Friday, 30 October 2009

A room for a hat

I once read a book all about job opportunities for women in the 1930's and 40's. At that time of course, millinery was a great profession for a woman to get into, and could lead to secure work both at home and even abroad if the young lady concerned was ambitious enough. In this manual it said that a milliner would never have to worry if she couldn't pay her rent, as she could always make a hat for her landlady instead. I've often wanted to try out the theory, so whilst in Edinburgh I asked if I could pay for my B+B with a hat. The owner of the Claremont Hotel agreed! The hat is for his wife - and apparantly she was delighted!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Monastic make do...

I've just emerged after spending the weekend with Father Tom - who lives near Liverpool. Tom, an ex-Ampleforth monk and now also an ordained priest, set up with a few other like-minded types here some thirty years ago. They built their own house, and established a community. Nowadays Tom is the last-remaining monk, although local people are welcomed and there are many regular visitors and residents. The house is heated by wood from the nearby forest, food is home-grown, there's no car, fridge, telephone or tv. I thought I'd love this frugal experience, but I didn't really. Tom's intentions are laudible - he does voluntary work for CAFOD and is committed to tackling climate change and world poverty. But his detachment from every day life made it hard for me to engage properly. It struck me that the sense of fun was missing! I spent one evening trying to darn one of Tom's jumpers - there's no denying he's chosen to live a frugal life - the jumper was falling to pieces and fixing it felt like a chore. But Tom's type of frugality didn't chime with mine. I realised that when I have to be frugal and there's no freedom about it, I don't enjoy it. It's one thing choosing to make do and mend - quite another to be forced to because of circumstances.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Acupuncture room - yes you did read right!

Robert in Leeds is a professional acupuncturist(as well as a wonderful artist) - but setting up a suitable room is expensive. So Robert decided to do the work himself. He made and installed this sink unit, created the light fittings, crafted a peaceful fountain and used an old wardrobe door for a mirror. It's calm, comfortable and cost virtually nothing. His creative energy is part of what makes his treatments so special.

Jo's hat-or bonnets in Bradford

Jo in Bradford got in touch with Newsnight, offering me B+B in return for helping her make a hat. I arrived to see Jo struggling with a bath full of polystyrene beads destined for a large bean-bag she'd made! It turns out that Jo is something of an expert seamstress having made two wedding dresses for friends(one without a pattern - brave). She makes many of her own clothes and has every sewing gadget under the sun! Jo wanted a hat to go with a new outfit she's currently working on. After showing her my samples and having a chat, we abandoned our original idea and decided to try turning an old pull-on hat Jo had bought from the high street into a really striking number fit for a proper party. After twisting it around a bit and attaching it to a headband I was able to stiffen it with watered down PVA, then I stitched and steamed it into shape. Jo cut strips from fabric to match the dress she's making and then used it to create a trim following a vintage pleating technique I purloined from a 40's headpiece. The result I think is stunning - very 50's. Make Do And Mend couture - a new hat for nothing. B+B was fantastic too!

Friday, 23 October 2009

AA - Ultimate make do and menders

Well - it had to happen at some point, and fortunately it was whilst staying with friends. The Micra had a hissy fit and decided not to start. Incredibly the AA arrived within 20 minutes - that never seems to happen when you're in a real hurry or stuck in the middle of nowhere! Anyway, the lovely Phil did a wonderful job and got the car going again - a spark plug problem apparently. Note to self: must learn to make do and mend car just like hat.

