Shwop and Sew Lab at M&S

This morning fellow PhD-er Nina and I attended the Tote bag making session for Marks and Spencer’s ‘Shwop and Sew Lab’ in Broadmead, Bristol. Neither of us had any idea of what to expect, but it was brilliant! Run as part of Bristol’s ‘Big Green Week’, the idea behind it is to get people recycling, up-cyling, and re-loving their clothes again.

When we arrived at M&S we were greeted by an array of brand new (and very swanky) Pfaff sewing machines and some exciting boxes of fabric. After the introductions, we were invited to delve through the fabric and choose the design for our bags. The fabric was actually old advertising banners which was a particularly nice idea, and they featured a whole array of different designs – including a headless David Gandy, some stylish shoes, beautiful patterns, or some hairy men’s legs! I opted for some rolled up pairs of knitted socks – I’m always a sucker for knitted things!

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Nina choosing her fabric and design

After cutting out the rectangles, our lovely tutor Delia from FloJo boutique showed us how to whip up a practical and stylish tote. It took less than an hour for each of the 6 participants to complete their project, and they all looked great. Afterwards, M&S treated us to some tea and cupcakes – because who doesn’t need re-fuelling after a sewing session?!

Tea and cakes!

I was also pretty excited to meet Alex from series three of the Sewing Bee! She works for M&S and was one of the brains behind the workshops being run over the nexttwo days. She was really lovely and gave me some fitting (and reading) advice for my ongoing issue in making sleeves fit. Hopefully it’s something I’ll get sorted out soon… In the meantime, I’m happy to keep making sleeveless garments now the weather is a bit nicer.

If anyone around Bristol is looking for something fun to do this evening or tomorrow I can definitely recommend a sewing session at M&S. They’re free, friendly and fashionable, and I really don’t think you can ask for anything more than that! Thanks for having us!


Our finished bags!

Where it begins: Knitting as creation story (Excerpt)

“It begins with the circle of friends. There is always something beyond your beyond, the aged parents and teenager who crack up the family cars on the selfsame day, the bone-picked divorce, the winter of chemo, the gorgeous mistake, the long unraveling misery that needs company, reading glasses and glasses of wine and all the chairs pulled into the living room. Project bags bulge like sacks of oranges, ripe for beginning. Cast on, knit two together girlfriendwise. Rip it, pick up the pieces where you can, along the headless yoke or scandalously loose button placket, pick up and knit. Always, you will have to keep two projects going: first, the no-brainer stockinette that can run on cruise control when the talk is delicious. And the other one, the brainer, a maddening intarsia or fussy fair-isle you’ll save for the day when the chat gets less interesting, though really it never does. Knitting only makes the talk go softer, as long as it needs to be, fondly ribbed and yarned-over, loosely structured or not at all, with embellishment on every edge. Laughter makes dropped stitches.”

Where it begins: knitting as creation story by Barbara Kingsolver. Published in the Nov/Dec issue of Orion magazine

Worldwide knit in public day

Saturday (June 8th) was the ninth worldwide knit in public day. The idea is to get people together in a celebration of knitting, allowing like-minded people to meet, form friendships, and try to inspire others to learn the skill.

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Among the events that took place in the UK, one of the largest that took place was at St Pancras Station in London where ‘loveknitting’ teamed up with Rowan yarns and provided the space, materials, and tuition for people to knit a mug cosy. Throughout the day hundreds of people knitted, exchanged tips and tricks, chatted, or simply watched. It was a hugely visible display of something usually quite solitary and domestic.


Photo from the St Pancreas Facebook page:

Closer to home Paper Village pom-pomed a tree opposite the shop and I took my half-finished sock out for a coffee in the morning sunshine. Knitting in public is nothing new to me really; I’m part of two knitting groups, so I’m regularly spotted out and about with my knitting. I also hate sitting still without anything to occupy my hands, so whenever I’m in front of the TV or a passenger in a car I’ll have some needles clacking away. I love it when we spot other knitters on the motorway!

Knitting in public always reminds me of a paper I read a while back by Jack Bratich and Heidi Brush (2011) called Fabricating Activism: Craft-Work, Popular Culture, Gender. In it they make the argument that knitting in public is out of place. They claim it can be jarring, for it ‘turns the interiority of the domestic outwards’ by exposing that which is usually enclosed; an invisible and unpaid (feminine) labour of home life. Suddenly the usually invisible is opened up for public consumption, there for all to see.

