The Wool Clip is a predominantly women-led, worker-owned cooperative based in Cumbria, England, focusing on textile products made from wool and founded in 2001. It has the simple aim of “Adding value to wool”. The Wool Clip might feel a world away from our communities in SEWA across the 18 states of India, but there are so many common points between these cultures despite their geographical and cultural distance – as well as being women-led and worker-owned, many of SEWA’s cooperatives explicitly focus on textile handicrafts, their marketing, production and consumption, and in conversation, we found that many of the same political and technological issues arise.

Through these interviews, we found many points where these cultures can mutually inform and support one another. Supporting this kind of transnational solidarity in worker organising is a vital part of our mission in DCI – capitalism and patriarchy have a global reach, and the only response is a solidarity with a matching reach. As argued in a recent NOEMA magazine article, such solidarity is a crucial support for the fight for “ethical AI” and fair governance of data and design.

Common themes between the Wool Clip and SEWA’s Cooperatives

This article features interviews with a former and current member of The Wool Clip, Cecilia Hewett and Alice Underwood. Here are a few themes of interest between our communities:

Coordinating overlapping use of physical and digital spaces by cooperative members

The Wool Clip has always been centred around a shared physical space, the shop. This space encourages spontaneous conversations and sharing of skills in an embodied, materialised way, giving a natural cadence to the engagement of members in the community, in a way that a purely digital space could not. The shop also provides a focus and location for the sharing of digital skills from adept members to those who are less comfortable with technology. This mirrors the “phygital” model being pioneered for SEWA’s KSK (Krishi Shakti Kendra – Farmer Facilitation Centre) centres, which includes monitoring, business pathways, and potential cooperative-to-cooperative linkages (e.g. agriculture and health) using a hybrid physical/digital framework.

Interface design issues for cooperative members with different levels of technological familiarity

Cecilia Hewett, as a technologically adept member of the cooperative, oversaw the creation of a deal of software infrastructure, starting from free-form spreadsheets and culminating in a sophisticated database system based on Microsoft Access for managing the community’s data. Cecilia remarked on the importance of having a system designed for members not comfortable with technology – a dedicated and tailored application interface where you could “put the details in boxes and not accidentally break things” – where on the other hand a free-form system based on spreadsheets would be much easier to develop and maintain. This tension is very familiar from the co-design situation arising from SEWA’s engagement with Digital Green, designing their new database-backed Loop mobile app to replace a homegrown solution based on Kobo Toolbox which allowed the entry of free-form data. The app is highly usable and enthusiastically received by the membership, but the costs of maintaining it are hard to foresee.

Even in the Wool Clip’s situation where the labour for maintaining the system was essentially “free”, provided by a community member, the difficulty of maintaining the database system led to it being abandoned over the long term, even though it was in practice much more usable by the membership.

Tools for structuring conversations amongst cooperatives to reduce marginalisation

In a community comprising many different personalities, subcultures and communication styles, it is very easy for communication venues to become dominated by one style of conversation or the conversation of a small, more verbose group. Cecilia recounts some strategies the coop used to ensure more inclusive, balanced meetings, most interestingly through the use of “conversation postcards“. Each member was allowed to choose two postcards from a collection tipped onto the table, and each was their chance to talk – rather than “chip in with some random thing”, a member might take their opportunity carefully. This is a marvellous materialisation of what might be a spectrum of alternatives for rebalancing unbalanced conversations. Cecilia also mentioned the difficulty of keeping track of long-running conversations on a variety of topics in digital forums amongst overlapping groups of members, speculating that this could be aided by dedicated digital tools.

Cecilia Hewett’s involvement with The Wool Clip

Cecilia Hewett is a spinner, knitter and designer of knitting patterns based in Cumbria. She was not a founder member of the coop, joining it in 2005 and being a member until 2017. In the left picture below she is shown in front of a felted tent made of Herdwick wool, from a tough, weather-adapted breed of sheep native to the central, northern and western Lake District.

The Wool Clip was founded in 2001, during the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak. This grew out of a predecessor network — the Cumbrian Wool Group. Money had poured into the community after the foot and mouth epidemic, to help farmers diversify.

Members of the network did a lot of fact-finding and visited farms elsewhere in Europe, and the Wool Marketing Board. They were particularly interested in Herdwick, the local breed, which has fleece as tough as wire wool. At that point, the Wool Marketing Board, which is a coop in itself, offered a price for Herdwick wool of 1-2 pence per kilo. Because they said it couldn’t be dyed – members were determined to prove them wrong, and set about creating with that wool. This was the context in which the Wool Clip was born, which became a retail place for this and other wools, not only spinning and weaving, felting, crochet but also supplying yarn to other people and teaching.