Make Do and Mend bike flag

Need a flag for your bike but don't have one? (or don't want to spend the money on one from the shops). Simply take a piece of plastic bunting, cut from a strip and an old wire coat hanger. Open out the coat hanger out so it's straight, but make a little loop at one end to enable you to attach it to your bike. Take the bunting piece (mine had a channel down one side, but if yours doesn't - you might have to sew two together and make a little channel down the side) and thread the coat hanger through it. You'll need to sew up the end of the channel to stop the wire going straight through. Secure the other end of the bunting piece by winding cotton around the end and glueing it with a dab of UHU to the wire. We secured the flag to the bike by using the attachment you'd normally use to hold a light on - £1. Not bad eh? And the children will be spotted by traffic.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Felting frustration

PLEASE can anyone help?! I've been trying to felt charity shop jumpers - but they just won't shrink! I'm staying with friends in Leeds who've kindly lent me their washing machine for the purpose - but in spite of tumbling at the hottest temperature and spinning extremely fast - they refuse to do it! We tried the striped merino one - no luck! As you can see, my friend's now wearing it - it's perfect. Grrr! Then it was the extra-large blue lambswool one - surely this one would do it? Nope. If anything - it emerged from the wash even larger! I remember in the past putting my favourite wool top in the machine by mistake. It was ruined and fit for a five year old. Now I actually want the sweaters to go all thick and solid - it's just not happening. FAILED! Is there anything that will work?

Seven Hills Sheffield

I received a surprise call to speak to a newly formed WI in Sheffield about my Make Your Way Around Britain trip last week - and with no chance to prepare, I found myself about to address seventy women in a church hall in the city centre - help! This wasn't your stereotypical jam and jerusalem WI though - oh no...! The average age of the Seven Hills Women’s Institute is late twenties. When I asked what had drawn them to the WI, many said they were missing a sense of community, and wanted a place where women of different walks of life could get together and learn new skills. For new skills read traditional crafts - but definitely with a twist. Lindsay Garfitt, one of the women behind the new group, said that she’d been inspired by the creation of the Shoreditch Sisters in London, one of a growing number of “trendy” WI’s that are attracting a younger generation. Back in Sheffield, Lindsay and a couple of friends set about contacting the local press, and put out a message on the not-so traditional Facebook . The response was immediate and slightly overwhelming. Eighty-six new WI’s have been set up in the last year alone – many in urban areas. This is incredible for an organisation that’s seen its membership more than halve since the 1970’s to just over two hundred thousand. So what’s going on?

Monday, 19 October 2009

Back in time

Imagine going back in time and waking up in the 1940's - the era when Make Do And Mend really became a reality for the population. Well that's exactly what happened to me this weekend when I spent the day at the North Yorks Moors steam valley railway in Pickering. Re-enactment groups descend each year on this little town and work their magic. I could have sworn I'd time-travelled. Of course, being a fan of forties fashion, this foray into the past suited me down to the ground. The hats and costumes were wonderful. You can't help reflecting though on the slight strangeness of it all - why this fascination with the past? The nostalgia industry is a big one - and it seems its growing. Are we looking at it all through rose coloured spectacles? Are the teenagers buying Make Do And Mend books in Topshop missing the point?

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Qualified stilt walker trouser maker

I can now confidently say I am able to make stilt walkers' trousers! Yes - it was an unusual request - and when I arrived at Jen's in Sheffield I was a little nervous about whether I'd be able to live up to the challenge. But we did it!! Jen offered me a very comfy bed for the night, as well as the best roast dinner I've had in months in exchange. I've been humbled really by how kind and welcoming everyone has been on this trip. We were making the trousers for Charlie who's a member of
Greentop Circus - and they had to be over 2 metres long. We bought a simple pattern for elasticated waist trousers, then lengthened the leg ALOT! We really had to make do and mend though, as we didn't have enough fabric, so we improvised by raiding Jen's fabric stash - her handbag lining will now grace the circus instead. Big hitch when we realised that we hadn't reckoned on Charlie's feet being longer than the plate on which she rests them....oooops. Trousers far too narrow. SO we had to come up with a solution pretty fast. A very large triangular insert on each outer leg from just above the knee right to the floor. Such are the challenges of Making Your Way Around Britain! We finished at 2am - but I suppose I did have to rush out to address Seven Hills WI half way through the evening! Does anyone else have experience of producing circus clothing? Can you buy regular patterns?

