The Art of Darkness

Things That You Think Are Harder Than They Actually Are

February 18th, 2009 by Cobwebs

I’m frequently surprised at the reaction I get from people when I tell them that I make my own soap (including, memorably, the acquaintance who was presented with a bar and stammered, “I thought soap was made from…soap”); they act as though I’ve admitted to translating from the Toltec in my spare time. In reality, making soap is no more difficult than baking a cake: You measure things, you stir them together in the right order, and you pour them into a pan.

There are a number of “home arts” which seem so mysterious and arcane that most people are afraid to try them. Here is a short list of things that I do on a regular basis, that I swear to you are not difficult if you can follow simple directions, and which are immensely satisfying.

Craft: Pickling and Preserving
Why You Should Bother: Because there’s more to life than what’s available at your local megamart. Imagine having a Victorian tea party with rose-petal jam, or giving jars of a Medieval fruit pickle as a unique party favor.
Getting Started: There are ridiculous numbers of tutorials available. Here are a couple of sites to get you started: WikiHOW: Jams Preserves and Condiments and Pick Your Own. I also highly recommend the book The Joy of Pickling.

Craft: Making Cheese
Why You Should Bother: You can make fantastic-tasting cheese cheaper than you can buy it, you can experiment with interesting herb and spice flavorings, and you know exactly what ingredients go into it. Although many cheeses require a coagulant such as rennet, there are many you can make with nothing more than milk and lemon juice. Start with easy fresh cheeses like queso fresco or mozzarella before working your way up to more complex recipes.
Getting Started: Gourmet Sleuth has a number of recipes, and the book Home Cheese Making covers a range of styles and does a good job of explaining the techniques and equipment required.

Craft: Soapmaking
Why You Should Bother: This is one of those “traditional” crafts which most people view with the same wonder as alchemy. It’s loads of fun to magically turn a potful of oils into soap. There are also an almost-infinite number of permutations that you can try: Different oils have different properties, so changing their proportions will yield different kinds of soap. You can add all kinds of extra ingredients for special varieties of soap: French clay for oily skin, dried lavender for aromatherapy, and others beyond numbering.
Getting Started: The Teach Soap site offers a wealth of good advice. I also like Ann Bramson’s Soap book, which is the one that introduced me to soapmaking. (One note about the Bramson book: She suggests stirring the soap mixture by hand for as long as an hour to maximize the all-important contact between fats and lye. Forget that noise; use a stick blender and it takes about five minutes.)

Craft: Making Sausage
Why You Should Bother: You know that old joke about somebody who likes sausage and respects the law shouldn’t ever see either one made? If you make your own sausage, you know exactly what goes into it. Sausage is actually easier to make than meat loaf, since you don’t have to worry about ketchup. Start out making sausage patties (this is my favorite recipe for breakfast sausage) before moving on to recipes involving casings.
Getting Started: eHOW has instructions for making a simple sausage. The excellent book Charcuterie goes into detail about more complicated varieties and discusses the equipment and techniques required. This book also covers several other meat preservation techniques, like smoking and salt-curing.

Craft: Brewing Beer
Why You Should Bother: As with most of the other crafts I mention here, one of the main motivations is experimentation. You can create unusual or thematic beers that you can’t get at the grocery store: Spiced ales for holidays, chocolate stouts, Medieval tipples. (It’s also fun to get creative with the labeling: One of the first batches of beer I made got put into bottles with “Black Frost” labels, a riff on an old Buffy episode. Because I am a dork.) This is one of the few crafts that actually requires a little bit of special equipment right up front, but a starter kit won’t break the bank and you can always upgrade later if you decide to get serious.
Getting Started: Instructables has a good overview of the process. The books How to Brew and Homebrewing for Dummies are also excellent resources.

Craft: Quilting
Why You Should Bother: You can use all of those skull-print fabric scraps you don’t know what else to do with. You can custom-design a quilt that exactly fits your bedroom’s décor. You can make lovely–and inexpensive!–decorations and clothing, either for yourself or as a gift. You can create art.
Getting Started: I’ve covered various quilting techniques previously (this is part 3, but it links to the first two parts). has lots of resources. There are almost too many books about quilting to choose one, but it’s hard to go wrong with a Dummies guide.

Every one of these crafts is within your grasp. All you have to do is take a little time, read the instructions, and carefully follow them. If you try one of these, I’d love to hear about your experience. If you already do all of these, good for you! What others would you add to the list?

Posted in Doom It Yourself | 6 Comments »

6 Responses

  1. Pam Says:

    Having been on the receiving end of some of your home arts, I think you should continue to awe and amaze me with them :)

    btw, you do make fantastic soap!

  2. Dawn Says:

    Wow, what an informative post… thanks for taking the time to include the links, so that anyone interested (myself included) can easily find the info needed to get started! Great post!

  3. ysha Says:

    The best gifts I have ever given to expectant mothers are handmade baby quilts. I have a pattern that I can throw together in an evening, using bright crazy fabrics. Babies love bright colors.

    One of my favorites was backed with pink skull flannel. The mother was jealous that it wasn’t big enough for her! *laughs*

    Also – I love canning. Pop and I went through a phase with it a few summers ago. We’ll probably go through that phase again once we work through the results of the last one. My most winning recipe – homemade mincemeat. I was able to put just what I wanted in it and not have to pay the $7 a jar that the grocery store wants. Super great – no real meat product!

  4. Kitten Herder Says:

    You mentioned beer making. Why not wine making? Also, not real difficult. I’ve never done it, but it is on my list of home arts ‘to do’.

    Bread making too! Wicked easy and can be very satisfying.

  5. Cheesemaking Is Easier Than You Think. So Are Other Things | Learn To Make Cheese Says:

    […] The Art of Darkness » Blog Archive » Things That You Think Are Harder Than They Actually Are. […]

  6. janice Says:

    I can buy a lb of 100% wool for $10 (which includes shipping cost), dye it any color I want, card in any other fiber I choose, and spin it to any thickness I need. Machine made 100% Wool Yarn cost between 2 to 10 times as much, is completely uniform, is scratchy and sub-standard and comes in the colors THEY choose. Thanks for the links Jenna! I’m thinking of canning this year.

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