Dinah Hall thought catalogues were for depressed housewives until she was asked to write a book about them. Suddenly a whole new world opened up ...
This was not a book contract to flutter around the Groucho. My magnum opus: a guide to mail-order shopping. In some ways, I was the ideal person to write the book - the most unassertive journalist in London (I speak as someone who once thanked a man for assaulting me on a crowded Italian train - at least he was tucking my shirt in for me). I could be relied upon to accept a minimum advance for a maximum number of words written in a minimum amount of time. But as far as subject matter was concerned, this was like getting the Princess of Wales to write a book on The Joy of Carbohydrates.

The premise of the book - that shopping is a pain - was not one that struck a chord with me. Hell, the highlight of my week was a trip round the saucepans department in John Lewis, followed by a cup of coffee staring over the pedestrian precincts of Kingston, Surrey. "Think of all those poor women having to drag reluctant children around the shops," urged my publisher. This only evoked a vision of depressed mothers driven further into isolation, mindlessly flicking through their Grattan catalogues while their kids soak up breakfast television, without even the prospect of a visit to the shops to brighten the horizon.

Then I realised my attitude had been conditioned by the Nineties presumption that shopping is a "leisure pursuit" - that green-and-purple-anoraked families take in shopping malls between visits to National Trust houses, while their more fashion-conscious counterparts parade the King's Road, wearing their immaculately conceived (sartorially speaking) offspring on their shoulders. Maybe shopping from home was not such a bad idea. The streets would be clear of green and purple anoraks and there was always the chance that parents might find something more stimulating to do with the children than drag them round Marks & Spencer. They might even play with them. Suddenly, I was a woman with a mission. This book was not pulp materialism - it was about social engineering, it was environmentally sound, and I could be really foul about Pocahontas sweatshirts in it.

As I warmed to the idea and admitted to people the subject of my book, I was amazed by how many of them were secret mail-order junkies. Powerful, glamorous women - the sort who have breakfast meetings - they were all at it: apparently they don't have time to shop in the week and like to leave weekends free for quality time with the children. As usual, I was lagging behind (by the time I have breakfast meetings they will have started having early-morning-cup-of-tea-in-bed meetings). Mail order was not just about depressed housewives, it was about being Busy and a Good Mother too. It was Superwoman's crutch.

Loath to admit that I was not too busy to shop, and that I went to the shops at weekends to escape the children (bang goes the halo on my publicity machine's "mother-of-four" tag), I plunged into the world of mail order. As catalogues came tumbling through my letter box I couldn't believe what I'd been missing: if only I still had a baby to stimulate. All those years I'd been tucking Matisse postcards into the sides of my newborns' cots in the hope of fine-tuning their sensitivities and now I find from all the baby equipment catalogues that they can only see black and white.

Manufacturers prey on new mothers' insecurities, but we are willing suckers. In your heart you know you would have to be the most over-protective, neurotic mother to buy protective "knee bumpers" for your crawling baby. But then you look at those precious little dimpled knees. The same catalogue, "Bright Start", gives us the "parent bib". You thought it was the babies that wore bibs? Here a doting daddy wears a giant protective device (probably over a green and purple anorak) to feed the junior food-splatterer. If having a baby hasn't put you off sex for good, this should do the trick.

Although "Bright Start" remains my favourite as an introduction to the joys of parenthood (it also features Absorb-a-Mess - sprinkle it over vomit and diarrhoea and simply vacuum away) there are hundreds of fascinating companies. I could spend my advance twice over (not hard, it has to be said) on products that never see the light of a shop window. When the high streets are full of cloned goods, mail order is where you find the designer makers. Many of the businesses are set up by women who have had their own babies and combined recognition of a gap in the market with their own desire to stay at home. Others have been quietly doing their own thing for years: unassuming geniuses such as Peter Markey, who from his home in Wales makes stunning mechanical paper animals, sold as cut- outs printed on two cards of recycled paper for 90p. As I rang round people such as Sally Judd, who makes traditional quilts stuffed with sheep's wool that is hand-washed in spring water and then hand-teased, I realised that somewhere in life I had taken the wrong turning. There were these people sitting making lovely things in their kitchens while their rosy- cheeked children played out in the orchard, and here was I being ratty with my pale-faced little urbanites because I had a book to finish.

