Thursday, March 29, 2012

Norwood sparkles

Wednesday evening on Barkingside High Street. As most of the retail outlets prepare to close for the night, Norwood's famous shop windows shed a cosy glow into the dusk. Inside, a group of mostly late teens and twenty-somethings will be getting hands on with some of the donated garments and accessories, needles and thread, glue gun and sewing machine.

One of them is Channa, whose mum first spotted this notice in the shop window.

Channa enjoys learning new skills and she also likes the company and the chance to unwind after her day’s work customer services. She’s been working this jacket, sewing on panels made out of Smurf bed linen.

Channa has been coming to Norwood for the past five Wednesdays - and this is the first special thing about the evenings - people return week after week. The evenings tend to start with half an hour considering the garments and accessories, generating ideas, and running their plans past each other. Then then get down to the making. People from all backgrounds are welcome, the atmosphere is down-to-earth and friendly and as well as learning new skills in a convivial setting they also eat an evening meal together and sometimes play games.

In the pleasantly cluttered back office they pull items of clothing from a rail. Siedah, who’s studying accounting, is particularly pleased with the peplum dress below. She’s also customised the denim jacket with studs and ribbon.

Emma, a dance teacher, is working on a complicated dress which she’s shortened and hemmed neatly and professionally with the overlocking machine. She’s not yet satisfied with the position of the chains, but once she is she plans to wear it herself.

Billie, who is studying A Levels, has been volunteering at Norwood as part of her Duke of Edinburgh Award. She pulls out a stretchy black dress minus its original bat wings which she’s glammed up by clinching it at the waist with a beaded flower.

The group isn’t overly preoccupied with its identity. Asked what they call themselves, Siedah and Channa look at each other. “Not a sewing circle”, Siedah says doubtfully - and although the phrase ‘stitch and bitch’ comes up later in the conversation, it’s not quite that either. It emerges that ‘upcycling’ is another word they don’t much care for. They prefer terms like ‘reworking’ and ‘updating’, perhaps because these better reflect the personal reinterpretation of the garments each group member brings. The notion of sustainability doesn’t seem to have any particular resonance, but sustainable is exactly what this group is - making connections, building skills and ultimately transforming other people’s unwanted possessions into unique, charming - and highly sellable - items.

There aren’t many charity shops like Norwood Barkingside, and there aren’t many charity shop managers like Rob Taylor. Rob ran his own contemporary and street dance company in Barking and Dagenham until the need for a reliable income obliged him to take steadier work as manager of Norwood Barkingside. He quickly made his distinctive mark on the branch - the flamboyant shop front with its famous changing window displays are his creation. Over the past months he’s been reworking the concept of a charity shop in much the same way as his Wednesday group reworks the garments. The Wednesday evenings came about as a result of his discussions with others at Norwood which funds them as a social enterprise with the clothes, skills and socialising considered equally important. Rob loves the variety and warmth of the group, and the chance everybody has to influence each other’s ideas.

I ask about the future. Rob is confident that the model will spread to Norwood’s other branches. The consensus is that the Barkingside group will grow but that it shouldn’t outgrow the shop or become so big that its members feel anonymous. Their optimism is well-grounded and infectious. In these times where you can’t look at the news without encountering stories about social breakdown, dying high streets, and the pernicious influence of Facebook on younger people’s social skills, this group is a beacon.

You can join in, 5.30 - 8.30 every Wednesday at Norwood, 149 High Street, Barkingside, IG6 2AJ, 020 8551 2049.


  1. What a super idea and a super post - it's so good to see positive and optimistic ideas being successful and getting publicity.

    1. Yes - so sad you're no longer in Barkingside to see it.