As a child, were you taught how to mend clothes or preserve food? What about how to garden and save seeds, or identify local flora and fauna? Unfortunately, many young people grow up without the opportunity to learn valuable ancestral skills that are not only practical but also important for sustainable living.
Think about it: if we know how to repair a hole in a sweater, we won’t toss it in the landfill. If we know how to preserve bruised fruit, we won’t trash it. When we relearn forgotten life skills, everyone benefits. Here’s how we can learn from our ancestors and teach our children.
Old-fashioned skills make a comeback
Whether you call them “granny skills” (a term credited to author Rebecca Sullivan), ancestral skills, or old-fashioned skills, the idea is more or less the same: skills from previous generations that have mostly fallen away with our fast-paced, technology-driven lives.
Traditional skills might include …
- preserving foods (including canning and fermenting)
- gardening and seed saving
- fibre arts (knitting, sewing, quilting, crocheting, visible mending)
- hand dyeing
- tanning hides
- soap making
- outdoor survival skills
- wine and beer making
Many of these skills were taught in schools as “home economics,” and indeed some still are. However, this has become less common and less extensive over time, as home economics can carry a stigma of being sexist, out-of-date, and regressive.
Yet, many believe we can reframe a lot of these “old-fashioned” skills as valuable for the 21st century. They’re certainly not just for girls and women, either! Conversely, many skills stereotypically associated with men (think carpentry or automotive maintenance/repair) are important for all genders.
Jill Slind is a computational biologist at Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre at BC Cancer, where she spends her days analyzing DNA. But in her free time, she’s an avid knitter and the current president of West Coast Knitters’ Guild (WCKG). This BC member-led group connects those interested in knitting and regularly contributes to charitable causes.
According to Slind, knitting is still typically seen as a “grandmotherly” activity, although this perception is changing. “We don’t necessarily see ourselves, young people, portrayed as knitters in TV and movies.” She credits online content such as social media with helping to normalize knitting as a creative and relaxing—and even trendy—hobby for younger generations.
It’s not just knitting. A lot of “granny skills” are making a comeback. Turns out we have a lot to learn from our grandmothers.
Benefits of skill building
When we build our skills, we can rely less on those of others. It’s an empowering thought that if your favourite pants get ripped, you can mend them, or if your car has a flat tire, you can change it.
“We don’t need to buy as many commercial cleaning products if we know how to make DIY cleaners with baking soda and vinegar,” agrees Ontario-based writer, Zero Waste consultant, environmentalist, and mother Sarah Robertson-Barnes.
Tania Larsson is a Gwich’in artist based in the Northwest Territories who makes fine jewellery with land-based materials, including hides that she tans herself. She describes the empowering feeling of self-sufficiency that she has developed from learning these skills: “I can now make something from seemingly nothing. I can make hide … The beauty of learning a traditional skill is learning how to position yourself in the world, in community, on the land, as part of nature.”
Slind learned to knit as an adult after an offhand comment by her partner. “I’ve always fidgeted a lot, which can make it difficult to concentrate. One night we were watching TV and I was fidgeting, and he suggested that I take up knitting. So I did!”
Not only does knitting help her concentrate, but she also finds it relaxing. “Skills like knitting can be gratifying hobbies—they can be a way for people to unplug and do something meditative,” she explains.
“The act of making something can be therapeutic or gratifying. Humans in general, we’re made to learn things and make things. Practising these skills allows us to do what our minds naturally want us to do.”
Many old-fashioned skills, such as mending clothes or making DIYs, happen to be low waste and sustainable. It just makes sense: generations ago, there was no “throwaway culture” or “convenience culture.”
Robertson-Barnes agrees that granny skills are inherently tied to sustainability. “As I got more into sustainability, I became more interested in old-fashioned skills. For example, fermentation is a millennia-old skill that helps preserve food. I can’t believe that I have a biology degree and I had never tried it out! I took a course—and it’s been really fun.”
Robertson-Barnes also describes how many of these skills, such as gardening, help foster a close connection with nature. “Gardening is a process of trial and error. You can read about it or watch videos, but what’s most important is paying close attention to the nature around you: you have to get to know your soil, your light, your particular garden plot.
“It’s about trusting yourself—connecting to that deep, ancestral place of knowing that we can lose when we’re not paying attention.”
For Larsson, sustainability is a holistic concept that involves relationships with her elders, the caribou, and their sacred land. Learning traditional skills means learning from elders, and there’s no such thing as being “self-taught.”
“In Indigenous culture, you need to ask to learn something, and that can be humbling,” Larsson explains. “It’s a community, and any time you experience benefits, you bring those benefits back to the community, so we all benefit together. True sustainability is bringing everyone with you.”
By engaging in the practices and reconnecting with the knowledge of our ancestors, we may find that we rekindle a bond with generations past. Interested in learning more about your ancestors? Why not rifle though your grandmother’s cookbook, do an online search, or ask an older relative what they remember from their childhood?
