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Katherine Butler: The power of making, baking and growing


The end of the age of plenty may have us deserting high streets, where once we frittered cash on over-packaged supermarket foods and throwaway fashion. But are we really baking, pickling, stitching or planting in any numbers, as opposed to just watching Kirstie Allsop do it from the comfort of the couch?

OK, I've just baked my first ever Christmas cake, but that will hardly put a dent in the bottom line for Delia's Waitrose cake-mix sales. Yet the appearance in my area of London of a new concept store/teaching venue suggests the green shoots of a shift in attitudes, a rebellion against mindless consumption that is sending us back to preserving pans, sewing machines and kitchen gardens.

The cool white interior could be an art gallery. Hipsterish young women come to buy fabrics, take a sewing class, and sit in the window with Earl Grey and (home-made) cakes, discussing, I imagine, the catsuit they're making to wear to a party in a converted Bethnal Green factory.

If it is newly fashionable to embrace a cottage activity that was entirely commonplace until world trade liberalisation brought cheap clothes, then younger people will discover "the power of making" (which is the title of an exhibition on crafts currently drawing crowds to the V&A in London). But will they stick with it when they realise the skill and time that making, rather than just "liking" something online, actually requires?

I recently came across a vintage Vogue ("Very Easy") pattern for a 1970s beach dress, and with no training whatsoever, decided to take it on. I mean, how hard can it be to read a pattern, match up a few pieces of cut-out cloth with pins and put your foot to the floor? Let's just say I wouldn't last long in a Bangladeshi garment factory.

A few hours at the machine and my back and eyes hurt. The thread kept coming out of the needle, and, grown used to instant results, I didn't bother to tack the seams first, so they came out crooked. And the Very Easy sleeves? Well, they turned out to be Bloody Hard.

If only I'd had the inspiration to set up a sewing network where I could have learned from others. I might have formed a new community and my unfinished dress would – literally – have become part of the social fabric.

Michael Kelly had such inspiration and believes he can get the British growing new communities by growing their own food. The author and social entrepreneur launched the Grow It Yourself (GIY) charity in Ireland, where thousands have signed up, and the concept has spread to Australia. You don't need green fingers to attend a (free) local meeting where tips on such things as earthing up artichokes are teased out with other novice growers. There'll be a UK website, too, when GIY launches formally here in the new year, but Kelly wants people to get their hands dirty rather than feel daunted (or bored senseless) by warnings from experts about white onion rot or greenfly.

Allotment gardening isn't new, of course, but Kelly's approach is about skills for those who've never sprouted a bean. He hates the word "empower" but says our societies have become "skill-less and passive", so growing our food makes us feel good. It's not just about thrift, but his idea captures the spirit of an age when people seem repulsed by commercialism.

I suspect artichoke skills will only be a part of any social revolution: more tricky will be getting all of us, growers, bakers and stitchers alike, to buy into a commodity we've spurned in the casino-capitalist years, and that's patience.