Do you know, I’m having an absolutely lush day today and just wanted to take a couple minutes to ‘smell the roses’. Woke up at 7am, on a Sunday too, had a wee cuppa in bed and promptly fell back asleep… until 12pm… that wasn’t on the cards, but I’m still a teenager at heart. Had a wee mosey round the neighbourhood park, which was very soothing. Although the Berlin winters are incredibly grey and depressing, one thing that brings me warmth is that people leave out food for the birds – they just pop some fat balls in the twiggy trees or hang them off railings – anywhere really. I haven’t seen that in any other city… or maybe I’ve just never been as desperate to seek out morsels of positivity in such bleak winters.
As a side-note, I hate calling them ‘Fat Balls’, having being scarred with embarrassment as a teenager when mum dragged me to the local market and said to the stall-holder: “I wanted to ask for fat balls but I might as well ask for big boobs”. Of course, the older I get, the more I accept that I too will my scar my children with such tongue-and-cheek statements.
Anyway, in the spirit of January, and as I sip a large G&T with my treat-yourself-gin from Duty-Free, I think now is as good a time as any to *insert sparkles* reflect and jot down my goals for the year. Fun fact (for those who don’t already know): the month of January is named after the Roman God ‘Janus’, who had two faces – one looking back; one looking forward. Go figure.
Looking back, 2021 was a great year for me! Sure, it wasn’t ideal but all things considered, I’m so grateful I got to see friends and family back home (several times), saw two of my very good friends tie the knot, had a paddle at the seaside, had the best fish & chips of my life at the seaside too, got a promotion, became more involved with mental health, supported loads of small businesses, supported charities, entertained my friends with crap, beige food (admittedly that one’s a little weird, but the people love to see it), learned to follow my intuition and stand up for myself and… as smooshy as this sounds: I found a part of myself that I didn’t know was lost, and that was such a clutch turning point for me… but maybe more on that another day.
For 2022, I have fairly high expectations for myself. The overarching theme is to push myself more. I have a terrible habit of refraining from things because I don’t want to do them, or because I’m not “in the right frame of mind” – whether it’s a tough conversation or doing the dishes. I need to push myself more and not be so apathetic when I avoid something because that does me no good. I’m still young but I don’t have all the time in the world. I can’t just leave something for another day, nor put it off entirely simply because I can’t be bothered.
I’ve set myself a couple of really basic, small tasks to push myself. One is to write every day – even if it’s just for 20 minutes and it’s absolute garbage, I should still do it – I’m delighted to say I’ve stuck to that so far! I know we’re barely a week in (and I actually missed a couple days) but the point is I’m doing it most days, it brings me joy and it’s good for me – well done me! I’m less enthusiastic about my other task though: not to let the dishes pile up – again, teenager at heart. I just can’t describe how much I hate doing the damn dishes. And don’t even suggest a dishwasher to me. I have no room – no, not even the wee slimline ones, just don’t. Anyway, deep breaths, back to my happy vibes. I’m a grown ass woman and will no longer huff and puff about the dishes… and hopefully this year will get a flat with a bigger kitchen and *fingers crossed* a dishwasher. All thoughts and prayers welcome, thank yew.
Ultimately I want to see what opportunities come as a result of actual hard work, and I’m hoping that doing little things for myself will lead to a greater sense of accomplishment and do wonders for the ol’ schmental health.
For the first time in months, I genuinely feel very chilled, confident in myself and completely at peace. I hope this energy fills you up too and wish you an excellent year ahead! Namaste.
Setting myself a challenge to write for 20 minutes, every day (ish). I’m not allowed to edit anything, unless it’s a typo. It might not always be fiction, nor might it be any good. I also cannot guarantee that it will continue past this post, but *sings wrong lyrics off-key* I’ll do it myyyy waaaay.
Today’s words are sponsored by the clouds I saw on my flight home from Edinburgh, probably somewhere high above France or The Netherlands.
Anna clambered up the mountain, clinging to rough granite all the way. The cold wind howled in her ears and whipped her cheeks, the kind of wind that makes it difficult to breathe. If she could just get to the next ledge, she would surely be able to find the path again.
By swinging her leg up and onto the ledge, Anna was able to heave herself onto a small platform – no more than a foot wide. Carefully, she managed to stand up and edge along the platform towards the South side of the Black Mountain. She was above the clouds now, and could see the sun to the West – a welcome pool of warmth dabbing at her cheeks.
She could see a rather odd-shaped cloud not too far in the distance. It looked almost like a man, but with an impossibly long neck, a round pot belly and large ears. An amused smirk flashed across her face, as she watched the comical cloud change shape as if it were rolling over. But her smile faltered, and her eyes narrowed. The cloud was morphing quickly, rolling around and wriggling. None of the other clouds this high up were moving at all. She watched in awe as the clouds fell apart, revealing a long, stretching arm and then, quite suddenly, up sat a rather tired giant.
He rubbed his eyes and yawned, stretching some more. The strands of cotton clouds fell off him like old cobwebs. He stretched his neck, moving his head this way and that and sat for quite some time, looking straight ahead at the Black Mountain.
Pressing her back tight against the rock, Anna shuffled along the ridge, trying to inch away from view. “How well could giants see?” she thought, panicking. “Could it just be the lack of oxygen?” suggested the rational side of her brain, trying to calm her down.
Lydia Lane is the one-woman show behind the slow fashion brand ‘SewSheStitchesCo’. It’s a cloudy Sunday morning when I call her and she’s sitting in her bedroom – she’s currently staying at her parents’ house in a small village in the Scottish Borders. Even though she’s isolated from her friends, she’s really close with her parents, so it’s nice to be home in the countryside.
How did it all start? When Lydia’s older sister finally passed her driving test, Lydia wanted to give her more than just a card to celebrate the occasion so decided to pick up a needle and thread and design a T-shirt for her instead. Shortly after that, SewSheStitchesCo was born in November 2019. She describes her brand as more of a hobby than a proper business, and that’s exactly how she wants it to be.
There’s no need to discuss goals and projects with Lydia, she’s very much relaxed and grounded, letting things come her way and seeing how they work out. “The only thing I want to be is happy. I don’t think I can measure success by certain goals”.
All her embroidery is hand-stitched onto the garments and this is not a fast process. It can take anything from 4 days to a week for one piece. The less detailed designs can take a couple of hours but intricate designs like her adaptation of ‘The Great Wave’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ take about 4-7 days – she backtracks and softly adds that the Van Gogh can now be done much quicker because she makes this pattern so often.
Lydia is pleasantly surprised by her own talents with a needle and thread, especially considering how little sewing practice she’d had before – other than the odd school project where the teacher had to help untangle her whenever a bobbin needed threading or there was a knot in the stitching. She actually taught herself how to do embroidery and confesses that she still doesn’t really know the names of the stitches but has a few books somewhere around the house if she ever needs to look something up.
Although Lydia hadn’t any idea of embroidery beforehand, her enthusiasm shines when we discuss her creativity. She can also knit and crochet but with those crafts, she finds that you can’t just sit down to do them without having to go and get all the equipment. “I’ve got a very gung-ho attitude when it comes to creative stuff”. She fondly remembers once seeing a beautiful cake in the shape of a Le Creuset pot and thought it would be a great present for Mother’s Day. She wouldn’t generally consider herself a baker but why not? How hard could it be? Surely she could apply her creativity to baking too, so she decided to give it a go! It turned out awful.
Thankfully, unlike baking, Lydia continued pursuing embroidery and found it to be much more therapeutic than other hobbies. In November 2019 she set up her Etsy shop on a whim and with the lockdown in full swing throughout 2020, people took to online shopping and that was when things really picked up for Lydia.
She knew she couldn’t continue her business with her chilled mindset and took some time to work out a system and invest in new packaging, tailored to reflect her brand and she’s delighted with how well it’s going. “It’s great, I love it. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done”.
