the friend online
04 September 2009

Pants a million!

John-Paul Flintoff set off on a journey of discovery and came back wearing clothes that he made himself

What with climate change, energy crises and food shortages, it can be easy to be glum. But don’t be! Chin up! Take a tip from someone who has pored over those issues for several years – only to conclude that the best way to deal with them is to eat, drink and... er, make things, because tomorrow we die.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we eat or drink to excess – only that we appreciate what we have while we can. Because the truth is that we can’t predict and avert every disaster, or hope to avoid suffering.

It may not be climate change or food shortages that kill me – I may be run over by a bus this afternoon, or choked by a potato crisp. And, as I falter for those last seconds, I’m unlikely to look back on my life as one long attempt to prevent carbon emissions reaching a certain threshold. I shall remember, I hope, the fun I had. And that includes making things.

These ideas – if that’s not too grand a term – have knocked around in my mind for years but became vividly real as a result of writing my new book. It’s called Through The Eye Of A Needle, and subtitled, ‘The true story of a man who went searching for meaning and ended up making his Y-fronts’ – because that’s exactly what happened.

The book shows how I gradually became aware of issues such as climate change, peak oil and the exploitation of cheap overseas labour – then tried to do something about it all, culminating in me making an entire outfit, using local and sustainable materials, right down to the underpants.

As you may possibly have guessed, I have written a book that offers readers the opportunity to laugh (at me, or with me, the choice is yours). This is because I didn’t want to write another of those ‘green’ books that leave readers feeling miserable and are anyway read only by the converted.

People in the mainstream media – for which I work – have leaped at the chance to run stories about my experiments to make fabric out of nettle fibre, and knitting my own Y-fronts.

So far as this goes, I’m delighted. But the point was not to show off about what I’d done. It was to inspire others to try the same.

But it’s one thing to talk shamelessly about doing crochet on London Underground, as I’ve done, and another thing altogether, in the ‘Age of Dawkins’, to bring anything like spirituality into a book.

Only I didn’t want to do it any other way. I wanted to write a book not only about how we can effect change but also about why.

There are too many ‘green’ books, it seems to me, that take for granted our wish to do something for the sake of our unborn descendants and people living far away. Well, I don’t wish harm to anybody, but I don’t see how I can really care about someone if I don’t even know they exist, or what their name is. The only people I can really care about, surely, are my family and friends – in the widest sense, my neighbours.

Though brought up without any religious training, I recall Jesus saying something about neighbours and, as my book records, I set out to try every Christian denomination. Over six months, I tried churches variously with or without clergy, hymns, musical accompaniment, fine clothes, incense, a broad ethnic and social mix and transubstantiation – in short, a greater range of Christian experience than many practising believers encounter.

At the Meeting house in Hampstead, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, around a small table: there could be no hiding at the back. I wondered how to react if somebody opposite should stare at me: do I smile, stare back blankly or get up and run away? The solution was to gaze intensely at a gap between two table legs, causing peripheral vision to blur.

Over the course of an hour, the thoughts that passed through my mind consisted principally of work, family and death. There were four interruptions, from other people seemingly just like me, each with interesting things to say.

When the Meeting ended – marked by an outbreak of handshaking – newcomers were invited to introduce themselves, and over coffee, several individuals asked me how I liked the Meeting. To one, I said truthfully that I’d enjoyed it and would happily come again – but that I didn’t believe in God. His answer surprised me: ‘Oh, well, that doesn’t necessarily matter’.

As it happens, I have been back to Hampstead many times since then as an attender and very much enjoyed myself (is that the right word? I don’t see why not). For a time, I carried a copy of Advices and queries everywhere I went, until I had fully absorbed George Fox’s injunction that we be patterns and examples and that we walk cheerfully.

I’ve also struck out into Buddhism and read a bit about other faiths too. One that deserves to be better known was founded by an otherwise unreligious American, Callie Janoff, after she and a group of friends asked themselves: ‘If I’m a spiritual person how does that express itself in my life?’

They all came to the same answer: making things. ‘When we make things we are connecting to the part of ourselves that we imagine is the spiritual part, the part most resembling divinity.’ In playful mood, but also with great seriousness, Janoff set up the Church of Craft: ‘Consumption eats self-esteem; creation makes it grow. I’ve written and said this so many times, but I believe it strongly: making things makes us happier, more whole people’.

By making my own clothes, using local and sustainable materials, I’m stepping lightly on the planet, which is a gratifying side effect. But this isn’t a means to an end. Making things, whether they’re clothes or fitted bookshelves (which I’ve also tried) is an end in itself, and provides its own reward: something to remember with a smile when the rising sea water, or that speeding bus, finally gets me.

Through the Eye of a Needle by John-Paul Flintoff is out now priced £7.95. You can read more about John-Paul’s adventures at his website,

John-Paul Flintoff


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New face of Quakers takes shape
Oliver Robertson
Tackling the pay gap from both ends
Philip Barron
News round-up

Jailhouse blues
Jill Inskip
Journalists at BYM
Ruth I Johns
Some more equal than others?
Dana Adler

Pants a million!
John-Paul Flintoff
Research with Quakers living in Britain
Helen Meads and Susan Robson
Contemporary British Quakers
Hannah Brock
Remembering Ted Harvey
Oliver Pickering
Biodiversity: the spice of life
Gordon L Woodroffe

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