THE PHRASE "do-it-yourself," untranslated, has popped up in most languages of the world. Le do-it-yourself has become nearly as common as le drugstore. Still, a woman of a certain age, for instance, perched on the top rung of an eight-foot ladder with paint and paint-brush would be a rare sight in any European country. In the United States no one would give her a second glance.
An awesome number of Americans seem to be convinced they can make or fix just about anything -- if given a good handbook of instructions and a good source of supplies. Maybe the conviction filters down to us from early pioneer days, or maybe it starts with a lack of spare cash, but one thing is sure: we are a nation of do-it-yourselfers.
To support this American urge a growth industry in manuals is developing. Described below is a new crop of books, some more helpful than others in really telling how. You can learn to upholster a chair, make an elaborate macrame wall hanging, take the warp out of an antique table top, stitch a bride's headpiece in trapunto pattern, and much, much more.
* "The Fun of Refinishing Furniture" by George Grotz (Doubleday, paperbound, $5.95). The writing is exaggeratedly folksy but there is plenty of information tucked inside this little paperback. There are chapters about the characteristics of different woods, removing old finishes, bleaching, staining, finishing, patching, repairing and carving. Part II deals with 40 specific problems, such as how to lengthen an antique bed (people used to be shorter), how to repair the breaks and splits in bentwood furniture (difficult because the wood wants to spring apart during gluing), how to repair caning without having the whole panel replaced, and how to repair veneered pieces when you still have the piece or when it has been lost. The instructions are easy to understand. There is a good list of periodicals and mail-order catalogues.
* "Modern Upholstering Techniques" by Robert J. McDonald (Scribner's, $17.50). The author, who taught at the London College of Furniture for 20 years, has written a thoroughly professional manual. The no-nonsense, step-by-step instructions are clear enough for the amateur but could also be helpful to the experienced upholsterer who wants to learn some new tricks. There are good diagrams and photographs and a list of mail-order suppliers.
* "Fabulous Furniture Decorations" by Leslie Linsley (Crowell, $14.95). Twenty-five ways of decorating unfinished wooden furniture are described and illustrated with helpful photos by Jon Aron. A dresser is stenciled, another is covered with ticking fabric; parson's tables are painted with shiny, dark enamel and trimmed with aluminum tape (Art Deco), covered with Laura Ashley wallpaper, or with a collage of comic books; a stool, a rocker and storage cubes are covered with tiles, a mirror, fabrics, stain or paint. The author writes: "The projects presented here are designed to be finished in a short period of time -- most of them in a day." While you might have to work with the speed of lightning (something like Harold Lloyd in a chase movie) to finish in a day, the directions are clear and some of the ideas are imaginative.
* "Trapunto and Other Forms of Raised Quilting" by Mary Morgan and Dee Mosteller (Scribner's, paperbound, $13.95). This one makes you want to get the materials and begin at once. You are carried along an intelligent course: from definitions of terms, through a short, interesting history of the craft, on to appropriate fabrics and tools needed, designs (you are encouraged to create your own), stitches and stuffings, ending with some really fresh ideas described step by step. Trapunto ("raising designs on two layers of fabrics by stuffing them with loose fill material" or "raising narrow designs, formed by two close parallel rows of stitching, with filler materials such as yarn or cording") can be done by hand or machine and the designs can be sophisticated or simple. Included are many handsome photographs, helpful diagrams, a list of suppliers and a bibliography.
* "Quilting" by the editors of Sunset Books and Sunset Magazine (Lane, paperbound, $4.95). The first section deals in a sensible manner with design, supplies, fabrics, patchwork, applique, setting a quilt top, quilting, and finishing the edges. Secondly, clear instructions for 16 projects are given, including crib and cradle quilts, wall hangings, a vest and a jacket. The writing is direct, the illustrations (many in color) are good, and the low price is sensational.
