The curious incident of the dog in the field

The biggest test of our policy of trying our hardest to laugh at things rather than cry when everything goes a bit wrong, came on a night not long before Christmas, on a housing estate in Milton Keynes. This is where our brilliant t-shirt printer Tricia lives.  Richard – my long-suffering fiance – and I had gone to pick up our latest batch of t-shirts (orange reindeer, and may I say how cool they look?  Yes, I think I may.)  We had arranged for my parents to babysit so that we could escape for an evening, pick up the t-shirts, do some relaxed late-night shopping and stop for a drink somewhere nice. By nice I mostly mean somewhere that doesn’t resemble a crèche. We’re not really picky when we get out these days. All was going well, we collected the t-shirts, admired them, wished Tricia a happy Christmas and moved along the hall to the front door, which is when it happened.

Rich opened the door, and out ran one very excited dog. And there followed the most ridiculous dog chase ever. I haven’t been involved in many, I should say. I’m more a cat person myself (read into this what you will, I am well aware of the many people who regard cats as malevolent, selfish creatures with very little consideration for anyone else…) and I have not chased a cat since I was 7 and was trying to put a cardigan on one. Anyway, I just assumed that a rattle of the treat tin, and a bit of tactical blocking, the dog would be back in the house within a few minutes. I was very, very wrong. Tricia’s daughter valiantly tried the biscuit tin trick, whilst Richard, Tricia and I attempted to cajole the dog back inside. After a few minutes, the dog, who was having a marvellous time, started to sprint up the road, dodging in and out of cars, presumably just to add that little extra adrenaline to the evening. We pursued the dog. We lost sight of it. Tricia’s son was dragged into the action, and we eventually tracked the very excited dog down in a dark, muddy field. Having dressed vaguely to go out somewhere civilized, I was now charging around the wet grass in some heels and a uselessly thin dress. Occasionally, as I jogged past Richie, he muttered disconsolately ‘but I’ve got my good shoes on..’ before whistling and trying to pounce on the dog, who was having the best evening with unexpected guests chasing him in and out of hedgerows.

Eventually, after an HOUR AND A HALF,  Tricia somehow caught the dog. I have no idea how but I suspect that she may just have thrown herself on top of it. I would think that would be the only way. It had definitely not been showing signs of boredom or getting tired. There’s nothing like a 90 minute chase to remind you that are not in tip-top physical condition: we were exhausted, slightly traumatized, and too late for Christmas shopping.

Just to make the evening even more special, we stopped on the way home at a pub where a row of bored looking middle aged men stared as we trudged through the bar, bedraggled and muddy. And I accidentally ordered some hideous wine.

The t-shirts, on the other hand looked fab. And we did laugh, eventually, once we were back home and dry, and the alcohol had kicked in. I sent Sarah a text:

‘T-shirts great. Interesting evening…’

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The thousands of half-drunk cups of tea

I love my children, I really do. I adore their little mannerisms and the way they say unexpected things, in their own beautiful language. I’ve been known to watch them sleep, marvelling at their angelic snoring. But sometimes, I really wish they would go and be adorable elsewhere. It’s lovely being a stay-at-home-mum, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,but when you try to be a stay at home mum and you are also trying to start  a business from home, the whole thing gets a bit, well, tangled.

I’m not really a fan of offices generally, but sometimes I catch myself daydreaming about a desk that is tidy, and not covered in crayons and pencil sharpeners and useless pritt-stick. A filing cabinet, would be nice. An actual pen (not a crayon) that works, and doesn’t write in hot-pink.  It would be good to be able to talk on the phone without a small child bawling in the background, or taking the opportunity to draw on the wall while you are not paying attention. (That’s why we have a neon pink stamp of Hello Kitty on the wall halfway up our stairs, by the way. It’s not because I thought that would make for a nice bit of wall art.) And what would be really nice would be to drink a whole cup of tea. I have mastered many new skills since becoming a mummy – nappies for instance, I can change in under 30 seconds. I can do four things at once. I can make playdough. At a push, I can sing all 5* verses of the wheels on the bus (badly.) And now, a few years in, I have learnt to drink a cup of tea really quickly. Because if you don’t drink it fast, you won’t get more than a few sips. It will be knocked over, or left to go cold whilst you change a nappy/break up a fight/set up a train track. I can’t stand cold tea.  And in the year since we started our business, we have left probably hundreds of cups of tea un-drunk. So, although my ‘office’ is a tiny computer desk in the living room, in my mind I am working from a beautifully minimalist, calm space. With a butler to serve me elegant cups of tea, with saucers. And I’m not building any My Little Pony houses while I’m at it, either.

