Repair Cafe East Linton talks to Zelia Carreira Bowles about the importance of using what we have to make what we need, passing on crafting and sewing skills down the generations and learning to let go of the 'fast' lifestyle.
Can you tell us a bit about your work? What projects are you currently involved in?
Five years ago I started working for Scott Officer Knitwear linking (sewing) jumpers and while I was doing this work I realised that there was a lot of waste yarn being discarded. I thought it was a terrible waste and I started saving the yarn without really knowing what to do with it.
Fast forward a year from there and the bags of waste yarn were piling up so I decided to use it and crochet blankets for the family Christmas presents. After all the blankets (and a huge snowman for the Loch Ness Knit Fest) were done, I realised that I still had a mountain of yarn and this is how Coastal Creative Arts was born, as I decided that I would make blankets and other crocheted products to start a small craft business.
In 2019 Coastal Creative Arts participated in several craft markets and it was a great experience to be part of a craft community, engaging with the customers and giving them tips and advice on how to crochet. Unfortunately, last year due to Covid-19, we decided that we were not going to do any markets. This pause gave me time to make decisions on the best path to lead my craft business.
In the meantime, an opportunity to be part of a new project came about, working for another small business in East Lothian called 'Pajama Pantry' making pyjama bottoms and it has been absolutely brilliant, allowing me to brush up on my sewing skills and now I am also having lots of fun with all the leftover fabric!
Currently, I keep myself busy by linking jumpers, sewing pyjamas, using all the leftover fabric to do patchwork projects for myself and my family such as cushions for my caravan and quilted pyjama bottoms. I am also taking my crafty business on a new path by selling crochet kits made with the waste yarn which, at the moment, I am creating the patterns for.
What first inspired you to start making/sewing/crocheting?
I was brought up in a small village in Portugal with a mindset of “mend and make do” so for me making all these things came almost naturally because you see everybody around you doing exactly that and they teach you how to do it. My father was certainly my biggest inspiration. Many times I came to my father to ask him to do something that I needed and he just went into his workshop to make it. The best example of this is when I started doing some jewellery and I was using metal wire, trying to create a spiral with the metal, but it was really difficult to get the shape I wanted so I went to him and I asked if he could make something that would help me do this and two days later he came back to me with the perfect tool for it.
I guess the best way to explain this is that I never really came to a point of change and I started making things by sewing or crocheting. It has always been an intrinsic part of me and how I was raised, to making something I need from the resources that I already have rather than just buying it.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
I think there are two specific things I enjoy the most about my work.
The first one is the immediate result of having created what I needed by myself without having to buy it and knowing that I avoided throwing something away.
Secondly, it’s the whole process of creating that I find exhilarating. First you have the part of imagining what you are going to use and how you are going to use it to achieve what you need and then you have the process of actually making it. This takes a lot of space in my mind and has a calming effect on my wellbeing. It's also very funny when you tell people what you did and what you did it from and you see the shock in their faces!
Why do you think repair, reuse, recycle knowledge and skills are important today?
These skills were always important for so many reasons but unfortunately they have been slowly lost through the generations as quick and cheaper products became available.
These skills used to be passed on within families and communities. An example, many years ago, before my time, before tv and any other forms of entertainment, people in rural Portugal depended on small scale agriculture - the equivalent to crofting in Scotland, where people were able to produce their own food and extra to sell or trade. Due to the summer temperatures, work on the fields was done from the early morning though to lunch time. After lunch under the shade of a tree or in the shade of the coolest building in the village, people would get together and men would talk or have a little rest, but women would craft. They would knit, crochet, sew, embroider and chat. Lots of gossip for sure but they would also teach skills to each other and to the new generations.
Buying everything readymade is causing us to lose valuable skills, the community spirit and creating an environmental mess since everything is disposable and nothing is treasured. Just last week, I was taking part in a fun knit along with a group of ladies from all over. Two of them were in charge of the live streaming part, but they were also inviting all of us that were watching to come along and participate in the conversation. There was great banter on it and most of us were commenting on the fact that we do not wash our wools in the machine because we’re just too scared to try it, even on the woollen setting, because after all the hours of knitting it would be devastating to ruin the work using the washing machine.
Also, when you wear it, it makes you feel proud. It’s no longer about the fashion of the moment. Because you did it, it becomes timeless, cherished and used for many years to come. This goes straight to the point that if you buy something for £10 or £20 you don’t really care about it. You’ll use it for some time and then you get rid of it for the new fashion coming along.
The problem we are facing right now is that to learn all these skills we need to pay someone to teach us and many of us cannot afford these lessons. I think we need to try to get back to a community learning base in order to recover some of these skills. There is always someone that knows a little bit of something and if we get those little bits together we can make it whole again.
However, more challenging and important than this is that we need to think what we can do to start giving these craft skills to our children, to teach them the value of “mend and make do”. Children these days seem to be very aware of the problems we’re facing on an environmental scale but they do not have the skills to make profound changes. Like many of us adults, when they need something they think, 'let's buy it' because they do not know any other way, so they may try to buy recyclable or environmentally friendly goods but they’re unaware that many of these things can be handmade.
Let’s not forget about the mental health benefits of crafting. Once we learn a craft, work on a project can have a strong mindfulness effect and, in the end, we have the amazing reward of a product handmade by us that makes us proud even when it’s not perfectly made.
As a whole, we need to let go of the 'fast' lifestyle. All this fast everything was supposed to save us time, but what are we really doing with this time we are saving? Are we really saving any time at all? Or are we just working even more to make more money to buy even more things and to keep up with a certain lifestyle that we believed to be the ideal? What is real price our mental health is paying for this fast and disposable lifestyle?
I love your ethos of "Use something I have to make something I need." Can you give us some examples of things you've made from things you already had - and explain the processes involved both practically (what you made and how) and emotionally (for example, the satisfaction of making something yourself, not wasting money or materials)?
“Use something I have to make something I need” - It's something I do from the smallest and simplest things to the more craft challenging ones. From the old, stained t-shirt I cut to make dusters with no special craft ability needed, just some nice pinking shears, to the recent pyjama bottoms I did for Jeff (my husband) from a pair of old sun-bleached curtains and sewing skills. Old jeans too damaged to mend, turned into a pinny. Old shirts, cut into strips and used to make rugs… A shelf in my office that I could not drill to secure so I used stacked wool cones as a base to hold it, no skills or tools needed just the typical 'I need a shelf here, how can I get this?' And then I had this idea… I have to say, I am very random with my crazy ideas and sometimes I just wake up in the middle of the night with the solutions to a problem I have been thinking about for a few days. In the end, this is great for my mental health as it keeps my very hyper brain occupied and being productive with the satisfaction of successfully achieving all these ideas. Even when they are not so successful I always use it as a learning curve and try again, taking into account what I have learned from previous attempts.
Office shelves standing on stacked wool cones
Coastal Creative Arts mascot made with 100% reclaimed wool
Up-cycled old shopping basket
Snowman for Loch Ness Knit Fest