* "A Second Quilter's Companion" by Delores A. Hinson (Arco, $14.95). Although more than 65 pattern designs, traditional and contemporary, with specific directions and actual-size pattern pieces to trace are presented, a total, finished quilt is never shown, not even in black and white. Most frustrating of all, there are no mouthwatering color photographs of quilts to spur you on.
* "Sewing Machine Embroidery and Stitchery" by Thelma R. Newman, Lee Scott Newman, Jay Hartley Newman (Crown, paperbound, $9.95). The crafts movement appears to be making full circle from all-handmade around again to using the helpful machine. Knitting machines are on the rise, and now we can learn about machine embroidery. The Newmans recommend a combination of hand and machine, noting that "the quality of a single machine-stitched line is different from that of handwork . . . each medium has its virtues and limitations." They discuss every facet of machine embroidery including an interesting, detailed description of the sewing machine itself, machine applique, quilting, patchwork, trapunto and stuffed forms. The directions are clear and there are copious good illustrations in black and white and color.
* "Needlework Gifts for Special Occasions" by Margaret Boyles (Simon and Schuster, $15.95). Twenty-two canvas embroidery and embroidery on fabric undertakings are described in this pleasant, homey book. You can make pillows and pin cushions, sheets, pillowcases, placemats, napkins, a toy locomotive, a picture frame and samplers using various needlepoint and bargello patterns and embroidery stitches. The samplers are especially nice.
* "Sculptured Needlepoint Stitchery" by Ella Projansky (Scribner's, paperbound, $12.50). The needlepoint beginner usually buys a canvas with the design painted on it and matching wools, and uses the flat, even continental or basket weave stitch to make a picture. Often the next stage is to wonder how it would feel to use textured stitches to show the leaves of a tree or the wings of a bird -- and even create an original design. Finally the hundreds of needlepoint stitches become so fascinating in themselves that they inspire an abstract pattern letting the three-dimensional quality of the stitches, casting light and shadow, be the center of interest. The projects presented in Sculptured Needlepoint Stitchery include handsome cushions, a mirror frame and a footstool. Some of the intricate stitches are unusual; many are good old standbys. Unfortunately, the directions and graphs are not always easy to follow, making this a book for advanced needleworkers.
* "Needlepoint Bargello" by Dorothey Kaestner (Scribner's, paperbound, $13.95). In this reissue of her 1974 book Kaestner, an old pro at teaching bargello, assumes the reader is an experienced needleworker and jumps straight into stitches and projects, neglecting to define bargello for the neophyte. In The Complete Encyclopedia of Stitchery by Mildred Ryand we find that bargello is "sometimes referred to as Florentine work. Designs found in the Bargello Palace in Florence established the stitch patterns. Bargello is worked on canvas in vertical stitches, forming peaks or points . . . lovely shaded effects can be produced." Many regular and four-way patterns inspired by snowflakes, fleur-de-lis and oriental motifs are presented here for the advanced bargello buff.
* "The Craft of Macrame" by Helene Bress (Scribner's, paperbound, $7.95). Cord or twine, rubber bands, a knotting board (readily available in hardware stores or lumber yards), scissors and tracing paper are all the materials needed to begin macrame, which may, in part, account for the popularity of the craft. From then on it's a question of learning to knot. Using clear instructions, photos and diagrams, the beginner is led from simple knots making sashes and belts to more complicated projects such as a vest, collar, knapsack, purse and abstract designs.
* "The Great Bazaar" by Leslie Linsley (Delacorte, $17.95). A guide to organizing and exhibiting at fund-raising crafts fairs and bazaars, the first section deals in a helpful way with planning, publicity, pricing and "basic booths." At the end, mail-order sources for materials are listed. In between, directions for making more than 75 "projects with pizazz" are given. The only trouble is that the projects are ones like Sweetheart soap decorated with decals, napkin rings, baby T-shirts, pressed flower book marks, potholders, embroidered tea towels, note pads, and the like. It just doesn't seem possible that anyone can absorb any more potholders or napkin rings, even if he wants very badly to donate to a worthy community cause.