Monday, 20 December 2010

Catching up with Lizz again

It's been a while since I caught up with Lizz's year of eco-challenge. If you're new to this blog site and have no idea what this is, you can read the first posting (which explains the whole thing) and the second, third and fourth posts to catch up.

Her adventures for August and September are now up on her section of the Faith and Climate Change website. For August the challenge was "Wear or use something I have made everyday."

Lizz is a great maker-of-things, practises many handicrafts, and loves discovering new skills to try out and make use of. She writes:
"Although I’ve done metalwork and woodwork in the past, made soap from scratch, learnt about how to make shoes, woven baskets and made several rugs and cushions what I mostly do now is make clothes."
In order to check out what it might mean to use something she's made, every day, she looks round her flat and lits the things she can see that she's made herself:
Wooden picture frame, Copper pot with a fitted lid, Firepoker, Hammer, Candlestick, Soap, Soapdish, Bookcase, Several quilts, Wooden picture portfolio, Felt slippers, Large wooden spoon, A few bags, Curtains, Tablecloths, Scritchy pads for washing up (made from the little nylon string bags that fruit and veg come in), A few bits of jewellery (including a fabulous necklace made from mother of pearl buttons), Lots of clothes.
She enjoys walking round Birmingham's Rag Market, looking at the wealth of fabrics available there, and discovers that Clothkits has relaunched (if you remember Clothkits from its previous incarnation, you know how old you are!).

When she looks back at how well she achieved her challenge during the month, she lists:
Week 1: I use the curtain in the bathroom every day! This week I have worn the groovy new cardigan, a pinafore I made a few years ago from free fabric, 3 different skirts, some trousers, and a scarf. I also used my home-made hammer to break open a money bank to pay for an archaeology dig I’m going on.
Week 2: The cardigan again, plus another I made last year; a skirt I made a while ago (from a sari) and I made a shirt; another pair of trousers, a headscarf and a headband; the fabulous necklace and the bag I made from a pair of jeans.
Week 3: Clothkits skirt worn this week and am now making a shirt to go with it; the shirt made last week, and a long waistcoat I knitted a few years ago.
Week 4: This week I’m in Uzbekhistan! So I’ve taken all kinds of home made skirts and two shirts and two long scarves I’ve made. I’m using a shoulder bag I’ve made, and a purse-belt and a slightly weird hat with a huge brim that I made a few years ago.

Reflecting on what she learnt from the month, Lizz writes:
"It was a challenge but it was nice too. Each time I wore something or used something I made I felt this nice sense of achieving something. When I was camping at the start of the summer I had time to cut things out and pin them together – then when I was back at home I had time to sew them with the machine. When I was on holiday at the end of the month several people commented on my nice/interesting clothes and accessories! Sweet."
You can read the whole of her August post.

For September, Lizz's challenge was: "Make all your cards and presents for Christmas, birthdays, Eid or whatever as well as for the year ahead and give something away every day!"

So this is more in the handicrafts area - make all of them - so no buying of cards or presents! I know from experience that Lizz is a great giver of presents, so this is no small challenge. I also know from experience that making things to deadlines (like people's birthdays) is a real downer on the enjoyment of the creative process. Lizz writes: Looking back at how she met the challenges during the month, Lizz reflects:

For my Dad – rather than do a big present I usually do some kind of stocking of smaller things. For his 80th birthday a few years ago rather than get a present we did something together each month – to the theatre or the cinema or to the footie [for non-UK readers, that means football!] or to an exhibition or festival. It was great! A whole collection of memories and good times spent together.
For my friends – well counting up I usually give things to about 16 people for Christmas, Eid, Yule, or Hanukkah, and to about 20 people or so throughout the year for birthdays. Actually what often happens is that it goes in cycles – one year everyone got scarves, another year it was hats, some years its soaps and scritchy things, some years it’s food . . . What shall I make this year?

Week 1: For Dad I am making him first of all a new Christmas stocking as the one he currently uses has been on the go for about 25 years and though it is fine I think he might like one that is slightly easier to get things out of!
For my friends I’ve started a hot water bottle cover, a pair of socks, a cushion cover and some fun soap strings. Most of these took next to no time – except the socks – I’ve got as far as turning a heel on the first one. I’ve also decided to make some fingerless mittens for one or two people – someone gave me some very nice wool which will make a lovely pair!
And what have I given away? This week I have given away a DVD, three books, a skirt to a charity shop, a shirt to friend of mine who has coveted it for ages, and some knitting needles. That wasn’t so hard!

