When I was about ten years old I saw Donovan on Top of the Pops. For those too young to know, Donovan was Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan, as Cliff Richard was Britain’s answer to Elvis. Both were watered down versions of the originals. I am not sure what he was singing – Mellow Yellow, maybe. But what struck me about him, apart from his rather fey delivery, was his hat. My, I liked that hat! In fact, I had to have the hat. But how was I going to get a hat like that? I was a child, living in rural Somerset. Carnaby Street was a very long way away. There was only one answer: I had to make one. So I did. I made it out of green felt. I can’t remember where the green felt came from. I think my mum might have collaborated on sourcing the material at least, although I don’t think she helped me with the making of the hat. The pattern was experimental. My hazy memory of it suggests wedge shapes making up the round top of the cap like a butcher’s boy hat. I do remember a trial and error quality to it and some adjustments being made. I don’t have a photo to show you, sadly, so you can’t judge for yourselves the quality of the hat. But I was pleased with it and judged it a success. I certainly wore it a lot.
This foray into DIY fashion was not so unusual in those days. My mum didn’t make clothes herself, but she had clothes made for her by a local dressmaker; typically skirts and often tweed. These were always from a manufactured and bought pattern. Simplicity was considered less fuddy duddy than other pattern brands. One time though, perhaps emboldened by the hat experience, and again in response to trends from swinging London, she had her dressmaker make up an outfit for me without a pattern, but to our design (well, mine really, but communicated through my mother – 10 year olds don’t commission middle-aged seamstresses directly). The skirt was circular. Not just looking full, but actually circular – flattened out it made a full circle, and was as foldy as a good curtain when worn. Not quite what I had in mind really, but I wore it frequently, with a very wide belt made from the same blue and yellow psychedelic fabric, and a narrow shirt – same fabric again - with pointy collars and slightly puffed sleeves. I was pretty sure I looked fab in it at the time, though I am not so sure now. The outfit was as experimental as the hat, and surely part of a long provincial tradition of copying or approximating metropolitan fashions.
This DIY approach was undervalued at the time. Shop-bought was considered better than home-made, with the exception of jam and cakes. Home-made clothes were thought inferior, particularly knitted clothes. And despite the joy of my Donovan hat experience, I can remember feeling dread at having to wear a home-knitted jumper. It made me look like a poor kid. That’s all changed now. If I could find a real fairisle sweater, hand-knitted in a croft on Shetland, I would be delighted, especially if it was at least a couple of decades old and a bit shrunk. And the appeal of shop-bought is now a bit tarnished. Finally home-made, hand-crafted, and hand-me-down is cool. In my neck of the woods anyway.
So the launch of the School of Stuff is timely I think. The joy that I had in making my Donovan hat has continued over decades of dreaming, making and mending. And there is joy in passing on acquired skills as well which is what the School of Stuff is about. Everyone can enjoy making stuff and I hope we will have something for everyone.
What is Mellow Yellow all about? I still don’t know.