Who Made Your Pants?

Gorgeous Pants. By women, for women.

Come and meet the people who made your pants!

Howdy folks!

For absolutely ages, we’ve had an open invitation on our website and a comesee email address to go with it. This has been a big part of my personal ‘we’ve got nothing to hide’ approach to manufacturing.

Well. You’ve been taking it up. A LOT. And I’m a bit worried that our team are starting to feel a bit more like filmstars or exhibits than workers. We could have, easily, had two visitors to every single shift we’ve run in 2012. Imagine if that was your work – and imagine how that impacts on us training in employability.

So, we’re going to have an open day! It will be, very likely, the 17th July, from 10 – 4pm. There will be a small charge to cover lunch, which we will provide. You’ll be able to come and see us, chat to the workers, meet the volunteers, buy some pants, see some being made, ask me questions – all sorts of things!

If you’d like to come please just email hello@whomadeyourpants.co.uk with your the subject line ‘Open Day July 2012’ and we’ll add you to our list and get back to you to confirm it all by the end of May.

Look forward to hearing from you, and meeting some of you – the list is already filling up!

Becky

EDIT APRIL 18th 2012 – Travel tips! Check out http://uk.megabus.com – a train to and from London Waterloo, for example, can cost just £1 each way, plus booking fee. The catch is that you MUST get on the right train, at the right station, and get off at the right one too – but it’s a huge money saver!

EDIT NUMBER 2 May 2nd 2012

We’re going to be offering you the chance to order your pants and then watch them get made right in front of your eyes on the 17th! We’ll likely do a load of colours that use the same colour threads (else we’ll have to be rethreading machines all the time) so start thinking about what colour you’d like!

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Right here, right now, right here, right now..

Good morning all! How are you today? It’s sunny and bright out there and don’t I feel better for it.

Things here at pants HQ are still pressurised and we are very much doing what we call firefighting – just the urgent stuff, nothing else. Della has been reduced to packing my kit for events rather than, oh, managing staff or writing management plans and reports, as we’ve been massively short on woman power. But today feels a brighter day. We’ve a great atmosphere here today – lots of women in the production area,a good number of volunteers, and that elusive sunshine filtering in through the windows.

So, what’s happened since I last wrote? I’ve done a few tiny posts but my last proper entry was the 8th Feb – my desperate oh oh woe post. Thanks so much to everyone who got in touch afterwards – real support and help are invaluable. Thank you. Since then, plenty has happened. We’ve finalised our colour plans for the year and sorted out what colour bows, threads and gussets we need. I’ve started my mammoth events calendar. Through March I have eight separate things to be at, and am working some nights until eleven pm (sob) so there has been a scheduling task to make sure I take the time back and don’t conk out, but then also catch up with Della. If I’m out at events, then out taking time in lieu, I’m not here and it’s amazing how fast Della and I can get disconnected and lose track of what each other is doing.

Our new press assistant April is doing really well, she’s keen and competent and comes to me with lists of questions and also suggested solutions – bliss! We’re putting some press out, hopefully today, as a call for BUMS – we need bum models! We’ve had some good press too – I was very proud to be featured in the South Wales Echo, a newspaper from my childhood! Have a look at these links if you’ve not seen them yet.

http://www.ogunte.com/innovation/featured-women-socinn/324-becky-john-who-made-your-pants
http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/03/01/becky-unveils-her-patriotic-pants-91466-28252876/

We’ve also had out first photos from our new photography assistant. Looking good. I’m excited about getting photos of our new gift sets soon too. They make me so happy! Another volunteer, Aga, has been rifling through the boxes of ribbons we’ve been sent from Lush – they are extras from their gift department and we’re going to turn them into gift wrap for our sets. I want to play…!

We’re starting to get more applications for voluntary work in response to the calls I’ve been putting out. I’ve had a great meeting with Southampton Voluntary Services (long may they continue – I’m personally terrified for them that they will be cut. How the hell are we supposed to have this ‘Big Society’ run by volunteers if there is no support and training for volunteers? My mind boggles…) We’re getting clearer about what we need – we need a minimum of 6 hours a week and a commitment of at least ten weeks. It takes four week for someone to learn where things are and how to do things and it can be a huge drain on Della’s time if she has to constantly support people. We’ve agreed that, in future, we’ll be happy to open up more volunteer roles to people who need us, but right now, we need people who can help us. The reality is, BIg Society watchers, that it is A Very Hard thing to find experienced, competent people who will do the work, unpaid for enough hours to *run* an organisation or activity – they tend to, erm, have jobs, and be busy. Mr Cameron, take note!