Early on when she started setting up SewShe StitchesCo, Lydia bought an enormous amount of silky satin material. “I don’t know why I got it to be honest”, but not wanting to waste the fabric, she decided to make scrunchies and hair-bands. Originally she would hand sew all of these and it took nearly an hour per scrunchy, which wasn’t viable, but luckily she has a beautiful bright blue sewing machine that is her pride and joy, even if it was slightly daunting at first.
Having gotten over the fear of the sewing machine, Lydia would now love to learn more about free-hand machine embroidery and found a course in Glasgow but sadly due to the pandemic, the studio had to shut and the lessons couldn’t go ahead so she’s had to put a pin in that idea for the time being.
For now Lydia is appreciating the time off over the summer to focus on her own ideas. “You know when the inspiration hits and you’re like ‘wow, this is the best moment ever’?”. She’s excited to show me a floral pattern on a pink sweater that she’s working on – the pink flowers are starting to become a trademark emblem on her designs, inspired by the blossom in full bloom at this time of year. She’s a beautiful illustrator too and often draws pictures before transferring them to fabric – admittedly, she still uses her biro to do this but she is looking out for a proper fabric pen, maybe one day!
We sit talking for a while and she teaches me about some techniques for embroidery. One of her favourite things to do is to adapt portraits of pets and stitch them into items of clothing like hats or t-shirts. She would love to practice this technique a bit more – it’s a really lovely idea and always gets a good reception.
Her brand and creative ideas are constantly evolving and she’s happy with how it’s all looping together. “I started off embroidering Primark tees but I really wanted to get my own brand on it”, which she found hard to do when ‘basic stretch’ was stained across the label. Nowadays there is a more considerate and eco approach to all parts of her brand. “My suppliers are amazing! They have 4 different ranges, all promoting different things like carbon neutral, or fair wear”. Lydia normally buys from the carbon neutral category where the t-shirts are at least 40% organic cotton, the rest is recycled plastic.
Lydia also proudly re-uses her delivery bags from other items she’s bought. “Sometimes my packages can look a bit [insert icky face] on the outside” but she assures me that they’re lovely on the inside. This also trims the costs and helps keep the prices of her garments affordable.
Between moving back home, the pandemic, starting a part-time job, studying, and keeping up with the growing demand for her hand-embroidered clothes, how does she balance everything? “I do the thing that I enjoy the most, which is sewing”. There’s no surprise and no shame when Lydia looks away and grimaces, “I won’t lie… I think some of my uni work has been neglected”.
Lydia is due to start back at Stirling University in September, having decided to weave a different future for herself. Initially when she was applying for uni, she was feeling a lot of pressure, especially as her older sisters had also gone to Glasgow and Edinburgh for their studies.
Lydia received her unconditional offer from the prestigious University of Edinburgh and darted up to Edinburgh to study German and History but wasn’t so hooked on it. “I just wasn’t in the right mindset”. It didn’t help that a lot of her friends had settled on Edinburgh too and she could see how seamlessly they had integrated to the new environment, but that just wasn’t the case for Lydia, “they were happy; they weren’t lonely; they weren’t missing home”.
Bracing herself against everyone’s reaction that she didn’t enjoy the University of Edinburgh, Lydia decided to put her fraying mental health first and left Edinburgh after finishing her first year. She did a lot of research into the universities she originally overlooked and knew that Stirling University would be the right choice for her. “It’s a really beautiful place and the mental health support was really good, which was really important”.
Still feeling the knot in her stomach from Edinburgh, she decided to defer a year before going back to university and found a classroom assistant job, which set her up quite well for her new beginning: primary teaching. Her mum is a childminder, which made Lydia consider the move to primary teaching. She’s always happy to help her mum and is used to being around children all the time – something she missed when she was in Edinburgh.
Due to the coronavirus, Lydia unfortunately lost her job as classroom assistant but was quickly able to secure a part-time job at Morrisons, who were hiring at the door to cope with the apocalyptic shoppers.
Despite losing her classroom assistant job, Lydia is much happier since the lockdown hit. Of course she recognises it’s very privileged to say that, but for Lydia, being able to sew and just work without any pressure has done wonders for her mental health. “I’m a different person to the person I was when I was in Edinburgh”.
When studying on campus during the pandemic, Lydia was one of the more careful students, which caused tension with some of her flatmates who questioned why she was even bothering with uni if she didn’t want to be part of the mass house parties. Between the pandemic and the strain of socialising at university, her confidence has been knocked. Although she’s excited and ready to move back to Stirling, she openly talks about her anxiety to make friends. “I don’t feel like I need more friends but it is something that I worry about. I’m not the type of person that has loads and loads of friends – I need to have a genuine connection there”.
Prior to starting SewSheStichesCo, Lydia was quite nervous and felt like she was apologising for everything she was doing. She was worried about other people’s perceptions and didn’t dare share any of her designs on her personal instagram account. But then one day she thought about how encouraged she feels when she sees other people doing the things they love. “I think that’s the coolest thing in the world, so why am I believing that [other people] are going to think negatively of me? And if they do, that’s probably their problem”, she says with an assertive edge, radiating with her newfound confidence and strength.
One of the best things to come out of SewSheStitchesCo is the kindness that people have shown her. “Just people telling me that they like what I’m doing. Any support, any orders”. SewSheStitchesCo has connected her with a lot of new people and after such a long time of doubting herself and apologising, Lydia is starting to rebuild her confidence and come into her own. She trusts that it will work out in a new city and that people will genuinely like her and see that she is actually a cool person. “It’s ok if people don’t like you. Just be yourself and that will attract the right energy”.
Any advice for someone who might also be feeling a weight on their shoulders? “Probably something generic like: ‘Do what makes you happy’”. One thing that she is personally working on is being more forgiving to herself, not comparing herself to others and working towards what she wants. When things don’t go to plan, she’s learning to accept it and go along with it. “I’m on my own path and what I’m doing is making me happy”.
The clouds taper off and the sun peeks through as we talk about our plans for the rest of the day. Lydia glances outside her bedroom window and decides today will be a “nice, chill Sunday”.
****** You can see all of Lydia’s designs by following her on instagram: @SewSheStitchesCo
All her designs are sold through her Etsy shop, which is updated with new pieces when they’re available – you can ‘Favourite’ the shop to keep an eye out for new releases
There’s a few key moments in my life where I distinctly remember thinking how corrupt the world is and how awful the humans are that strut across it. Hearing things about school shootings for example, or these casual genocides all over the world that our governments seemingly ignore… but on a less dramatic scale, it was surprisingly an episode of the classic Brit culture TV show “Come Dine With Me” that truly disgusted me. I couldn’t wrap my head around this one contestant.
I’m willing to bet nobody else will remember said contestant. Nobody accused him of leading a sad, little life, and as far as I know he can’t fit a balloon whisk in his mouth. Instead, he was overly cocky and talked incessantly about his ‘gains’, bragging about eating at least 3 (three) steaks a day. A DAY! I think I was still in school when I watched that episode and it’s stuck with me all this time. I just can’t fathom the sheer greed and how unnecessary that type of consumption is. And for what? So the pillock can wear a shirt two sizes too small? The nerve.
I wouldn’t really call myself a vegan. If anything, I call myself a ‘pretendatarian’. For a start, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this, I’m quite apathetic towards most animals, which is why I often scoff at calling myself a vegan. I find the narrative ‘if you love animals, you should be a vegetarian/vegan’ is over-exploited. It’s still relevant but if you’ve watched ‘Seaspiracy’, ‘What the Health’ or any food documentary, you’ll know there’s more to veganism than just freeing the little piggies… but if their snuffly, wee snouts are enough to make you want to lead a better life, then great!
