Jam, Jerusalem ... and bunting!
This summer, my local Women's Institute (WI) celebrated its 100th birthday by unveiling its centenary bunting in the village hall. It has all been made by local members, and a lot of it is beautifully embroidered, or uses an imaginative range of techniques including applique and freestyle quilting.
I'm a member of my local WI, and when I tell people this, they often respond with snorts of laughter, or blank looks, depending on their age and nationality. The WI is often seen as a comedy stereotype in Britain, regarded as the domain of women in pearls and twin sets, busily making jam, baking cakes and generally bossing people around. Famously, the WI's "theme tune" is Sir Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's poem, Jerusalem, which was adopted eight years after the WI was founded in 1915.
Jerusalem, of course, is a wonderful hymn but we should remember that for the WI the lines:
"Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land"
had a resonance then – only a few years after the end of the First World War, and the granting of votes to women – that we don't really appreciate today.
In the same way, the image of cake and jam-making has its roots in the problems faced by the UK during the First World War. By 1915, Britain had seen a massive exodus of men to the Western Front. As well as the regular army, two and a half million men had volunteered to join up, which left rural communities in particular battling to continue farming and produce food. The WI was founded as a way of supporting these communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food.
I'm proud to say that my WI, Bibury with Barnsley, was one of 137 branches that were founded in the first two years. It was formed in 1917 (we merged with the neighbouring village of Barnsley in the 1950s) and this year we are celebrating our centenary.
Since 1917, the WI has become the largest voluntary women's organisation in the UK. It now campaigns at a national level on anything from domestic violence, equal pay and the provision of more midwives to climate change, honeybees and Aids. At a local level, it provides a community focus and support for local women.
My local branch decided to reflect this in their centenary bunting, creating a pennant for each year that marked both local and national events. (Don't worry, we still make jam and cakes too.)
Members of the WI with any interest in sewing or crafts volunteered to decorate the pennants, the templates for which were made by our president, Liz Franklin, and treasurer, Elaine Maunder. Liz and Elaine also collected up all the pennants and threaded them on to cord to make the bunting.
Liz and Elaine, who masterminded the bunting project (and did more than their fair share of the work)
Work on the bunting took over the fortnightly craft sessions in the village hall. For me, it was wonderfully relaxing to be able to go down to the hall and sit and sew for a couple of hours, uninterrupted by the phone or emails.
People asked me if we gossiped as we sewed, but no, we didn't really. There would be occasional chat, but mostly people got on with their work. It was very serene and productive.
The biggest challenge for many of us – certainly for me – was to interpret the events in a way that was clear and yet decorative. I'm not sure that I succeeded with my four pennants, but I had great fun doing them, and seeing the completed bunting hanging in the village hall gave me a great sense of satisfaction.
Here's one of mine, marking the first year of the Bibury Open Gardens day, which raises funds for the village hall