What do you make?

Charlene Lam‘s story-telling at the IDEO Make-A-Thon reunion last week was really entertaining. Her talks allowed me to reminisce and make me think back to my ‘making days’.

Charlene is a creative who works with materials and textiles. Her company Creative Clerkenwell looks to connect creatives in London and will feature at the Clerkenwell Design Week in May. Charlene told a great story of the things she makes. Meet the ‘operation red rabbit‘:’To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, a warren of red rabbits were made from papier mache and placed around the streets of East London’.

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Charlene’s story telling inspired me to question what I make…

When I was about 9 years old my dad bought me a hot glue gun. Accompanied by a scalpel and balsa wood, I used to enjoy making structures and boxes. They weren’t anything in particular but I loved it. My dad enjoyed encouraging my creativity and I loved making things – it was a win-win!

A number of years later, I took the then called ‘CDT’ craft, design, technology A Level
and discovered the wood work and silversmith workshops. I’d find any excuse to turn objects on the lathe or make pieces of jewelry.

Then I went to university and built on all these skills by discovering the soldering iron. It’s amazing what you can create by soldering an electronic circuit board together…! I designed the ‘anti-theft handbag‘, a biometric handbag which only opens when the correct finger is scanned. I thrived on making prototypes and models.

One theme I have carried through all my life is enjoying making birthday cards, wrapping paper out of old paper and making purses or small bags to hold objects. Give me an old piece of card, scrap material or unusual packaging and I can guarantee it will be kept for a rainy day.

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When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, however, I moved into London and no longer had the space for much model making or workshop equipment. Life changed too and London had lots to offer and plenty of places to explore. My interests also change slightly. I became very interested in sustainability and reusing objects. It was Victor Papanek’s ‘The Green Imperative‘ that changed my view on ‘life’. I started to view objects and consumerism in a different way and set myself the challenge of not buying new clothes for a year. I found this remarkably easy and I got a real kick out of rediscovering my wardrobe again.

So, this is where my ‘I make….’ story comes in.

I (like to) make old clothes comes to life. Not buying new clothes did nonetheless mean I could continue indulging in my love of buying from charity and vintage clothes shops. There’s something really exciting about knowing that a piece of clothing has a story behind it, is cheaper than its original price and has potentially been saved from landfill. The only problem is that most people are turned off buying second hand because of the smell, it may not fit properly or more often than not, hasn’t been displayed in a way that they can relate to.

Talking of clothing with history, DoTheGreenThing recently created Glove Love ‘an initiative where we take lonely single gloves that have lost their original partners, wash them and then pair them with brand new glove lovers’. The best bit about buying the gloves is the lovely message that comes with them. Each pair of gloves is tagged telling you a story of where they were found. Seriously, it’s worth £5 to just read the story (and to have an odd pair of gloves with a Do The Green Thing label on them).

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I don’t often find a garment of clothing fits perfectly but that’s where a pair of scissors, needle and thread and accessories come in handy. I wish I had taken “before and after” photos of some of my creations but instead will have to list them out and hope you can use your imagination.

– The ugly 70s dress that ended mid calf: 15cm off the length gave it a new lease of life.
– The shoulder padded ‘Dynasty’ dress: removing of the shoulder pads and a brooch made it this season.
– The 80s pencil skirt: a tuck in the top made it sit higher and therefore more flattering.
– The black, sleeveless, moth eaten, shapeless dress: stitching up of the holes and a retro belt transformed it.
– The boring tweed jacket: now with red button holes made it this seasons must have.

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Sometimes a new belt, change of length, additional stitching or different combination of accessories can transform an outfit. Trust me, it’s very satisfying when people ask where an outfit is from and the answer is ‘part charity shop, part old garment, part hand-me-down’.

I worked on a project a couple of years ago which is very relevant to this love of making old clothing come to life. In collaboration with [re]design, we took ‘Chalky Van’, the chip-fat-powered-chalkboard VW van to the Vintage Festival at Goodwood. I facilitated a few engaging sessions with the festival goers around the reuse of clothing. The most insightful was when I placed a nasty old shirt on the van and asked people what they would do to give it a second life. People of all ages came to write or draw their answer on the van.

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Some of the best responses that really touched me were:
‘use the buttons as eyes for my puppet’ – girl aged approximately 6 years old.
‘blow my nose on it’ – man aged approximately 50 years old.
‘tie a belt around it and wear it with my tapered chinos’ – girl aged approximately 25 years old
‘make a scarecrow’ man aged approximately 30 years old.

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I’m clearly not the only person who sees the value in an old piece of clothing!

Making old clothes come to life is a passion I have. I will never have a fashion label from it, nor will most people ever realise the story behind my wardrobe but it does make me happy knowing that I wear second hand clothing. Keeping spare buttons, boxes of material and never throwing away clothes my infuriate my boyfriend but that’s the designer in me….! Forever curious about what I can get my hands on next and adapt.

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Co-partipation

I currently work two days a week managing the SVP charity shop in Dalston. It’s an interesting place to be; community focused, retail work, managing volunteers, sorting donations, making money from other people’s preloved goods and dealing with the customers that come in.

I’m doing it off the back of my Masters thesis and I love it. Not only am I able to develop on the ideas I had for helping local charity shops improve (with no money) but I am helping to recycle unwanted goods (and prevent them going to landfill) while provide affordable shopping for the local community. Service design and social innovation also play a large role.

Every day is a challenge in the shop. The main issues I come across are getting the volunteers to understand how best to tackle a situation, how to make sure donations are dealt with properly and how to keep the stock turned over. It is very easy for a charity shop to become stale and uninteresting for the customers.

I noticed the other day that the stock room had become completely disorganised. The clothes were put on any clothes rack, some were priced, some were steamed and some clearly needed discarding. I think out of sheer frustration I decided to organise it and spent all afternoon putting different types of garments together and labelling the different areas. I felt a real sense of achievement and went away pleased with myself.

Of course, I came in a couple of days later to find the clothes all over the place again and my signs had been completely ignored. At first I was really frustrating and then I sat back and was annoyed at myself for completely ignoring my own belief in co-participation! I had gone in and organised the room without consulting the volunteers!

Once I had all the volunteers in, I sat them down and asked what they did and didn’t like about the system I’d created and what they would like to see changed. It needed explaining why I had decided to create a system in the first place as it wasn’t obvious to all of them why we needed it. After explaining the need for putting similar items together (to make stock replenishment easier) and not pricing/coding items straight away they seemed bought into it.

The reason my system hadn’t worked simply boils down to the fact that some of the volunteers aren’t tall enough to reach the top rail….. I love it when a problem is because of something very simple!

We took time to go through some co-participation and have resolved the system issues (by moving rails around), kept all volunteers happy and kept me happy by having a tidy stock room.