Cecilia joined a couple of years after it started because they’d had the idea of running a wool festival which had never been done in this country. She had become friendly with several members, and was asked to join. Apart from being passionate about wool, she also had experience in admin to help with the wool festival. This wool festival (Woolfest) ran from 2005 until 2019 when the pandemic caused it to go online. The members decided not to continue with it after this point because it had simply become something too big to manage, with a life of its own. It had spawned a lot of wool festivals around the country by inspiring them. We had a remit to advise a couple of other regional ones, including a major one in Wales which took off and is still going. There are now wool festivals all over Britain – and so many more people interested in wool and becoming knowledgeable about it.

WoolFest festival in a crowded hall covered in bunting

Q: The decision to become a coop – was this inspired by other organisations?

A: Not sure – it’s possible the idea came out of the funding bodies themselves. At that point there was EU funding and the associated funding bodies seemed to be keen on social enterprise. There was training provided on cooperatives. As part of Wool Clip life, if we felt we were on shaky ground, we would organise some training to remind ourselves, since there was a turnover of new members. I’m not sure what the initial decision was about being a cooperative – whether it was totally the members’ idea or whether they were nudged.

The Wool Clip and Woolfest are separate coops in themselves, to keep liability separate so it could theoretically be run differently. We ran it using the same model as the shop – each member had a role, and we did everything together ourselves, although we eventually bought in help for marketing and admin.

Q: Where did training come from for forming a coop?

A: An organisation called SECOD “Social Enterprise and Co-operative Development”. They were very helpful in providing information and resources about cooperatives, as well as resolving challenges which could arise.

For instance, newer members there might not always have had an understanding of how a coop worked, and the necessity for everyone to take responsibility. Some of the newer members were concerned that they needed to ask approval for whatever they did.

A member didn’t want to open a drawer in the shop because they weren’t sure if they were allowed. You would say they had an equal part in the cooperative and were therefore a manager.

Sometimes newer members felt that founder members made it harder for them to take this responsibility – since the term founder member was used quite a lot in publicity, as if it gave a greater status, which of course wasn’t the case in a cooperative.

Training sessions allowed members to question the importance of putting “founder member” into a press release.

As a successful coop, the founders were rightly very proud of what they had done. One aspect of training which was very helpful was how it helped us think about how each of us as individuals were taking responsibility within the coop.

Q: How did the training get members to that place?

They provided information packs and presentations, and easy-to-remember techniques. For example talking about “who was driving the bus” – who was telling them where to go and where to stop? These things help people think in a different way about our roles in the coop. They got us to write down all our hopes and fears and stick them anonymously to boards, and submit things we wished to discuss beforehand. This produced some useful techniques – one problem we invariably faced was gaining consensus. I think this is a problem for many coops. Alternatively, of being sure we had gained consensus for something we wanted to do. One would send an email around and there would be one answer – would it be appropriate for that to be taken as consensus?

They talked about how to communicate in a way that made it easier for people to respond to things such as email, using simple things such as putting a slightly more detailed heading on an email so it said what it was actually about. If an email heading from one person, with 16 more replies, just said “shop” or “wool clip” it could be very difficult to prioritise and organise.

There was an attempt to set up message boards which might have been a better way – it turned out not to be.

Another excellent tip was setting a better agenda for meetings, more detailed, so that people could think about it more in advance, and not feel put on the spot to make a decision.

How to avoid the situation of people talking too much, with others not talking at all. I’m sure I was guilty of talking too much.

They showed us a marvellous trick – we tipped a lot of postcards into the table, and we had to choose two. Those postcards were actually your chance to talk. Rather than chip in with some random thing, you would take your opportunity carefully.

Whether or not everybody took everything to heart, we did our best to incorporate whatever they taught us.

All of this development depends on funding; we had none ourselves, and relied on grants. SECOD helped us find grants. I would recommend training like this for all coops. If I was starting a coop, I would write into its rules to seek training every 5 years, rather than wait for an unpleasant situation to arise.

Q: What kinds of unpleasant situations could turn up?

Largely resulting from some people seeming to be more in charge than others. This can create resentment and difficulty. I’m not going to say “those who felt they were in charge” but “those who were perceived to be more in charge” were taking silence from other members as either  apathy or consensus. It could be  very hard to judge. As a somewhat trivial example, there was an endless argument about people not emptying the bin in the shop at the end of the day, since we did the cleaning and tidying of the shop ourselves. This was trivial but annoying. It’s quite a good example in some ways, since it shows how nobody should think themselves to be above emptying the bin. Everyone should do it at the end of their day working at the shop but it was amazing how many people didn’t.

It became a thing – there would be an email named “bin” and you knew what it said.

There were the usual daily challenges of group working, and artistic temperaments. The membership built of people who were incredibly creative led to challenges of the outside world not understanding how such cooperatives worked.

