Church’s vintage mission supports ethical look for the fashion market

St Mary's Vintage and Craft Market: Lisa Birkett and Luke Hewitson (13) of Happy Hare knitting scarves
St Mary's Vintage and Craft Market: Lisa Birkett and Luke Hewitson (13) of Happy Hare knitting scarves

Why awareness of the cheap labour and poor conditions of workers producing High Street clothes is leading the trend to shop with a sustainable slant

Profit for a purpose. That’s the business mission statement of St Mary’s Church and Community Centre in Bramall Lane.

Seven hundred people attended St Mary’s Vintage and Craft Fair last Saturday, and the centre’s conference and catering manager, Sue Green, said: “We’ve had 45 sellers, all local, all selling craft they’ve made themselves or vintage they’ve collected. We now have to have selection meetings for the fairs as we often get more than 100 applications.”

The fairs began three years ago, out of necessity, said Sue. “At that time there was the first round of cuts, and the council stopped using us for conferences so we had to quickly find other ways to generate income.”

The fairs, around nine of which are held every year, were one idea. “We want to help local businesses sell their wares, we take a small entry fee and a fee from the stallholders, and generate income from the cafe.”

Vintage stallholders are often regulars at St Mary’s.

“People are interested in shopping more sustainably,” said Sophie Cooke from Imogen’s Imagination. “They like to buy something individual, but they also want to know where it’s come from, rather than buy something from the High Street where they know what kind of conditions it was often made in.

“People are increasingly aware High Street clothes are cheap because they’re made from cheap labour in bad conditions, so they’re often prepared to pay more and shop ethically.”

The success of Bird’s Yard in Chapel Walk shows the interest in local makers and designers, and Sophie noted that the restructuring of the city centre would do well to help small businesses with appropriately priced units.

“I have to work seven days a week sometimes for 12 or 14 hours a day, and I’d love to reach the point where I could start to employ other local people as apprentices, for example.”

All money raised from the various activities at St Mary’s goes towards community projects in the area and for Sheffielders generally: the cafe, partly run by volunteers, now sells locally made food and catering services to businesses like Siemens, Forgemasters and the Motorpoint Arena.

The centre works with the FareShare and FoodCycle charities to use unwanted food from shops and supermarkets to provide meals and cooking opportunities for local people, helped by a small army of volunteers. Volunteers at St Mary’s now work through the Timebuilders timebank project.

“Timebuilding encourages participation in the community,” said Timebuilders manager Jo Watts. “We say it’s ‘building community, an hour at a time.’”

The Timebuilders project, which began 18 months ago, involves volunteers with skills ranging from music teaching, cookery, gardening or English conversation, for example, gaining time credits for their voluntary work that can then be used to ‘buy’ help from other people, food at the cafe or even tickets to watch scheme supporters Sheffield United.

“You sign up with our development workers who find out what your skills are. We aim to get to know people, their strengths, their aspirations and how they can help, and how they like to be connected,” said Jo. The aim is not just to give a workable currency to voluntary work, but to help people from different groups and backgrounds to make connections in their community.

Local women might make samosas for the kitchen and gain English or computer help in return for example, or a cook might get tickets to see the Blades in exchange for making pizza.

Sue Green said she was cautiously optimistic about the future of St Mary’s. People are genuinely wanting to put something back, and the centre works well within the church, she said.

“There is a Christian ethos to everything here, but it doesn’t mean you have to come to church every Sunday to be part of what happens. Forty per cent of people who take part are Muslim anyway, so religion doesn’t really come into it.”

Jo Watts gave up a job at the Body Shop to work at St Mary’s. “I love it here,” she said. “We’re part of making things happen rather than being a cog in a big machine.”

* Time Builders St Mary’s Church