The other reason I don’t like labelling myself ‘vegan’, is because I think if you really want cheese, eat the bloody cheese. Just make sure it’s good quality and you’re not eating it in excess. Whatever your reasons are for trying out veganism, there’s no point making yourself miserable and then giving up and returning to your old ways because the raw vegan overlords have banned you from a cheese toastie. Maybe one day you’ll reach the point where you don’t want any animal products but until then, do what makes you happy, in a responsible, considerate way.
Ideally, we’d all be growing our own veg and living off the land with humble hens pecking around our back gardens, supplying our eggs for breakfast… but that’s not the world we live in – at least for the majority of us in the Western world.
As you well know, I grew up in rural Scotland where farming is people’s livelihood. Mum used to take us out to see the wee piglets and lambs and the smell of cow muck in the air was ripe. I kind of miss it. When I watched ‘What the Health’ though, I was repulsed at the farms they exploited, but those aren’t the kinds of farms I grew up around; those are factories – that’s ‘farming’ to meet outrageous human gluttony, so we can pig out on a cheap double cheeseburger with extra bacon and extra cheese. Why have 6 chicken wings when you can pay 50p extra and get a bucket of 20? I know all that sounds yummy, but try the vegan nuggets – they taste pretty good and you’re only responsible for a small patch of wheat instead of 10 dead chickens for a quick bite to eat (hey, that rhymes!). I do believe that farming in a better way, like the olden days, would be the best option, but our indulgence and selfishness has gotten out of control and plant-based diets seem like the only viable way to counteract this.
The first time I cut out meat (it’s been a sweet-sour relationship for years) was for a really simple reason: I was curious. I wasn’t looking into the impact on the environment or animal welfare; I just wanted to learn more recipes and learn to use veggies for something other than soup or reluctantly adding them as a side, so I challenged myself to go veggie for a month and it stuck, for the most part. When I decided to cut out dairy, it was purely for vanity – I wanted better skin. I can’t say that part’s working out for me but to be honest I don’t eat my 5-a-day or drink enough water either, so I’m not surprised.
Nowadays, the more I think about consumerism and greed, the more I think plant-based is the best thing since sliced bread. If everybody took up a predominantly plant-based diet and allowed themselves a ‘treat’ every now and then, the overconsumption and mass production of animals (and all the food they eat, and all the water that food needs to grow etc), would reduce almost tenfold. I’ll admit, the fake cheese still doesn’t quite cut the mustard but I did find a great vegan feta the other day, and if you’re prepared to pay artisan prices, you might find some good options, but again, if you want cheese, just eat cheese. It’s not about cutting things out; just cut down. Make switches that make sense.
For example, I only drink milk with my cereal and even then I hardly eat cereal, so I switched to plant-based (oat) milk years ago because cow milk wasn’t necessary for me. In any case, we’re the only animals that drink milk in adulthood, so how necessary is it at all? After that, I got curious about how other vegan substitutes tasted and started switching out more and more and you know what? My hair still grows and my joints are fine! It’s been a piece of cake! Side note: I find it much more fun to bake vegan cakes – it’s like science! Flax eggs and aquafaba? Sign me up!
If you’re wondering where to start with plant-based diets or how to cut down, think about your weekly staples – there’s probably not much variety in your weekly diet as it is. Unless it was just me that lived off frozen pepperoni pizzas and halloumi kebabs? Get curious and look up a couple of vegan staples that are easy and you can eat time and time again. A good place to start is looking into veggie options of what you already eat: vegan mac & cheese (that recipe might surprise you), veggie lasagne, veggie burgers, soups, curries, etc – sweet potatoes are going to be your new best friend. I also recommend buying dry beans – white or kidney beans for example – and if you’re thinking about making a stew, or a salad, or anything, you can soak them overnight and cook them the next day (follow the packet instructions). You can get the tinned ones too, I just feel more wholesome doing it myself and the dry beans take up less space in my cupboards. Namaste.
Another important tip for going plant-based is planning ahead (which I’m crap at) and more importantly: planning realistically for the weekly food shop. “Realistically, am I going to eat this whole bunch of bananas imported from Colombia? No. Do I really need a pumpkin in April that was imported from South Africa, just to meet my nostalgia for autumn? No. Do I really need a wedge of lime all the way from Vietnam in my tonic? No… but I’ll allow a lemon from Italy, or an orange from Spain”. Be considerate when you’re buying your produce and don’t fall into the ‘convenience’ traps. There’s no point introducing more plant-based options if all your veggies are pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic and imported from Timbuktu.
Our choices matter. What we watch, what we wear, what we eat – it all matters. Personally I just really hate waste, inconsideration and excessiveness, and what a privilege that is – to not be limited by dietary or financial means, and just be (pretendy) vegan to minimise my impact on the environment and because I want to be. In saying that though, there are a lot of studies about the health benefits of veganism and actually, it’s not too expensive either.
At first I thought I’d have to fork out loads for veganism and sure, it costs more than your cheap-as-chips, Tesco value processed ham, but compared to more sustainable or ethical organic meats and cheeses, it’s not that much difference. I say ‘sustainable’ lightly here, having felt the burden of Seaspiracy too. If you’re buying all the synthetic substitutes, it probably does add up, but if you base your weekly shop on natural, fresh (loose, plastic-free) fruits and veggies (and/or frozen), you won’t spend that much.
In the past 4 years, I’ve noticed a huge uptake on veganism and the amount of different products hitting the shelves these days is incredible. Berlin is a really good place to test out veganism but a lot of cities are catching on. Most restaurants and street vendors in the cities offer vegan options and there’s even specialised supermarkets. The regular supermarkets also have aisles brimming with new plant-based options – you’ll probably find them in their own little section, but they might be mingling with the regular food, because a lot of food is naturally vegan – bread, pasta, crisps and sweeties (watch for milk and animal jelly though, they love sneaking that in).
If we all ate more responsibly – whether it’s introducing more plant-based food, only choosing organic, monitoring our carbon footprints with the produce we choose, etc – it would force supermarkets and suppliers to reassess the demand and implement changes along the whole supply chain.
That’s what being plant-based is about for me. It’s making small changes and feeling encouraged and hopeful that these changes are catching on and making an impact. Müller is now bringing out a vegan line with rice puddings and milkshakes (and they’re tasty). Greggs, the UK’s pastry staple, brought out the vegan sausage roll and they sold like hotcakes! Pret-a-Manger completely removed their meatball sub and replaced it with the vegan option ‘due to demand’ – that’s amazing! That’s because of our choices. Of course these big consumer brands are still an issue but they’re trying. I’m constantly torn between supporting them to show there is a market for vegan options, or flat out boycotting them. Either way, we’re too far into globalisation and they’re still going to succeed with or without my money… but if I support them, I could get a nice milkshake out of it.
There is always going to be meat in the world, and I can’t deny, it does taste good. Even though the vegan brands try their best, they’ll never beat yer ma’s Sunday Roast. I’m a pretty crap vegan but I try. The majority of my weekly shop is plant-based and gradually I’m making more switches in other every day products – like toothpaste, soaps, shoes. It’s all a learning curve. For sure, the odd thing ‘may contain milk’ because they put damn powdered milk in everything, and every now and again I do just buy a wee cheese because I fancy it. When I order a takeaway, I go for the veggie/vegan option because I can’t guarantee the conditions the meat was reared but I still drool at the thought of a greasy cheeseburger, knowing it’s likely come out of a hefty sack of frozen meat from some over-capacitated factory farm. I probably don’t get all the nutrients and protein that I need because I don’t do protein shakes and supplements, but I doubt I got all that on my old frozen pepperoni pizza diet either.
In a nutshell, there’s always going to be a reason for people to snub the plant-based diet but make the little changes where you can. If you can go fully vegan, then great, but for me it’s not about cutting out, it’s about cutting down. Try switching milks, try vegan butter or cream in your cooking, get the veggie nuggets or vegan schnitzel instead. Add a couple vegan recipes to your weekly staples. Don’t be greedy. It probably won’t make much difference to you individually, but globally it makes a huge impact, and at the end of the day, your skin might get better and you’ll fart less – just go easy on the chickpeas.
