Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Arists in Focus: Crafty Stitching

For my second Artists in Focus post I'm excited to introduce you to Nuala Maguire, the crafty face behind Bluebird and one of the artists for ReFound Belfast. Nuala is, among other things, a free-lance textile artist specialising in up-cycling. Years and years ago, she actually started out with a degree in footwear and accessory design, but never took up work in the fashion industry. Instead, she trained as a conservator and worked for the museum and heritage sector, something she still enjoys doing today. 
Crafts was always something she kept up on the side, but when Nuala moved back to Belfast she started to seriously look into it as a business. Setting up her own crafts business was difficult. "Making the things is the easy part", she comments, "it's the 'selling' that requires a different set of skills." The Market Start Up Program run by Belfast City Council was a huge help to her in getting her business on the way. The project, which is free of charge, helps those dedicated to opening their own food or crafts business by teaching them necessary skills, such as marketing and financial planning. The program made her realise how important it is to have a brand identity, a theme. And as part of it, she got to sell her wares at St. George's Market, a beautiful food an crafts market happening every week on Saturday and Sunday in Belfast. 

For Bluebird, she creates beautiful vintagy accessories and jewellery, such as purses, earrings or bangles inspired by the 1940s. Her inspiration for bluebird comes from the Mend and Make Do spirit of the Second World War, where things and materials were re-used and mended. Nuala can literally find a use for everything. Even the tiniest scraps of fabric she works into pretty pins and earrings. A best-seller are the bangles she creates out of old plastic knitting needles by bending them into shape. 
"I look at 'rubbish' as a material. I love finding worth in what people discard and turning it into something useful and beautiful. The down-side is, I can't throw anything out anymore! I literally cannot walk past a skip!"
When one of her friends was about to throw out over a hundred vinyl records, she took them and created brooches and necklaces out of them. The new material was interesting for her to work with. It was a challenge, something different. Word got around quickly, and now people constantly 'gift' her 'left-over materials'.

Her work for ReFound follows similar principles. As one of the Refound artists, she up-cycles and re-styles old furniture which is then sold at the beautiful ReFound boutique at the heart of Belfast's city centre. Although working on furniture, Nuala always manages to incorporate her textile skills. She hand-embroiders old lampshades with delicate little birds while also re-designing big chunky armchairs (complete with hand-knitted cover of course!). 

Nuala tells me that for her final project in her undergraduate, she actually re-cycled old tea towels to create Victorian boots. It didn't take off back then though, the up-cycled art. It didn't stick. "Maybe it was just too early", she muses. Thankfully it seems to be working now!
Nuala has been selling her products at a number of markets and festivals around Belfast. For the Maritime festival for instance, she created the cute nautically-themed buttons below. She's currently selling at the Black Box Bazaar. "I love selling at Markets. It's always a great buzz. They are a lot of time and effort though," she concedes. She couldn't manage one a week, she thinks. Also this would mean she would have to buy all the fabric and materials, which would kind of defeat the purpose of her re-cycled art. 

Working free-lance is not always easy. With the freedom of it also comes a great deal of insecurity. It's very organic, Nuala explains. There are bursts when she is drowning in work and then nothing happens for a few weeks. How does she deal with it? She laughs: "By being very good at time management and at 'not freaking-out'. I have a great support network. A lot of my friends are also free-lancers and that really helps." Networks are important not just for an occasional moral boost, but for artistic inspiration and learning. 
"I have learnt and benefited from other people so much. Fellow artisans and craftspeople have been a huge inspiration to me."
Nuala is part of Belfast Stich and Bitch, a local knitting circle (in case you're interested: they meet every Wednesday in the Starbucks behind Victoria Sq from 4.30ish!). She is also one of the volunteers helping with the Imagined Through Textiles Project. A partnership between ArtsEkta and Arts for All, this community textile project will create a number of tapestries based on the history of the ports and docks of Belfast, which will then be displayed in venues throughout the city. I can't wait to see the results!

When I ask Nuala why she is putting up with all the hassle and all the frustration of being a free-lance artist, she smiles and says:
"I'm a creator. I've always made things - it's who I am. If I no longer used my hands to make something, I would be miserable."
I guess craft just stole her heart...
Nuala Maguire also sells her creations online on her facebook page and - you'd be glad to know - she does bespoke orders too! So head on over and give her a big like!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Pack your Bags!

Summer has finally arrived and how! Ireland has literally never been this hot. So get out there and enjoy the sun while it lasts. To accompany you on your romantic picnics, outdoor barbeques, trips to the beer garden and leisurely walks along the sea, I've gathered a selection of fairtrade and eco-friendly bags for you. Beautiful and practical, they will carry everything you may need, especially your clear conscience.

Let's start out with one of my all-time favourites from home: the Freitag bags. Freitag have been making super cool bags out of used truck tarps since 1993! The integrity of their designs is beautiful. They use seat-belts as bag straps and old bike tubes as lining. Freitag is also one of the last companies to still manufacture their goods in Zurich. Being Swiss, the quality of their bags is phenomenal. A Freitag bag will truly last you a life-time (believe me, I've seen it.). They don't just do courier-style bags by the way, at Freitag you can get funky laptop bags, totes, wallets, and backpacks too and no two Freitag products are the same. I particularly love the hand-bag model Joan (bottom right in picture). As you can see in the quirky 'How-to-use-video' here, it can fit anything from a baguette to a rolled up sleeping mat. The smart straps at the back of the bag, mean you can fix it to the handle-bar of your bicycle. Love it!

