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Bryony, Stitched Up

I’d like to imagine a world where people are just sort of wearing whatever the hell they want – tight things; baggy things; puffy sleeves; tight sleeves. You know, just whatever shape, whatever style; everyone looking completely different. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Today, we are talking about clothes. More specifically, we’re talking about the impact the fashion industry has on us and on the planet. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

The process of making clothing involves a huge amount of water. There’s lots of toxic chemicals involved in treating and dying. There is a huge problem with waste because of this overproduction. And then there’s all sorts of other stuff to do with, you know, the agriculture side of fashion. Cotton to make T-shirts starts out as a crop so there’s like impacts from the pesticides used and the land used. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Wow! For many of us, the problem feels too big to take on. But for five women and their Manchester-based community business, it’s a fight worth having. I’m Veronica Gordon and this is “Then One Day”. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

We all kind of met through mutual friends and some of us met on Twitter, because at the time, there was relatively few people in Manchester sort of tweeting angrily about fashion. And so, a few of us kind of met on Twitter. 

 

Veronica Gordon

That’s Bryony Moore, one of the founding members of sustainable clothing hub, Stitched Up. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

We all kind of shared a similar background in that we’re all from fashion or art backgrounds. So, we’re kind of creative people who really like clothing and experimenting with our style, and really enjoy that side of clothes. But we also shared these concerns. And we kind of all felt a bit like we were powerless in the face of this huge industry, like you say, and all of the problems associated with it. And so, what we wanted to do was try and create a sort of positive route of action for people so that people could do something to make a difference, or to help them to start to think differently about the clothes that they buy. 

 

Veronica Gordon

So now you found each other, how did the thought of creating Stitched Up happen? 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

After we met, we kind of would get together and chat. And we sort of came up with the idea of starting to run some workshops; two of the cofounders had already had some experience running art workshops. So, we already had that experience within the team, and we started to run upcycling workshops around and about in Manchester – we would just do pop-up events. And we also ran clothes swaps. And they seemed to go pretty well; we had a good reception from them. So, we thought we would actually try and set up something more permanent. 

 

Veronica Gordon

And that’s exactly what they did. In 2012, they took on an empty shop in Chorlton, Manchester, where they could offer even more events, such as make and mend workshops, and clothes swaps, which are sessions where you bring your unwanted garments, hang them up and take your pick from other donations. But before too long, they needed volunteers to help. And that’s when they met Sarah, who had spent the previous six months working for a fast fashion brand. 

 

Sarah, Stitched Up 

So, I had already kind of started to think about sustainable fashion. And about six months, less than that, into the job. I knew that this brand didn’t think the same way I did. So, I actually started volunteering at Stitched Up. And it just kind of like cemented what I was thinking that it’s not fair on who’s making it if you can buy something for 10 pounds or less. Because I didn’t deal with like the factories or the orders and stuff like that, it would just mostly be what I would overhear. And it just, it just didn’t sound right to me. It just didn’t fit with me well. I’m not saying that this brand in particular was the worst of the bunch. It’s just what the industry is. 

 

Veronica Gordon

So how did you find Stitched Up or did Stitched Up find you? 

 

Sarah, Stitched Up 

Well, so Stitched Up is based in Chorlton and I am from Chorlton. I went to Huddersfield for university and then just came back and never left. And yeah, so I actually first spotted them when with their first premises that they had because it used to be an old toy shop that I knew when I was little. So, I was like, well, who’s taken over from my toy shop, and stuff like that. So that’s kind of how I got made aware of it. And then when I was thinking about my own sort of sustainable wardrobe, I started to search these things and then it popped up. So, I was like, “Oh, I know where this is, and I know who they are”. So, I kind of just emailed and was like, “Do you need more volunteers?”. 

 

Veronica Gordon

And after a year of volunteering, Sarah was offered the opportunity to become a member which for her was a bit of a dream come true. So that means, at present, Stitched Up has a shop front, 4 members of staff, and over 70 volunteers. I asked Bryony how they’ve managed to stay true to their cause, while making sure the business is staying afloat. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up 

So, when we started out, we were all volunteering. And then we’ve just gradually built it up over time, developed our client base. Because as well as earning our own income through the public programme of workshops and events that we do, we also deliver projects and workshops for charities and other organisations that we partner up with. And some of that comes through funded projects as well. So, the learning how to balance out the business model so that it works financially, it’s just been something that we’ve just learned over time, you know. I’ve got an art degree; I don’t know about these kinds of things. So, we’ve just figured it out as we’ve gone along, really. So, it definitely hasn’t been something that we’ve just gone, oh, let’s have this idea and then let’s go and do it; and then here it is. It’s been a much more long, slow development than that. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Has there ever been a time when you thought, “Oh, that’s it? I can’t go on?” 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up 

I don’t know. I mean, like, yeah, we’ve come close to that a few times, to be honest, where it’s difficult for people when we were volunteering, and then everyone’s having to make choices between life and you know, like, buy a house or have a baby. And then they’re like…it’s not like it’s been a walk in the park by any means. But we’ve definitely come close; there’s moments where we were like, it’s not going to work. Because basically, I think, the kind of business that we’ve created is all about getting people to not buy stuff. So, as a business model, it’s not like the most lucrative. So, you know, it sort of doesn’t make sense from that point of view. We’ve come very close at times, to just thinking, can we carry on doing it? And it’s not ever to do with like a lack of passion or enthusiasm for the project. It’s always just to deal with the practical stuff, like, you know, we can’t afford to have a big enough building, we can’t afford to pay ourselves properly. But we’ve sort of so far muddled through all of it. So, yeah. 