*********** If you’re looking for inspiration, try following #veganrecipes and #vegan on instagram or tiktok. There’s tonnes of pictures and videos that will pop up on your feed to help you with your dinner – most of them are cakes.
Another good account to follow is @maxlamanna, who has great recipes to reduce food waste – big fan of the lentil and broccoli stem tacos, also good with nachos!
There’s also concepts like @MeatFreeMonday, which might be a good place to start if you’re feeling overwhelmed at making changes. But again, only make the switches that makes sense.
I have a flashbulb memory of my dad collecting me at primary school the day Iben was born. I pulled him along, half-skipping, half-running and jumping around with excitement to get home. Iben probably wouldn’t believe that now – how excited I was to meet her. I don’t actually remember anything else from that day, just that I was excited and happy to meet my little sister.
I do remember some other key stages though, like when she was learning to walk. I liked to give her little sharp nudges and cry with laughter as she propelled forward, belly-first, her little arms flailing around to keep her balance – only when mum wasn’t watching (sorry, mum).
Iben is all grown up now and is sitting at her desk when I call. She lives in Aberdeen and studies Communication Design at Gray’s School of Art. I can see a lot of design posters and pictures tacked to the wall behind her, next to a boho mandala tapestry with fairy lights – it all looks very homely and artsy, but she later explains she wants to take the mandala down because it’s too ‘Oh, I’m at uni’ for her liking, and she hates being the art-student stereotype.
She jokingly chants “Who are ya! Who are ya!” when I suggest doing an introduction but is happy to give me a quick rundown of her art for anyone who isn’t familiar with it already. “My artwork is basically faces, and faces, and faces… abstract… bit of painting… I prefer to paint on canvas with acrylics and I like to make them look as funky as possible, with nice colours!”. You might be surprised to know that Iben actually has a very nice singing voice and probably has perfect tone, but as we’re close, I get treated to an array of difference accents and characters, so the majority of our conversation was conducted in a voice I can only describe as a cross between an eccentric Glaswegian thespian, and Shrek – our childhood hero.
Iben’s artwork is instantly recognisable and very distinct. When I ask how she would describe it herself, she’s deliberates trying to find the best words that aren’t cliché. “Bold” – a confident start, followed by careful consideration, “…I don’t want to use the word ‘funky’ (because I hate that word), but it fits… I don’t want to say ‘cool’ (even though it is)… don’t want to use the word ‘modern’, don’t want to use the word ‘abstract’… Lively? Colourful? I don’t really know what else to say about it”. It’s all that and more!
Her ever growing collection of faces is very popular with buyers, and has become her signature style but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the original inspiration came from. One artist that Iben does mention is Maggi McDonald – an Australian artist who also enjoys bright colours and statement pieces. Iben holds up some pictures of McDonald’s work that had a huge influence on her when she was creating her college portfolio and sketchbooks, during her studies in Edinburgh. Iben’s style of painting developed from there and she gradually started adding the iconic faces to the striped backdrops. She shows me some pictures of earlier canvases, where she first started experimenting with the faces and there’s a clear difference compared to where she is now. She winces slightly looking back at her early works, “yeah…development – that’s the key word”.
The biggest challenge for Iben right now is doing her uni work on top of her own artwork. Her course consists of graphic design, illustration and photography. “People always think ‘it’s just an art course, you just have to draw things’, we’re not just drawing things – we’ve literally had guest speakers who have said ‘if you’re not Graphic Design until you die, then it’s not worth doing’”. There’s a lot of pressure.
In her final year of studies, there’s a lot of work to be done, including several self-managed projects and a lengthy dissertation (the latter was submitted earlier this year). It can take hours, if not days, to finish a commissioned canvas, and Iben feels this time should be going towards her university work instead. How do you balance uni projects and your other artwork? “There’s a guilt – when I’m doing canvases or the tote bags, I feel guilty because I’m not doing uni work”.
The theme of her main uni project is a campaign to normalise acne. Her mission? “Don’t let your acne stop you from being seen”, she says pointedly, creating a banner in mid-air with her hands. “There’s loads of links with acne and anxiety and depression, so my job as a designer is to try and empower those people”. Iben wants to deconstruct the stigma that spots are unhygienic or ‘un’-anything. Your skin shouldn’t limit your opportunities. She wants people to stop feeling paranoid, and be confident in their skin. She also wants others to be more accepting and understanding, especially in job interviews, or at social gatherings (remember them?), where the first impression is so important. “For now we’re going in a punk direction”, and just as I make the link about reb- “rebelling against beauty standards, yes”, she says rolling her eyes, having discussed it several times with all her tutors and classmates.
To help get the message out there, Iben is looking to contact charities and small businesses to collaborate with them, so if you’re interested – get in touch! This will also be part of her portfolio, which would normally be on display at her university’s art degree show but due to Covid, this will likely be online, which is disheartening.
The last day of uni is fast approaching, which is a nerve-wracking thought for most students but it doesn’t seem to phase Iben. She’s not stressed about what to do with her degree, what kind of job she might like or any of the usual questions fired at graduates-to-be. “I’ve got no idea what’s happening there. I’m just doing my thing”. Very calm and collected.
Iben doesn’t want to make any solid plans during covid, but she does have a lot of ideas for the future of her artwork and wants to focus more on her own interests. “I want to do some more life drawing because I miss that”. She’s also considering other courses, such as pottery and painting. Job-wise, she has a very practical and level-headed approach, knowing that your first job is rarely the one you stick at. “I don’t think I’ll jump straight into… whatever it is I’m doing”.
Being an artist, the 9-5 office life doesn’t really suit Iben and ideally she would like to follow more of a freelance path. “With more experience, I’m hoping to find more links and make bigger connections”. She’d love to go abroad and do something that involves art – maybe teaching or some voluntary work to get more experience. We talk about the possibilities for a while before she quietly announces that she’s also toying with the idea of a Masters. “Mainly because it’s a secure option, I don’t want to jump into a job just yet”. It’s a tempting idea, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic – maybe another year of study and honing the skills wouldn’t be a bad idea, but it’s a lot of work.
We have a brief intermission as she roots around for her charger. As she disappears from her desk, I spot a tin of Hawick Balls in the background – peppermint flavoured sweets from our hometown. I also have one on the shelves behind me in Berlin, little souvenirs from our parents.
When she returns I ask about her art’s values, and what her paintings mean to her. She cringes at this nightmare question and thinks for a while before eventually shrugging, defeated. “I don’t really have values. If you’re painting, you’re not really painting for others. I pick colours for aesthetic – I don’t really have a plan for them, I just do it… but I definitely like pinks and blues”.
The pink squiggles on her new, now sold-out, tote bags are a twist on her usual designs. They started off as a background idea, but then Iben started adding elements of the faces to them and kept re-working them until she settled on her final design, “so again, it’s just about development” she says in her chirpy, thespian voice.
It’s only March and Iben has already accomplished a lot this year, but it’s not always easy to keep the motivation, and every now and then Iben will get struck by an artist’s block. “l’ll go through phases where I think my creativity has ran out, I can’t do anymore… but then there’s loads to do, you just have to keep doing it. I suppose something comes up when you’re not looking for it, even just a tiny idea”. Usually when Iben is just about to fall asleep, an idea hits her: “something pops in my head and I think ‘I’ll remember this in the morning’, but now I’m like [I have to write this down]”, she says, demonstrating her dishevelled, half-asleep face scribbling down her midnight ideas in bed.
Our family home, and now many other homes across the world, are filled with Iben’s artwork. She printed her designs on facemasks during the pandemic, she’s collaborated with other creators to feature in art magazines, and she’s just sold her biggest commission to date. So what’s your biggest achievement so far? It’s a tough question. “I am chuffed with my artwork, but I don’t really have a… hmm, I don’t really take a step back I guess, I’m very picky and critical – there’s always one little bit”.