The market in mail-order children's clothes is huge and varied. You could be forgiven for thinking that babies emerge from the womb in a Babygro, but apparently some still wear hand-stitched lace-trimmed nighties and matinee jackets. I was curious to know who patronised one particular very exclusive small company which makes traditional baby clothes like these, so I rang the owner, expecting her to reel off a list of clients headed by that well-known frugal shopper the Duchess of York. No, said the woman, 75 per cent of her customers were Romanies. Apparently they have a thing about traditional children's clothes and think nothing of spending pounds 70 on a dress.

Then there's The White House. Having never dared to breach the threshold of its Bond Street store, the catalogue was an eye-opener. It wasn't so much that you could buy a child's coat for pounds 600 and party dresses for several hundred that shocked me, it was the fact that they boasted "a generous hem and seams to allow for maximum wear". I haven't seen a let- down hem since about 1966, even among the poorest families. But according to one in the know, "old British families" are reckless enough to spend pounds 400 on a party dress and cheeseparing enough to let out the seams when Annabel grows out of it, after which it will be handed down through at least four siblings and the labrador. So now you know why they are rich and you are poor.

'The She Guide to Shopping from Home: Everything You Need For Mother Baby & Child' by Dinah Hall (Metro, pounds 7.99) is available from bookshops and, of course, by mail order: Freefone credit card hotline 0500 418419.


Peter Markey Cut-outs, Gellidywyll, Bontdolgadfan, Llanbrynmair, Powys SYl9 7AP; tel 01650 521539. Send SAE for a leaflet showing his constantly changing range of mechanical paper toys, 90p each.

Farmer John Quilts, Gaer Farm, Cwmyoy, Abergavenny, Gwent NP7 7NE; tel 01873 890345. Sally Judd's sheep's wool-filled quilts and duvets are light but warm all year round, and excellent for children with asthma who can be allergic to feather-filled duvets. Cot-size duvet pounds 35, quilt pounds 47.

Bright Start, 107 Regent's Park Road, London NW1 8UR; tel 0171-483 3929. A hugely entertaining catalogue for gadget freaks/new parents with some genuinely useful baby equipment products. From pounds 2.50 for a bib.

Infant Isle Products, Freepost CV2940, Rugby CV21 3BR; tel 01788 537893. Even the most perfect mothers must despair of the constant proffering of "paintings" from their little darlings. The bin is not the answer because in my experience they always find them. Infant lsle's junior artwork folder (pounds 5.99) rids you of both guilt and paintings. It clears space on the kitchen wall and is special enough to show that you are really treasuring their works of art.

The Great Little Trading Company, 134 Lots Road, London SW10 ORJ; tel 0171-376 5553. This is an excellent catalogue that goes straight to the heart of maternal materialism and anxiety with products such as their chic three-wheel pushchair pounds 250 - the Land Rover of the buggy circuit - and Guardian Angel pillow to prevent babies from sleeping on their tummies

Little Badger, 6 Macaulay Road, London SW4 OQX; tel 0171-498 6696. A wonderful collection of children's knitwear and T-shirts by the designer- turned-mother Ros Badger who previously worked for big names such as Margaret Howell, Betty Jackson and Flyte Ostell. T-shirts from pounds 9.95.

Cotton-on, Monmouth Place, Bath, Avon BAl 2NP; tel 01225 461155. This is an essential catalogue for junior eczema sufferers. All their baby and children's clothes are made from purest high-quality cotton and have flat seams that do not irritate like rolled ones. From pounds 3.75 (socks) to pounds 35.

Elephant Industries, Unit 14 Lansdowne Workshops, London SE7 8AZ; tel- 0181 858 1945. This is a groovy collection of painted furniture - anthropomorphic in design, but angular rather than cute so that it appeals to visually discerning parents as well as children. Love the Hangaroo - an ingenious, and wildly optimistic, clothes organiser which is supposed to "help your children learn to dress and care for their clothes" by providing hanging and shelf space for a week's worth of clothes. Ha! pounds 70-pounds 200.

Play & Learn from Galt, Culvert Street, Oldham OL4 2ST; 0161-627 1677. Birthday and Christmas presents solved from birth to early teens in this comprehensive toy catalogue. Also brilliant storage ideas for children's rooms. From pounds 1.50.

Tous Mes Amis, PO Box 154, Farnham, Surrey GU9 8YD. Tel: 01252 733188. Strengthen your child's immunity to Pocahontas and Manchester United duvet covers by exposing them from an early age to Babar, Becassine and The Little Prince bed linen toys and china. Bed linen from pounds 11.50.