Let me start this review by saying that had I seen it in a shop, John-Paul Flintoff‘s Sew Your Own would probably not be the type of book I’d buy. I’ve never had a flair for crafty activities, but I’m amenable to the idea that maybe one day I will be. Although all of them are neglected, sorely underused and covered in dust, I already own a sewing machine, a knitting machine, and the obligatory bag of wool, knitting needles, ribbons, buttons and fabric scraps. I glow emerald with envy and chastise myself for slacking whenever my more talented and patient friends explain with a shrug that they knocked up that swoonsome outfit or accessory in a matter of minutes before scrambling out the door. And Project Runway is the only trash TV I allow myself to watch without guilt because it’s all about the challenge of getting creative with fabric (and occasionally more unorthodox materials like plants, food, car parts and sweetshop purchases).
So in theory, Sew Your Own, about Sunday Times and FT journalist John-Paul Flintoff’s ventures into making his own clothes, should have been right up my street. But the cover description (“Here’s one man’s attempt to survive the economic meltdown, tackle climate change and find the meaning of life by making his own clothes”) immediately made me cynical and suspicious. I hate books about finding the meaning my life. They’re usually smug and self-congratulatory, full of quasi-religious language and patronising lectures about how everything I’m doing in my day-to-day business is probably wrong, and directly responsible for the death of billions of adorable baby penguins (or something along those lines).
But there’s no arguing that John-Paul is a charismatic and sincere narrator. His writing is warm, funny and heartfelt, and his admitting to being just as bamboozled as the rest of us about complex issues like politics, religion, the economy and climate change is an easy way of winning audience empathy and loyalty. And although he starts his journey in an upmarket bespoke suit shop in New York, being measured by lasers for an expensive tailored suit made by robots, and has a distasteful episode where he outsources his life to a personal assistant in an Indian call centre, giving her a ridiculously middle-class list of errands like buying his underpants from M&S, tracking down a Chloe handbag for his wife, booking a table at The Ivy and tickets for the cricket whilst he smirked smugly about how much time he’d be saving, amazingly, he’s still a likeable character, and one you want to accompany on his journey from being kitted out by a personal stylist in Harrods through visits to landfill sites, allotments, activists and Savile Row tailors to wearing crocheted undercrackers, growing his own food and spinning his own fabric from nettle fibres.
Which is not to say that the book isn’t without niggles. The constant name-dropping gets irritating. Maybe it’s just a way to keep readers engaged; what with our celebrity-obsessed culture, maybe the promise of anecdotes about the rich and famous is an essential tactic if authors want to keep our attention. But for me, the anecdotes about brit-art oddball Billy Childish, Buddhism evangelist Richard Gere and belligerent petrol head Jeremy Clarkson didn’t add much, and just came across as a gratuitous inclusion so that the press release could name-check these celebs’ tenuous connection to the book. Another irritation is that John-Paul doesn’t seem to acknowledge the start-up costs of taking up the pastimes he so zealously advocates. Whilst some projects, like knitting, require little in the way of equipment and materials, needles and wool can be expensive, especially if you’re a beginner and don’t know exactly what you need and where best to get it. And even though we’re still talking less than £20 to get you going, even such a small cost can be discouraging if your means are slender and your money will be wasted if you find out you don’t like it as much as you thought you would. Maybe I’m being over-demanding, but I would have liked to see John-Paul explore community-based projects like Stitch London and Pins ‘n’ Needles, where would-be craft enthusiasts can try before they buy, and get expert advice and encouragement.
That said, since finishing reading, I have returned to my local knitting circle and swap shop after an absence of many months, dusted off the sewing machine and unearthed the carrier bag of ridiculous clobber earmarked for the charity shop to see what I can customise and adapt, and spent many more hours than I’d like to admit glued to online crafting communities like Craftster and Ravelry. So I can’t say Sew Your Own hasn’t been an inspiration.
It’s out next Thursday, 1st July, and available to pre-order from Amazon for £4.79.
Post by Jane Bradley