Sustainable living: crocheting a life

I’m sitting on the Northern Line, in the middle of rush hour, in a carriage crowded with people dressed in smart clothes with expensive accessories. I used to be just like them and wore the same kind of clothes.

Not any more. These days I tend to wear home-made. Today every item of my clothing has either been made from scratch or significantly modified and repaired. If they look normal – well, my wife wouldn’t let me out otherwise.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who influenced my decision to dress like this. But the main one is Gandhi. He predicted that if Indians spun and wove cloth and used it to make their own clothes, they would destroy the British cotton industry and overthrow the empire. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” he said. And he did it, too, wearing homespun clothes and taking his spinning wheel to political meetings.

I don’t have a spinning wheel – yet. But I do have a crochet hook. And some yarn, hidden in my pocket. Do I dare to take them out and “be the change”?

I first became a missionary for home-made clothes after paying a seamstress £5 to fix elastic to my daughter’s ballet shoes, which made me consider reviving the sewing skills I learnt at school. But the real impetus came after my discovery that cheap oil will one day cease to be available. That could put an end to our reliance on clothing made by people far away, using oil-based synthetics or natural fibres with terrible environmental costs.

After hearing a man from Friends of the Earth announce “there’s only so much we can do as individuals”, I threw myself into politics, joining the Tories, Labour and the Green party (although not all at once).

I told my wife, who worked at the time for a fashion magazine, that we might soon find ourselves in the same position as the German army in the first world war, which faced going into battle naked because Britain controlled 90% of the world’s cotton. Like the Germans we’ll have to revert to native fibres such as wool, linen (from flax), hemp and nettle. That’s right: the Kaiser’s army was substantially clothed in nettle.

My wife was unmoved by this, but I got in touch with some people in Stroud who have experimented with extracting fibre from nettle – let it rot briefly, they told me, then stamp on it and peel off the hair-like fibres. I did as instructed and spun the fibre into yarn, with which I’ve since knitted and crocheted all sorts of odds and ends, such as toy bears and funny hats. I’ve also crocheted wool from rare British sheep breeds and made a fruit bowl using “plarn”, plastic yarn crafted from old carrier bags.

I learnt to make do and mend: darning socks, jeans and my daughter’s teddy bear, then graduated to modifying charity shop shirts so they fitted. When a favourite pair of jeans fell apart I copied them, too. Eventually I made an entire outfit.

And I was having fun – a crucial point that’s often overlooked when we talk about the dire state of the world. Many people have discovered recently how much fun it is to grow your own food. Making your own clothes can be a blast, too.

Not everybody is convinced. Some people tell me making things ourselves is a waste of time. Time is money, they say. But if every minute had a monetary value, how could they justify watching television or staring out of the window or going to bed? I could probably earn more money by sticking to my day job and getting somebody else to do my sewing. But there’s another argument: I like variety.

As E F Schumacher puts it in Small Is Beautiful: “Work properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom \ blesses those who do it and equally their products.”

With the best of motives we have removed the opportunity for many people to undertake this kind of work. People who can’t find paid jobs don’t work at all lest they lose their benefits. Old people in care homes do nothing all day. I’m convinced that young people would get up to less trouble if they had a useful purpose. With this in mind I visited Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, which helps disturbed and violent children in London. Many of these youngsters are brought up by their siblings or their peers because their parents are dead, addicted to drugs or in jail.

I told Camila she should get somebody (me, if necessary) to teach them crochet. I could show them how to make plarn out of carrier bags and they would never lack for raw materials. Who knows, perhaps they could sell what they made?

“We need to stop kids carrying knives,” I announced, “and get them to carry crochet hooks instead.”

Camila didn’t absolutely leap into the air but she agreed it was a nice idea. She later sent an e-mail: “I’m going to bear in mind your gift in knitting. I wonder whether we should start a knitting marathon and fundraise for it.”

I replied: “A knitting marathon is a great idea. But don’t forget crochet – the hooks are more portable than a pair of knitting needles. I have visions of young people crocheting hoodies on street corners.”