What else? Oh! we’ve launched some super smashing splendid pants for St Davids Day and ran a competition about it too – see previous posts – and we’ll announce the winner soon. They are gorgeous and the lace is great quality – it feels nice and strong and supportive without being too weighty. I’m quite demanding about the lace that we take on – it;s easy to get carried away with all the pretty colours but we need it to have certain stretch qualities and it;s best if it’s a certain width as it means less tweaking of patterns.

I’ve been to my very first RSA event and had a lovely time. I’m looking forward to getting more plugged in to their networks and events programmes. The library blew me away – I’m a complete bibliophile and had purposely taken no bag so I could not take loads of books home. I limited myself to two and am going through them with delight.

What else.. I’ve been filmed by Midshires Co-op for a film on ‘why co-ops’, applied for bursaries to hold two co-ops events, been to PURE London, a huge fashion trade show – I love the shuttle buses between the two venue. Old Routemasters! Have had a meeting with another local place about a refugee/co-ops event in summer, appointed a new Committee member, been approached by a newswire, done a volunteering fair at the University of Southampton, started the process of moving our website to a new hosting and development solution (thank you to J who hosted, developed and supported for soooo long) written a reference, caught up with local happenings at the City Council,met Ethiopian and Eritrean women, spoken for the University Feminist Society, arranged to be at the University for two International Womens Day events, written template lists of what I need for different sorts of events, played with bows for colour matching. Busy busy. And we now employ ten women part time, and are training one more. I LOVE that.

If you want to come and see me, I’ll be at a bunch of events in March. Highlights are…

3rd March
Evening sales stall at Fashion on the Age of Austerity at V&A Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green.

7th March 2011 TBC
Evening sales stall and Speaking at a Student Union IWD event Uni Southampton

8th March International Women’s Day
Sales stall, Uni of Southampton, 10-4 with University Feminist Society, selling pants on campus and promoting us.

http://www.teapigs.co.uk will be running a discount code promo and competition to their 16000 strong mailing list 7th March ref IWD.

10-13 March WOW festival
Speaking 12-1 on the 12 March, selling stall all day Saturday

17th, 18th March Responsible Business Event.
We’ll have a stall exhibiting both days and I will be speaking at a seminar for 20 mins on Friday 18th.

Maybe see you there? If not, happy March!

Love

Becky
x

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So here’s to you 2010…

Hello folks 🙂

It’s with a swing in my step, a tear in my eye and a sigh of relief escaping my lungs that I’m writing this. It’s my last day in the office until we reopen on the 4th January (the office is open until 5pm on the 23rd) and I’ve relaxed right into the year end. Forgive me if this waffles a bit but my brain really has switched out of work mode a bit and we’re all winding down, tidying up and making exciting plans.

WHAT a year it’s been for us. I really don’t think I’m allowed to say ‘I’m setting up a worker co-op’ any more – it’s here, it’s set up. It’s quite honestly amazing. For me, it’s hugely emotional. I say to my friends that whomadeyourpants? is like my baby – it takes all my money, keeps me awake at night and it’s all I think about. And I love it. Deeply, fiercely, protectively. I’m proud if it. Proud of what we do, and of every single person involved in it. I’m scared for it, that it might get hurt, break, go wrong, fall over. But mostly I am hopeful, so hopeful for it. I really believe that it, that we, have the power to change real lives. And when that happens, I am overwhelmed.

The headlines for our 2010 achievements are good reading – after months of struggling with designs and production problems, we’ve a product that works, that makes up beautifully, that women love to wear, and make. We’ve completed a year’s trading. Our income was about £70k, £30k of which was from the wonderful John Paul Getty Junior Charitable Trust ( I keep calling them John Paul George and Ringo, can’t help it) £12k of which was NON grant, which means that we are heading in the right direction towards being sustainable through our own efforts. We’ve a busy team of volunteers doing our admin and a dedicated sewing and cutting team that have stuck with us through what has been, at times, an ‘oh my god will it work will we be able to pay anyone will we ever get paid oh god can we pay the rent argh argh argh’ panic. We’re done events, made sales, we have sales reports and accounts procedures and filing cabinets and list of how everyone takes their tea. We’re a real business.