*I’m not actually sure that there are not more than 5 verses. I could be wrong. And technically, it’s limitless really…

The new crush: joining the Wayne Hemmingway fan club

I’ve always liked Wayne Hemmingway. I like his accent, I love his glasses, and I used to have a serious Red or Dead shoe habit. I’ve seen him on TV a few times and always thought he had an air of successful yet normal about him, which is always good. So when Sarah and I heard that he was coming to do a talk at Bedford College, organized by the Creative Bedford group, we booked tickets immediately, figuring that this was one ‘business trip’ that accountant Tim could fund (we don’t usually make him cough up for our wine bills at other ‘business outings’ to the pub.)

The timing of the evening was perfect too: we had hit a bit of a wall – school holidays meant that our time was suddenly filled with princess and knight games, pretend picnics and squabbles over the best seat on the sofa – and with no real time to commit to developing our range, we were starting to doubt that two people with no design or business qualifications and no money could really create a successful, ethical business. It was as if Wayne had come along like a stylish, bespectacled angel to inspire us.

The minute he started talking (his accent is, if possible, even nicer in real life) about setting up Red or Dead, we were hooked. Wayne and his girlfriend Gerardine set up a stall at Camden Market selling a mixture of second-hand clothing and footwear and clothing that his girlfriend had made herself. They had no design or business qualifications, just an idea of what people might want to buy, and a love of recycling. They also had rent to pay on a flat, and a little financial incentive goes a long way, I find. They grew bit by bit, finding a niche market in second hand Doc Marten boots as well as selling a lot of handmade items. And then they made it big – Gerardine got an order for some dresses from Macy’s. I cannot imagine what would happen if this happened to us. We practically explode with excitement when someone orders a few dresses, let alone a massive order from  major fashion royalty! (Sweetly, Wayne said that he and Gerardine had no idea what Macy’s was, and had to be told. That sort of thing just makes me like him more.)

Red or Dead went on to be a major fashion label in its own right, but they never abandoned their principles. The brand became known for environmental awareness, taking a risk by using the Greenpeace flag as a backdrop to their 1995 London Fashion Week show in protest at the nuclear testing going on at the time in France. They were told that it would be a huge mistake – 22% of their market was French, and the French held the key to the crucial Asian markets. But Red or Dead stuck to their principles – and won a 400% increase in sales.

We were by now, a bit star-struck, and after the talk had finished I joined the queue of people who had formed to tell Wayne how brilliant he was/give him their business card. By the time it got to me he was quite obviously itching to go, and was trying to make his way towards the exit when I threw a card at him, and shouted ‘Wayne, we do recycled clothes TOO!!’  He gave me a vague (scared?) smile and told me to email him. Which I will, when the temptation to declare our undying love for him has subsided. But I like to think that it wen better than the last time I ‘chatted’  to a celebrity, which was at a Christmas ball at university when I approached Chesney Hawkes wearing a home-made cardboard and wrapping paper Christmas cracker costume. ‘What the hell (other word actually used) is that meant to be?’ asked Chesney. Dissed, by the tiny man who sings The  One and Only. (No longer my favourite song, incidentally…)

Anyway, I cannot explain quite how brilliant this evening was for us. Hearing someone telling us to stick to the principles we believe in, and also that qualifications are not always necessary, was just what we needed. If we are ever one teensy bit as successful as Wayne has been, we will be very happy indeed. It was probably the most inspiring £10 I’ve ever spent (well, Tim’s ever spent.) I would say the best £10 I’ve ever spent, but I once bought a pair of Hawaiian-print flip flops for £10 which turned out to be the most comfy pair of flip flops I’ve ever worn, and I wore them for an entire Summer and most of the (mild!) Autumn too, so that was probably the best £10 I’ve ever spent. I’m sure Wayne would understand.

mangledJam

Sometimes, you might have a bad day at the office. If you work in an office, that is. The closest that Sarah and I get to an office is a computer in the middle of our living rooms, and even then you have to wade through a layer of lego to get to a keyboard. But the time we took our stall to a school fair in Clapham was the closest we’ve got yet to a bad day at the office. Call it a bad day in a windy field.