Not long after, I met Renu Mehta, the former It girl turned philanthropist. Mehta’s family runs a fashion business in Delhi but her father, Vijay, is not your typical magnate. He’s an activist for peace, development, human rights and the environment – and he loved the idea.

“If these kids can be given something useful and constructive to do,” he said, “it can turn their lives round for the better. The key is to replace dangerous habits with positive pursuits so that they can be integrated into society, giving them opportunity and hope. Your crochet project, if developed on a wider scale to help a large number of kids, can make a difference.” He offered to donate a few hundred crochet hooks.

When I talk to children about what I’ve been doing, I take along props, such as the soft toy octopus I rustled up using four pairs of old tights and a ball of plarn, cut from just one carrier bag. I ask a child sitting at the front to hold onto one end of the plarn, while another walks around the hall unrolling it. At one school they clapped when he reached the back of the hall. By the time he’d got to the next corner they were cheering. The boy kept walking, all the way back to the front of the hall and across the front and to the back again. The children went wild. “Was this really just one bag?” a teacher asked.

Afterwards I asked for volunteers: a small child and a pair of teachers who’d never used a needle and thread before. We popped one of my baggy shirts over the boy’s head, inside out, and he stood with his arms out while, in two minutes flat, the teachers sewed along his sides and under his arms. Then we turned the shirt the right way out and he put it on again: a perfect fit!

I’m delighted to report the children have never suggested that what I’m doing is women’s work. Others, alas, are not so open-minded. In haberdashery shops, some people gawp at the sight of a man buying yarns and fabrics and replacement sewing machine needles.

Looking on the bright side it’s lucky I have only one child, a daughter, which might make it easier to do crochet than if I had, say, five sons. In fact, Nancy thinks it’s so normal (for now) that she makes up stories about a family of mice in which the father does the knitting.

It took me a long time to work out the best way to claim clothes making as something truly suitable for men. The solution was to make a uniquely male item: a pair of Y-fronts. In doing this I was inspired by the work of Annemor Sundbo, a Norwegian textiles historian who discovered that until recently ordinary people in cold countries used to make their underpants by cutting the sleeves off old woollen sweaters, turning them through 45 degrees and stitching them back on as legs.

Using an old grey sweater from Boden, I did just that. Having fixed the sleeves/legs, I snipped the cuffs off to sew over the open neck – stopping my bits from falling out, if you see what I mean.

To say that they itched was an understatement, but I accepted it as the kind of hair-shirt penance that greens are expected to endure as a kind of offset for the rest of mankind’s manifold ghastliness. What I hadn’t counted on was that the woolly pants came up to my armpits and would need braces to stop them falling down.

Leaving the pants at home, I recently sat next to a woman at dinner who listened politely as I described some of the things I have been doing to minimise the effects of climate change and to prepare for peak oil. She took me aback by announcing there was “no point” doing what I was doing. I would be better off lobbying the United Nations, she said, or the government. Then she changed tack, admitting that climate change and energy issues leave her feeling hopeless. “Just look at India and China,” she said, meaning presumably that they are becoming bigger users of energy all the time and that making plarn is neither here nor there.

This was demoralising but her point was easy enough to refute. If we do nothing we are really in trouble, whereas we might just make a difference by taking action. If your car is heading for a cliff and the prospect of falling alarms you, you don’t say there’s no point applying the brake.

Like many people this woman was paralysed by the scale of the problems facing us, combined with the urgency. She should relax, since we can’t do everything at once. But we can make a great deal of change incrementally. And whatever the chap from Friends of the Earth may say, there’s nothing we can do except as individuals.

So I’ll do my bit by making my own clothes – including Y-fronts – and she can take care of hers.

Through the Eye of a Needle by John-Paul Flintoff is published on August 17 by Permanent Publications. Copies can be ordered for £7.55, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0845 271 2135

1766 words. First published 8 August 2009. © Times Newspapers Ltd.