Amy's Curtains

Amy from Derby contacted BBC Newsnight after seeing my film to ask if I could come and help her make some curtains for her spare room in exchange for a contribution to petrol money. Her Mum had an old pair which we set to work converting. It's a while since I made curtains - I remember helping a former boyfriend make a pair about ten years ago - but we cut them up with cheerful confidence. The only confusing moment came when we realised the original curtains were different lengths - I'm sure it was a test! However, we soon overcame that minor hiccup to produce these. Not bad at all for 2 hours! We didn't even have to sew, as Amy had some very handy iron-on tape for doing hems. You see - there really is NO excuse! Amy has recently joined a sewing group in Nottingham with some of her friends. Incredibly, the number of people signing up has quadrupled in a year to more than 450 people - 150 of them are taking basic sewing. That's quite a statistic. Amy was so welcoming. She even bought a hat - which more than paid for travel onto my next stop - Sheffield - and the stilt walker!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Freshers' Week

A busy day today. It took me forever to get outside as I tried to keep on top of the deluge of e-mail! When I finally managed to slam the front door behind me, I caught the bus down to The Affordable Vintage Fair being held in the student union at Nottingham Trent University. I’d happened upon it the day before after picking up an eye-catching flyer in a boutique.

Judy Berger, a former stylist, started these fairs in 2005. She has a passion for bringing affordable retro fashion to a wider audience – and true to her word – the majority of garments being sold were much cheaper than the usual offering. There were lots of £1 and £5 bargain rails full of decent and wearable clobber designed to appeal to the student market. However, there were a few gems too at decent prices, as well as a good selection of vintage textiles, jewellery and other bits and pieces. It being Freshers' Week , the place was pretty busy with all those new recruits scouring the rails for stuff to give them the style edge.

Of the vendors, one in particular sparked my interest. Rachel and Jenna, both Nottingham Trent graduates themselves, set up their company three years ago. They called it “Kathleen and Lily” after their Grandmas who taught them how to sew. Rachel in particular inherited lots of hand-me-downs from her Granny, but didn’t want to wear them in the same way, and that’s how she dreamed up a business doing customised vintage. As well as running a little shop in the city, the girls go to vintage fairs up and down the country offering to alter purchases on the spot.

Do they think the current craze for Make Do And Mend is just a fashion?

“Three years ago it was really hard to market what we did and to get people to understand it.” says Rachel. “However, since the credit crunch, we’ve been really busy, and more people than ever want their clothes mended. Everyone wants to look unique, so customised clothing is becoming really popular. Our shopping bags, made from recycled fabric are selling well - people are thinking more about the environment.”

Interestingly, many of the students I talked to hadn’t heard of Make Do And Mend per se…but when I asked them whether they’d make, mend or customise their clothing, most of them said that they would. Interestingly, few would consider just chucking something out. A new type of Make Do And Mend is emerging it seems - which embraces customisation. True, it’s not the hard-core stuff of the 1940’s – you get the feeling that the toughest jobs won’t get done. But there is a sense of responsibility, a growing unease about materialism that’s driving these youngsters, as well as a desire to look different. Yes it’s something of a trend, but it also feels like values have shifted. We shall see!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Make Do And Mend household tips...

My enterprising Aunt has created this natty and useful cupboard out of a former domestic appliance rather than bin it. I'm sure you can guess its former life! Please send me your ideas and I'll include them here.

Glad I wasn't camping last night!

A beautiful morning - but the first touch of frost on the ground - it's going to get colder from now on!


