Festive feelings come tinged with guilty unease. How can we spend so much money, when others have so little? How can we justify buying things when our homes are already cluttered and the environment is overloaded to breaking point with the results of thoughtless manufacturing?
Despite all this, a major part of the magic of Christmas lies in gifting good things to people we care for; and I can’t help thinking that even if (when?) the apocalypse happens, we will still want to decorate our fallout shelters and hastily dug dwellings with things that are pleasing to the eye end the mind.
So hark the herald angels sing for We Make Good. The brain child of Joan Ellison and Caroline Gardner, We Make Good teams designers with people who face social difficulties and challenges, to create lovely things that everyone can feel very good about. They also link makers with buyers, either via their own website, or through managing contracts and connections.
In practice, this can mean anything from a project with design students at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), to tin-smithing by the latest in a long line of Traveller smiths, to metal and wood work with PACE, the award-winning organisation that supports people coming out of prison.
It all started when Ellison came to work with Quality Matters, says Gardner, an energetic New Zealander with an abundance of wild dark hair. “I came here by accident,” she says. “And I loved it so I stayed.”
Quality Matters is a charity that aims to help other not-for-profits and charities do what they do (better). “We’d been looking at how to develop social enterprise,” says Gardner, “and it all came together.” She laughs ruefully at the picture that paints, when really “it was the result of thousands of hours of work”. Ellison, who is from Ardee in Co Louth, had been working in communications and retail, but had always liked to get hands on with stuff: “I’ve been a maker since a very early age,” she says. “Knitting, sewing, DIY, baking, (highly) amateur woodwork. . . I have always had a fascination with how things are made, how they work, and how they get fixed.”
‘We are free and happy’
Set up two years ago, We Make Good is anything but a quick fix, and the results are truly remarkable. This year, the organisation set up its own textile workshop in Dublin, where Ginan Abbas, originally from Iraq, works with women who have come through or are still in direct provision.
“Sewing and fashion is my passion,” says Abbas. The women on her team come from different backgrounds, and are employed by the workshop, while also learning new skills and techniques. “The most special thing,” she says, “is that we work in such a nice and happy environment.”
This is echoed by Virginie Gnrofoun, originally from Togo, who came to Ireland in 2005. Like many of the women involved, she had been a dressmaker, working from home, before she came to this country. With We Make Good, she is not only learning new techniques with new machines, but is improving her language and vocabulary. "To speak English every day is good," she says. But what is most special is that "we are comfortable here. It makes us happy. We are free and happy."
Elsa Hagos, who arrived in Ireland in 2018 from Eritrea, agrees. She had been hand sewing traditional Eritrean clothes, but now she is becoming adept with sewing and knitting machines, as well as making different products – from laptop bags to knits.
Some of these knits are by Sinéad Lawlor, who returned to Ireland this year after nine years in the US. “New York,” she says, “was very busy. There’s a really good scene there, an arts scene and a lot of Irish creatives, but you miss nature.” Now back in Ireland, she is working on her own range, but has designed two products for the We Make Good workshop - a scarf and a cushion - with more to come. “It’s a simple knit that doesn’t look like a simple knit,” she says. There’s colour, and texture, with pieces woven through. It’s a really nice project. And the women are great. It’s also nice to have the knitting craft back in Ireland. My mam is a knitter. Knitting is getting cooler.”
The whole ethos of the project is what most appeals to Lawlor. “When I came back I was reaching out to people – grabbing lots of coffee. I saw the work that We Make Good were doing, and then Joan mentioned they had been buying knitting machines and had opened their textile workshop . . .” Having previously worked with knitting circles in Peru, Lawlor was well aware of the power of the women’s micro enterprise movement, and her designs for the Dublin workshop are made with sustainable Peruvian yarn.
“You can’t not be interested in sustainability,” she says. “I’m also working with repurposed cashmere. It comes full circle, keeping things out of landfill.” Lawlor’s designs will be on sale with We Make Good early in the new year.
A reason to make things
Knitting may be cool, but the workshop will also be working on some seriously special fabrics that have come out of another collaboration, this time with designer Ian Walton and his team at NCAD's The Bureau. An optional year for the college's students, The Bureau encourages practical projects, with a goal of having at least half of them being for social enterprise. Walton and his team presented the students with decommissioned fire hoses, donated by the Dublin fire brigade and old bicycle inner tubes given by Rothar, a social enterprise dealing in all things bike.
“We wanted to do something that when you see the product, you don’t recognise the material,” says Walton, who is also creating his own range for We Make Good. “We’ve just finished, and you’d be amazed at the fabrics they’ve developed.” The products themselves will be coming on stream in spring 2020. “I’m so impressed by what Joan and Caroline are doing,” Walton says. “There have been social enterprises, but no one has connected the dots before. When you discover what they’re doing, it makes perfect sense.”
In addition to their own workshop, We Make Good also work with existing groups (see panel), promoting their products, as well as connecting them with designers, or brokering commercial contracts for their own work. Walton describes how many individuals and community groups make, and have always made things, but “We Make Good gives the makers a reason to make things”, he says.
James Collins and Thomas McDonnell are a brilliant example of this. Based in Finglas, they are two of the very few Traveller tinsmiths still working in this country. Their "ponchers" (mugs) are for sale with We Make Good for €16. "I remember my dad making them," says McDonnell. "It's something we were brought up with. You were looking at it every day for years. You'd pick it up very soon. It goes back all right – it was all the Travelling people had for making a living. You can't make a living from it now." McDonnell has been doing his best to pass it on, "learning the young fellas," he says.
He also makes milk cans, buckets and jugs. But the poncher is the thing: “Tea in a mug just doesn’t taste the same.”
More We Make Good makers include:
Triest Press: the Roscommon-based digital printers, working with people with intellectual disabilities. triestpress.ie
The Gift of Hands: a community group in Co Mayo, they use offcuts from the gorgeous Foxford Woollen Mills to make and raise money for community projects. mulranny.ie/gift-of-hands
Loaf Pottery: based just outside Belfast, Loaf provide training and work experience for people with disabilities. loafcatering.com
PALLS/Cairde Enterprises: furniture makers in Limerick, supporting former prisoners to remake their lives. palls.ie
Camphill Communities: residential communities in Ireland for people with intellectual disabilities, basket weaving, textile printing, candle making and more. camphill.ie
Partner designers include:
Jordan Ralph: furniture, product and interior design. jordanralphdesign.com
Aoife Challis: artist and designer. aoifechallis.com
ABGC Architects: architecture, interior and furniture design by Andrew Brady and Gearoid Carville. abgc.ie