search to see if you can get involved with volunteering projects that can give you practical experience of DIY skills. The BCTV run volunteering conservation projects that can help you pick up some handy tips and they also run short courses on how to use tools, for instance.
  • No time for a course? Beg or borrow someone's toolkit and look up some handy tips online. DIY Doctor  is an online forum for with picks of video tutorials from YouTube - from changing a door handle to fitting a sink. Threadbanger is fun site with a series called ‘Décor it yourself'. It is mostly craft-based but does not shy away from getting saw, hammer and nails out to make a birdhouse, for example.

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of home and garden products and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here

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