Her etsy page is in the middle of getting a makeover – lots of new prints and product ideas will be appearing. She has new stickers and is looking into more eco-friendly packaging. She rummages around her desk looking for a large A3 envelope with some secret, new prints and treats me to a sneak peak of the all new, high quality prints and I can tell she’s excited to launch these on her website. Even though I’m her sister (or especially because I’m her sister), I don’t get privileges and she won’t give me any more hints, “just say I’ve got new items coming soon”.
Any last words? What else do you care about? “Not Tories”.
We leave the interview there but carry on talking. I say ‘talking’ but we actually spent a long time just sitting in silence in our respective rooms, reading or scrolling through our phones with our laptops propped up so we could still see each other. It was almost like being back home, sitting together on the sofa, comfortable in each other’s company.
Obviously I’m very proud of Iben and I know she’s more than capable of taking her next steps by herself, but as her big sister I’ll be here, nudging her along and propelling her forward – hopefully with less arm-flailing and more at her own pace this time (again, sorry mum).
**** Please follow Iben’s instagram page @ibenmcmillanart for all the latest updates – there’s going to be a lot happening in the next few months!
You can also visit her etsy page – there are still some items left in her shop and she’s happy to answer any questions. You can favourite the shop with the little ‘heart’ symbol at the top of the page to show your support and make it easier to find when her new works are released.
Cover photo of Iben taken by Mark Messer – @mxrkmssr.
It’s been over two years since Jemma was diagnosed with epilepsy and for ‘Purple Day’ this year we decided to crank up the Zoom call to share her experience.
Epilepsy Scotland describes Epilepsy as “one of the most common serious neurological conditions in the world. It is often defined as the tendency to have repeated seizures which start in the brain. No two people experience epilepsy in exactly the same way. It can affect anyone, irrespective of their age, gender or background, but it is more common in childhood and in later life”.
Jemma hadn’t really spoken about her epilepsy to anyone other than her doctors and jokingly warned that her story could either be “really depressing… or really interesting”. Her friends describe her as positive and confident, and even though it’s a heavy topic to discuss, her positivity remains constant throughout our conversation.
She first started feeling ill when she was 25 and was diagnosed just after her 26th birthday. On 15th March 2021, she celebrated being 2 years seizure free.
Jemma remembers the first time she knew something wasn’t right. Prior to falling ill, she worked as a tour guide, driving tour buses around Scotland. She had woken up early to do a tour to Loch Ness and was in the middle of her morning routine: get a coffee, have breakfast, get ready, change clothes etc. She remembers standing in the kitchen, just after making her coffee and the next stage of the routine would be to go through to her bedroom and put her make-up on. However, instead of going back to her room, she came to and realised she was standing in her flatmate’s room at 6:30 in the morning. It was only a 10 second walk from the kitchen to her flatmate’s bedroom but Jemma has no recollection of how she got there. She stood in the doorway confused and admitted to her flatmate, “I have no idea why I’m here, I’m so sorry” and laughed it off, but it did puzzle her and she spent a lot of time trying to piece it together.
She’d had headaches too but put it down to being tired and overworked – after all it was August, an incredibly busy month for tourism in Edinburgh. When she got home from Loch Ness that day, she went straight to bed and felt fine the next day, and for the next couple of weeks.
But then something different happened. She was driving home from the gym when a rising nausea washed over her in waves and she started having flushes. “I was really hot and then… my head got really weird? It’s like waves of painful pins and needles, washing over your brain”. She was still fully conscious and in control of her movements but pulled over in case it worsened. “That freaked me out because I was driving – if I lost my memory again, even if for 10 seconds… That’s where I started to panic”.
At that time, epilepsy wasn’t even on her radar. She’d only heard of the condition through TV programmes and films but she never thought it would happen to her. “I actually thought it was a genetic thing. Of course [on TV] they only show epilepsy in its most extreme version – falling to the floor, convulsing, that type of seizure… and I thought that was the only type of seizure”. She later learned there’s actually a broad range of symptoms and roughly 40 different types of seizures.
After telling her first doctor about her experiences, he advised it was probably just migraines and told her to go to the opticians, but having suffered from chronic migraines as a teenager, Jemma knew this was something else. She returned to the doctors and this time they suggested a neurologist. They weren’t 100% sure but wanted to run some tests. Jemma still felt misunderstood. “In my head, a seizure was when you collapse, lose consciousness, so I thought ‘well, I don’t believe you, but sure, let’s go to the neurologist’”, she said skeptically, convinced they were wrong.
It took over 6 months to get the official diagnosis – and Jemma was lucky to be diagnosed so quick.
Most of that six months was waiting – waiting for appointments, waiting for results, different specialists and some more waiting. She had an MRI scan, to check for any brain tumours; an EKG, which checks your heart; and an EEG, where they try to induce a seizure to check the brainwaves. Jemma wasn’t so keen on the latter but they had to do it.
It was a stressful time and Jemma lightly touches on how frustrating it can be when the people around you have their own opinions of what could be ‘wrong with you’. She explains, “everyone seems to turn into a doctor – ‘no, you don’t have epilepsy’, ‘no, I know a person with epilepsy – he would fall to the floor, you don’t do that’, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, I’ve not seen you ill’”. None of this was helpful for Jemma. “You’re trying to take in the information, but you’re also trying to take in people’s reactions to it, so you’re trying to manage your own expectations as well as their expectations”.
Jemma noticed that people also became weary of her and distanced themselves from her, which, although upsetting, she looks at from their point of view and understands their behaviour. People don’t always know what to say in those situations and she reflects that she wasn’t very sociable at that time either, which probably didn’t help, “I don’t hate them, or blame them for it – people react to things differently”.
“I was actually finally happy when I got the diagnosis. It was a relief”. When the doctors first started suggesting epilepsy, Jemma wanted to know everything about it, and took to Google – even though everyone says not to. She would go through the information thinking “Aw yeah I do have that, aw yeah that is like me… huh, maybe they’re right?”, so when Jemma finally got diagnosed, she took it in her stride and was happy that they could now start trying to fix it.
The diagnosis did bring about some major changes for Jemma. Due to the risk of seizures (in any form), her driving license was suspended and eventually revoked, so she had to change jobs. When Jemma explained to her boss that she was being tested and was unable to drive tour buses, she was quite taken aback by his response: “Well, there’s nothing more we can do for you then… we’ll just tell people you’re handing in your notice”. Hearing this, she wasn’t sure how she would cover her next rent or pay bills, and in the midst of that stress, she accepted her boss’ answer. It was only later on that she had second thoughts about his response and raised the issue with the HR department under the Equality Act. That dispute went on for over a month, and due to the stress, her seizures tripled during that time.
After a lot of meetings, HR eventually ruled that Jemma could not lose her job on the basis of her illness, and she was moved to the retail shop of the tour company. However, she did not have a good relationship with her manager, and eventually decided to leave. “I wish I had taken some form of legal action, but I was so ill and upset that I couldn’t do it”. Jemma has spoken to others about this and was shocked to find out how often it happens to people with disabilities. As Jemma’s been seizure free for over a year, she has her driver’s license back now – but she won’t be able to drive buses again, and can’t do any kind of work that relies on driving.
Compared to other people with epilepsy though, Jemma hasn’t had to change her lifestyle too much. For the first year, the main focus was controlling the seizures, for which she relied heavily on the medication. Jemma takes medication twice a day, every day, which has had a hugely positive impact – she hasn’t had a seizure since she started the medication, which is an amazing milestone! She does occasionally have ‘off days’ and a few headaches or brain fogs but she’s able to manage the seizures. With her seizures under control, she’s able to try new things and make small changes. She admits she was never really a fan of exercise but with more free time, she was looking to take up new hobbies and decided on outdoor running – “that’s something to keep doing, that helps a lot!” she encourages and then quietly confesses: “to be fair, the doctor said it would help but I didn’t listen”. The headaches reduced, her mood improved and she has much more energy. She also does yoga and pilates and explains why she decided on these: “If anything goes wrong, you’ve got a mat and you’re close to the ground”. Although she seems slightly embarrassed to talk me through this reasoning, she laughs and says that if she were to take ill during the practice, the instructor might just think she’s lazy and terrible at exercise – less attention.