Nottingham's my home town so it's great to be back here. Born in Peel Street hospital in 1967, I lived in the city until I was 10, and remember being heart-broken at having to leave. My father was a Nottingham man, and some of my family worked in the lace industry. As a child, the dressing-up basket would be full of lace samples. Nottingham was of course the UK's lace-making capital. Now there's little to suggest this filigree past. I was surprised to find that the lace museum has closed down, and even the tourist office makes little reference to Nottingham's textile history. There are a few doilies for sale but no book on the subject. The former lace market has recently been tarted up to provide specialist shops, restaurants and appartments. Back in the 18th century, this area was at the forefront of design and manufacture. You'd have found more than 130 lace-making factories working out of the magnificent buildings. Nottingham is of course also famous for Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood - who the legend goes, robbed the rich to give to the poor. I think he'd have been a fan of Make Do And Mend - and he even wears a hat! My sort of man! It seems he's a recent convert to a certain BBC2 news programme as well......

Monday, 12 October 2009

Hope and Elvis

Can you imagine driving through Sherwood forest and the beautiful Clumber estate to get to work? That's what Louise Presley does every morning, as she wends her way from Retford to the Harley Gallery in Welbeck near Worksop. This is DH Lawrence country, and it looks completely stunning in the early sunshine. Louise runs workshops from her studio, and I was there to hold a hat-making day, arranged some time ago and incorporated into my month's trip. In the spirit of my Newsnight venture Louise kindly offered me a bed for the night - I was originally going to camp but she talked me out of it - and given the weather and the long drive, I was very glad I'd accepted. Louise is a truly inspiring person. Her studio is crammed with vintage fabrics and quirky objects found in car boot sales, skips and the like. A bundle of old bills hanging from a hook bought for a couple of quid, old photographs, tablecloths embroidered with the names of diners. People donate their old scrap too - she was recently given a haul of a hundred or so pieces of church linen. Everything Louise makes has a history. Even her clothes are patched over many times. I could have stayed there forever - making and mending to my heart's content!

Sir John Lawes School Harpenden

We talked hats and make do and mend - a whole new generation of Newnsight viewers. The school invited me to give a talk and to bring along my hats too, so it was a real dressing-up box moment! Interestingly, when I asked who mended clothes, only couple of hands went up - but when Miss Richardson, the textiles teacher asked them who made their own cards, nearly every hand in the room shot up. So not much mending, but lots of making going on here! The school kindly paid my petrol money and donated £20 for my talk - they're going to make the money back by having a sale in school of things that they craft themselves - jewellery, corsages, bags etc. I donated a turban for the raffle! The money paid for my travel onto Nottingham, my next port of call.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Sunday - day of rest and all the rest!

I am staying with my wonderful Aunt Kate in Nottingham. She's in her early eighties, but you'd never believe it. I arrived last night, imagining a cosy chat and a glass of wine after a very busy day. But far from the peace and quiet I'd imagined, I was completely taken aback to find her kitchen packed with people! There were ten women sat around the table nursing various bevarages about to tuck into homemade lasagne! My Aunt started a charity called Muzika Romania many years ago working in the orphanages there, and the ladies(of all ages) were in Nottingham for a meeting to plan the charity's next project. I tried to persuade them to go on camera, but frankly, we were all too tired. Many of them professed to an interest in sewing, knitting, crochet and the like. One in particular said that as a younger woman, she'd made all her own clothes, as well as her childrens' - but that it was simply cheaper nowadays to buy everything. Another thought the new Make Do And Mend was indeed just a fashion, and that it probably wouldn't last. Lots of them bought clothes in charity shops, and hated big high-street chains largely because everyone ends up looking the same. There were also concerns about ethical issues and the manufacture of cheap clothing. My Aunt Kate's father used to work in the lace industry in Nottingham and she has a fabulous photograph of herself dressed in a pale blue lace dress - modelling for the company in the 1950's! I'll see if I can persuade her to let me put the photo on my blog...she looks beautiful!

Thursday, 8 October 2009


Well it’s nearly the end of week one, and I’m preparing to head off up to the Midlands in my damp-averse Micra. I’ve been at home for the first few days, as I received alot of requests from the London area where I’m based. Firstly I had my market stall in Greenwich, then an invitation to the Knitting and Stitching show in Alexander Palace, a call to see the inspiring Make Do And Mend exhibition at the Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery, and a lesson in darning from the fabulous Sybil Goodfellow who grew up during the Second World War.