But the things that stick in my mind, that have made this year so amazing, are harder to measure, and they come under what we might call ‘social and environmental impact’ . Social enterprises are set up specifically to do social good so while ‘regular’ businesses measure just their financial bottom line, we look at triple, or even quadruple, bottom lines – financial, social, environmental. The things I’ll remember and take from this year that two of our workers have their own bank accounts now. They can keep, and use, and save or splurge their own money, for themselves, without anyone else having a say. I love this. One of our volunteers has turned from a timid soul into a proud and amazing women who runs our internal finance stuff (yes Debs, you) and makes us pants shaped cakes and biscuits. Our workers decided, themselves, to upcycle our fabric scraps into cushion stuffing. They also worked out how to amend a knicker pattern by themselves, without our designer even being here. This is awesome stuff, truly awesome. It shows that they were confident in their ability to do it, for one thing. Confidence would never show up on a traditional bottom line but it’s sure as hell what we exist for and measure. Three workers are cautiously showing interest in where we get our fabrics and how we decide on things – this means that they are edging towards team leader levels of knowledge and engagement, and are starting to understand that this is their business, that they can direct. This stuff is hard to measure but it’s why we exist. We’re about empowerment – and we’re doing it.

This time of year is always a mixed one for me and I hope you’ll indulge me for a minute. Long standing readers will know that one of big pushes for me into starting this was the empowerment I gained from having two and a half years counselling with the amazing and wonderful Rape Crisis in Southampton. Well, the anniversary of my rape is coming up – it’s over the 21st and 22nd December, and while every year it’s getting easier, it’s still a bit unknown and troublesome to say the least, and I never know how I’m going to feel or be. But this year, I’m sitting here writing this and knowing it’s coming and I know it’s going to hurt but I am able to look around me and think, bloody hell, all of THIS came out of me getting over THAT. For the first time, I’m feeling Christmassy before then, and it feels like I’ll have a two day drop out, rather than feeling like Christmas can’t even exist until afterwards. I’m not scared to be sad any more, and I’m not scared of it hurting. And while I will never be glad that it happened, I am so glad that this exists. And I am humbled, honoured and privileged to be able to work with so many amazing, amazing, brave and fabulous women. This is my silver lining, my rainbow. I love it, it’s as simple as that.

I personally want to take this opportunity to thank people who have made this year possible. In no particular order…

Allegra, Amina, Della, Joy, Norman, Debs, Aga, Aimee, Julia, Madalina, Margarita, Maryam, Siham, Pratima, Mary, Bernie, Tab, my bro, BW, Jennie, Chris, Dan, Marike and Nynke, Sophie, Rosie and Kevin, Emma, Chris and Janet, Andrea, Chris, Nina, Natalie, Catherine, Rob, Tara, Amanda, Eva, Sarah, Sam, Noelle, Supriya, Clare W… every one of my friends who never lets me go thirsty, and every single one of our customers. YOU make OUR work possible. Thank you.

If I’ve forgotten to mention to you, it’s just that I forgot to mention you, not that I forgot you. I’m sleepy 🙂

Lastly, but absolutely not least, there’s one more person to mention. It’s just over a year since Della knocked on our door and said she’d maybe possibly be interested in doing a bit of voluntary work for few months while she looked for a job. She’s still here, and has made sacrifices to be so. That sentence is tiny but the reality is huge – she has put her faith in this untried venture, with almost no security, and is STILL HERE. Where I am frantic, Della is calm. Where I am uniterruptable and focused on one thing at a time, Della spins twenty plates at once. Where I am the face of the business, Della is the nervous system. I tell her what I want to happen and she makes it be so. Della being here means I can not be I can go selling, exhibiting, talking, playing. And she calms me down when I am so busy I’m in tears, and helps me find my way through it. I’d say everyone should have one but I don’t want to share. And she just walked in with cake for me. Della – thank you.

You’ll have to wait for the January blog to find out what we’re up to next year, so comeback then. It’s going to be great. We’ve new fabric, big plans, possible a pants making tour… Until then, have a splendid Christmas everyone, or Saturnalia, or winterval or whatever you want to call it. If, like me, you plan to over indulge, feel free to buy a bigger size of pants in January.

Thanks to YOU for being here and supporting us. See you in the New Year 🙂

Becky

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Lush Pants!

Well look at me, breaking with tradition. It’s a Tuesday and I’m blogging!

It’s all go here at pants HQ today, we’ve a whopping four volunteers in, and things are getting done! We’re really busy – our sales are trickling upwards so there’s all the associated paperwork to deal with there, and we’re rushing like fury to get ready for a big funding bid, and our fab LushPants event this weekend.

So, what’s the news?

