About 25,000 people went to the UK’s first festival to celebrate penny pinching, but whether it was austerity chic or real help for the hard-up was not immediately apparent
Since when did thrift become so synonymous with the middle classes? I pondered this as I sat in my regrettably pricey train seat on the way to the UK’s first Festival of Thrift last weekend, held in Darlington.
Celebrating thrift, as the festival set out to do, is not without its paradoxes. Would it be austerity-chic for middle income couples, deeply concerned about sustainability and wittering on about “upcyling” while sipping £3 cappuccinos then driving home in a 4×4?
The clues on the website ahead of the event weren’t entirely comforting. The first entry under What’s On was headed Things to Buy. There would be more than 70 stalls selling stuff, which sits somewhat awkwardly with the theme of frugality. The promoters said it was about “spending your pennies wisely”, yet some of the stallholders were hardly at the bargain basement end of the market. Would retro beads and bangles for a tenner, scatter cushions for £30 and “vintage” clothes at £50 really be much help for those struggling on a tiny budget?
Festival curator Wayne Hemingway says thrift is not about buying more stuff for less, but about consuming more intelligently, reusing, recycling and thinking creatively about the way we live and consume. The fact that the cost of living crisis has made so many people worse off just makes it even more important to make do and mend.
“The generation coming through now is the first that is worse-off than their parents and yet we continue with a culture of mass consumption: having to buy the latest gadget, the biggest TV, new clothes … Thrift isn’t just a flash in the pan, it’s a genuine response to the economy and the state of the world that is creaking under mass-consumption … a change of attitude that transcends the class system.”
It would be easy to be scornful about a thrift festival encouraging you to spend money, but in reality it was about workshops, talks, events, ideas and all-round thrifty “stuff” on offer. The upholstery company that sells scatter cushions for £30 wasn’t really there to push its wares but to tell people about its courses where you can learn DIY upholstery.
Likewise, visitors to the event – it attracted 25,000 people over the weekend – were able to find out about the work done by groups such as Freecycle and Freegle, and how to join in. Crucially, it was free to attend.
The site of the event, Lingfield Point, is itself a testament to self-sufficiency and recycling. Once the world’s biggest wool factory, spread over 2m square feet, it faced the same future as the rest of Britain’s industrial heritage – to be flattened or left derelict. But the 1950s buildings have been transformed into a dynamic contemporary business community, which includes a restored workers’ ballroom, with allotments for locals.
Whether it’s thrift as a necessity or a lifestyle choice, the aim, the organisers told me, was to help people of all walks of life to pick up some make, mend and money-saving skills and tips, and to have fun doing so.
Yes, there were items on the vintage clothes stall at £50, but plenty at £1. The 70 stalls offered everything from basics, such as a bag of fresh apples or a cup of apple juice for £1, to home-made Christmas stockings for £12.
Meanwhile, alongside the arts, craft and foodie stalls of the type you would expect, there were practical workshops on everything from repairing your bike and foraging food for free, through to bread making and cooking on the cheap. Plenty of advice was on offer from a range of speakers, Citizens Advice and the local credit union. There was a swap shop where you could exchange an unwanted item. This proudly non-corporate event seemed to be positively bubbling with ideas.
What did I learn? I loved 16-year-old Jordon Cox, “the Coupon Kid”. He threw himself into penny-pinching ways after his dad left home and his mum was struggling financially. He says he’s saved £2,000 off their shopping bill in the past year, without having to spend hours trawling the internet for offers. Start by picking up the free in-store supermarket magazines from the likes of Tesco and Asda, as they contain a wealth of money-off vouchers.
Darlington is typical of many parts of Britain – it has very affluent and very deprived areas.
A local resident told me there was an issue with doorstep lending in the poorer parts of town, and that these areas were often subjected to prolonged campaigns of mailshots and, sometimes, visits, bombarding people with offers of loans.
He said that with some of the government’s welfare reforms hitting hard, it was no wonder so many people were getting up to their necks in debt.
But would these people be coming along to the festival?
A scan of the site’s car parks revealed vehicles of a variety of budgets, and many bikes that I knew had been available to hire for just a few quid for the weekend. Maybe it was a coincidence, but practically everyone I spoke to was from Darlington or nearby. It genuinely seemed to be a pretty mixed bunch.
The place was teeming with families and young children, and yet despite my best efforts to find one, I was pleased to note there didn’t seem to be a Bugaboo buggy in sight.
I think that, at the end of the day, you have to ask why any free event offering practical money-saving advice and ideas, five items of vintage second-hand clothing for a fiver, and free music and entertainment for the whole family, could be seen purely as the domain of the middle classes. It should be for everyone.
As it happens, last weekend in Darlington it definitely was.
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