Rag Tag ‘N’ Textile

Posted by editor 24/04/2013 0 Comment 3916 views

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By Jenny McBain

Rag Tag ‘N’ Textile- A Social Enterprise Making Material Progress in the Highlands

On gate crashing a celebratory lunch at a Highland social enterprise it was impossible to tell who had mental health issues and who did not.  Everybody sat around a large table in the cosy work- shop which is situated in a converted farm steading close to Kyle of Lochalsh on the road to the Isle of Skye.  They were chatting easily and enjoying a sense of occasion.

This is what founder and board member Vicki Samuels wanted when Rag Tag ‘N’ Textile was set up to give opportunities to vulnerable people who would otherwise find it difficult to cope with employment.  She said, “People come here and enjoy each others company.  There is no focus on illness and it’s a good atmosphere.”

When lunch was cleared away, work recommenced.  That day the majority of the group was taking part in a training course; part of the ongoing process of improving skills so donated materials can be turned into saleable craft objects.  An order had just come in for 150 highland sprites. And each small kilted figure- complete with unruly hair and flowing beard- was to be lovingly hand made.

It was only by engaging in a series of conversations that individual stories came to light.  It transpired that the special occasion was tinged with a touch of sadness for 24 year-old Reuben Ewan.  He is a young design graduate who came to the area to work with Rag Tag on a one year contract.

The year was up and the group wanted to say a special goodbye. Reuben was moving on to work with another social enterprise in Glasgow.  So his first graduate job in the Highlands had set him on an unexpected career path.

Reuben said, “I’ve got a lot out of working here. From the first day I arrived I’ve been taken in and accepted by everybody. It is a small organisation so I got pushed into taking on a lot of responsibility and I’ve met all sorts of people.  There is lots of expertise at your fingertips.  My sewing and knitting have come along a lot too! “

Next door in the shop, textile operative Anna, showed me around.  There were rails of clothing for sale.  Some high- end, donated goods, others original, bespoke garments.

Anna has had a series of physical and mental health challenges which she is overcoming with the assistance of her co- workers.  She said,   “I feel comfortable coming into work – even on an off day because everybody understands and I can just do small jobs. It’s good not to have pressures.”

Beth showed me some of the items she had made.  There was a stylish red dress fashioned from off- cut material.  She had also created a series of Christmas stockings, angel tree hangings and some fabric advent calendars.

Anna started out as a volunteer and is now employed at Rag Tag on a part- time basis.

Each item is a testimony to her skill and artistic flair.  But these products are reflective of recently acquired expertise.   She said, “When I first came here I could do nothing with textiles; I’d never even tried to work a sewing machine.   Now I can make just about anything quite well.”

Also in the shop, was Rachel who was out of the paid work force for 11 years due to health problems and family responsibilities.  She remembers vividly the very moment she was awarded her first certificate on completion of a textile training course.

She said, “When I got my SQA (Scottish Qualification Agency Qualification) I couldn’t believe it.  I kept asking if it was really mine.  I’ve never got any qualifications before in my life.”

Back in the workshop Cheryl, who has been volunteering at Rag Tag since it was first set up around six years ago, was overseeing production of the sprites.  She said, “This is just such a flexible, peaceful place to be.   If anybody just spent a week here they would want to stay.  Everybody is just getting on with their lives with what they’ve got. “

So there is no doubt as to the social value of this organisation. One worker said she couldn’t look people in the eye when she first arrived but is now quite comfortable talking with strangers.  Another said it is the only job where she can be comfortable and be herself.  A couple of the team even credit their work place with saving their lives.

And Rhoda Cameron, who took a pay cut when moved on from financially lucrative self- employment to become operations manager, is equally enthusiastic.   She said, “When I first came here I was under contract to sort out the business systems.  At first I couldn’t see how it could possible work; how it could help people.  But it really does.  It is an organic process.”

What, though, about the financial aspect of keeping things going?  Sale of items does create some revenue but running costs are high.  The entire workforce is going to be relocated to the firm’s premises in Broadford on Skye , where there will be more passing trade for the shop.  Beyond that funding battles are ongoing.

Vicki Samuels said, “We are going to graduate to making high end eco- couture items.  However, we will always have to be supported by statutory bodies.  So we have to make the case for social return on investment; for the added value of employing people who might otherwise be isolated and unsupported.”

(Some names have been changed)

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