My best friend and I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when we were growing up (she now has Wilder’s signature tattooed on her ankle, in all its copperplate glory), so I was thrilled to hear about Jennifer Worick’s new book, The Prairie Girl’s Guide to Life. It just came out, and it’s a celebration of the genteel and the thrifty, those wonderful virtues that shine from every page of Wilder’ books, from Little House in the Big Woods to The First Four Years. In her book, Jen talks not only about what she learned from Little House on the Prairie, but looked around her for people embodying what she thinks of as the modern prairie spirit. Full of nostalgia for simpler days (pioneer days as well as the fictional ones of the 1970s TV show), each section has a short how-to illustrated by a drawing reminiscent of the ones in the books. Sometimes it’s a reminder of something we’ve probably forgotten how to do, like write a letter, or flirt the old-fashioned way, or make pin-curls, but there are also instructions for ice-fishing and panning for gold. I got a chance to ask Jen a few questions about the craft movement, if the Little House books are still fun to read as an adult, and how Laura was really an eco pioneer.
Also, inspired by Prairie Girl and the upcoming holidays, we thought we’d hold an apron contest! We know there are lots of wonderful homemade aprons out there, and we want to see them. Taunton books has generously offered a copy of Prairie Girl to each of the five winners, and we’ll be featuring the aprons in the Curio section of the next issue of CRAFT. Send photographs of the aprons you’ve been working on to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 12th. (Be sure to include your website or Etsy shop!)
(Aprons above from Ashley Jayne and Annie’s Attic, both at Etsy.)
Arwen: Here at Craft, we see a lot of people making knitted robots and embroidered skulls as well as rediscovering more traditional crafts. What do you think differentiates Prairie Chic from Hipster Chic? Do you think that the embrace of “cozy” crafts is a backlash against modern design?
Jen: Perhaps the basic skills used for Prairie Chic and Hipster Chic are the same; it’s what people are doing with the skills. I like to knit traditional shawls in unexpected colors and textures, such as a multicolored bright pink, with an eye toward creating an heirloom. Hipster knitters, on the other hand, might choose to knit more trendy items, like boy shorts or a tote bag with Rick Springfield’s face on it (although Rick Springfield is pretty timeless).
I think cozy crafts and prairie skills definitely counter both modern design and the modern world. Not to be a drag, but on 9/11, I walked home from work and knitted for two days. I was on a knitting bender. I find working with my hands and crafting is a way of connecting me to my family and the world. As far as modern design, I love sleek lines and modern conveniences but I love softening my home with quilts, rag rugs, and knitted throws and pillows. I reach for lotions and potions I concoct myself over fancy-pants high-end products. And I love my spendy jeans but I pair them with a skinny knitted scarf wrapped around my neck.
Arwen: I noticed in the book that you talked to a lot of friends and family members about their crafts and skills. Did you know about these beforehand? Or were you surprised that some people had a hidden talent?
Jen: I knew my family had mad skills but even they surprised me. I asked my dad if we had any relatives who knew how to milk a cow and he sarcastically replied, “I grew up on a farm with cows.” I realized that I hadn’t spent much time talking with my family about our roots. This book allowed me to reach out to my uncle, who’s a woodworker; my brother, who likes to pan for gold and poke around in abandoned mines, and my dad, who grew up on a working farm in the forties and fifties. I was also surprised at how many friends came out of the woodwork with random talents. There are more people than you’d think out there, organic gardening, darning socks, canning and making preserves. Some are crafty, some are thrifty, some are trying to go green, and some are a lovely combination of all three.
Arwen: Which of the projects or skills do you find yourself doing or using most often?
Jen: Knitting, for sure. I like to knit in my downtime and I have to knit when I’m a stress-bomb. It’s therapeutic. I also mix up lotions and potions quite a bit (I make a decadent Crème Brulee Body Souffle). But I really incorporate more genteel skills like spinning a yarn or writing a heartfelt letter into my everyday life. Writing a note or presenting someone with a customized handmade gift is self-serving, since I feed off their surprise and appreciation. I get positively weepy when I nail a gift. Is that so wrong?
