As the age of 50 approaches, most journalists with a permanent job on the BBC’s foreign newsdesk would keep plugging away happily. Wait until the pension drops and plan a comfortable retirement.
Not Mary Jane Baxter. In her late 40s, she saw a round of voluntary redundancies offered as a beginning rather than an end. She took the money and planned an adventure across Europe. She would sew and make and craft her way across the continent, travelling in her beautifully upcycled 1986 Bedford Bambi campervan.
With a top speed of 60mph, this would be more of an amble that a whistle-stop tour. Bambi was decorated with vintage wallpaper and textiles to create a gloriously retro travelling studio. This would also be home for four months over the summer of 2015.
The result is Sew on the Go, a book which is part travelogue and part practical guide to crafting, with clear instructions and diagrams.
Mary Jane was already an expert on making, having written Chic on a Shoestring and The Modern Girl’s Guide to Hatmaking, and has presented fashion and craft for the BBC, most notably in a series of films for Newsnight.
These explored whether the trend for crafting that came along with the financial crash of 2008/2009 was more of a lifestyle choice than a passing fad.
Sew on the Go was written in Montrose, her mother’s home town and now the home of her brother, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Anthony Baxter.
“I retreated there after arriving back from the European mainland,” says Mary Jane. “It was straight to Montrose when I arrived back in the UK. I stayed there for about a year while I wrote the book.
“In the end I had to go back to my flat in London, which I had rented out when I was away, simply because I had run out of money. If I could have stayed in Montrose, I absolutely would have. I feel so at home there. We spent all our of childhood holidays there and it’s a place of peace for me.
“Also, apart from my brother to whom I’m very close, there are still members of my mother’s family there.”
The decision to head off and change her life wasn’t out of character. When Mary Jane was a foreign correspondent in Brussels, she gave up her job to study millinery.
She then worked part-time with Stephen Jones and part-time for the BBC.
“The Brussels job was extremely pressurised. I was on and off trains all the time. There was no real creativity in what I was doing and I missed that. That’s when I decided to leave and do the millinery course.”
This love of making is something that began in childhood.
“My parents were both very creative. My dad was a talented amateur painter and my mum was extremely creative, making clothes and doing lots of sewing. She painted and drew and really encouraged us to be practical and creative.
“Consequently, as a teenager I made my own clothes because I couldn’t afford the things I wanted. I would buy fabric and make my own.”
Mary Jane believes that the nation’s move towards making and craft and baking and generally becoming more practical was exacerbated by lockdown.
“I think it’s affecting change and people do seem to want change. In lockdown, when it was Zoom this and virtual that, I think there was an element of really reaching for something much more tangible.
“There was also the environmental element. We can’t keep throwing things away at the rate that we are. We are destroying the planet with our wastefulness.
“The digital world can be helpful. YouTube tutorials can help us mend and fix things without having to pick up the phone to someone – and it costing us money.
Where the two previous books were more practical, Sew on the Go is more personal. It’s about travel, self-discovery and communicating with others. But it’s also about creative inspiration. Mary Jane browsed flea markets from Belgium to Italy and brought back her booty to create new pieces on her trusty hand-cranked Singer sewing machine.
She hopes it might inspire people to try their hand at making or to head off on a journey of their own.
Driving on the cliff edge
“I know so many confident and career-focused women who say to me that they couldn’t really contemplate going away anywhere on their own. I find that astonishing.”
She adds, however, that if she were to do it again, she might be slightly less confident. “I’m now post-menopausal, into my 50s and I know what can go wrong!
“Well, I did find myself in some precarious situations. For example I was terrified on a drive up in the mountains on a cliff edge. between France and Italy.”
Mary Jane chose to publish the book through Unbound. An online publisher that works on the crowdfunding model, putting more control into the author’s hands. It has achieved some huge successes, producing books that mainstream publishers might not accept as they don’t fit into their plans.
As it blends the travelogue and craftalogue (made up word!), Sew on the Go does inspire and allows us to see a woman looking at changing her life in a way that can satisfy her creatively.
“I think I’m part of the first generation of women who have been able to do that in any great numbers. We can shape our lives in a way that suits us.”
Mary Jane now lives away from London, in St Leonards on Sea near Hastings. She still travels up to the city to work a few days every week, but her heart is much further north in Montrose.
“I was there recently to launch the book at Kim Canale’s Wall Projects gallery. She was kind enough to host a small, outdoor event. We had a beautiful day too. I can’t wait to get back up again.”
Sew on the Go: A Maker’s Journey is available from www.unbound.com/books/sew-on-the-go/