But now, home comforts will be left behind as I head up to the Midlands via Harpenden, where I’m talking to Year 13 textile students at Sir John Lawes school about my trip. They asked me to come – so I’m heeding the call! They’re paying my petrol costs and a small fee of £20 for the talk. That will help me move on to my Saturday gig – a millinery workshop at The Harley Gallery in Wellbeck, Nottinghamshire, where I’ll receive board and lodging in exchange for my labours.

I’m currently surveying with sinking heart the amount of stuff I need to bring with me. Not only my tent and a sewing machine, but a suitcase full of hats, another of possible materials to make do and mend, a small video camera which I have yet to learn how to use, clothes, a duvet, a blanket, a newly acquired head torch, and the all-important wellies purchased after a downpour the other day. How I’ll fit it all in I just don’t know, but I feel I need to be ready for any eventuality and any request.

Speaking of requests, I’ve been overwhelmed by the generous response of Newsnight viewers and web browsers from all over the country. Over two hundred e-mails so far and increasing by the day. The Make Do And Mend idea has clearly struck a chord. I’ve been moved by peoples’ open spirit – offers of accommodation for help with curtains, halloween costumes, and of course hats! I’ve been asked to help make trousers for a stilt-walker in Sheffield, and to repair costumes for a drag queen in Manchester.

Sadly I can’t visit everyone, so please forgive me if I don’t come to you, and as I’m on the road, I’m afraid I can’t reply to all the e-mails either. They will however all be read, if not by me, then by someone in the Newsnight team.

Thankyou too for your tips – don’t worry, I will pack my sewing machine properly! And yes, I agree with Emily in Glasgow, haberdashery IS a wonderful word!

On my way to knitting and stitching show

You know - I could get into this!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Offers so far

Amongst others.....

Helping make curtains in Derby in return for board and lodging.
Helping with a wedding headpiece in Bradford.
Meeting an interesting couple in Leeds who don't buy new any more.

A lesson in mending - Bury St Edmunds

Whilst at Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery, I had the great fortune to meet 83 year old Sybil Goodfellow who grew up during the Second World War, and is therefore one of the original Make Do And Menders. Being something of a darning novice, she took me in hand, and gave me an on-the-spot lesson! As a girl she would make blouses out of parachute silk as well as her brother-in-law's RAF shirts. The RAF's undies(yes we're talking pants) also came in useful as aprons! She assured me that the pants were only used as backing fabric - the front of the apron would be patch-worked cottons. Sybil even knitted entire jumpers out of the small lengths of yarn you'd buy to mend woollens with, by knotting them all together. I cannot imagine the patience needed for that. This was an era when Make Do And Mend was not only a necessity, it was seen as a duty. Her message to the youngsters of 2009? Slow down. Appreciate quality. Do what your parents tell you.

Onward to Bury St Edmunds

Thanks to an invitation from Liz Cooper who saw the BBC Newsnight piece on my project, I had the pleasure of visiting the Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery and its exhibition on Make Do And Mend. Nine artists are taking part - their work inspired by the concept of making something out of the broken and disposable. They've all re-worked the old-fashioned concept of thrift and domestic economy. I especially enjoyed seeing what Hilary Jack has done with objects that she's found on the street, taken home, mended and reworked to produce something new and fresh. She took an old and damaged tennis racket that someone had chucked away and created this artwork by re-stringing it completely differently. Also inspiring was Armchair Politico, a joint project by Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh, which reworks found textiles. And I'd love to take part in Kai-Oi Jay Yung's sock exchange where people are encouraged to bring in their old socks for reinvention. Here you can see the tent she's constructed out of second-hand textiles.

There's a certain irony for me in seeing Make Do And Mend make it into a gallery! But it also makes sense. Finding beauty in the ordinary. Mending as a form of healing. Political messages about our throw-away culture.