“I think young people genuinely understand that if you buy things from a small business, you are helping yourselves and your generation to do better than letting all the money go into the hands of the pension funds with dinosaur brands.” These are the words of Morecambe-born Wayne Hemingway, designer and creator of Red or Dead and now HemingwayDesign, as well as the driving force behind Blackburn’s National Festival of Making which is returning for a third year.
On June 15 and 16, the centre of Blackburn will be transformed into a hive of activity. Previous crowds have nudged 60,000, all with making and sharing experiences on their mind. “It’s a completely free festival,” says Hemingway who spent most of his childhood in Blackburn. “It’s not-for-profit and it just feels great when you are at it.”
There is so much to do over that weekend and organisers are buzzing with what’s on offer this year. A major part of the festival is Art in Manufacturing where artists are paired up with manufacturers and work in their factories to create art. “That is always a fantastic bit of the festival and that’s on a trail in different parts of the town.”
While there are large events, the festival also helps those on a smaller scale with Front Room Factories, where people produce items at home and sell them in public areas.
“I always say to people ‘don’t eat for a few days before you come’. The smell of the town is amazing. One Asian lady worked for the NHS and just baked for fun with her husband. She came to the festival with fusion pies – Blackburn is famous for its pies – and she’s now left the NHS and started her own business, employing people from Blackburn and building a brand.”
Festival of Making is a wonderful launch pad for small businesses, one of which is Old Man and Magpie, a Leigh-based company which makes reclaimed wood furniture and handmade candles. The firm is a first-time exhibitor at the festival, and run by Jemma Taylor and her partner Garry who gave up the rat race when their daughter came along four years ago and haven’t looked back.
“We decided one of us needed to be at home, so Garry gave up his job as a sound engineer,” says Taylor. “He was making furniture in the shed and asked me to make candles under the brand. I experimented and they sold straight away. Then I quit my job to do it full-time.”
This is exactly what HemingwayDesign was aiming for when it started the community-led initiative Blackburn Is Open project in 2012 in conjunction with Blackburn Council. Hemingway explains: “In simple terms, Blackburn Council were buying up a load of empty shops in Blackburn centre, like councils do. They were cheap and in the area where the first Red or Dead shop was. We talked to them about an idea of putting something meaningful in all the shops in terms of young businesses and, because Blackburn is famous for making things, we thought let’s do something about making in shop windows.
“The council had great foresight and gave them free to makers. There were chocolatiers, t-shirt makers and jewellers. The idea was they had to make in the shop, sort of performance making, and people could watch them as they were going shopping.”
Everywhere you turn, the media is proclaiming the death of the high street with major brands closing at a regular pace. However, consumerism is still on the rise. Does this mean we are changing our shopping ways?
Hemingway believes that millennials and Gen Zs are “the first generations to be worse off than their parents”. For him, the decline in disposable income plus the rise of the internet has “happily been the nail in the coffin of big behemoth stores selling the same thing as each other”.
That’s not to say there aren’t many obstacles for makers to overcome, but with Wayne Hemingway championing their cause, it will surely only be a matter of time before we turn closer to home for our consumer needs. “Getting in front of people is important and that’s why events and markets are important,” he says. “If you design something and it’s not selling well on the internet, you can’t understand the flaws of things. But a lot of towns are expensive for property, even with the state of town centres at the moment, there are a lot of pension funds leaving shops empty to keep the book price high.”
So, there you have it. A quiet revolution of making and supplying quality goods is going on and its epicentre is Blackburn where more than 20 per cent of the population is employed in making something. If that isn’t inspiration to get down there and have a go and support others in what they do, then I don’t know what is.
Main image: Wayne Hemmingway. Photo by Fraser Band.