Saturday, March 08, 2014

A rather marvellous week for snail-mail, and reflections on thrift and ethical spending.

I love getting things through the post, as long as they're pleasant things of course, not bills or notifications of speeding points, though I did get one the other week telling me my licence was clear again after three years of keeping my nose clean, and that was quite nice (in fact the four points which had been squatting toadlike on it since 2011 were there for going through a red light, a particularly nasty hasty one with a sneaky automatic camera by the hospital in St Brieuc, where one often has a stark choice between stepping uncomfortable hard either on the brakes or the accelerator.  Since then I have been known to stop at it on green when I've observed it's been that way for unsettlingly long rather than take the chance of trying to make it).  But these days, there is often something ordered and looked forward to arriving in the factrice's little yellow van, or better still something free and quite unexpected.

It seems to me that with written communications having become, for all practical and necessary purposes, the preserve of the internet, things that come by actual, concrete, travelling mail, not least handwritten letters and cards, have taken on a new value, are all the more treasured. On the occasions when I send or receive a letter or parcel from family or friends, it's quite likely to contain pictures, cuttings, solid items in addition to its main purpose.  Even when it's part of a commercial transaction people sometimes add unexpected extras; with my rainbow wool for my Hitchhiker scarf, which was wrapped in richly coloured tissue, there were a tiny packet of love heart sweets and a little badge with her logo on it, though it must be said that seller really is something special.  

However the parcel that arrived from my lovely sister this week contained an item above and beyond the common run of exchanged gifts, trinkets and keepsakes. It shouldn't have been a complete surprise, but in fact it was, because I'd more or less forgotten about the thing it was made from, and even if I hadn't, I couldn't have imagined its being transformed into anything so beautiful.

About thirty years ago, when I was living in London, I had from a flea market or somewhere, I forget where, a raggedly made waistcoat from this fabric.  I spotted it as something rare and precious, and thought perhaps it might even have been Fortuny, whose silks and velvets I'd seen in an exhibition at the excellent Brighton museum art nouveau and deco galleries a few years before. I've no idea if it is, probably not as it's less formal than his designs, but it's a hand-painted silk velvet,old but not perished, the paint has nothing plasticcy or modern about it but is heavy and metallic, all of it shimmers in a very rich, non-synthetic way. Even my sister though, who knows her decorative arts and textiles, can't be sure of its age or provenance. It had been very roughly cut down into a sleeveless open vest shape, and I did wear it sometimes, then later I took it apart but couldn't really work out what to do with the awkwardly shaped pieces; it stayed in storage as a crumpled fragment till I thought to pass it on to my sister in case she could make anything of it.

She hung on to it for a while and I largely forgot about it, and she had different ideas about what to do with it before deciding on the bag (which got round the uneven shapes of the pieces) and though I could never really imagine using it for carrying anything around in, I'm really happy she used it for a proper, supple, living textile sort of purpose, rather than making it into something stiff or stretched or framed.

The fastening is a very small brass bell, and one of those embroidered button loops we all learned to sew as kids. She's backed and lined it with fabric from Toiles de Mayenne.

It's hanging on the end of the curtain pole above the telly, to which it provides a very satisfactory alternative for looking at. Tom is a bit iffy about things dangling decoratively and informally and gathering dust so it may not be able to stay there forever, but I'd like it to, it's the perfect space for it.

Then a couple of days later I had the most delightful letter from my Niece-who-makes-me-laugh-more-than-anyone.  The pleasure of this began with the envelope: 

She was writing to thank me for a scarf I'd sent her via her parents, and had, I think, mislaid my e-mail address, but also said she had made a positive decision to use the old-fashioned route having fallen rather out of love with electronic communication. Each page was on the back of a different picture:

a postcard of ancient carved stones from Arbroath, a photo she'd taken of sand ripples, a card she'd painted on watercolour paper, and a curious tiger face made from a lot of smaller tigers.

And of course in the appropriate space of the postcard she'd drawn a stamp, which I love because it's just one of those things that has to be done, and I think she has captured something of HM's essential demeanor rather well.  

The other things were ordered and paid for, but pleasing even so.  A pair of sheepskin insoles, direct from China through e-bay. When 99% of everything comes from China and western retailers are doing everything they can to hide the fact from our uneasy consciences, it gives me a degree of perverse satisfaction to get parcels marked up with scruffy labels and Chinese characters at a fraction of the price. They really are very cosy.

The last thing was a small package containing three rubber teapot spout extenders.  We love our old yellow teapot, but a while ago the tip of the spout broke off.  It was carefully stuck back on again with superglue, which we never expected to work, but surprisingly, despite the constant flow of hot acidic liquid over it, it held well, and we repeated the operation several times.  Finally, though, it almost crumbled off, looking rather like a decayed tooth, and we conceded no further repair as possible.  We used it broken for a week or two, but it dribbled everywhere, and we knew we must make do something.  Then Tom remembered those rubber teapot spouts. I instigated an on-line search and found a three-for-two offer, also on e-bay, from one of those people who seem to sell small quantities of small items from home. Voila:

Yes, I know, it's somewhat obscene.  This review rather says it all. But it is very effective, has put off the sad moment of saying goodbye to the yellow teapot, and it still makes us laugh.


