The lost art of life skills

Essential household skills such as sewing and repairing things have become a lost art to be learnt from YouTube videos

There's a tear in my favourite shirt.

"Darn it," my mum and I say, for different reasons.

I mean to express irritation. She means: Take needle and thread and artfully sew the ragged edges together so nobody can spot the tear without a magnifying glass.

What was once an essential household skill has, in my generation, become an esoteric art to be researched on YouTube.

It is not just mending holes in clothes - an entire library of skills and once-common knowledge will disappear in my generation. How do you fold sheets and sarees without ending up with a lumpy bundle? How do you dress a chicken or fillet a fish?


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

How do you care for leather bags? What clothes should be dry-cleaned and when?

There are online tutorials for some of these "lifehacks". I like showing my mother these videos because they make her laugh and because they distract her from my incompetence at many of these tasks.

I am not "handy" the way my parents are or my grandparents were. My father services our air-conditioners and they work perfectly. I recently called Singapore Power to ask where my fuse box was located, after the electricity went off suddenly.

At a pinch, I can tie a sock around a leak until the plumber comes. A hole in that same sock, though, and it's time for the ragbag and a trip to the hosiery section of a department store.

I am ashamed. I was brought up better. Before I became a teen, my world was one of creation, not helpless consumption. Even entertainment was made. My father helped me make a birdhouse out of scrap wood and make stilts out of other discards.

As for clothes, socks were worn until they were only darns and shirts until washing had faded the fabric into invisibility.

My mother, aunts and paternal grandmother did more than mend. My cousins and I were always the best-dressed of our friends. The only time we went to the tailor was for school uniforms.

All the tailors and seamstresses in my hometown in India knew my late grandmother. She could design, devise and decorate outfits better than most of them.

She knew how to make a Western suit where pants and coat fell perfectly about the limbs and Indian salwar kameezes that flared or clung in the latest style. She could cut patterns for sari blouses, the most difficult of all, and stitch them so they draped perfectly without the dreaded wrinkle under the arm that arises when the armhole is cut too small.

My grandmother taught her three daughters how to dress their children and insisted my mother pick up these skills as well. Off-the-rack offended her because she knew how to make better.

A month before any grandchild's birthday, my grandmother would whip out her measuring tape, note a string of numbers and letters and transform these into a sewing pattern on newspaper. She cut lengths of cloth around the pattern and stitched these up on a treadle sewing machine - later, electrical - to make a birthday outfit that would be the envy of every cousin until the next sewing session.

When I turned 10, I was taught to crochet, knit, make stuffed toys and cut a sewing pattern.

My brother picked up some of these skills too. He devised and embroidered a wall hanging depicting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michelangelo. It won him a school prize or something. My parents framed it.

I made a shirt for a seven-year- old cousin. It fit his much younger and much smaller sibling. The cloth wrinkled under the arm.

I can sew on buttons, tack a quick seam and do a rough-and-ready patch on frayed clothes. I remember a little embroidery: how to tie a French knot and do the careful, parallel in-and-out of needle that results in satin stitches.

But only my aunts or mother will put together a bare length of fabric, a handful of beads and buttons and embroidery silk and come up with a final product that has their peers begging to know which designer they patronise.

My grandmother's unfinished masterpiece was the "peacock sari" she began embroidering before her eyesight failed. Two birds and their multi-coloured feathers were half-outlined in jewel-toned silks before she died. An aunt completed and inherited it.

Today, when my mother has a few free hours, she sits down with a roll of cloth and works on her masterpiece. Years in the making, it has beads and sequins and stitches placed in seemingly random, abstract areas that are slowly developing into a recognisable pattern.

The generation before me was no more creative than mine. What I lack is the patience and discipline such work requires.

My mother also knows how to make buttonholes, knit sweaters and decorate clothes with handmade applique patterns.

Sometimes I take out her sewing kit, a box once full of chocolate, now crowded with multi-coloured threads and wheel-shaped packs of needles. I contemplate it and put it back.

My mother doesn't mind. "Why would you need to know these things?" she says. "Yours is a buy, use and throw generation."

We are and, as a result, some of us have lost the ability to understand the value of delayed gratification, of how a large goal can be achieved through small, careful steps. Mine is a monkey mind, restless for diversion yet envious of the calm that envelopes my mother over her embroidery.

Years of choosing and using cloth make my mother an expert in judging quality. I find it difficult to spot polyester blend masquerading as expensive cashmere and will pay pashmina prices for something that came from a chemist's laboratory, rather than a rare animal.

I look to my mother to estimate whether the embroidery on a shirt makes it worth the price. She can tell hand-embroidery from the machine-made. She knows the difference between a stem stitch, blanket stitch, satin stitch, lazy-daisy and French knots.

She once bought a book titled 101 Embroidery Stitches and realised that she already knew them. "There are only a few dozen stitches and the rest are variations," she says. "Once you know the basics, it's easy to build on that."

She says the same of whipping up a three-course meal for six uninvited guests, or soothing a grandniece who will not stop crying.

Once you have the basic skills, everything is just a variation.

I'm 37 years old and still trying to build these "basic" life skills. I need a manual, I told my mother recently, something to help me become equally competent at electrical repair and fashion design and all the odd demands life throws at you sometimes.

Recently, a python crawled into my bathroom before I took a shower. I dissolved into tears. My mother kept an eye on the snake until my father and the estate security removed it for release into the wild.

That day I felt truly incompetent. I told my mother this and she laughed.

"I have 60 years of experience," she said, reminding me that for years, she lived in a snake-infested bungalow with two small children to guard.

"You don't learn life skills," she said. "You acquire them from life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'The lost art of life skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe