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CROJORETRO: Connecting a Community

On the 16th March 2022 I gave a talk at the Norfolk Makers Festival – it was exactly two years since I’d hosted my Charity Blanket crochet workshops at the 2020 Festival.

Here’s an edited version of the talk I gave – with some nice pictures:

There’s also a transcription below:

 

“It’s March 2022, and two years  since I hosted my fundraising crochet courses at the Norfolk Makers Festival – that’s two years before everything stopped.

Some of you may remember the Charity Blanket project we started, and some of you may have contributed – so thank you if you did.

Over the course of two weeks people dropped by during the Festival at the Forum in Norwich and contributed to a beautiful collective blanket that would be raffled to raise money for the Boudica Breast Cancer appeal.

It was a fabulous and industrious two weeks. I met some wonderful people; many of them had their own personal reasons for wanting to support the project. Some people were new to crochet, some were experienced and some people just wanted to drop by to say hello, offer their support and have a chat.

But then COVID prevented any follow up meetings, progress stalled and the work remained in pieces –with no visible conclusion.

So I’d like to share with you what happened next – my experience over the last two years – what it’s taught me and how I approach things differently now.

I am a natural introvert, like many artists and makers,  but I’m also a very sociable one who enjoys being with other people and  I find that having a background activity like knitting or crochet that’s repetitive, almost meditative helps to remove the filters so conversations are less self edited and somehow more natural.

Conversations are easy in these craft focused  environments – they ebb and flow shaped by a kind of ‘sideways listening’ where you don’t have to look anyone directly in the eye or fix your gaze on them – your eyes are on your work and this can help to alleviate any potential social anxiety.

There’s no pressure on anyone to talk – everyone has the option of being vocal or being quiet – but also as, the host I’m able to gently steer a conversation if necessary. Taking cues from subtle body language or nuanced expressions.

The next time you find yourself holding the line to customer services and tapping your fingers as you wait – that’s your body attempting to self sooth, the short repetitive motions release serotonin helping to steady your nerves as you wait.

So there are good, scientific reasons why knitting and crochet often become the go to activities in times of stress and trauma.

I’m making the assumption that many of you here are, like me, compulsive makers – and you’re at your most productive when you’re under stress.

I know I am.

Throughout the  traumatic ending of a 25 year relationship I immersed myself in making a 600 square crochet blanket.

The work was mind numbingly repetitive and felt endless –  but it gave me a focus stopped my mind wandering and it became my comfort blanket through the most difficult of times.

As my hands worked on the blanket my mind was working through other things and completing it signified the time to stop procrastinating and take action.

I called this blanket The Happy Blanket. For me it’s not just a crochet blanket – it’s the signifier of change and a reminder that hand made objects are always more than the sum of their parts,

They are a part of us – small bits of our lives objectified in the handmade.

A few years later I spent six months with my father as he died painfully in front of me. Once again I had a project that occupied a large  part of my brain and I spent every evening doing the maths, counting, working things out, stitch after stitch of repetition – finding solice in the certainty of numbers.

After he died I finished the blanket which I eventually called Wallflowers, and once again a chapter of my life is captured in the stitches of a crochet blanket.

 I don’t usually over share personal stuff but I’m telling you this as a way of explaining why I feel that crafting and making is so important to us as humans – on so many levels.

In the 21st century – in Western Culture – making things is rarely just about making functional items.

It’s far more complex than that.

Making stuff is about so much more than just making stuff.

In March 2020, like many people, I saw my work – and my income grind to a halt over night.

I was making my living running workshops in local yarn stores and was steadily building my business and enjoying the social interaction it provided – for me, and my course members.

Occasionally I’d get a message on Facebook or Instagram –

“It would be nice if you could offer something to those of us who can’t travel to the UK”

Or; “When will you offer something to the online line community?”

 And; “We can’t all do courses in real life”

The truth was I was terrified of running courses online.

I’d heard the horror stories of internet trolls and knew that lots of people struggled to be polite online.

I’m a very sensitive soul -I always welcome constructive criticism – but I don’t cope well with rudeness or aggression.

I know that INSTAGRAM filters Are reserved for  images not comments – these are often posted  in their rawest state.

 So I always said no – extremely politely.

But then when all my classes in real life were cancelled, and potentially my income would go from fairly rubbish to zero over night I knew I had to change my game and embrace the digital, online world.

For several years my life had felt like a never ending run of hurdles –  just when I thought I’d cleared the last one – there’s another, bigger, higher more scary one on the horizon –

I was just waiting for all the drama and the noise to stop so I could spend some time with my thoughts–

It was like I was waiting for someone to hand me some extra time. To wake up one day and find that I had  25 hours instead of 24.

And then, suddenly everything stopped.

The pandemic gifted me a whole lot of extra time.

And I knew that I couldn’t waste it.

My crochet retreats were cancelled and so were all my real life classes so I contacted everyone who’d booked on my crochet workshops and asked if they’d be prepared to continue their classes with me remotely.

Nearly everyone said yes.

I how no idea how to do it.

But  I set up a make shift studio, made a series of really crappy video tutorials which everyone seemed to like, and like everyone else on the planet I bought a ring light, learnt how to use Zoom and spent far too long on social media.

But really, social media was all we had –  and I wanted to spend this time building my audience.

So on the 15th March 2020 I decided to start a new project and I published this post on INSTAGRAM

A handfull of my followers were up for it.

All you had to do was to sign up for. My newsletter I’d email the patterns out to all my subscribers as I wrote them. For each instalment there was a written pattern and a rather  kackhanded, badly edited,  video tutorial.

I had a vague Idea of what I was making  – but the only real plan was to make it up as I went along in the hope that it would be OK and that I wouldn’t make a complete idiot of myself on line.

