The art of making do


1. electric tractor.png

One of our popular exhibitions from last year was Make, Do and Mend. It promoted the idea of recycling and reusing items in clever ways.

Today these principles are part of a philosophy of reducing waste to save the planet. In the past, however, people made, mended or reused items because it made economic sense. Often there wasn’t an alternative to repairing items. You made do, did or went without.

Often when we think of such thrifty characteristics as reusing, we imagine our parents or grandparents who lived through The Depression or wartime.  When we were planning this exhibition, that was what we thought of at first too.

People who had limited access to materials and goods or little money in times of difficulty learnt to make and do, and then carried on those habits when things became better. But these principles often give rise to resourcefulness and ingenuity, which are characteristics that we, as a nation, are very proud of.

2. darning mushroom.jpg

New country, new ideas

New countries give new opportunities, and right from our country’s beginning people have had to be adaptable, by changing old ways of doing things to suit their new environment.

Polynesians were used to working with materials that didn’t exist here in Aotearoa. Paper Mulberry, for example, simply couldn’t survive here, so Maori had to ‘make do’ with flax.

Learning about Maori material culture you can’t help but be amazed by how, over a relatively short period of time, they found uses for local materials – plants, stones and woods that they had never seen before. This allowed Maori to not only develop new forms of art and architecture but more importantly, survive in a colder climate.

3. homemade soap.jpg

When the first Europeans came to New Zealand, many relied heavily on Maori people and knowledge when they first arrived. For example, the first settlers in Dunedin arrived in March and had no time to plant crops before winter. Without the help of Otakau Maori my ancestors, and many others, would have starved.

Even when European communities set up their own economies people still had to make and do. Ships may have come to a port infrequently and goods were sold at a premium, so people had to make a lot of their own utensils and repair things as they broke.

Being so far away from everything instigated the Kiwi ‘can do’ attitude, where people made things out of other things to give them what they needed.

Repairing items became a praiseworthy skill. Shoe lasts were used repair boots, people darned socks or cut down clothes for children. Mending could be quite inventive and creative.

If one looks at Victorian clothing you often see many alterations as people got bigger, or garments became stained or ripped.  Lace collars and panels of contrast fabric down the front of skirts or bodices are ingenuous ways of mending and making do which sometimes become the highlight of the item of clothing.

4. knitting bag.jpg

Home grown

When The Depression hit in the 1920s and 1930s many people were already used to making and doing. Adversity can bring rewards and benefits. For example, a number of New Zealand potteries, such as Crown Lynn and Temuka pottery owe their success to the fact that during the War World Two ceramics weren’t coming from England as they used to.

Here in Ashburton, petrol restrictions meant carrying companies could only travel short distances which threatened their viability. However, a number of small companies banded together and distributed jobs amongst themselves – giving rise to the lucrative business known as Mid Canterbury Transport. Mid Canterbury is full of examples of people who made a business by turning a negative situation into a profitable one.

In the post-War economic boom, making, doing, mending or generally scrimping became seen as a miserly, negative trait.

However, many of us still make and do if we have a goal we wish to achieve. As a child I’d walk home instead of catching the bus from school to save my bus money to buy things that I wanted.

Others may mend something that is special to them, such as an item of clothing made by someone special or those shoes that are so comfy. Now of course saving the environment is as important as saving ones money, so mending and recycling have become quite fashionable.


By Kathleen Stringer




1) While neither mending nor making do, part of the philosophy is using resources efficiently. No better example can be the electric tractor, developed right here in Ashburton. With so much surplus power why not electrify tractors?

2) A common Sunday afternoon activity was darning socks and jerseys.  Now with cheap synthetic clothes darning is becoming a forgotten skill. This mushroom shaped object is a wooden darning tool to hold the hole flat while mending.

3) The best of both ideas – homemade soap was a cost saver and used all manner odd leftovers, such as animal fat and wood ash.

4) William Morris once said, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. But sometimes you can have both, here a bag for holding light coloured wool when knitting has been embroidered.

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