The mix of reactions to this act is astonishing – just think back to the outcry last year when a young woman was caught on camera knitting whilst watching Murray play Baghdatis on centre court. I was watching at the time and remember cheering at the sight! She was knitting without looking at her work and certainly didn’t seem to be distracting those around her. But logging onto Twitter after the match had (finally) been won by Murray I was shocked to see that others were genuinely outraged by her actions. I was even more shocked to see that someone knitting at Wimbledon made the news the next day! ‘Knitting woman’ was all over the papers. No sign of ‘texting man’, or ‘tweeting teenager’. The display of pink yarn had managed to incite all manner of reactions in people, and I really couldn’t decide whether to be angry that this was a news story at all or happy that people were actually paying attention to the act and skills of knitters.


Given all this, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that knitting in public has been described as an act of craftivism – that curious combination of craft (as production, creativity, skill) and activism – in the way it can become political. This might be through space-making or community-building, or by raising awareness. Not only does knitting in public expose hidden labour, then, but it also highlights that public spaces are never static or permanent, but process that are always under construction. Furthermore, this construction doesn’t always have to be geared towards capitalist venture, but might instead focus on building values of mentorship, community, or gender empowerment. Knitting, and handicrafts more broadly, also sit wonderfully at odds with the contemporary imperative towards hyper-production through creating a slow space in which the regime of technology and the culture of speed are brought into question. I think this juxtaposition comes right to the fore in the WWKIP event at St Pancreas with the contrast of people sat knitting in the midst of a flurry of high-speed trains, rushing passengers, and frantic announcements. It just adds a whole new layer to the composition of places, and I for one think it’s brilliant. The best news is that WWKIP day has been such a roaring success in the past 8 years that it’s now become a week-long event. So if you’ve not had a chance to take your hooks, needles, and yarn out and about there’s still time!

The paper village coral reef

For the last six months 38 crocheters, knitters, and needlefelters have worked together with the community arts and crafts shop paper village to create a woolly coral reef.


It’s been a great project to get involved with, for not only did participants get to practice new skills – I learnt ‘hyperbolic crochet’ and how to needlefelt – but it was a fab opportunity to meet other crafty people in the local area. Since beginning back in November all sorts of lovely coral models and fishy friends have been brought into Vicky at the shop, but it was only when it all came together in to one window display last week that you really got a sense of how much work had gone into the reef and how beautiful it looks. The photos really don’t do it justice. 

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I mentioned hyperbolic crochet – this is a fascinating technique pioneered by University lecturer Daina Taimina who wanted to make visual representations of complex mathematical concepts. She set out to model a hyperbolic plane, essentially a shape that is the geometric opposite of a sphere. So, rather than curving in on itself and having a closed surface, as is the case with a sphere, a hyperbolic plane curves away from itself at every point. This comes about due to an exponential increase in size as the plain grows. In terms of crocheting, then, you start out by crocheting around in a circle and continue to make it exponentially larger with each round. By starting with a circle of, say 10 double crochets in the first round, you would then do two double crochets into each of the first stitches for the second round (total 20 stitches), then another two double crochets into each of the stitches for the third round (total 40 stitches), two double crochets into each stitch for the forth round (total 80 stitches), and so on and so forth. The result is a structure which looks remarkably like coral, or a brain (or ‘brain coral’ as we’ve been calling it!) Physically creating these shapes gives you a real sense of how this mathematical principle works in practice, the first few rounds seem to take no time at all but by the time your piece is 20cm round it can take hours to get all the way around it. I’ve never found maths quite so interesting before! 


Learning to needlefelt was also pretty exciting, although somewhat less complicated on the whole. Needlefelting is a method of creating felt without the use of water. Instead, practitioners will use wool tops and a needle that is covered in notches. These notches work to tangle the smooth wool tops, making them stick together. The more the fibres are poked and prodded, the stronger and denser the structure becomes.


Vicky ran several workshops during which she showed people how to do this to make a fish (or seahorse, shark, squid….) which are also now a part of the display. I love the creativity people have brought to their creatures – each of them looks so individual and they make such colourful additions to the reef. 


As well as being a great creative project and a way of bringing people together, the woolly reef also sits alongside an exhibition to draw attention to the plight of coral reefs around the world. Definitely well worth a read. The reef is on display NOW at Paper Village and will be there until the end of June. Paper Village is at 200 North Street, Southville, BS3 1JF and is open Tuesday – Saturday 10am-5pm.