doing it yourself.

May 9, 2016


I’m an irresponsible DIYer.


I’m a foolhardy DIYer.


I’m a happy-go-lucky DIYer.

Yes. That’s it. 

When I notice that something needs fixing, I like to try to tackle it myself. And I’m usually pleased with result by sheer fact that I’m the one who did it. I can forgive all manner of sins if I’m the one who’s committed them. chair_seats_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_8183

On my blog I tend to write a fair bit about solutions because I like to find solutions. I like to put in a bit of elbow grease, to muster a degree of sticktoitiveness, to do a bit of puzzling. But the solutions I find are almost never perfect. They’re usually scrappy. There are unhemmed curtains hanging in my windows and crooked hardware on my dressers. There’s a headboard that’s propped against the wall, not secured to a bed frame because it’s an antique and handmade, and the proportions don’t line up perfectly with a modern Queen-sized bed. There’s a rag rug in Faye’s room with bits of broken rag and a sheepie thrown on top to hide them. When we bought the rug it smelled like forty-five dogs had been lounging on it for the past twenty years. We had to wash it twice to get it back to useable. The quick paint job I did on my bedside table eight years ago is chipping and repair job I made once to the small drawer is due for another look. The neatly organized spices in my kitchen still tumble when I’m pulling out the ingredients for a pot of chili. chair_seats_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_8186

I get a lot of questions from readers asking how I’ve gotten something to work just right. On Instagram, or in the comments in this space, or directly into my email inbox, readers write wanting to know how I’ve managed to get something to work. I always want to offer encouragement. And often there’s a trick or a solution that’s worth sharing. But I think my most helpful answer might be that I mostly get things to work by embracing imperfection.

How do I keep my straw market basket clean? An occasional wipe with a warm rag and a blind eye to the more general daily dirt. How do I keep my white bedsheets white? An occasional hopeful wash with an oxygen booster and a blind eye toward the evolving color. How do I keep my daughter from climbing out of her wooden high chair? Daily encouragement to stay seated and resignation that’s she’s a determined little monkey.

I’m not critiquing a desire to get things right, I’m just saying that there’s a different approach that can work as well. 

The approach that encourages charging forth semi-recklessly. To give something a try even if you’re not sure that results are going to be perfect. To ask for help when you need it and when you can find it, and to trust your own ability to give something a go when that’s the only recourse.chair_seats_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_8200

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve my parents fixing things. When I was very small, my parents still owned the three-family house I was born in and even though we lived elsewhere, we’d spend afternoons there while my parents made little repairs for tenants. My sister Cait and I would steal away to the home of the elderly sisters who lived next door in search of treats. Or we’d fill up a plastic kiddy pool and sit mesmerized by Kelly and Megan, the big girls who were neighbors on the other side. My mom and dad would come in and out of the house, toting tools and vacuum cleaners and tubes of caulk as they patched and painted and did whatever else was required of them. When I was seven, we moved to the house that my parents still live in. They’ve spent the past 25 years making improvements to that place. chair_seats_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_8576

Still, when I go home to my parents’ house, my dad always has some little fix to show me. He’ll lead me to the basement stairs and swing open the door. 

“Remember how that used to stick?”

Dramatic opening and closing of the door. Flourish of the hand. Mouth agape and eyebrows raised waiting for my approval.

This cycle of problem and solution and flourish of the hand to showcase the end result has been repeated over and over and over again. Even in cases when the end result is not 100% polished. There have been other lessons that my parents offered along the way, but it’s cheer in the face of a fix that’s still a little wonky that stays with me more than any other.

These photos are of the recent project that I embarked on to fix the set of four chairs that James and I bought for our very first apartment. This isn’t a tutorial because I’m not convinced many of you might have the need for a tutorial on how to add leather seats onto old wooden chairs with caved in seats, and because I’m not convinced that the method that I used is one hundred percent the right one. But to me, it’s perfect.