So far we had mostly been to events that had tuned out to be successful. Even if at some we hadn’t sold that much, we’d always met some lovely new people willing to give us loads of advice, or we’d got some email addresses of people who were interested in ordering from us. So it always felt like it was worth the effort of packing the car, setting up, standing and smiling for a few hours, repacking the car….etc. Until, that is, we went to this ‘Summer’ fair. It didn’t feel like summer. It had been raining for most of the day (the event started at 4.) About 2pm, as we were lashing a table to the top of Sarah’s car, the wind started getting really strong. To be honest, we assumed they’d cancel the event, and we were already saying how it was a real shame, what a pity for the school…(silly.) Of course they didn’t cancel. Determined people, in Clapham. Not to be put off by  a mild storm, we turned up to find other stalls already set up along a nice little sheltered wall. Uh oh.

“We thought you’d be best here, under this tree!” chirped an impossibly cheery lady, ushering us to a lovely  spot under a massive tree, (well, it would have been lovely, had it not already turned to a muddy puddle with twigs blowing all over the place.)

So, deciding that this was one of those situations in which to keep calm and carry on*, we assembled the table, and put the clothing rails together. We put the tablecloth on. It blew off. We found it, some way off, shook the grass off it and put it back on the table, weighed down by some t-shirts. The t-shirts blew away. The table fell over. We then tried hanging some clothes on the rails. The rails fell over. Some dresses fell in the mud. The tablecloth got caught in the tree.

Sarah went and asked the chirpy lady if we could borrow a gazebo, explaining that we were ‘having trouble’ setting up. Some parents were starting to arrive as we unpacked a brand new gazebo from its box. Sensing some damsels in distress, a helpful man bounded over and started hammering the pegs in. Gazebos aren’t usually that hard to put up, even for us,  but in strong winds it did take us quite a while. More parents and children turned up; some staring took place.

And then, when the last peg was secured, we stood back and admired our Girl-guide-like skills. Sarah popped back to the car to put a box away;  and the wind blew. A lot. The gazebo lifted right out of the ground, performed some aerobatics bit show-offy of the gazebo, frankly – before turning upside down, halfway up the tree. Sarah arrived back at our spot to find me pointing and gawping at it like a useless goldfish. And yet, weirdly, no one seemed to have noticed. We had to practically hang off  the formerly-helpful man’s arm to get him to pay attention to our predicament. We had to fight the urge to just abandon the whole thing and do a runner. But once the alarm was finally raised, half of the PTA scrambled up a very old wall and managed to fish the mangled gazebo from the tree. Through now slightly hysterical laughter, we gasped phrases such as ‘totally buckled legs’, and ‘broken pegs,’ but it really was that kind of laughing where you can’t do anything sensible at all, you just have to howl it out until you get a stitch, or possibly until someone slaps you. No one slapped us.

Eventually, we got it together, threw our stuff into the car, shouted some apologies over the gale-force winds and made the fastest escape possible. “Come back for our pamper night event!!”  shouted the cheery lady as we drove off. Oh, how we laughed. And then we went for cake and tea at Fancy and googled the cost of Gazebos.

Oh dear.

*possibly now the most irritating phrase of all time. Oh, except ‘at the end of the day.’ Argh!

For the Love of Knitwear

By the time it came to Autumn, we were keen to try some knitwear. My love of the  Danish television programme The Killing, but in particular my crush on Sarah Lund’s infamous jumper (So warm! So patterned! So Danish!)  made it impossible to resist. The obvious route to cosy is on the jumper express, cardigans being a bit, er, buttony. And so the experimentation began. Luckily, our lovely dressmaker, Pat, is very fond of knitting as well as sewing. And, there are lots of hand-knitted things that turn up in charity shops. We started lurking around outside local charity shops awaiting delivery. This in no way made us look weird.

These ladies know the  a good jumper when they see one, check out the toasty Scandinavian goodness below:

First Aid Kit – When I Grow Up – YouTube.

We are Bedford, and the utter fabulousness of the Castle Quay Weekender.

Somewhere, amongst some safety pins,  bits of raffia and a couple of cough sweets at the bottom of our money tin, is a receipt stamped with the We are Bedford logo. It is for the very first thing we sold, at our very first event.  Sometimes we get it out and reminisce, because it was such a lovely experience. Incidentally, we call our moneybox ‘Tim’. Because he’s a Tin.  Hilarious, right?!  We refer to him as our accountant, which is less funny because we probably need an actual accountant. No offence Tim.

The idea of the Castle Quay Weekender was to turn some empty shops in a newly developed area of town into a festival to showcase local creative and cultural talent. It was dreamt up and organized by the awesome team of Kayte Judge and Erica Roffe (We are Bedford.) The whole thing was just really lovely. The sun shined, there was live music, the empty restaurant unit was filled with gorgeous craft stalls, there was a pop-up-Post Office run by the impossibly cool  School of Craft, and John Hegley performed. A member of Queen turned up. But best of all, loads of local people came, shopped, watched, listened, sat on the grass outside and enjoyed being in Bedford. There was a bit of magic in the air. And mangoJam sold stuff!