Week 2: For my Dad – I’ve decanted some sloe gin into a nice bottle and made a nice label. I’ve also got some marmalade I made earlier in the year and done a cool label for that too. Maybe one of the things I give him will be a sort of mini-food hamper? That sounds quite nice. He likes jam and chutney and I have made both of those this year. This week I’ve finished sock one and started sock two. I’ve made the hottie [means hot-water bottle!] cover and finished the cushion and started a knitted bag to be decorated with mother of pearl buttons. I’ve also started a button necklace, a knitted christmas pudding cover (for a chocolate orange) some mini knitted christmas puddings to go over Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and three tea-cosies! Hmm this sounds like a slightly crazy knit fest!
One of the things I know is don’t give yourself impossible knitting (or other ‘make it’ deadlines), Stephanie Pearl Mcpheethe yarn harlothas some hilarious stories about knitting against deadlines and the ways in which promised jumpers became pullovers and long socks got shorter as the day of delivery got closer. Because of a Christmas deadline and a yarn supply crisis I once knitted a pullover in about 32 hours and I will never do that again. I also once knitted a single sock for a christmas present and gave the other one for a birthday present and managed to make virtue of my terrible knitting management through linking the gifts . . . I suppose I’m thinking about it a bit now because if I start now I’ve a couple of months until Christmas and although traditionally Quakers don’t make a big thing about Christmas there are friends I like to honour by doing something for them. It’s also starting to be birthday season!
And given away? A cloak, three more books, some blue and white china, two pairs of wellies, two scarves, two bags, a hat – so I’ve managed more than one thing a day this week. I don’t think anyone has spotted I’m giving things away more specifically than usual.

Week 3: This week I went to Paris for a few days and with two books in hand I went in search of lots of fabulous craft, artisan and arty places. I met some other women in a cafe (they are regulars there and I had read about them on line) who are big guerilla knitters (also called yarn bombing) – they knit covers for lamp-posts, buses, velibs (Paris's public bicycles), everything! I’d taken some wool to donate to their latest project (a cover for one of the bridges over the Seine) it was like a passport to a whole afternoon of friendship and we exchanged knitting tips and ideas til late in the day. The other book I took was a Frommer’s Guide Paris Free and Dirt Cheap; it is the business for a thrifty like me. This week I have finished sock two, the knitted bag, the Christmas pudding covers, one of the tea cosies, and the button necklace. I’ve started a small quilt picture – not sure who for yet and I’ve also had a moment of illumination about what to give a friend of mine for a birthday – hurrah.
And given away? The wool to the wild knitters, a piece of jewellery, some little things from Paris, another pair of wellies, another pair of knitting needles, a DVD, a CD, a mirror and a small stuffed toy.

Week 4: Whoopee this week is my birthday - several people have given me things which were made through some kind of recycling and one of my friends gave me knitting wool and a new book of patterns! How nice! I went to stay with some friends (one of whom had just had a birthday – socks, little mat with a puffin on it, and a little smellie). This week I finished everything I’d been knitting or sewing, or making or ‘creating’. I had a few days of feeling very smug and then realised I had managed to miss one of my friends birthdays – oooops. This is especially silly as I’d had an idea for it ages ago and even started it but it’s been sitting on my desk at work for weeks waiting for me to finish it. Drat.
And what did I give away? Birthday presents to my friend, a couple of hardback books to a local library, another DVD, some beads, a small bookcase (via Freegle), a dress, a saucepan, and a tray.