Let’s start with this. Our smasher of a volunteer, Debs, has been officially granted a work placement, here with us. This is totally brilliant for us, and we hope for her too. Debs came to us about a year ago, looking to change her career path. She’d done care work but was tired, as she put it, of wiping bums (well, that’s not exactly how she put it!) as she knew she could do so much more. Already on a bookkeeping course, she came in to do our admin and she has absolutely blossomed since she started with us. Like so many of the women we work with Debs had had a few knocks in life, and so her confidence was really not where it should have been. But now she bustles round the place, knows where more things are here than me, and the other volunteers go to her for help – it’s been a real delight to see her grow and start to shine. Just recently Debs won an award at her college course for ‘person who has come the furthest’ – she really has, we are dead proud of her, and really chuffed that for the next 13 weeks she is with us four days a week. Debs manages our internal finance function, and we’ve got this funny feeling that most of the office management is going to fall to her soon. Fingers crossed. ( I just asked her to read this to make sure she was happy with it. She said I’m going to make her head swell. My answer was that after 51 years, it’s time for a catch up.)

My plea to the internet for some new volunteers has been a bit of a brilliant success, and we’ve new people in who have skills to offer us. There will always be a place here for volunteers who need support, but it’s a huge difference to the smooth running of things to have people who can just get on. One volunteer TBC (nope, she’s not awaiting confirmation, that’s her initials) is a real life friend of mine who’s a qualified medical person but can’t find a job, another, O, came in for one morning and whizzed through getting a bunch of forms made up for us (this is the sort of thing that can take hours with unskilled volunteers, and holds up a lot of other stuff) and B is currently organising my upcoming trips to London. I’ve quite a few at the same time as we expect to be Christmas busy here, so I will be quite tired I think. Our regular volunteers A and S are cracking on – S is supporting the fundraising function, and doing a great job of keeping up with my chaotic workload. And A is back from holidays to fight with our recalcitrant printer and, we hope, get some compliment slips designed soon. Woo, look at us with our grown up stationery!

I’ll not mention the name of the funder we are applying to but we’re building a bid for a hundred ish thousand over three years. It sounds a lot but when you think about it, that’s, say, £33k a year, to contribute to me, Della, rent, training programmes, rates, not to mention worker salaries – it doesn’t go far. We’re applying in what’s called a ‘front loaded’ way – say £50k in year one, £30k in year 2, £20 in year three, as we anticipate sales going up and we’ll need less as the years pass. It’s a balancing act – we’ve got to tell the story of us, why we’re needed and what we do without sounding desperate for cash.

We’re eagerly awaiting delivery of our first Lush funded case studies, which you, you you! will be able to get your hands on if you come and see us at the Lush Southampton store this weekend. We’ll be there from 10ish on Saturday til about 4, and then 11 til about 3 on Sunday, with some pants pieces, a sewing machine and advice – so YOU can have a go at making pants. It’ll cost £7.50 for you to have a go and take away the result, and we’ll be selling the ones we made earlier for £10 – or if you want to compare and contrast yours with our, £15 for the two. Bargain! Plus if you’ve ever wanted to get your hands on our snazzy T shirts, or badges, or even our album (which I’d like someone to mastermind a plan for – can we make it, or a song from it, Christmas number one?) we’ll be there, possibly with bells on, celebrating almost one year of trading. How far we’ve come!

In other wee bits of news, I went to a tea party in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières last week, and was invited to take our pants along. There was a nice amount of interest and plenty of cake! I’ve taken to carrying a sample pack with me everywhere I go, lest I otherwise start flashing mine.. not the best look, I’m sure you’ll agree! Also, we’re scooting ahead into next year and our Valentine pants are taking shape nicely. Let’s get Christmas out of the way first though, eh?

We’re very much counting down to the end of the year and the start of a new one. Our to do list for 2011 is now taking up half a flip chart page, and it’s nice to be able to put stuff there and take it out of mine and Della’s minds! We’re starting to feel just a tiny bit more secure every week, and we’re hopeful that this continues. With your help it will – every tiny bit of revenue we get is a step towards us being sustainable on our own work, not through grant funders. YOU can help US make a real difference to REAL WOMEN – and get yourself some fabtastic pants into the bargain. Go ahead – make our day!

xx

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What’s so glad about handbags and gladrags?

Hello again everyone, look, the third Wednesday in a row I’m writing! This is a habit I’m liking getting into.