Like many people at that time- I listened to music, I meditated, did yoga and read about mindfulness….the  project grew. And so did my audience.

My subscriber list grew from 800 to 2,000 in just a few weeks and I was beginning to see multiple and very beautiful versions of my design reflected back at me every morning on my phone and the people I met on Instagram became as familiar to me as my closest friends.

 Through Crojoretro I  met the lady who was recovering from a stroke- her doctor had advised her to take up knitting or crochet- and now she was hooked on the project

I met the young woman coping with life after multiple miscarriages who found crochet to be a therapeutic distraction.

I met the daughter who lost her father to Covid.

The woman with breast cancer crocheting her way through chemotherapy.

Almost everyday I received a moving message from someone for whom Crojoretro was a form of therapy, respite, distraction or simply downtime from the global trauma we were all suffering from.

By the summer of 2020 my newsletter subscriber list had grown to 4,000 and with no sign of normality returning anytime soon I made the decision to offer an online version of my Homage to the Granny Square course which I’d previously been running in local yarn stores.

It was a steep learning curve. I had to improve my crappy video editing skills, find a suitable platform and convince my online audience who had been enjoying several months of free content – that this was going to be worth paying for.

Patreon was the platform I used to launch my first online course. I made a little promotional video,  spent £10 on a Facebook advert and waited to see what would happen.

I told myself that if I had 20 members it would be worth it.

I began my first online course with 160 members from all over the world and I was terrified.

But I worked on my editing skills and my tutorials got a little better and once a month I met up with the course members on Zoom and this was really where the magic happened.

Many of my first online customers had been with me from day one of Crojo retro and I already felt like I knew them and there was a mutual trust between us.

For the first time I could really communicate with my online audience – and they could talk to me – and more importantly – each other.

At a time when it felt like the whole world was locked down this was an opportunity to extend my reach to a global community and bring people together with a shared creative project.

It felt almost ironic that when the world was closed the connections we were making made the US feel closer to more people than ever before.

It was extraordinary to be having intimate conversations with my American members – as we watched the violence that accompanied their 2020 elections unfold.

As the fires raged  the Californian lady kept her windows closed so we could see her through the smoke.

The New Zealanders were thankfully COVID free – but quietly seething about border closures.

A naked man casually wanders past behind the  lady at her kitchen table – who rolled her eyes and explained that it was 40 degrees in the shade.

I meet peoples dogs and cats, parents and grandchildren and we all try to keep the conversation politic free and upbeat.

But it’s not easy. So many of us are at breaking point – and in need of a big beautiful, comfort blanket. Tears come easily and are met with sympathy and kind words.

We feel like a community.

We are a community.

We may not be able to reach out and touch each other – but then we can’t even touch our closest relatives – so this is the closest we get.

One year after my real life classes stopped I was ready to launch my second online course – WALLFLOWERS and  again we met up monthly on Zoom to discuss and celebrate our crochet progress.

We ‘re  scattered all over the globe – our meetings are held in the global time zone of cyberspace where mornings and evenings are blurred, marked only by the drinks we’re sipping. Coffee for the early risers in the US and anyone attempting to stay awake long enough to say hello, and wine for those Antipodeans already settled into their sofa and pajamas at the end of their day.

Our cosy meet ups are always overshadowed by global events that seem somehow closer now we had friends all over the world. The Black Lives Matter Movement and Trumps impeachments  in the US ,floods in Europe, the G7 summit, and devastating wildfires in Turkey – all brought into our own homes by people whose lives these things actually touch.

We learnt how to balance acceptance and empathy with people on the opposite side of the political fence – whilst finding a common ground in the beautiful craft we were immersed in.

All of this was made possible by my original lockdown mystery crochet project CROJORETRO – which I eventually finished in December 2020.

This project had  connected me to A world wide audience of inquisitive, playfull and supportive crafters – people who share their work generously, take pleasure in watching other peoples progress and who were prepared to wait  patiently with their half worked projects as I wrestled and adlibbed my way through.

It is a little insane to commit to a project when you really have no idea what the end product will look like – you have to be a particular kind of crafter to say yes to that – and this is my online community. Brave, inquisitve, light hearted and driven by the enjoyment of participation.

I have no idea how many crojo retro blankets, complete or otherwise there are in the world now – but two years after quietly launching it on Instagram I have close to 7,000 newseltter subscribers and over 500 online course members.

They tell me often how much their crochet work has helped them through the most difficult of times, and I know that they mean it – because that’s why I do it.

And I’ve gained so much from our community – collectively they’ve taught me that beautiful things happen when you take a brave step.

That thing that you’re most afraid of is quite possibly the thing you really need to do. Yes, it’s only crochet.

But it’s so much more than that.

I have two foot notes;

No. 1.

Humans are great at story telling. We look for the patterns and meaning in everything. Even if it’s not there- we like to  neatly fit our experiences into story shaped narratives.

We pick out the bits we want and string them together in an attempt to understand what our lives mean

But life’s not really like that and neither is this story.

There are gaps filled with mistakes, sleepless nights, tears, a hundred things that got redone, remade or accidentally deleted.

A strong community pulls together when things go wrong.

I’m grateful to my community for their patience and acceptance.

My second foot note is this;

The charity blanket was eventually finished thanks to the hard work and tenacity of 3 wonderful women who I’d like to publicly thank – Bernie, Trisha and my fabulous assistant Jess. Thank you for being so amazing.

And the winner of the blanket?

I have a confession to make. Somewhere in the darkness of the pandemic I misplaced her contact details.

So if it’s you – get in touch and you can claim you prize.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sue, thank you so much for sharing this with us. It struck so many chords. I’m eternally grateful for you and your Mercerie magic!

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