 

Veronica Gordon

What is it that gives you all that drive to carry on? So, you’ve had those moments? What made you say, “No, that’s it, we’re going to go ahead, we’re going to keep going”. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

I think we’ve probably all just always had faith in the idea that we came up with all together. So, I think that’s part of it. And another part of it, I think, is just the positive impact that we see on a daily basis, just in terms of individuals. We’re all about providing an alternative to the global fashion industry, which is obviously a really big thing. But on a day-to-day level, some of the people that we work with, we just get the best feedback from them. Because lots of the funded projects we do are based around wellbeing and looking after each other as being a key part of sustainability, like it’s interlinked as far as we’re concerned. If we look after each other, both on a local level and globally, then that’s only going to have a positive impact for the future. 

 

Sarah, Stitched Up 

We managed to keep one of our projects going during the lockdown, which was a wellbeing project doing “Craft-er-noons”, working with people with mental health challenges. And I was going to Gorton once a week and working in a nice little group of about 10 people just sharing our own craft skills. But when lockdown officially happened, we all decided that it was a project that we needed to keep going because, you know, mental health can be at massive risk whilst we’re all in this stage. So, we managed to keep it going and how we changed it was we delivered craft packs to the participants and had our Zoom catch ups once a week. So, I was going out cycling to Gorton like every other week, and this was at the start of lockdown when it was nice and sunny. So, it was a lovely day. And it was great because an extra person who had felt too anxious to come to the physical workshops, made it over to our digital one. So, she finally felt like she could be involved. And that was great, and it was really rewarding. And then one of the lovely sunny days like I went to drop a craft pack off and one of the participant’s brother gave me a piece of cheesecake and I was just cycling home thinking, “I really love my job. Like everyone’s giving me nice feedback. I’ve got a piece of cheesecake. This is great!” 

 

Veronica Gordon

I wanted to hear what it was like for a customer. So, I got on the phone to Lily, one of Stitched Up’s regulars. 

 

Lily, Stitched Up customer

Sewing is something that I have always been interested in. My grandmother was an amazing seamstress, but she unfortunately passed away before she got to pass on all the knowledge. So, it’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind but always something I was quite afraid of. The sewing machine was just like this really scary thing that I wouldn’t have an idea where to start. So, so yeah, when that came up, I just thought that it’s only down the road, it’s a brilliant organisation by the seems of it, obviously cooperatively run, which is great. So yeah, so it was just a case of, yeah, ticks all the boxes. So, I went along, and it was a great experience. We made a pencil case and a cushion cover. Like, brilliant because it’s actually something that people can recognise and you can recognise yourself as you’ve actually achieved something; you’ve really made something work. And yeah, just obviously, the social side of it, when it’s a small group like that, I think it’s not so intimidating. And yeah, the organisers were just that friendly, that it did feel like you were just going around to your mate’s house and you were just having a go. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

We do feel very fortunate in that we have just lovely feedback from people every day; just to see people’s kind of whole demeanour change when they realise that they can do something or just have someone to teach them something. You know, some of the people we work with have been homeless or are homeless, or we’ve done projects with female sex workers, you know, people who are ordinarily just ignored by people that they see on the street. And so, when you sit with someone and teach them a new skill, teach them how to make a garment, or, you know, how to repair something, that people just really love that and it kind of just really lifts people’s spirits. And that’s really a beautiful thing to see every day. 

 

Veronica Gordon

This feels really important. Before talking to Bryony and Sarah, I wondered how large an impact such a small organisation could actually make. Now, I realise they’re not trying to take on the giant problems directly. Instead, as a community business, they’re fostering and promoting a culture of care more broadly, for each other and for the environment. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

The powerlessness that we all felt as the bunch of women that set up the organisation, we felt like the antidote to that powerlessness was action, even if it was a very small action, and it was something like teaching people to mend. We just see that a really important part of the solutions to these kinds of global issues, is engaging people on a sort of one-to-one or a group level within the community and putting pressure on companies and on policymakers. You know, we can write to our MP about issues that we’re concerned about, we can tag companies on social media and tell them that we’re concerned about certain things. And we can also chat to our friends and neighbours about the alternatives that we’re trying, you know, and bring them along to clothes swaps, encourage them to learn to sew and fix things. So yeah, it’s just kind of felt like, we’ve always been kind of rooted in the community and felt like the thing that we offer is working with our community to bring those kinds of solutions from this level up. And we also hope, through the community action, we hope that we’re also drawing sort of national and international attention on to certain issues as well. 