Today’s subject line has been brought to you by ‘Handbags and Gladrags’, which is this weeks tune in my internal music station. This song was written by Mike D’Abo in 1967, and has, I think, stood the test of time. I love listening to it’s many versions, but I also love the meaning which Mike D’Abo himself wanted to share – he’s quoted in the Express of all places, saying that’s it’s about, ‘…saying to a teenage girl that the way to happiness is not being trendy. There are deeper values’ The line, ‘…that your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy….’ is often replaced in my head with, ‘…that some poor wee kiddie had to sweat to make…’ which tells you quite a lot about how ingrained my job is in my life.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m no fan of the relentless cycle of consumerism we are encouraged to subscribe to. I don’t believe that, over and above meeting our basic needs, buying things and acquiring stuff makes us properly happy. I believe it makes advertisers and corporations shareholders rich, and they like that, so they push the appetite for it. And I believe that this relentless push for new is what drives prices, and therefore the cost of production, and therefore worker wages, down. So I’m sure you can see why I’m no fan.

Just recently, a few people have questioned ‘the perceived value’ of whomadeyourpants? pants. They say that they think that people won’t pay £10 for a pair of pants, ‘they’ will think they are not worth that.. which is a politieish way of saying THEY wouldn’t pay it. Often, these same people will think nothing of spending a few hundred on a dress they’ll wear once, or a pair of shoes so pretty/uncomfortable that they can only be worn once and then get relegated to the back of the wardrobe. There seems to be a bizarre idea that the one off items should cost a bomb and the stuff we use every day should cost nothing. How can that add up? Economically and responsibly, how on earth does that make sense? Or why it can be acceptable to think spending a few hundred on something for one use is ok (and I don’t mean a once in lifetime wedding frock, I mean a once a year for the work do buying a single use frock, and once a year for a wedding.. and once a year for a party… streams of single use items bought and then forgotten), but £10 on a pair of knickers you should be able to wear for, ooh, three years, if not more, (so say one wear a week, 3 x 52 weeks is 156 weeks, 156 wears, £10 divided by 156 is 6 WHOLE PENCE a wear) is expensive?

It can’t just be me that thinks this sort of shift in perception of value is barmy, surely. How has it become the case that the everyday items are considered less valuable than the extraordinary? Given the choice, few of us would go a day without pants, so they clearly have value to us.

In my world, I spend most money on the stuff I use most – so my bag that I use every day, this gorgeous and practical thing http://www.howies.co.uk/product.php/1798/92/ cost £65, but that’s worked out at less than 20p a day so far, and I plan to keep using it for years. It makes more sense to me to spend money on the regularly used stuff – can anyone explain to why this would NOT make sense?

I’m not going to go into (even more ranty) detail about why I think this is happening as I think there are loads of reasons, some more valid than others. I’ll just say that I think that we are encouraged to think we are valuable and successful in the world if we have a lot of shiny stuff, and so we buy into this idea and buy the stuff. It’s insidious. I’m going to wrote about Edwards Bernays soon and his use of psychology to create in consumers needs that his business friends, hey presto, had solutions for, but I’ll leave it there for now and move onto an update on what’s going on here.

It’s been another week of ups and downs. Mostly ups. International Women’s Day on Monday started with me being interviewed on Preston FM (listenable here in the magic of a podcast http://www.preston.fm Our lovely new mum R has a week old baby girl now, and very diligently rang in today to say she would not be in work. I’ve said a number of times that we really are not expecting her in for quite some time, but she is very kind to call us. I’m hoping she will bring baby in one day – the women (and I) would love to meet her. We’ve had our final cheque from Skillfast, the Sector Skills Council who supported up through the Women and Work fund for training. They are closing down and the work will be taken up by Skillset so new people to meet. We’ve also had a call from the John Paul Getty Junior Trust (who my head always calls John Paul George and Ringo). We’ve applied to them for £63k ish, and they want to come and see us in a month. Will be having a massive clean and tidy up before then!

We’ve a new Treasurer, our first and only male Committee Member, Norman. He is already showing himself to be knowledgeable and experienced, which will remove some of the weight on me and the lovely Allegra who has been holding that role for the last year or so. And in fabulous, fabulous news, one of our founder members, who had to leave us for very complicated personal reasons, is (hopefully) able to rejoin. Fingers crossed. Another volunteer, the mysterious BW, has donated five ancient computer carcasses that we hope to Frankenstein into life with our other donated computer bits, so we can run some computer training and give the women access to the world of the internet.