Reflecting on what she learnt during the month, Lizz writes:
Overall, what I learnt is that there is much to be said for planning ahead for presents, gifts and cards – I mean, it’s outrageous cards often cost £3, and a home made one is not only much cheaper but often carries far more meaning – even if you’re rubbish at art there are stickers and printing stamps these days which make the process much easier. Collages can be good, as can photos stuck onto card. In terms of gifts it used to be considered cheapskate to make things but not any more – now it’s very on trend and you can even work the whole 'knit in public' thing if you’ve got the nerve. I also learnt that a tiny bit of ribbon and wrapping makes the whole thing even better – I often use maps, newspaper or bits of inflight magazines to wrap presents and I keep bits of ribbon and scraps of silk in a special tin. I keep the best postcards, christmas cards and birthday cards from year to year and turn them into tags etc. Yes you might say this all takes time – but the alternative is work hard, earn money, buy mass produced see everywhere things and wrapping for them and give them away or work less, have more time, make amazing individual and one off things and wrapping paper and give them away! Or give things from which people can make things!
All this is only an extract - you can read the whole of Lizz's own post.

As I'm writing this in December (and you're reading it goodness-knows-when!) it's probably to late to make
this year's Christmas presents - unless it's an orgy of mince pies. But it's never too early to plan for next year!

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I'm taking a break now, over Christmas and New Year - see you again in January!
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Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The joy of flash mobs (well, some of them!)

This may seem a strange topic for a blog about sustainability - but it reflects the orientation of the Good Lives project at Woodbrooke. We don't think that true sustainability consists of grim self-deprivation. Sure, we all have to live simpler lives, using less of the Earth's resources . . . but that can be joyful, fun, satisfying and creative. If we make ourselves miserable and boringly obsessive, our own inner resources will soon give out, others won't feel attracted to the kind of lifestyle we hope they will adopt, and we won't become beacons for a new and far, far better way of living.

What's a flash mob? The first one was created in 2003, in Manhattan, by someone called Bill Wasik:
The original idea was to create an email that would get forwarded around in some funny way, or that would get people to come to a show that would turn out to be something different or surprising. I eventually came up with a lazy idea, which was that the thing would just have one simple, in-your-face aspect to it--there wouldn't be any show, and that the email would be upfront about the fact that it was inviting people to do basically nothing at all . . . The idea was that the people themselves would become the show, and that just by responding to this random email, they would, in a sense, create something . . . I had conceived it specifically as a New York thing. People in New York are always looking for the next big thing. They come here because they want to take part in the arts community, they want to be with other people who are doing creative stuff, and they will come out to see a reading or a concert on the basis of word-of-mouth. Partly they want to find out what everybody else is so excited about, but partly they just want to be a part of the scene.
A flash mob (or flashmob), according to Wikipedia is:
a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual act for a brief time, then disperse.The term flash mob is generally applied only to gatherings organized via telecommunications, social media, or viral emails.The term is generally not applied to events organized by public relations firms, protests, and publicity stunts.
This last caveat is important, because such groups have tried to benefit from the buzz created by such events, and if you search for 'flash mobs' on YouTube many of the results that come up are this kind of commercial operation.

But there are 'real' ones that are quite different, and the whole art form (and I think it can really be that) has come a long way since the first deliberately pointless excercise.

There's a great clip of a group of adults and children dancing to to a Sound of Music track at Antwerp Central rail station; and one I really like is a performance in a cafe of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's oratorio Messiah. Just recently, BBC4 TV has screened a documentary about someone creating a dance performance flash mob after he got interested in traditional English clog dancing. The whole programme (60 mins, including a history of clog dancing, how the flash mob was recruited and trained, etc) may not stay available online for ever, but there's a clip available that shows the actual flash mob peformance.

One of the characteristics of such pieces of performance art is that they very often start with just one person (I think that would take huge bravery!), who is then joined by others. And if you watch the film as it pans around the crowd, who aren't in the know, you see the faces switching from 'uh-oh, we've got a problem person here', to 'wow, look at this' - the transformation is complete when the watching crowd becomes a forest of mobile phones, as people try to capture an image of what's going on.

I find myself really moved by these big group artistic performances - they stir something emotionally, which is, I think, a signal that something important is going on here. And what triggered me to write about this is that I've just got home from Woodbrooke's annual weekend when we bring together as many as can come of our Associate Tutors. These are people who aren't on the staff at Woodbrooke, but have particular knowledge, skill or expertise, and who run courses for us from time to time - maybe once a year, or every couple of years; some people more often than that. We have an annual weekend of getting together for personal and professional development, swapping ideas, feeling part of the bigger team (as mostly we work alone on a course, or perhaps with one other person), and thinking about Woodbrooke's future programme.

