Chic on a shoestring: recession style

 Exclusive interview with author Mary Jane Baxter and a review of her new book

 Rating: ***

 Reviewed by Gabrielle Pantera

 “About three years ago I did a short TV series for BBC news looking into the resurgence of the ‘make-do and mend’ philosophy, traveling around the UK for a month swapping bed and board for my creative skills,” says Chic on a Shoestring author Mary Jane Baxter.

“I made trousers for a stilt-walker, fixed some curtains, darned a jumper and bartered a night in a hotel room for a hat.” That experience inspired Baxter to write a book about how to improve your wardrobe and your home inexpensively.

Chic on a Shoestring has dozens of projects to inspire you. It shows how to use items that are already in your home to create or update clothing and objects around your house. A few of the items you might use are ribbons, old ties, lace and shoelaces. Some of the ideas are a bit simplistic, but if you’re creative or good with crafts this book will inspire you with new ideas. Some of the items can be made without a sewing machine. There are a few patterns in the back of the book. There are great projects and activities for kids. And, it’s green too.  Just follow the illustrations and instructions in the book.

Baxter interviewed all sorts of people about their passion for craft and visited some of Britain’s former textile manufacturing areas. “I met some of the last people in a generation able to do certain things…like thread up a special loom for lace-making,” says Baxter. “Everywhere I went I could see that young women in particular were wanting to re-learn skills that their grandmothers used to take for granted. I was really inspired by their passion.”

A friend introduced Baxter to a literary agent who advised her to pitch instead a craft book based on Baxter’s own skills. Within a relatively short time, Chic on a Shoestring was picked up by Kyle Books.

“I met Kyle Cathie through my agent,” says Baxter. “I went along to meet her with my vintage hairstyle, rather crazy clothes and a suitcase full of all my makes. A few weeks later I had an e-mail saying that Kyle Books wanted to offer me a contract for Chic on a Shoestring. I then had to knuckle down to work pretty quickly.”

Getting a publishing contract meant Baxter was able to apply for a residency with The Hosking Houses Trust, a UK charity. Run by the remarkable Sarah Hosking, a handful of women writers compete to stay for up to three months in a tiny 18th century cottage near Stratford-Upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare. Those selected stay there for free for the time they’re in residence. “I was lucky enough to win a place, and I’m currently halfway through,” says Baxter. “The experience allows you to focus completely on your writing, I’ve swapped London life for the countryside. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m really enjoying it.” (More at

“I wanted my book to attract complete sewing novices as well as excite more experienced sewers, so that was a difficult balancing act,” says Baxter. “I tried and tested every single project to make sure it looked good, stood up to the elements and most importantly, used largely recycled materials that were easy to source and didn’t cost much.”

Chic on a Shoestring is Baxter’s first book. Baxter has a contract for a second book. “This time it’s going to be about hats,” says Baxter. “My first love!” Her second book will be published next year.

As a BBC reporter, Baxter has written everything from about the war in Iraq to the French Presidential elections. She left her full time reporting job nine years ago to train as a milliner. She writes two monthly columns, one for Homes & Antiques Magazine called Style on a Shoestring, and another for Sew Magazine called Stitch in the City.

Chic on a Shoestring: Simple to Sew Vintage-Style Accessories by Mary Jane Baxter. Paperback, 160 pages, Publisher: Perigee Trade; Reprint edition (May 1, 2012). Language: English, ISBN: 9780399159596  $22.95

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