Planning on going to the beach? HandCrafting Justice sells the perfect summer tote for any beach adventure.  These beautifully simple canvas bags are super handy and their size means they will hold everything and anything you may want to bring with you. HandCrafting Justice provides access to Fair Trade markets for handmade goods created by enterprising women in the developing world. Their work fosters self-reliance and the creation of economic opportunities and networks, enabling women to achieve long-lasting success, lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. The artisans set the price for their goods themselves and HandCrafting Justice pays upon receipt, guaranteeing payment for each artisan. Have a look at their range of beautiful accessories, home-wares and gifts.

If you're going for a night out, but lacking that special accessory, I suggest you check out Escama Studio's fantastic range of handbags. I love the industrial look of these bags and still find it hard to believe they're made from used ring-pulls. Escama Studio is a social enterprise based in California and Brazil. The name means 'fish scales' in Portuguese, reflecting the look of their products. To achieve this unique aesthetic, Escama adapted traditional Brazilian crochet work, marrying heritage crafts with new materials and contemporary design. Eco-friendly, fair trade and stylish - these bags are just stunners in every way.

In case you were looking for something a little more affordable, why not check out the lovely accessory ranges of Earth Squared and PeopleTree. These cute and girly print bags are perfect for summer and retail between 20 and 30 pounds. If you follow my blog, you'll be sick of hearing me go on and on about PeopleTree... Earth Squared is one of my new discoveries though. A registered importer of BAFTS (British Association of Fair Trade Shops) they sell a lovely range of accessories and bags.

And saving the best for last, I want to introduce you to this beauty from fair trade label Nkuku:

Hand made from leather, dyed using extracts of tree barks and plants by a co-operative in Rajastan, the Savannah shopper is almost too beautiful in its simplicity. Each of the bags is lined with a colourful floral cotton fabric complementing its plain exterior. Nkuku is an eco-friendly fair trade home and lifestyle label with a clean and gorgeously simple aesthetic. Apart from bags, Nkuku sells a range of rustic home decor wares that I would love to fill my apartment with. The label's notebooks and journals are also to die for.

What about you? Which bag did you like best? Or are you in love with a different bag entirely? Let us know!

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Swap till you Drop

Swap shops have been sweeping the nation and apparently everyone has been swapping rather than shopping. Having heard of the concept for the first time a few months ago, I decided to try and hold one myself. So here's my guide on how to swap shop:

1. Set a date and invite all your friends, neighbours, relatives (even strange aunty Betty), classmates, colleagues etc. over to your house. The bigger the crowd, the more fun! There's only one condition; they have to bring at least two old items of clothing they no longer wear... (it turns out, most people will bring way more!). 

If they are reluctant to come, tempt them with gorgeous treats and coffee! Me being me, there were lots of chocolate goodies going round at my swap shop. My wonderful mother-in-law was so good to provide us with gorgeous home-made chocolate truffles. Another real success were my strawberries dipped in chocolate. Light and delicious, they are incredibly easy to make!

The gorgeous spread at my Coffee, Cakes and Clothes swap shop

2. Before your guests arrive, set up the rooms and decorate! It's a good idea to get yourself some clothes hangers and rails... we ran out of hanging space very quickly. If you fancied it, you could give your swap shop a theme and decorate accordingly. I tried to create a bit of a vintage-tea-party-feel at mine by using my mother-in-law's good china and tying lace ribbons randomly to things. I also made these size signs... however, organizing the clothes into sizes proved a rather impossible endeavour.
3. Do it for a good cause! I decided to host my swap shop as a fundraiser for Hand of Hope, a small charity that organizes camps and fun events for orphan children in the Czech Republic. At some swap shops, there's a set entry fee. I decided to go with a suggested donation of €10, figuring that depending on how much people got out of it, they may want to give more or less accordingly. 

All the clothes lovingly displayed. Top right: my donation box served on a silver platter

4. As your guests trickle in, lay out and arrange the clothes they brought while they have a chat and a cup of tea. At the beginning of the swap shop, your guests can have a look around, scope out the goodies and try on some things, but they're not allowed to take anything yet! As you can see, it was all very civilized... at the start at least.

5. Then after a certain period of time (I waited for about an hour), you as the host have to give some kind of signal - anything from a bell to a horn to shouting really loudly will do - and let the swapping begin! Basically, your guests are then free to grab anything on offer that they like. NOTE: its a good idea to hide anything belonging to your household and wardrobe that you were wanting to keep! Believe me, at this point, the claws can come out. Things at my swap shop definitely got rather heated :). 

Hunting for that thing you'd seen just a second ago...

We offered up some of the bedrooms as changing rooms, but most girls just tried things on there and then... there was no time to run upstairs, obviously.

6. Finally, once your guests have waddled off satisfied, happily cradling piles of new found treasures in their arms, the only thing that's left for you to do is to clean up and count the money. It was quite an epic clean-up to be fair... (I now know how shop assistants in Primark must feel) but when I sat down with a glass of wine and opened my donations box, I found that we had raised over €150 for Hands of Hope! Not bad eh!                                                                 Overall the event was a huge success, tons of fun and as it doesn't take much preparation, a really easy and social way to raise some funds for charity. I will definitely host one again and I'm so chuffed with my new coat, skirt and swimsuit! The leftover clothes we simply dropped off at Oxfam.