This weekend we were looking at what kinds of areas of work we should be focussing on during 2012 (our 2011 programme was finalised long ago - we're already living in 2012 in our heads!). From the half dozen small groups who were coming up with ideas on Sunday morning there was a consistent thread of the sense of needing to 'build community' - within course groups at Woodbrooke, in our neighbourhoods, among local Quaker meetings, and so on.

We'll be looking more at this as we plan the detail of the future programme, and I think it's the aspect of 'community' that, for me, makes these public performances so moving. There has clearly been a strong (if temporary) sense of community created among the performers. And, just as important, watch the onlookers' faces in the video clips - the daily chore of the shopping, or the solitude (which might - for some - be loneliness or isolation) of the solitary drink in the cafe, or the stress of a large railway station, are all, quite suddenly, transformed. People stop, and watch, and smile, and talk to each other. For a moment, we glimpse a different possibility of 'community' in the ordinary spaces of our lives - and this is part of a 'good life'!
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Tuesday, 7 December 2010

In praise of . . . Bishopston Trading Company

I've pinched the phrase 'in praise of . . .' from The Guardian, where it's used each day for their third leader article, to draw readers' attention to something worthy of notice that isn't the kind of thing to make front page news.

Fair trade is something that many of us are used to in relation to tea, coffee, fruit and vegetables. Bishopston Trading has tackled fair trade in the notoriously unfair textile industry.

Bishopston Trading Company is a fair trade company whose sole aim is to provide employment for the people of K.V.Kuppam, in India, with whom they have been working in partnership since 1985.

They use Fairtrade certified organic cotton and are members of the World Fair Trade Organisation.

In 1978 a group of residents of Bishopston in Bristol twinned their community with the South Indian village of K.V.Kuppam. Their intention was to promote friendship and mutual understanding between two very different parts of the world.

Several years later, Carolyn Whitwell, the group’s secretary received a letter from a village leader in K.V.Kuppam which moved her profoundly: the letter thanked the twinning committee for all their support, but made the simple assertion that as skilled craftspeople the villagers wanted work not charity. With this in mind Carolyn set up the Bishopston Trading Company as a means of providing employment for the village of K.V.Kuppam by utilising the traditional handloom weaving that was one of the major crafts of the area.

In essence the company is a trading partnership: Bishopston provides the design and marketing skills and the capital investment in the form of forward payments, and K.V.Kuppam provide the weaving and tailoring skills. From small beginnings, when six people were employed in the Tailoring Units in K.V.Kuppam, the company has grown to provide employment to almost 200 tailors, cutters, hand-finishers, embroiderers and craft workers. A further 90 people are employed as handloom weavers who produce the handloom Fairtrade certified organic cotton cloth that is used to make clothes, toys, bags, bedding and much more. The company now has five shops, as well as an online and catalogue mail order business and a wholesale department.

The mission statement of the company is: To import directly from rural India with the sole aim of Fair Trading. This must be one of the most unusual company set-ups recorded at Companies House!

The price paid per garment ensures the members of the K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies receive above average wages, secure employment, a health care allowance, provident fund, gratuity and an on site crèche for their young children. All profits generated by the business which are not used to grow the business and generate further employment in K.V.Kuppam are donated to Bishopston's charity, The South Indian Rural Development Trust, which supports social development projects in the area. In 2006, architect-designed model tailoring units were opened on the outskirts of the village to ensure the workers have a spacious, cool, light and comfortable environment to work in. These buildings were funded through the company’s profits which were channelled into the Trust over a number of years.

K V Kuppam

The vast majority of Bishopston Trading Company’s Fairtrade organic cotton clothing is produced in the village of K.V.Kuppam, and Bishopton works in partnership with the K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies.

K.V.Kuppam is situated in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, approximately two and a half hours west of the state capital Chennai (formerly known as Madras). It is actually a number of villages organised under the administrative district of K.V.Kuppam. It is a very busy and bustling place, but still very rural in outlook and culture. The villagers of K.V.Kuppam speak Tamil, although there are a few villages in the area where the first language is Telugu. The majority of people are Hindus, but there are also significant populations of Muslims and Christians: the people of different religions live harmoniously together.