Ah, the name. mangoJam. It took us ages, and mangoJam was about our 4th choice, but we wanted something that we could buy the domain name for, and that was the first one that was free. We wanted something that summed up our mix of English, and places more exotic than England.  (Sarah is from South Africa and grew up there.) I always think of jam as a very English thing, though obviously it is widely available in other countries. I’m not colonizing jam, or anything. Plus, I like the colour orange. Slightly unhealthily so, hence the earlier orange hair fiasco. So we were, up until 24 hours ago, mangoJam. Having been objected to by clothing brand mango, the hunt for a new name is on. All relatively sensible suggestions welcome…

Having been in business for all of about 2 seconds, we had to hastily pull together a stall which was a vague representation of what we wanted to stock. We took along a selection of second-hand outfits, which we had put together ourselves, from clothing found in charity shops and car boot sales. We tied them with raffia, gave each outfit a name, and stamped it by hand onto recycled paper. mangoJam style was born. The rest of our stock was beautifully handmade by friends of ours who are crafty. We sold handsewn pencil case rolls, craft kits, (LoCo designs) brooches made from recycled fabric, (Crafty Badger) homemade bunting, (Lavender’s Blue) and some beautiful cards (Sarah’s friend Sarah.)Truly we have talented friends!

All in all it was a fabulous weekend, and we learnt a LOT.

  • People love to buy second-hand stuff if it is presented nicely and smells nice. (Our mega-loads of washing the previous week paid off!)
  • A lot of people will buy organic cotton for children, given the (relatively inexpensive) choice,
  • That you haven’t really lived until you’ve tasted a chocolate brownie from Fancy. (Homebaked deserts.) But that you shouldn’t try to move anytime soon afterwards.

The saga continues…

So, it turns out that we hadn’t actually read ANY part of the entry form. I can’t remember why, it does seem pretty stupid looking back, but it seemed to make perfect sense at the time to enter a competition we knew nothing about. Another part of it was to find a member of staff at the university who would back your business plan. On university man’s instructions*, we tracked down a ‘young lady with red hair’, snuck up on her in a corridor and then pounced, business plan form in one hand, pen in the other.  (This was all in the same day, by the way, as the email/printed plan drama.) We retired to the pub and agreed we were lunatics who should on no account set up business together.

But the weird thing is, we won round one. Our business plan got the highest marks. Now I don’t want to cast aspersions on the other entrants, but perhaps no-one had read the rules. Whatevs! We had won the privilege of presenting our business plan to a room full of Quite Important People who Know What They’re Talking About. And university man himself, who we were now fairly nervous to meet, seeing as he probably thought we were a teensy bit thick, to say the least.  On the upside, this was definitely the best new dress excuse in ages. The trouble with proposing to set up a clothing business is that you feel like you can’t do it in trousers that have baby-sick stains on and a shirt that fitted you two children ago. It’s just unconvincing, somehow. The cost of setting up our business grew suddenly by the cost of a new dress. (Also, I dyed my hair orange. This is basically unrelated, although when someone asked if we were really serious about setting this up, I did yelp, ‘I’ve dyed my hair ORANGE, to match our logo!!  I’m taking this VERY seriously!’) We made a mood board, (fun!) re-aquainted ourselves with the Joy of Powerpoint, (less fun) and borrowed some jackets.

The presentation was mildly terrifying, especially the questions section. It’s always tricky to be questioned about things that you know pretty much nothing about, and I lost any hope of coming out of it looking vaguely intelligent when I couldn’t hear a guy who kept trying to ask how we planned to ‘scale up’. After three unsuccessful attempts, he bellowed ‘how do you propose you GET BIGGER?!’ I also pretty much shouted another guy down when he suggested that it sounded more like a hobby than a business (but why on earth would you take up a hobby that in any way involves financial forecasting??)

We didn’t win the presentation round. Frankly, I would have been surprised if we had. But we didn’t lose it by much (the phrase ‘half a point’ was bandied about at some stage, but it doesn’t really bear thinking about.)  What we did win however, was university man. Wesley would become our mentor. Excellent news for us, possibly slightly less excellent for him. We imagined him driving home, weeping quietly.

We, somewhat predictably, headed for the pub.

*Instructions given to Sarah whilst she was mid-potty training her daughter. And when I say mid, I do mean mid. Phone in one hand, poo in the other. Really.