Before I began the project, I removed the broken pressed fiberboard from the old caned seats and emailed a few leather-working friends (Alice and Lissa and Abby) to get their advice on replacing the seats with leather hides. Their counsel was invaluable and I ended up taking Abby up on her offer to cut and finish the seats for me. I sent her a tracing by post. She sent me photos of the hide she might use by email. I gave her enthusiastic virtual thumbs up. I paid her to cut and finish the seats in her studio in Oregon where there was space and tools and patience to get them right. I put them into place in their new home in Brooklyn where there was some space and a few tools and where I eked out the required patience.

I rigged a support system with jute webbing and a borrowed staple gun. For every successful staple I put in, I pulled out a wrinkled one. I made a return trip to the upholstery shop on Orchard Street for more upholstery tacks when I realized I’d need more of them to get the seats to sit flush to the chair. I smashed my thumb with a mercifully cloth-covered hammer. I ended up with a wrinkle here or there. I have no idea how the things might age. chair_seats_reading_my_tea_leaves_IMG_8687

In the end I have four new seats on four old chairs. No one’s fallen through them yet and they have just the simple, homespun look that I was hoping for.

Because they are simple. And homespun. And just a little bit wonky.

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  • Reply Lydia @ lupinelydia May 9, 2016 at 8:11 am

    beautiful. 🙂 diy is what keeps our feet on the ground or…our seats in our chairs, maybe. meaning keeping us present in the items we use every day. 🙂

  • Reply Cordelia May 9, 2016 at 9:25 am

    They turned out great!!

  • Reply ladylyn May 9, 2016 at 9:34 am

    “I mostly get things to work by embracing imperfection.” YES! Love this. I’ve always made thins work, but I’m getting better at embracing the imperfection of it all as time goes on. And I’m pretty sure my dad does the same exact flourish and dramatic door opening thing. 😀

  • Reply ladylyn May 9, 2016 at 9:35 am

    Things. Not thins. Too early to typing.

  • Reply Jen May 9, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Love this. And totally agree there’s a magic to embracing imperfection.

  • Reply Lauren May 9, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Oh, I recognize the Infusion leather tag! I have a wonderful pale leather belt from Infusion – I bought it through Abby’s Etsy shop years ago and it has aged beautifully! If it is the same leather (and it looks like it could be), those chairs will be quite handsome in a few years 😉

  • Reply hannah May 9, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    An enthusiastic “YES!” to all of this.

  • Reply Mary Kate May 9, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    I was definitely one of your readers who fell under the “everything Erin does is perfect” mindset. Thanks for this post, it is definitely less intimidating to consider doing anything–from replacing a seat to writing a novel–when you keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be (and definitely won’t be) perfect.

  • Reply Stacy May 9, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    My family, as well as my boyfriend’s, are also of the fix-it-yourself variety. While my family’s approach is more polished and stems from a desire for perfection, my boyfriend’s sit firmly in the camp of good-enough. I’ve learned a lot from their approach. I’d rather do something myself imperfectly, than any other way. And while my father might cock his head to the side and suggest a “better” approach, I shrug and say “good enough”. There’s so much satisfaction in doing something on your own. Your chairs turned out beautifully.

  • Reply Amanda K. May 9, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    i looked FOREVER for the right fabric to re-cover our chairs. i could never settle on anything because i couldn’t find anything that my kids’ droppings wouldn’t immediately soil, so i just never did it. this, though? perfect!

  • Reply Lissa May 9, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    They look beautiful Erin! Good job!

  • Reply jane May 9, 2016 at 6:51 pm

    beautiful, thoughtful fix. i love that you are able to keep these pieces in service…and your work will surely endear them to your heart even more than before. bravo! 🙂

  • Reply abby May 9, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    They came out great, Erin! A really beautiful update from their original. And I think wood and leather make one of most handsome pairs. There’s not much more satisfying than a do it yourself project.

  • Reply Ashley June 1, 2016 at 11:29 am

    Thank you for this post! We have similar style wooden chairs but that have wicker in the middle. The wicker is old and coming a part, rendering two unusable. I was at a loss until I saw this- Our leather covers will be hand cut and rough, but our bums won’t fall through. Thank you for the inspiration!

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