KNITTING, crochet and sewing might be missing from the modern woman’s skillset but the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute are more than happy to bring us up to date
Switch on the TV and see Kirstie Allsopp twittering away about felting or patchwork and Nigella Lawson flinging sugar icing at her cupcakes and you know if you want to be cutting edge, it’s time to get hands on. Call it artisanal, call it bespoke, call it whatever euphemism you like from the lifestyle marketeers’ lexicon, what it boils down to is things we could make ourselves – if only we had the skills.
Stepping into the breach are the doughty ladies of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, keen to teach a new generation of hip young crochet hook slingers without alienating their traditional membership of around 20,500 women, and attract fresh blood along the way.
“How many young people are there out there who have not been taught the crafts; knitting, sewing and baking skills?” says Isobel Robertson, SWRI chairman. “They are realising that the SWRI can teach them.”
Jam. Home baking. Sewing. Ranks of grey-haired ladies blethering over cups of tea. Is that the image conjured up when you think of the Scottish Women's Rural Institute? Well, you're partly right, but its members are also to be found nowadays at happening events such as music festivals, rocking the rock cakes along with the skinny-jeaned hordes of musicos. See those beany hats being sported in the VIP area by the Fearne Cottons and Mark Ronsons? Hang out with the SWRI crew and you could knit that in a weekend.
One of the new breed of SWRI members, attracted by their tactile talents is 29-year-old Tara McKee from Tobermory, who when she isn’t working in her gift shop or indulging her other hobby of playing rugby, is happy to hang out down the Rural. Her first experience of the organisation came not from her granny or at the Highland Show, where the the SWRI attracts many new members, but at the Bestival music festival on the Isle of Wight.
“My first contact was at Bestival, where they always have a tent, and the cakes are amazing. The baking is great, but what I didn’t realise is that they do a lot of lobbying on rural issues and wider women’s issues too,” says McKee.
“I have a shop in Tobermory and an elderly local lady started dropping in and asked if I fancied going along with her, so I suppose it was peer pressure. I thought it would be all crafty and cooking but there’s always a presentation that’s really informative – from the archaeology of Mull to walking the Inca trail. Then there are trips out to Staffa and Ardnamurchan.
“I’m trying to get my friends to go but they have preconceived notions that it’s a bunch of oldies. A lot of the women may be older but that’s great because they have incredible skills that are relevant and we weren’t taught in school. I’d love to learn to knit, for instance. Also, it’s nice to have a cross-section of friends of all ages.”
Brenda Tomlinson, from Madderty in Perthshire, agrees. At 38, the graphic designer and mother of two is one of the younger members of her institute. “It’s much easier to learn from other people and it’s only once a month, so if you’re time-limited, like me, with a job and two children, you can manage it. The women have a lot of life experience and it’s amazing to hear their stories and history. They’ve brought up families and know what it’s like.
“It does have a certain image but it’s very young at heart. There are three generations in our group, and younger people than me.”
One of them is 16-year-old Shanna Greenlees, who must be one of the youngest members of the Rural, having joined when she was 14, the lowest entry age. “Some of my friends think it’s funny but I tell them it’s not about hanging out with old ladies and making jam, although I have learned to make jam. I like learning things from the older generation that you can’t learn at school, like knitting and sewing and baking and it’s important that those skills are passed on.
“Most of the women are over 50 and being able to socialise with them is good because you don’t meet them otherwise. I want to work in a zoo and some of them were in the land army and know how to handle animals and have really good stories.”
Sally Weaser, 32, from Oban, is on a career break from Scottish Natural Heritage and has started her own jewellery business on the back of skills learnt at the institute. She now has three stockists of her Fimo polymer clay jewellery and is struggling to meet demand.
“I did conservation management at university but always liked art. I went along and learnt jewellery and got so into it I started selling it at fairs. It’s really taken off. I might have got there myself eventually, but it ignited my interest and made me get off my backside and do something.”
“With the SWRI you have access to incredibly cheap classes so it’s an affordable way to learn,” she says.
With such an ordnance of skills in her armoury, Robertson’s campaign to modernise one of the country’s largest women's organisations, with 33 federations stretching from Shetland to Wigtownshire, is well on course. It may have celebrated its 90th birthday in 2007, but the SWRI is happy to throw off its beige and gilet image and welcome in the young and funky to embrace its values of education, companionship and fun.
Members are also relaxed these days about crossing the gender divide to help get things moving, with the appointment of a male general secretary in the form of Raymond Pratt, former deputy general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, and the first man to run the organisation since it was set up in 1917. “They have no problem whatsoever with me being a man," he says. “They even created a toilet for me at HQ," he says.
At the forthcoming SWRI conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday and Thursday, Robertson will be highlighting the importance of bringing new members into the organisation to ensure its survival and showing that ‘the Rural’ is just as relevant to women in 2011 as it was when it was founded.
Full of vim and vigour, she sparkles with enthusiasm when she discusses the new breed of ‘risky rurals' who, as well as picking up the knitting needles, are infusing the country's 800-plus institutes with their techno-savvy, sport-loving ethos.
“We don’t have hard figures but we’re seeing a lot of interest from younger women and branches that were closed are opening up again; North Queensferry and Tarland in Aberdeenshire for example,” she says.
“Calendar Girls helped a lot. We don't just sit and knit. There's dancing, digital photography, indoor and outdoor bowling, golf and curling. Then there's the ruralympics, a national sports tournament featuring magnetic and Velcro darts, beanbag throwing, skittles, hoola-hoop passing, indoor putting, hockey dribbling, basketball and football. We need to get rid of the image we have. It's about getting that young one in the door to see that we are not fuddy duddies, and the rest will follow.”
Basketball, football and photography are all very well, but with Missoni charching £800 for a crochet dress, we know which classes we’ll be signing up for. n
Scottish Women’s Rural Institute, 42 Heriot Row, Edinburgh (0131 225 1724, www.swri.org.uk)