 

Veronica Gordon

And what’s your hopes long term for Stitched Up? So, a year down the line, five years down the line? 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

I never know how to answer this question. Because most of the time, our goals are based around sort of like making it through the next year. So, I think the next year for us is definitely like surviving COVID, I would say. The pessimistic side of me, I suppose, is sort of like “Will we survive into a post-COVID world?” But in a sort of more positive outlook, I think it would be really great if we were in a much bigger space, by this time next year; we really need a bigger venue. And our current challenge is trying to find somewhere that we can afford, which is not very easy. And then yeah, in five years, I don’t know. Maybe we’d like to branch out and have more of our space in different parts of Manchester, working with different communities and really scale up some of the projects that we do that we really like, and think are really important. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Like many other businesses, Stitched Up has had to adapt to ensure they can survive the impacts of COVID-19. But despite difficulties, the changing landscape of 2020 has also inspired a new wave of people to think about community projects. I asked Bryony if she had any tips for people starting out. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up 

I would just say do some research around it and find out who can help you. We had help from different groups, you know, setting up community businesses and friends and the more people that you know, that can help you with stuff like setting up your website and setting up your company structure, the more that you can find to help with that, the better and ideally, you know, find some funding to help you set yourself up because that stuff can be quite challenging. And you know, we filled in so many forms and we didn’t know what most of them meant at all. We were just kind of like oh…they just felt like they were never ending. And I think all of that legal stuff is good to get some help with just to take the pressure off. But other than that, I would just say make sure that it’s something that is contributing something extra in your local area. And if it is, then just go for it and have a go. Because we think it’d be great if there was a Stitched Up in every neighbourhood, you know. A place where people could go and get their stuff fixed, learn some new skills, swap clothes. It just feels like something that would be really useful as we sort of start to hopefully move away from this fast fashion business model. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Now, you’re going to be the perfect person for me to speak to because for the past few years, I have been trying to, you know, buy less clothes, wear my clothes more. What more can I do? Or what can you tell people of how we can all try and make our fashion more sustainable? 

 

Sarah, Stitched Up

I say it’s a long journey. But the small changes do make such a big impact. I feel like only this year myself has my entire wardrobe become more sustainable. And that doesn’t mean I don’t own clothing that was from originally from a fast fashion brand. It’s about making things last longer, and all that kind of stuff, or even I bought it from a charity shop. So, it’s kind of just start with what’s realistic for you. And it can be anything from just speaking to the fast fashion brands and saying, well, where has this come from, because I can’t find it on your website. So, you know, it can just be by voicing it before it is the purchases that you make. And then just start looking in charity shops and things like that. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive thing. So yeah, just sort of start small, you don’t have to know how to make your own clothes. But you also don’t have to be afraid of making little edits to your own clothes. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

So yeah, there’s some research by WRAP, the Waste & Resources Action Programme, and they say that if you increase the active use of a garment by nine months, we decrease its water waste and carbon footprints by 20 to 30%. So, the impact of it is really huge. And the idea is basically, if you’re wearing something for longer, you’re not buying something for that little bit longer. So, it’s just kind of slowing down that pace of consumption. And that in itself has a really positive environmental impact. 

 

Veronica Gordon

When I was younger, I always wanted the latest fashion. I’d buy and discard clothes as quickly as the fashions change, and never knew anything about the impact of that behaviour. More and more, I’m getting conscious about the clothes I wear. Now, it’s not just about how amazing the clothes will make me feel. It’s also about how sustainable they are. Will the items last? Can I re-wear? Can I mix and match? I love that Stitched Up is both tackling the environmental side of sustainability and promoting our wellbeing too. Bringing clothes back into our control, making them something that empower us to both feel better and be better. 

 

Sarah, Stitched Up

I mean, what else can you do apart from start small start in your local community start in your own life making changes. 

 

Bryony, Stitched Up

I’ve had these conversations with people back and forth who’ve wanted to themselves become more sustainable but has thought it was so exclusive for people. But it is accessible. And you know, you’re not in the wrong to ask these fast fashion industries. “Oh, where’s this come from? And I don’t want to pay that little knowing that this isn’t supporting the people that work there.” Because a lot of the times it sometimes feels like you’ve got no other choice. And it’s to know that you can, and you can hold other big brands to account for it. 

 

Veronica Gordon

Thanks to Bryony, Sarah, Lily, and the rest of the Stitched Up team. If you’ve been inspired by anything you’ve heard in today’s episode, head to power to change.org.uk for more information. And make sure you join us in two weeks’ time for our bonus episode, where community business leaders will be sharing tips on specific topics like finance, managing your staff, and simply keeping your head above the water. This is a Pixiu production brought to you by Power to Change. I’m Veronica Gordon. See you in two weeks.