Arwen: I love that some of your how-tos are for life skills, like waltzing or flirting or predicting the weather. Did you put those in with the hope that something like letter writing will make a comeback? Which is the front-runner?
Jen: Etiquette and old-fashioned manners are very important to me and there’s nothing more I’d like than to see a return to civility. I don’t get the appeal of thongs peeking out of waistbands (or, gasp!, letting the world know you’re going commando). I’d rather have a more select viewing audience, if you get my drift. Cell phones and text messages in restaurants are rude no matter the circumstances, and they don’t allow you to be fully present. I like to retain a bit of mystery; people don’t always have to know where you are or what you’re wearing underneath your petticoats.
I don’t know what the front-runner is but I love letter writing. And I love getting notes. I squirrel them away in whatever book I happen to be reading at the time, using them as bookmarks. I’ve noticed over the years that I leave them in the books even after I’ve finished them and I find random thank you notes or birthday cards tucked between the pages. It’s a nice way to capture a moment in time and it’s a lovely surprise when I happen upon a card and get to reread it. My grandma loved getting cards and she would cut the card at the fold, reusing the front of the card as a postcard or gift tag. Thrifty and ingenious!
Arwen: There’s also a strong undercurrent of thriftiness throughout the LIW books (and of course, your own). That seems very timely, given the current awareness of global warming. Has embracing your prairie girl self also made you a better global citizen?
Jen: It certainly has. While it wasn’t a conscious decision to go green when I worked on the book, it was a natural byproduct. After all, those prairie girls were using what they had at hand, which were natural items, not chemical-based solvents and unguents. And more and more, I enjoy making my own natural products and caring for my belongings. Sewing up a torn shirt or darning a sock makes me feel worthy of my thrifty grandmother. Rather than donating a box of clothes to Goodwill, consider making a rag rug out of the fabric. And there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in cutting up those pants that don’t fit anymore!
Arwen: Which is your favorite scene from the books? (I loved the sugaring off from Little House in the Big Woods and the scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek where the runaway ox puts its foot through the sod roof in Plum Creek :-)
Jen: I dug that sugaring party too! Food, family, and festivities are a wonderful combination. I also remember another scene pretty vividly: After they married, Almanzo brought Laura to their new home that he tricked out with custom cabinets in the pantry and a very snug root cellar. He placed the contents of her hope chest around the house to make it feel more like her home, spreading a quilt over their new bed. I suspect that took the edge off the wedding night.
And gosh, all the courting between Almanzo and Laura formed my early impressions of romance. I think on some level I’m still waiting to hear the jingle of sleighbells, indicating my own Almanzo is coming to take me away. When Nellie elbowed her way into the buggy on Sunday afternoon rides, Laura figured out how to stake her ground and point out to Almanzo (as if he needed any direction) how unsuitable Nellie was for him. There’s a lot to be learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I’m not talking about sewing!
I went to Walnut Grove in early October and saw a reconstructed sod house. It was 10 x 10 with maybe a six-foot ceiling. This is what the five members of the Ingalls family lived in. Are you kidding me? I love the romance of the prairie but I also like personal space. In a sod house, there was no such thing. But it’s beautiful country and the prairie winds were in full force.
Arwen: How many times have you read them now?
Jen: Gosh, I don’t know. I do still have the battered paperbacks from my youth. It’s been fun rereading them as an adult, but my opinion of the books is much different. Instead of sharing Laura’s sense of adventure, I got mildly annoyed with Pa for continuing to pick up and move a family of five (including a blind daughter!), rather than staying put. I could now sense Ma’s quiet resignation when as a kid, all I could think was, “Yay, they’re loading up the wagon. A new story is in the making!”