The K.V.Kuppam Tailoring Societies are one of the largest single employers in the area. The main other form of employment is subsistence agriculture. Every Monday in the village centre there is a crowded weekly market, it is full of fresh produce, some craft-items and even some live animals. There is a long tradition of handloom weaving in the area, and Bishopston Trading Company works with about 90 handloom weavers who produce Fairtrade organic cotton cloth for them. Mostly this is then tailored into garments for their clothing range, but they also sell the cloth by the metre to other fabric shops and to other designers. The weavers work from home, weaving in the traditional way and on the looms passed down through generations of their families.

Many of the cutters, tailors, hand-finishers, and embroiderers that work in the Tailoring Socities are women. Their earnings are equal to the men, and their incomes allow them to support their families. Education is the most valued asset a family can have; there are primary and secondary schools in the village and many of Bishopston's partners are keen that their children should complete further education and attend university. The Tailoring Societies have a policy of spreading the opportunity to have long-term, stable, well-paid employment to as many households as possible. For this reason they will only employ one member of a household. They also have a policy of employing people based not only on their ability to learn the skills required, but also based on the economic need of their household, in order to ensure the opportunity of a good job at the Societies reaches the most marginalised people in the area.

In the 24 years that Bishopston Trading Company has been working with K.V.Kuppam there have been marked improvement in the quality of life of the villagers in the area. This is evidence of the power of Fair Trade to help the most economically-deprived people of the world improve their situations through putting their skills to productive use.

After delivery to the Tailoring Societies, the handloom cloth is washed and ironed to ensure it is pre-shrunk. It is then sent to the cutting room where the Cutters cut the required pieces needed for the many patterns the partners have become expert at tailoring. The tailors then use peddle powered sewing machines to stitch the garments. Although there is mains electricity in the Tailoring Units, its supply is interrupted by power cuts most days. There are some tailors who use electric machines due to leg disabilities.

The fine detailed appliqué work that is distinctive of Bishopston Trading Company’s style is undertaken by the khaja tailors, who are highly skilled and very patient. There is also a society of hand-embroiderers who produce the popular embroidered garments.

It is very important to Bishopston Trading Company to provide full-time employment throughout the whole year, and to ensure as much value is added to the products in the local community. Their popular Fairtrade organic cotton bags are all woven, stitched and screen-printed in K.V.Kuppam. Their beaded jewellery and batik scarves are also produced there by a group of fifteen women.

Bishopston Trading Company - The Next 25 Years?

Bishopston Trading Company and its customers have made an enormous contribution to supporting the K.V.Kuppam community over the past 25 years. Those of us who have been regular customers are at the heart of this success so the company now wants to share with us some of the difficulties they now face.

The past year has seen a massive rise in cotton prices, a fall in the value of sterling against the Indian ruppee, ongoing global recession and a substantial rise in the cost of living in rural India.

While existing customers will doubtless remain loyal, what Bishopston really needs is to increase their customer base without wasting valuable resources on glossy advertising.

Their clothes (for men, womenchildren and babies) are attractive and good value for money, and their textile gifts make very nice ethical Christmas presents.

They have a thriving line in printed shopping bags and teatowels, all made from organic Fairtrade cotton and printed by their producer partners. Maybe your children's school, local shop, church or environmental group would be interested in having some of these 'bags for life' printed for them?

They also make aprons with embroidered logos - do you know a local restaurant, cafe or bakery interested in ethically produced catering uniforms?

Could you organise a fashion show for their products?

You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch and suggest friends do the same. You can also follow their blog.

Let them know if you have other ideas.

They are pioneers in this field, have a unique business model, and are committed to continuing their work in K.V.Kuppam where they have made such a big impact on the lives of so many families.

Bishopston Trading shops in the UK are located in south-west England in Bristol, Glastonbury, Malmesbury, Totnes and Bradford-on-Avon. They also have an online store.

If you are already a customer, please continue to support this company. If you aren't, now is a really good time to become one, and do your bit for fair trade, while discovering some really good products.
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at and I can post it for you.

If you are reader from outside the UK, please remember to post your comment in English - I won't post anything if I don't know what it says!