Crucially, ancestral connection can also refer to Indigenous knowledge systems. Many Indigenous people are once again learning the irreplaceable and invaluable practices of their ancestors.
According to Larsson, “It’s important to rebuild these relationships that were destroyed by colonization and residential schools … By learning these skills, I’m helping repair these bonds and reconnecting with the land. It’s a lifetime of learning. I’m also strengthening pride in being an Indigenous woman.
“Even though I can’t talk directly with my ancestors, there is knowledge embedded in these objects such as jewellery and hides, as well as through the land, that speak to me,” says Larsson. “The beauty of our culture is in the relationships, the communities, the people, and the land. For me, that’s what it means to be Indigenous.”
According to Slind, “With things like gardening and preserving food, we can feel more resilient in times of uncertainty, during things like food shortages.”
And it’s not just resilience for ourselves either: skill building can help communities as a whole, such as in our changing climate. We can help pass our own skills along to others, trade and share with our loved ones, and work to help build resilient neighbourhoods through projects such as community gardens, beehives, and fruit tree gleaning.
Traditional skills are inherently practical. Oftentimes, the fruits of our labour are better than what can be purchased from a store. Slind agrees, saying, “The food grown in your own garden or preserves you’ve prepared—they just taste better. And nothing feels as nice on your skin as a garment you’ve made.”
According to Slind, knitting and other fibre arts is one way to help fight back against fast fashion. “I don’t think it’s any surprise that if we buy a $10 shirt from a fast-fashion company, it’s going to disintegrate in a few months. People are catching on. It’s damaging for the environment and our wallets. With knitting and sewing, you can make clothing made exactly for your unique body, and it will last. Only now am I needing to darn socks that I knitted years ago.”
It’s never too late to learn something new, and there are plenty of opportunities. Not sure how to start? In addition to resources such as books, consider these suggestions.
There are many online platforms offering courses of general interest to the public. Free instructional videos can also be very helpful. Slind, for example, learned how to knit by watching YouTube videos.
Clubs, organizations, and shops
If you’re interested in a topic, research organizations near you, where people can help inspire and guide you. Slind suggests connecting with local yarn shops. “They’re an amazing resource! Many offer classes and have adapted to COVID so you can take online classes via Zoom in the comfort of your own home.” She also suggests joining guilds or clubs, such as the West Coast Knitters’ Guild.
Friends and family
You may be surprised to learn what the people around you know, and if you follow the proper protocols, they would be happy to teach you. Learning from elders can mean a more holistic learning experience.
As Larsson describes, “If you want to learn how to tan hides, [elders] will first teach you the basics: how to identify the correct trees for wood for the smoking process; how to make a fire; how to set up a tent; how to have a clean work surface.”
Community college courses
From beekeeping to beer making to bread baking, the continuing education departments of colleges and universities offer numerous courses.
Public library courses
An often-overlooked resource, libraries offer countless courses and classes—and many are free of charge!
Skill building is valuable and empowering for children and adults alike. “These skills are a preservation of history, plus the end product is so great. As a culture, we don’t want to lose these skills,” says Slind.
“What’s more empowering than creating something and bringing it into the world?” asks Larsson.
Many Indigenous communities are engaging in land-based learning for children when possible, which involves teaching students about traditional Indigenous practices. It’s an empowering, hands-on way to learn subjects such as science that also helps build resilience, practical skills, and community connection. Some examples include building fires, foraging, hunting, fishing, and tanning hides.
For Gwich’in artist Tania Larsson, land-based learning is “necessary because our education system for so long was to separate kids from their family and nature … With land-based learning, students have fun outside, learn problem-solving, and build confidence.”
She adds that it’s best to involve elders in the process whenever possible, even if extra accommodation is needed. “We need to prioritize these relationships, otherwise that learning opportunity is lost. Do you want to learn from someone with 20 years of experience or 80 years?” Larsson asks.
“Not everyone is going to start spinning their own yarn, and that’s okay,” laughs Larsson. “But you can support those who do! If you see value in the handmade, support creators, artists, and organizations with things like slow fashion, handmade goods, or artisan foods.” She admits homemade may be more expensive because of the time, quality, and intention that goes into the project, “but it’s worth it if you have that disposable income to invest.”
Knitting is for everyone
According to Jill Slind, president of the West Coast Knitters’ Guild, many skills, such as knitting, have been devalued by society because what is traditionally seen as women’s work (and unpaid labour in general) has been undervalued by society. Sadly, the female-only perception of knitting persists.
“Male knitters are still underrepresented in the knitting world,” Slind explains. “It’s unfortunate, but thankfully, it is starting to change. Toxic masculinity means additional stigma and a barrier for men who might otherwise be interested in taking up knitting. Knitting is for everyone.”
“Granny skills” don’t have to be purely practical. “Teach your kids how to play Crazy Eights!” suggests Zero Waste consultant and mother Sarah Robertson-Barnes. “Many kids don’t learn how to play with a physical deck of cards these days, and it can be so fun.”