Internally, sewing is going well, the quality is just gorgeous now. Our two supervisors Hani http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/allaboutus/whomakes.php?wid=10005 and Sacdiya http://www.whomadeyourpants.co.uk/allaboutus/whomakes.php?wid=10001 are learning fast and the women seem to respond well to them. It’s got a lot less chaotic and much more smooth. We’ve got a whole bunch of pants that just need bows sewing on, so we’ll suddenly have a lot (I hope) and I want to get back in touch with all the shops, who said they want pants, soon as we should be able to start fulfilling their orders. Our finance systems is bedding in thanks to the splendid, wonderful and ever brilliant Helen and Jeff who have said they and the Mark Thomas List will pay for it for us for the first year. True friends, who have done so much for this, I’m looking forward to saying thank you in person when we go to to see Chumbawamba together tomorrow (todays blog was very nearly brought to you by Chumbawamba’s song ‘I wish that they’d sack me’, as two years ago I saw them sing it, and I was preparing to hand in my notice at my old job. Helen, Jeff and I sat and giggled as Helen said, ‘This is for you, this is your song) http://www.songlyrics.com/chumbawamba/i-wish-that-they-d-sack-me-lyrics/

We’ve hosted some fab massage sessions with the delicious Sharon, and a crochet lesson with Jo and Thea of the Let’s Try learning exchange project locally went really well yesterday. And today there is the steady buzz of the machines from the other end of the building, Della is overseeing it and sewing on bows with the women, there are occasional flutters of chatter but it’s heads down, work on. It’s break time soon and I’ll join the women for tea and cake and lunch and laughs.

Today is a day I really, really love my job, and am so grateful so many people have seen the same vision I have and have given so much to make it happen. Thank you 🙂

Ever seen a blind man cross the road
Trying to make the other side?
Ever seen a young girl growing old
Trying to make herself a bride?

So what becomes of you my love
When they have finally stripped you of
The handbags and the gladrags
That your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy you

Once I was a young man
And all I thought I had to do was smile
Well you are still a young girl
And you’ve bought everything in style

So once you think you’re in you’re out
‘Cause you don’t mean a single thing without
The handbags and the gladrags
That your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy you

Sing a song of six-pence for your sake
And drink a bottle full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds in a cake
And bake ’em all in a pie

They told me you missed school today
So what I suggest you just throw them all away
The handbags and the gladrags
That your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy

They told me you missed school today
So what I suggest you just throw them all away
The handbags and the gladrags
That your poor old Grandad had to sweat to buy you

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Rolling, rolling rolling…

Hello again everyone. As ever, it’s been an age since I wrote last – I’ve blocked out Wednesday morning in my diary for things like writing this, but we always seem to have some sort of emergency befalling us. It’s amazing how much time tiny problems take to fix, let alone the big ones.

Let’s think where are we up to? As ever, money is tight – we are waiting on a grant payment, but it’s not here, and so we are having to plead with people to wait for us to pay bills for a bit. Our production rate has been hit by, variously, a collapsing ceiling, set backs due to the weather and having to stay closed, and two of our six machines conking out and the replacements being in containers on the way from Japan. Eek! They were both sorted last Tuesday, and the proof in the pudding is that by the end of today’s session, we should know if they are working well. The women are producing about 40 – 60 pairs of pants per session now, and we expect them to be up to over a hundred in a few weeks. The quality issues we had a while back are mostly gone, so we are getting far more perfect pants made than seconds now, which is a huge relief (even though I am buying quite a few of the seconds, I’d be happier to pay full whack for the perfect ones)!

There are a few more volunteers in place now, and so admin cover is much better. This has a huge knock on effect – if I’m answering the phone, opening the post, opening the blinds and writing letters, I’m not talking to funders, or making sales calls, or doing marketing. We have, regularly, Aimee, Debbie, Janet, Jo, Li and Maryam coming in and doing all the admin support, and Della is still volunteering full time. We’ve managed to find some funding to pay her to do some freelance training, which is great, and supports the volunteers specifically. Excitingly, we realised that we have just as much to offer the women who want to volunteer here as we do the women who learn to sew – most of them are looking to get back into work after as break, or change direction, and so are looking for office experience which will really help them get a job. It’s lovely to find things (I’m not going to call them win win) where we benefit and so do others.

Alongside all my usual work, I’ve been a busy bee, up to the House of Lords with Skillfast for an event on the Women and Work funding stream we have been supported by, and I spoke yesterday for the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) on use of new and social media. I really enjoyed both of these events, and as ever, met some amazing women. At the Skillfast event, a woman spoke of her experience of how accessing training funds allowed her to get a job as a bus driver, which she loves, and how much difference this made to her life. It was very emotional and real, and a very good example of how providing an opportunity to learn allows people to unleash their talents. At the WRC event yesterday, I met their new Head of Communications, Sarah Brown, and others that I have spoken to only by phone or email. I spoke about using twitter and facebook and this blog, and how I really enjoyed being able to keep people up to date on what we do, and how supportive it is to get replies back supporting our work. I hope you appreciate how much it means when you comment or email – it’s honestly fab.