Now I know I probably deserve castigation for choosing to buy Chinese products, and I've now learned I could have bought ethically produced British sheepskin insoles for not very much more, so I am rather sorry about that. Others would gripe about the matter of buying on-line at all, thereby causing real shops to go to the wall.  I do often choose to shop in proper shops even though I'm paying more for the sake of supporting them, but in the case of these two items, I don't think I could have found them anywhere locally anyway. Living as and where we do, so every trip to the shops involves outlay of time and petrol, sending for things often seems the better choice.  And I do think to some extent it's down to the retailers to find more constructive ways to work within the on-line world.  For example, I found according to Phildar's official website I could order wool from them and have it delivered to my local Phildar shop and collect it from there, saving somewhat on postage.  Good idea I thought, and went to the shop (whose range of stock was pretty dismal) to check. The woman manager/proprietor/franchisee could barely bring herself to answer me civilly.  No we don't do that, no Phildar shop does, if everyone bought from the internet there would be no shops, no we don't receive any commission at all from orders placed that way, the website is nothing to do with the shops.  I e-mailed Phildar who replied in a terse and uninformative way that only some Phildar shops did it, even though the one I went to in Lamballe was listed... I gave up and resolved to buy nothing more from Phildar anyway.  Plenty of better places to get wool, including enterprising and original small business people on line like Old Maiden Aunt where I got the hitchhiker wool.

In the end one has to balance personal thrift, which often involves not buying anything new or buying only the means to repair and renovate old things like teapots and winter boots, and spending money virtuously or otherwise.  Thrift isn't good in economic terms anyway, in a system that depends on continual waste and over-consumption.

But I do very much like these things that came in the post this week.


Rouchswalwe said...

Oh wonderful! I oooed and ahhhed and laughed out loud. You have a real sense of comic timing. Have you ever considered performing stand-up?

Francesca said...

I love the fastening on the beautiful bag. And your neice's letter - what a delightful thing to receive in the post.

Quite a lot of specialist shops are able to keep their bricks and mortar shopfronts going because they sell on the internet, and so don't just rely on passing trade. It can be a valuable income stream and gateway to wider markets, so no need to feel guilty!

Zhoen said...

I do love old bits of elegant fabric, however used. That one is gorgeous, and worth hanging on a wall, remnant art. Likewise that postcard. I still love email best, since I don't have to deal with the post office.

The marketplace is changing, and if brick&mortar shops get snitty about it instead of finding a way to use it, they'll crumble like an old teapot spout that needs a condom.

(ahem, sorry about that last word)

Zhoen said...

Speaking of snails and teapots and knitting,

Just found this.

the polish chick said...

how lovely! i once found an old opera coat at a church jumble sale, in a gorgeous rich beet coloured velvet, and resolved to make cushions. i never did and i think the fabric is long gone, other than a small dachshund my aunt and i made out of the satin pocket lining (for the ears) and a small bit of the velvet.

i certainly hope that there is a special level of hell for snotty shopkeepers. i can't stand the breed!

love the bag, though i'm with tom re: dust-gatherers. i'm rather firmly against such things.

Catalyst said...

I loved this post and everything about it, Lucy. And I can see how you couldn't bear to toss that beautiful yellow teapot.

zephyr said...

Such an adorable post!

Sometimes, it just feels good to shop from one's chair.


marja-leena said...

So many treasures here, Lucy, I love them all.

I am all for recycling, repairing and cutting down on the shopping for so much stuff! I just need to try selling much that came to us from our late parents that we are still storing, sigh. How many dinner sets and teacups do we need, and in styles that do not blend with our own?

Crafty Green Poet said...

I particularly love the bag, and it looks wonderful hanging where it is...

Lyse said...

J'aime beaucoup ton sac très décoratif. D'ailleurs moi aussi j'aime tout. Ne t'en veux pas d'avoir acheté made in china, on le fait toutes sur un coup de coeur.

A bientôt

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

What a lot of treasures, Lucy, and such fine writing to go with them. I luuurve the waistcoat/bag and what a delightful, talented sister and niece you have!
The Made in China syndrome drives me nuts but is there anything that is not made in China now? And all those Chinese workers slaving away, are they being paid peanuts and locked in hideous factories day and night?

Sheila said...

Oh, how lovely! I confess to a bit of envy! My poor mailbox mostly does its duty by receiving dutiful mail like bills, ads, etc. I'm happy you got such a bunch of happy things. And thanks for sharing them with us!