Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.
I was born in Edinburgh, in 1969, but grew up in the Scottish Highlands, one of the most rugged and beautiful parts of the UK.
I studied journalism in Edinburgh, then moved to the Shetland Islands, in the far north of the country, for my first job. I intended to stay about a year, thinking I’d move back to the city, but somehow I’ve never really left. I worked at a local newspaper then was one of the founding members of a news agency, writing daily articles for the UK press. A lot of our stories were about the North Sea oil industry, and following the Braer Oilspill, which hit the islands in 1993, I co-wrote a book , Innocent Passage, The wreck of the tanker Braer, with my work partner Jonathan Wills.
In my early 20s I left for three months backpacking in China after booking a flight on a whim one wet, dark January. It was my first time out of Europe and I remember arriving in Beijing with no plan, being bundled into a rickshaw and being cycled down the backstreets of the city for about an hour, with no clue where I was being taken. The light, the smells, the different sounds were all so new to me, it was utterly thrilling and I have continued to love travelling on my own.
Within a year of that first visit I had taken a year’s job at China daily, as a “polisher”, editing the stories written by Chinese journalists. I worked there again a few years later, but that time with my husband Pete and son Leo along with me. Living in Beijing in the late 1990s was an amazing time for us; we explored as much as we could, walking and cycling for hours around the old hutongs, the courtyard houses; taking trains, buses and horses and carts to remote towns and villages, often chosen based on a random recommendation or by sticking a pin in a map.
When I was pregnant with my second son Cosmo we returned home to Shetland via a few months in New Zealand. When the kids were small, I decided to retrain as a teacher, which is a job I still do today.
We headed East again as a family in 2008, backpacking across China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and India for several months. Friends thought we were a bit mad taking our kids (aged 7 and 11 at the time) out of school for so long, but they were up for it and I was pretty sure we’d have some life-changing adventures together. (We did…from being trapped in a car by a swollen river in a deadly flood, to our youngest son dislocating his neck playing football… but mostly our experiences and the people we met were fantastic.)
When the money for travelling ran out, we took jobs in an international school in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. It was set in a botanical garden, but close to China’s massive factory belt, producer of a vast percentage of the world’s manufactured goods. In contrast to these huge factory complexes driven by Western desires for cheaper, quicker goods, we often took trips to small towns and villages where traditional skills were still used to create beautiful fabrics, art, furniture…even simple kitchen utensils, carved from bamboo or a twisted root. Around this time the seed of an idea to find an organic source of exquisite Chinese silk was forming.
We returned to Europe, spending three years teaching in Berlin, where I was again involved in curriculum development within an International Baccalaureate (IB) school, before finally making it back home to our tiny 400-year-old croft house by the Atlantic Ocean last August. Leo has now left to go to university in Glasgow, but Pete, Cosmo and I live here with our rescue cat and two ducks.
What is the importance of ethical fashion?
When I was growing up, ethics and fashion weren’t really ever connected. We bought stuff in Oxfam and other charity shops, but that was more to do with having no money, rather than concerns about the fashion industry. Now, having seen and met so many people on my travels without the advantages we’ve grown up with, and who daily face more challenges than most of us encounter in a lifetime, I have no excuses not to be as ethical as I can as a consumer and producer. Watching an old lady sitting on the street, struggling to sew zips on a pile of jeans, you can’t help but wonder, ‘what if that was my granny?’ We have to try to do the right thing by people, wherever they happen to have been born.
What is the importance of sustainable fashion?
I really applaud the whole “30 wears” idea put forward by Livia Firth here in the UK to encourage people to buy smarter and hold onto clothes for longer. In reality I suspect most people outwith the fashion industry and unfazed by trends have many pieces they’ve worn on and off for decades. If something is made well, to last, then it has sustainability built in. If it passes through a secondhand shop at least once in its life, then that’s sustainable. Fast fashion never makes it that far.
For me, sustainable fashion is about two or three things. It is about using natural resources carefully, avoiding the use of damaging products and practices as far as possible and it is about having a sustainable workforce of skilled, fairly paid people, who can feel proud of their day’s work. It is up to industry leaders to make sure this happens and consumers to keep the pressure on.
You are married and have sons. How does being married and having sons change perspectives over time?
I have no idea! But they’re all great people, and I’m sure that rubs off on me!
You spend a great deal of time gardening. What is the personal salience of gardening to you?
I find it calming and meditative to be outside, not speaking to anyone, just digging or weeding. I’m an all-weather gardener now I have my own boilersuit and oilskins.
As a teacher, I know how important it is to include gardening, sustainability and the environment in every curriculum. I’ve read worrying reports this year on the vast numbers of young people in the UK who have never experienced being in nature. Studies from Scandinavia are now backing up what seems like an obvious connection between time spent in nature and better communities and lower crime. I never regret a moment spent outside in my garden.
What is your favourite part of gardening?
I love the harvest…going out with a big bowl and scissors and snipping off leaves, herbs and flowers for a gorgeous salad. I’ve also just made my second batch of rhubarb wine and my neighbour Eddie, who is my go-to expert, has just given me his grapevine prunings to turn into Folly wine. Home-grown food and wine with friends, in the garden. Nothing nicer!
What about favourite kind of gardening?
Here in Shetland I love trying to beat the wild weather, like the regular hurricane-force winds that liven up the long, dark, winter, so we can really enjoy the garden during the almost constant summer daylight (we’re above 61 degrees north here…in line with Anchorage and St Petersburg). When we lived in Berlin, my gardening was confined to a balcony, although I did manage to squeeze a few pots onto the street below. Berlin was where I first encountered guerrilla gardening and I like to think, were I to live in a city again, I’d be out there, secretly creating little oases among the urban sprawl.
What other work are you involved in at this point in time? Alongside developing Susurrus, my organic silk pillowcase business, I continue to teach. I’ve just finished a contract in a two-teacher rural primary school, where I taught primary 1, 2 and 3. After the summer holidays I start a new job teaching communication skills to young adults in a local college.
With regard to ethical and sustainable fashion companies, what’s the importance of them to you?
I have a lot of respect for the many ethical and sustainable companies who are now working within the fashion industry, especially those who started out long before the current trend, like People Tree. These companies are creating monitoring systems, standards, markets and expectations that ease the way for the rest of us.
When I set up Susurrus it took me many months to find a source of certified-organic silk in China. That was crucial for me…I wasn’t going to set up this company using silk from just any Chinese producer, even though that would have been simple and a lot cheaper. Part of my idea was to show that good, ethical, sustainable materials and products can come from China.
Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
If only shopping and manufacturing habits could change as quickly as catwalk trends, all fashion would soon be ethical and sustainable. Imagine that…this season’s must-have accessory … a clear conscience.