The women are still working hard, and learning, but we’ve realised that our initial training plans have been a bit skewiff and we are still training three months after we thought we’d finish. Our trainers are brilliant professionals, with the associated cost, and we just cannot afford to pay them and the workers. I’m not drawing a wage, and nor are any of the volunteers, but we have to pay our trainers. We explained this to the women (and I’m always terrified that they won’t understand and then be confused) and they came up with a brilliant plan. They said that we should train two women to be supervisors, to take over from the trainers. And they also said that they understood that new business had to start slowly and that perhaps they could take no pay until the end of May, to give us some breathing space. I’m a bit gobsmacked by this to be honest, I had no idea that they would be so supportive. I’m also utterly humbled that they are prepared to do this for the co-op. We talked a bit about what co-operating means, and I hope they understand how much their decision means to me, and to the future of this business, that they are prepared to be flexible. Supervisor training starts today!

In essence, things are just rolling along as chaotically and fast as always – it’s almost March! We’re all running about like headless chickens, trying to put procedures in place and work to them at the same time. Two of our women are about to have babies (one rang in, in what we think are the early stages of labour, to say she couldn’t come to work today, and said she hoped to be back within three weeks) and we’re all very excited for them. We had a fab shared lunch today, with some vibrant green chilli relish – it was so popular, that the recipe is being shared next week. I’m being featured in a whole bunch of International Women’s Day stuff, and we’ll have stalls at the upcoming Women’s Health and Well-being day http://www.southamptonwomensforum.btik.com/calendar/25275327565.ikml . I’ve also been asked to run a workshop at Solent University’s Social Enterprise conference in March. I’m lecturing at the University of Southampton next week, and we have a whole bunch of students coming to do placements here and see a real social enterprise in action. We’re having a web and technology strategy meeting this afternoon to try and establish how we can bring all our systems together and get things working well. It’s all go.

My personal feelings today are a bit mixed. I’m really sad that we had to tell the women we can’t pay them, and really pleased that they were supportive. I’m really pleased to be being asked to go out and speak, and really wanting to be in the office. I’m really glad we’re getting excellent quality pants through and really sad the women have struggled with so many problems to get them.

All in all, I know things will work, and I know this was never going to be easy. I still want to do this, and I’m thrilled so many people support it. I just can’t wait for it to get a bit easier.

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A story about one of the women at whomadeyourpants?

Something happened today, in the maddening midst of all the ‘oh my god have we ordered packaging and labels who is writing the job description and how on earth do we do everything in the next ten days’ last minute run up to the launch that stopped me in my tracks and made me realise what my mad desire for pink pants is doing for the women I work with. And I felt humbled and proud and desperate and sad all at once.

One of the lovely women in the higher level group, the sewing class, turned up unexpectedly at the office today to ask me to help her. She hesitantly asked me if I would write her a letter, saying that she would soon have a job.  It transpired that she was applying for indefinite leave to remain and was scared that the Home Office ‘might not like’ her. She was scared she would have to leave her husband and this country where she has friends and family. I gladly wrote her a letter saying that I was glad she had been training towards a job with us and that I was looking forward to her having a job in whomadeyourpants? very soon. She has had 100% attendance at all her English and sewing lessons, and is bright, funny, modest, humble, kind – it’s an absolute privilege to know her.

I’m not sure why B is here, or why her husband is – I don’t ask unless the women want to tell me as I know that some of their stories are horrific. But what often happens is that husband comes to the UK first, he leaves his wife and family that he loves, because that is safer for him than staying where he is. Separated from them, he then ends up here, and after a while, applies for his wife and/or family to join him. Wives often come on a spousal visa, which is not a guaranteed right to stay, I guess in case of false marriages for immigration purposes.

I’m not sure where to start with how I feel about this. Until I started working on this, I thought I knew about how things were for refugees and asylum seekers, but what I, like I suspect a lot of people had forgotten, is that every story is about a real person. B is facing the very real possibility that she could be separated, again, from her husband. She has come hundreds of miles to a cold, wet country where she is sidelined and ignored, where she can’t get a job, where she lives in accommodation that she could be turned out of, where she is discriminated against – and this is so much better than where she was that she desperately wants to stay. Imagine how it would feel to be scared that you might be separated from your beloved with no hope of reunion, imagine someone coming to your house and physically taking you out, driving you to a detention centre, making you get on a plane. It happens.