Generally after receiving potentially life-changing news, the doctors’ advice is to talk to friends and family about it, but Jemma winced at that idea. “I deal with it better by myself, she explains, “I need to process this in my head first, before I deal with other people’s reactions”. Her doctor suggested looking into support groups instead, where you could meet other people with epilepsy and talk to each other. Although this idea didn’t really appeal to Jemma either, she did look into different support groups online and came across epilepsy charities on Facebook, such as Epilepsy Scotland – anybody in Scotland who has epilepsy, or knows someone with epilepsy can join their support group.
Jemma’s not the type of person that wants to hear cliches like ‘you’ll feel better after a sleep’ or ‘aw, get better soon’, and her description of online support groups is her idea of paradise, where people can moan and rant, ask questions, and just talk to someone else with the same experience – “this I can deal with, this is for me. It’s not a case that you’re looking for sympathy, people will just comment and relate”.
The past two and a half years have been full of ups and downs but now she’s found the balance and is in the best place she’s been in since it all started. “It’s just finding what’s right for you”. Although Jemma has accepted that she has epilepsy, a small part of her likes to think the doctors might still turn round and say, ‘it’s all been a big mistake, it’s not epilepsy’.
How can other people support someone with epilepsy? “People don’t really know what to say or how to help so the best thing to do is to just ask ‘Is there anything I can do for you? Do you want me to leave you alone?’ Easiest thing is just to speak to the person.”
Any parting advice or words of wisdom? “Epilepsy is something that needs to be taught about more. Epilepsy is more than just flashing lights and one type of seizure. There needs to be more education and awareness about it”. Then she gasps and frantically blurts out the most important thing to note: “Oh, by the way, don’t stick something in someone’s mouth if they’re having a seizure!”.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge and there’s a lot of things I’d like to challenge when it comes to feminism – like the F-word, “a female” – a female what? A lot of people don’t understand why ‘female’ can be derogatory and bring up the old ‘well, medically and, er, technically…’. Yes, thank you.
Out of curiosity though, how often do you use the M-word, referring to a man? For instance: ‘Look at that male over there’; ‘We’ve hired a male’; ‘Quotes from inspirational males’.
Anyway, I’m not choosing to challenge others’ language. Instead I’ve pulled the Frida Kahlo and decided to go with the subject I know best: myself. I want to challenge my own battle with feminism and some of the things I’ve got wrong in the not-so-distant past (there’s actually tonnes) and things I’m still getting wrong today (again, tonnes). For instance, up until this morning, I didn’t really know what ‘intersectional feminism’ meant… I know, I’m sorry. I was just too lazy to Google it. I’m all for equal rights and opportunities, lifting women up and celebrating each other, but just like the people who use ‘female’ interchangeably with ‘woman’, I’ve made mistakes too, and I still do. This may even be one of them, we’ll see.
My first reaction to feminism is embarrassing and downright stupid. I was in high school when I scrunched my face up and scoffed ‘nah, I’m not a feminist’. FOR SHAME. I’ve mentioned before that I’m from a small town, where we sing songs about men being brave, honest heroes and occasionally women are cited, only as ‘bright-eyed daughters’, i.e. pretty. There’s a stigma there about women and Satan forbid you anger the little Shire folk and speak out about inequality – I’m not exaggerating when I say you’ll get wet paper towels thrown at you, hissed at in the streets and probably a couple eggs thrown at your house. It’s a quaint wee place, bless.
The problem with my dear hometown is that a lot of women seem to be fairly happy being naught but ‘bright-eyed daughters’ – there’s even a club bearing the name that seems to promote and preserve male chauvinism (although they prefer to call it ‘tradition’). As a side note, the townsfolk also sneer the word ‘female’ to talk about a woman and that’s likely why the word irks me so much.
I’ve always taken umbrage with that side of the town and was brought up well aware of gender inequality, so I wonder why I said ‘nah, I’m not a feminist’. Was I ignorant? Naive? Scared? All of the above? Why was I so ashamed to say that I believe in equality and want women to have the same opportunities? But back then we didn’t have social media the way we do now. Women didn’t have ‘platforms’. There were no activists and educators on Bebo – certainly not in my top 16 anyway. Women were constantly degraded and shamed in magazines – I don’t recall anyone to look up to in an intellectual way; women were only valid if they were skinny and pretty (and white). At that time, my only concept of feminism was the Germaine Greer types, who the media belittled as difficult old women or spinsters, prattling on about men holding doors open. I shaved my legs and didn’t mind a man holding the door open, ergo, not a feminist, right? I’m so disappointed.
My mum never really spoke to me about feminism either and I wasn’t interested in reading about it. I remember a friend asking whether I believed in equality and declaring me a feminist on the spot ‘right, so you’re a feminist then’ – I was probably late teens. I still felt uncomfortable then because of the stigma from the media, and it was years before I would stand tall and say ‘yeah, of course I’m a feminist’ but unlike my clear memory of denying feminism, I don’t have any particular memory of accepting feminism.
The truth is I still find the idea of feminism quite intimidating. In a bizarre way it’s similar to why I don’t openly call myself a vegan – I don’t really eat meat or dairy, but every now and then I’ll sneak in some real cheese and eggs – it would be hypocritical and dishonest of me, but I try. To admit outright that you’re a feminist these days implies that you’re an activist fighting for trans-women and BIPOC women and refugees and sex workers. I’ll be honest, I don’t do any of that. I want to be that woman but… actually I have no excuse, I’m just another shit, cis-, white ‘feminist’, lazy and not worthy. I do find comfort and solace in the Jameela Jamils, who speak up, seemingly without fear of getting it wrong or offending people, and admit they themselves have come a long way and still have a lot to learn and I think that’s where I am now. I know I need to read more, speak up more, do more, and I’m working on that. I know I said a lot of things in the past, or worse, didn’t say anything at all, and that was really shit of me and I don’t know how far I can use my youth as an excuse.
One thing I’ve noticed about social media is how quickly opinions and concepts change. I only recently found out what a TERF was, when did that sneak in? There’s a lot to keep up with and sometimes it overwhelms me, with so many different voices talking and ‘educating’ – it’s so easy to be misguided and follow the wrong people. Recently I joined Twitter and accidentally followed some TERFs, thinking they were just your average, inclusive feminists, but no-no.
For all that I said I’m not here to challenge others’ choice of language, the words we use matter. Recently the streaming platform Twitch came under fire for using the term ‘womxn’ in their latest campaign. It’s something that I questioned myself when I wrote about women’s health and smear tests. I used that term throughout the article because it’s what I’ve seen online, and even in my ‘diverse’ workplace, but I felt uncomfortable when I used it because it felt like I was differentiating between cis-women and trans-women, which is exactly why Twitch was called out for being transphobic and the term is already outdated – arguably was never in-date either.
I’m not transphobic (and to be clear, I no longer follow TERFs), but as I said before, I can do more to actively fight, especially for trans rights. When I used the term ‘womxn’, it was because I wanted to show that I’m aware it’s not only cis-women who menstruate and need to book their cervical screening tests, and I thought it might be the more ‘progressive’ language to use but it didn’t feel right to me and I should have trusted that gut-instinct. I won’t remove my article or edit it for now, I’d rather it served as a reminder and learning point for myself.