I’m reluctant to pass comment on the state of immigration laws as that’s not my job but I will say that it is not the fault of any of the women I work with that they don’t have jobs. They desperately want work, but they just don’t get taken seriously. I work with ex headmistresses, surgeons, teachers, import/export businesswomen and they are immensely proud when they have a job cleaning, which so many people here look down on. Furthermore, I will say that in my very personal opinion, it’s bonkers that people who happened to be born on *this* bit of land have more rights than people born on *that* bit of land. We’re all the same, and to badly misquote Shami Chakrabati, we’re all equally valuable, and have equal rights, just because we are were born.

One thing I have learned through working with the amazing women I work with is that I had more prejudices than I realised, and I’m a pretty left liberal – I wasn’t sure how to talk to women in headscarves, wasn’t sure if I could say that our pants are ‘sexy’, wasn’t sure if certain words or subjects were out of bounds.  And I’ve learned that before anything else, before the scarf, the veil, the hijab or the prayers, the things I didn’t understand, these are women, first and foremost, just like me, they laugh, they joke, they are naughty and cheeky and they play and they tease. And it’s breaking my heart that one of them is worried she might have to be separated from the man she loves. I’m not supposed to get emotionally involved, I know, but this is important – this is why whomadeyourpants? has to work and has to do well. It can really make a difference.

I wish I could do more but I can’t, but I am glad I did what I could and I hope it helps. If my mad desire for pants can make a difference to real lives, well – can’t be bad, eh?

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It’s Friday, Friday, Friday

One of my friends sings a little song on a Friday. It’s tuneful delight, sometimes with ArmDancingTM, expressing her joy at the end of the working week. In my last job, the weeks were, towards the end, untaxing, so there was no great relief in a Friday. And now my working week is not so clearly bookended, I sometimes think I’ll have to make up my own song. ‘It’s a day off, a day off, a day off’.

This project is about so much more than me wanting to make ethical pants, and the women that I work with often find it easier to meet at the weekend. Their children can be safe with family and they can come along knowing the little ones are being looked after elsewhere. I love that whomadeyourpants? has taken over so much of my life – it’s that thing, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life – but I do find myself sometimes wondering when my last day off was. Tomorrow will be a day off. It has to be. After finding myself trapped in the bathroom last night, and having to call my lodger (who was upstairs) and my brother (who was in his own house) to free me, DIY must be done.

So, this Friday, I can sing the Friday song, as it is the end of my week, though I will work a little bit over the weekend as I heard today about a fund which suits and has a deadline on Monday. What has happened this week? Well, the internet connection in my house has done it’s best to snap my sanity, what with dropping out seemingly at random, when it likes. I have swapped the router, checked the phone line, tried different laptops. All with the help of not one, not two, not three but six computery clever types. It’s workign now.. fingers crossed, eh?

The probable highlight of my week was a call from JobCentrePlus. Frequently slated, I know a lot of people have little time for them. But the support they are offering this project is amazing. Three benefits advisers can come out to a venue and see, we hope, 39 women in one day to do Better off at Work calculations and work out which of the women can do what work, for how long. They will send me forms to disseminate first, so that each woman can fill in all her information and return it to them before the appointment, and then on the day they will be able to maximise the number of people the advisers see. Can you imagine how much easier this will make things than trying to persuade 39 women, many of whom are scared to ask about benefits in case they lose them just for asking, to go to a place at the far end of town, and talk to an adviser who knows nothing about why they are asking? That the advisers will all be briefed and ready to help is sign to me of a real commitment from JobCentrePlus.

I’ve been told that the groups whomadeyourpants? aims to engage with are the same groups other agencies want to work with, but it’s just amazing when that tangible proof happens. It makes me think my original idea must be on the right track, and that is pleasing. And it wonderful that other agencies want to support women in general and this project in particular. So many of the women I am talking to desperately want to work, they don’t want to be at home all day, they want their own time and space and to do something outside the home. I work at home most of the time while I’m setting this up and I’d go absolutely crackers if I didn’t have a walk out every day, or a neighbour to chat to. People like people, we like to talk and be sociable.

For many people, the Friday song heralds a trip to a hotbed of sociability, the pub. I feel drawn to the chat and comfort of my friends tonight, but I’m also, frankly, shattered. There’s a door to fix tomorrow, and a tap, lightbulbs to buy, laundry to do and sleep to catch up on, as well as funding to apply for. The pub will be there another day.

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