I’d like to say I’m at an age now where I will listen to my gut instinct, be stronger, and stand up for myself but I also know I’m not the type to confront people and that worries me. To take inspiration from Ru Paul, if I can’t stand up for myself, how in the hell am I going to stand up for anybody else? It’s a real concern and I hope I’m never put in that situation (again) but if I am, I hope I can handle it without regret. I admire the women who can just confront injustice head on, as soon as they see it or hear it, call people out immediately, but I’m not that woman (yet).
It’s not that I’m shy or cowardly; I’ve just always preferred to stay quiet instead of making a mistake, and that’s a huge problem. If I’m personally involved in a situation, my first response is denial – that I must be mistaken and somehow in the wrong. Afterwards comes the anger and that’s not a good look on me either – think ‘angry jigglypuff’ – but it’s a better response than denial. In general, I prefer to take a step back and see where the other person is coming from, but it takes a lot to put anger aside, and when some creep on the U-Bahn is groping between my legs, or a colleague is calling me a stripper, or, or, or… my first thought isn’t ‘let’s just take a step back’. I shouldn’t have to explain to these men why what they said/did was inappropriate. They have no plausible excuse or reason that I’m prepared to try and ‘understand’, but equally, I think change is borne out of level-headed conversations, so sometimes you do have to put that anger aside and say ‘hey, let’s have a talk’. Although to be honest, not once have I sat down with a harasser and talked it out, it’s not that simple.
Maybe I’m naive to think we can all be civil and build understanding through calm and collected conversations, but in today’s world, how many problems have been resolved through anger? It’s a start, for sure. Encouraging people to ‘stay angry’ is all good and well to raise awareness and pressure people, but encourage them to stay smart and collected too, otherwise we’re all just butting heads and shouting at each other and nobody is listening.
So yes, I’m a crap feminist, I really am, and I’m sorry. I don’t know enough about marginal groups. I haven’t read Maya Angelou. I get scared to speak out and voice my opinions, for fear that I’m wrong, but feminism isn’t about being part of an angry mob of women. Feminism is an evolving learning curve that I won’t ever master. As long as I’m trying and educating myself and holding myself accountable along the way, then I hope that’s enough.
I turn 27 today and as I tuck into yet another slice of the world’s most beige birthday cake, I’m thinking ‘this isn’t half bad’ – the cake for sure, and life in general.
When I was a child I got the idea into my head that I would be a ‘proper grown up’ at the age of 27. I defined ‘proper grown up’ as being married for min. 2 years and expecting my first child. My parents were much older than the parents of everyone else in my class and it embarrassed me. I don’t recall being teased about it but when all the other parents were turning 30, mine were turning 40 (and then some) and there was always a shock-horror-gasp reaction when I said it. I decided I didn’t want to be an older parent and took an average of the ages and decided 27 was the Goldilocks age to start a family.
It sounds so naive and laughable now, but I was only about 8 years old – I have a distinct memory of thinking ’27’ when I was walking through the halls in primary school: the coarse, blue carpet underneath my little gym shoes, the smell of acrylic paint, lots of children scrambling and shouting (maybe break time). I don’t know why I was thinking of it, but I was. Of course I knew nothing of life and careers, options and realities, and all the amazing things women can do – if you give them an extra 10 years than your average man.
It’s quite sad that to an 8 year old girl, the “significant stages” of life are marriage and children – nobody asks about graduating or founding your own company, but this isn’t news or my soul opinion. At least from documentaries and basic knowledge of society, those thoughts rarely cross a boy’s mind – and certainly not so young.
My friend called me recently and we were discussing how strange it is that girls, from a very young age, are expected to be in relationships – even though boys obviously all have germs at that age, we still need to be ‘with’ them. I remember politely smiling and looking awkwardly at my mum when her friends asked: ‘Have you no got a boyfriend yet?’, ‘Are ye no with anyone?’, ‘Aw, dinnae worry, I’m sure you’ll find a nice laddie soon’. Even more disturbing was the string of adult women who told me that if I stood in the shower and held the shower-head across my chest, my breasts would ‘pop right out’ and then I’d ‘get a laddie, no bother’. I was 6.
Maybe it’s a small-town-thing, or maybe it was specifically my-hometown-thing, but what a strange culture to raise a child in. All girls have some elements of those ‘expectations’ pushed upon them no matter where they’re raised, but the shower-head one was weird, and totally perverse.
Nowadays I’m a 36D and face away from the shower in case they grow any bigger. I’m pretty happy with ‘me’ and my body – sure, we’ve had our qualms and I don’t always love her but she’s aright, and if she gets bigger or smaller over time, we’re not going to worry. I don’t need my body to do extraordinary things, I’m just happy she keeps my noggin on my shoulders and carries me from A to B. That’s all I’m asking for… oh, and good buns! Namaste.
Despite this refreshing confidence and acceptance of ‘who I am’, as soon as January 1st rolled round, it dawned on me that I’d be turning the big two-seven, and I can’t say I handled it very well. For all that I understood I was spraffing absolute tripe as a teeny 8 year old, I still couldn’t shrug this ‘ideal’ that was so deeply ingrained into my little mindbrain.
I didn’t feel lost, but unaccomplished. I started to worry that I wasn’t as far along as I ‘should be’ – career-wise and relationship-wise. I have this image of people in their late 20s, running around as managers and going home to their partners. Some people have that already, but I don’t, and for quite some time it really bothered me.
Recently though, I’ve done a few workshops – one was through work, where we teamed up with an agile coach and created our mission statement and core values for the Mental Health ERG (Employee Resource Group). The other was a ‘Marketing 101’ Workshop I signed up to independently, for my own curiosity. Both workshops were incredibly valuable and allowed time for reflection, which really helped with my direction and regaining my confidence.
Suddenly the clouds parted and I started to realise that I am taking the right steps and I do know where I’m going and what I want to achieve – those plans and the end-goal might change, but for now I’m pretty savvy. Things are good. I started to get really excited about turning 27, what a great age! The year of confidence, of empowerment, of success. Eight-year-old-me is probably having a mild panic attack, but I see you, Inner Child, just trust the process hun, we’ve got this.
I might not be doing exactly what I thought I would be doing, and I’m still a long way off from where I want to be, but I’m laying the foundations and everything is perfectly clear. So, happy birthday me! I’m doing great… and my cake is really good.
After a small technical glitch on my side, Erin Scott, the friendly face behind Lola’s Lugs, appears on my screen, sitting cross-legged on her bed with a nice mug of hot tea – no sugar, just milk. It’s around lunchtime on Valentine’s Day when we call but she assures me it’s all good, no special plans – she’s actually just back from dropping off some flowers to her gran.
Despite us sharing the same hometown, and lots of mutual friends, we’ve never actually met and I was keen to learn more about what inspires her designs and the story of Lola’s Lugs, the small yet mighty, woman-owned business, designing and creating earrings from polymer clay.
It all started with a short TikTok video of someone making polymer clay earrings. Originally Erin decided to give it a go, just as something fun to do for her friends and family, and from there her little hobby turned into a small business, which has grown massively over the lockdown and has sellout drops each month, with customers from the Hebrides to London and even further afield!
She is humbly surprised at the success of her business – it wasn’t intentional in the slightest, she just wanted to have something to do over lockdown. Once she got into it though, and started following more artists and learning new skills, it really took off. “I just thought I’d put some effort in and see where it goes, and then it just grew from there, it’s mad now!” her eyes widen as she tries to fathom the popularity and growth of what she’s created.
Most of the inspiration for her earrings comes from nature or photography, “a lot of it is colours – whether I see a sunset and think ‘that’s a really nice orange with that pink – I could do that with the earrings’ or maybe I just see a photo on my instagram feed”. She admits it can also just be trial and error – but they always turn out beautiful. She’s always been an arty person and likely gets that flare from her mum. Regarding the unusual shapes, she explains, “I quite like funky shapes but I know not everyone likes funky, in-your-face earrings, so I try and do a mix of both”. Her designs incorporate all different styles, from studs to statements – going above and beyond for themed-drops, such as her popular ghost-shaped dangles for Halloween, or the intricate Christmas wreaths from December.
The quirky name ‘Lola’s Lugs’ comes from Erin’s baby – a golden labrador named Lola, who has a very special and heartwarming story. Erin laughs as she tells me that her mum went along with a friend to visit puppies and spotted Lola, the runt of the litter, and returned home announcing to the family, ‘I think I’ve bought a dog’. Lola quickly became a beloved member of the family but recently gave them quite a scare…
The gorgeous pup sometimes makes a guest appearance on the page’s Instagram stories, where she can be seen happily spinning round with excitement. At first, Erin and her younger brother thought the spinning was something they had trained her to do for treats, but after a recent check up, they discovered an even more unusual reason – Erin’s family had taken her to the vets after a bad reaction to some medicine and they were told that she was completely blind in one eye, and going blind in the other. They were shocked that they hadn’t noticed this before, but upon reflection it started to make sense. ‘She spins to one side – the side that she can see, and she can’t catch a ball for the life of her’, laughs Erin thinking about her adorable, yet clumsy labrador. However, because Lola was only 2 years old, they were worried the blindness could be caused by a brain tumour, so they ran some more tests.
Much to Erin’s relief, the tests showed that Lola was (for the most part) completely fine… but as it turned out, she was actually missing part of her brain: the thalamus – a key component, responsible for many things, such as parts of the visual system and some motor activity, hence the blindness and ‘spinnies’. This case is the first of its kind, and vets would like to use Lola in a unique study. “If it was going to be any dog, it would be Lola!”
But dear Lola is the perfect brand ambassador for Lola’s Lugs: she’s friendly and fun and brightens up everyone’s day. Discussing the values of her business, Erin says ‘I want my personality to come across – I want to be a friendly brand and a caring brand’ and this is definitely something her customers agree on! “I am obsessed with these [cloud earrings]!! Erin is the kindest and nicest person I’ve ever met!”, praises one happy customer in her Etsy Reviews, “Erin is super lovely!” sings another and this kindness is echoed throughout her reviews, all of which are five-star!
On top of being friendly and caring, another important value to Erin is sustainability. “I’m a big eco-person… that doesn’t make sense”, she hesitates, but it makes perfect sense! She really cares about the environment and is very conscious of her impact. She acknowledges that the polymer clay is primarily a plastic but she buys the best quality and uses fully recyclable packaging, even down to the recyclable sticky tape and stickers!
Erin talks about other hobbies – she’s always switching between them and trying out new things, but the polymer clay earrings is something she’s really invested in, and she assures me she will continue to stick at it even after she graduates this August – yes, all this and she’s still a student!
Her decision to become a teacher was oddly inspired by an unlikely hero – our local high school maths teacher. “Oh I would hate to be her, a high school maths teacher?!” However, after seeing Miss High-School-Maths-Teacher walk by, a little seed was planted and Erin started considering teaching. Maybe not secondary, she thought, but primary school teaching was definitely something she could do – her mum and granny had been saying it for years too. She remembers that teenage resentment towards adults telling you what to do – “I’ll figure it on my own!” she would quip, and so she did.
Like a lot of young people, Erin wasn’t sure what to study, where to go, what she wanted to do. Instead of going to uni straight away, she took a year out to work – her first job was ironically a graduate job, thanks to good contacts. “It was an alright job but I didn’t enjoy it because it’s not what I wanted to do”. Even though the job wasn’t for her, in many respects it was the best thing that happened to her, because it made her realise what she didn’t want to do – which can often be a more important realisation.
She took night classes and went to college before applying to the University of Glasgow to study primary teaching, and it certainly wasn’t the easiest four years. “From the minute I stepped into those halls, my mental health just went -” Her hand waves down like a crashing airplane and she blows a raspberry for auditory effect. We share our stories about university and how tough it was to find motivation when you’re really struggling mentally.
Eventually though, Erin started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and powered through. She loved her course, and loves being a teacher – “I’m so excited to be a teacher in August – can’t believe it’s this year!” She’s beaming with pride and has a huge grin across her face as she anticipates her graduation, just one more essay to go! When I ask her what motivated her in the end, she takes a breath and says: ‘It was a ‘do it for yourself’ thing. It’s funny too because, you know when you’re in 6th year, you can get a job, go to college or go to uni? Well I’ve done all 3 of them! And I’ve not done all that to waste it”.
Any goals for the year? “I’m really bad for setting goals and then never actually achieving them – I’m extrinsically motivated – so you need to push me to do it”. Just as we’re discussing going at your own pace and doing things in your own time, Erin pauses and seems to panic a little. At first I thought she was going to excuse herself, “Sorry, I just…” she trails off and stares pointedly at something, “…sorry, I’ve just realised the cat is under these bed sheets!” She lifts the covers and coos softly to the cat – there’s not much of a response but Erin shrugs and pats the covers back down “ach, she’ll be fine!”. Going back to her goals, she talks about increasing her followers on Instagram and then winces and adds, “I feel I wouldn’t say that as a goal because it’s just a number and it doesn’t matter… but at the same time it does matter because that’s your audience”.
As the majority of Erin’s business comes through her Instagram, she talks about the pressure of keeping up with social media. “I need to be consistently posting, making the right hashtags, keeping up to date posts, have a Story every 24 hours…” the list of daunting marketing tasks continued, “but to be fair”, Erin smiles, “I post all the bloody time anyway!”
Although she is mostly unphased by the pressures of social media, she understands how it can affect others and her followers know they can rely on her if they need to talk. Her inbox is always open and she openly invites anyone having a tough time to just drop her a message and chat to her. She’s quite proud of the circle she’s built – “I hate being like this but I’ve made a little ‘community of internet friends’”, she says the last part in a mimicking voice, “but I totally have and it’s so, so nice!”.
Once the lockdown is over, she looks forward to meeting up with said community of friends. A lot of her new friends have also taken advantage of the lockdown(s) to be more creative and grow their respective businesses – it’s quite nice to see how they all support each other on Instagram. “We’ve said once [the pandemic is] all over, we’ll meet up and go for lunch. It’s baffling to me that I’ve met all these people through making little earrings”.
Of course, the lockdown has also brought difficulties and taken a toll on Erin too. What’s the most challenging thing? “Being alone. All the time”. Her boyfriend works almost 60 miles away and leaves early each morning. “It’s literally from the minute I wake up, I’m just by myself with the cat… and with the cat, you never know what mood she’s in.” Although she’s still light-hearted, it’s sad to see the usually upbeat, spirited Erin crushed by this loneliness and it’s something she openly talks about in her stories. She’s not afraid to show her vulnerable side and admit when she’s having a bad day, which a lot of her followers respect and empathise with.
Although it’s been a tough year, Erin has a lot to celebrate and look back on, but she can’t yet pick out a singular, crowning moment. “I’m really proud of it all. I never ever thought I’d be doing this – not in a million years!”
On the night of her last drop, Etsy crashed her website as almost 500 people bustled around her site at the same time. She laughs, “I think a lot of people buy my earrings because there’s such a big stress about them – they go up at 7 o’clock at night and folk are like ‘haaaa, I need to buy the earrings!”. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, releasing the highly anticipated drop – for Erin and her customers – and if there’s any technical glitches, she’ll know! Her phone gets flooded with messages if the earrings aren’t there by 7pm on the dot, the Lola’s Lugs tribe is very dedicated!
Erin drops her new designs on the last Friday of every month and there’s a lot to be included in her February Drop – she can’t give away too many secrets but she hints, “I’m feeling very neutral”. Earrings from the terrazzo slab with browns and beiges, which she’s nicknamed her ‘in the skud’ terrazzo and the jade howlite slab (both pictured) will be featured, along with loads of other new ideas and some all-time classics.
“I better get busy!” she laughs as we say our goodbyes and end the call.