One of our greatest challenges was when our work was accepted for an exhibition. Everybody made work for this exhibition, and some of this work was rejected. We had a difficult situation deciding how we should respond. Should we say it must be all of us or none? How should we proceed with it? Whose decision is it? We’ve all worked really hard, should some people go ahead because it is fabulous publicity? This arose entirely through the exhibition organiser’s lack of understanding of how a cooperative should be, and their failure to make it clear that only some work would be accepted.

Trying to raise awareness of how coops work is quite difficult. Within the coop movement there are many different structures of power. Its rarer to find one where everyone has an equal share and an equal responsibility.

Q: Did you manage to convince the exhibition organisers to accommodate the cooperative?

No, unfortunately. It was one of those moments where we didn’t do very well as a cooperative in gaining consensus about what we should do. It was a very difficult situation to be put in. Those who were dealing with the organiser did what they could. It was very hard and something I would never want to go through again, very divisive.

A lot of people simply don’t understand.  On a daily basis we’d get phone calls: “Who’s in charge” they say. “I’d like to speak to the person in charge”. “That is all of us,” we’d say, “please write us a message so we can bring it up in our meeting”.

Q: Can you give some examples of similar communities in the UK that face this kind of misunderstanding?

There’s a chain of supermarkets (the Co-op) which is a coop, and John Lewis, a very big well-known chain of stores. And the British Wool Marketing Board – the last of the farmers’ cooperatives which were set up after the war. There is a sense in which the coop movement should be strong here – but it is undermined by the idea of it “not really being a business”. As women working at the things we love working at, we’re treated as if it is a hobby. Part of our great success has been showing we are a successful business, not a hobby.

We were at our best when we were being a bit militant and contrary.

Q: How finances were run? How did you keep track of who had done what etc.?

We had a revolving chair, and elected a new chair each year, responsible to be “front-person” in any situation (while making it clear it’s a coop). The treasurer tended to be the same person. At some point this got split into 2 roles – one doing the banking and one paying people.

By the time I was leaving they were splitting people into teams. We had started using technology by then.

The traditional way was to record sales manually in a duplicate book. The treasurer took the top copy and the other copy was always available for members to look at. There was also a message book for all things in the shop – this was more important than email, and was started before there was email. In 2012 we got technology training as a drive to provide technology to small business in the area, in rural counties. Quite a lot of funding was provided for this training. The sales still get written in the duplicate book – it’s so straightforward, it is all there in someone’s writing, if the sales don’t match up you’ve got that written record to check. It all went into some kind of spreadsheet – there was not a single point of entry, instead, they copy out the sales sheet into a system that the treasurer can pick up. I never felt there was any problem with all of this. The treasurer would produce a report for each meeting, which would include a breakdown of how much everybody had earned. I was never sure whether that was good or not. I like to think of it as helping us to make sure that if someone hadn’t earned as much as others one month, you could direct customers onto their products. But it might sometimes have been used as a means of saying “so and so has earned a lot, and they haven’t done much as part of the team”.

It tended to be the same treasurer elected year after year, since they were familiar with the systems. The technology made things a little bit difficult in the coop as well. Everyone got iPads as part of this grant although some members simply didn’t find it helpful to use them.

There was an online calendar – I was in charge of training people, and supporting them when they had trouble. Quite a lot of members had problems with this to start with. This replaced a paper calendar which had been on the wall in the shop and originally you could phone the shop to find out “who’s in today?”

It was a good way of communicating – to find out the information, a member spoke to a lot of different members and those chats were important for getting to know other members.

Phygital systems” – this seems a perfect framing for this, the community building of having a physical calendar and having to talk to someone, which was lost in transition to digital form which is often presented as only a good thing. Technology can often not be helpful, things are lost that are part of the vital function. 

There was a left-behindness for the less tech-savvy members who had to ask for help with the online calendar. This was not true for all aspects of the technology – the sales book was helpful to have in a digital form and easy to use.  The fact that there was still a paper sales book was useful, since if someone felt they had made a mistake on the computer, they could double-check it.

Q: How did you share awareness of different products, and find why someone might want to buy one thing rather than another? If you wanted to divert sales to another member, how would you share stories of these things? Were there any online or out-of-shop sales at that time?

We had once tried a mail order catalogue – that was a disaster.

There was a physical shop we took it in turns to run, 2 days a month, spread over 16 members. Sometimes people had other commitments – they might do fewer days in some months and more in others.

The Wool Clip shop, in a stone farm building with "open" sign and flock of sheep walking by in front

In the early days, all the different members’ products were displayed together. For instance, all the scarves were together, all the hats were together and so on. We were starting to do so well that we were able to expand into a larger shop and each member could have their own area for which they were responsible, which was a good thing. They could clean their own area and ensure it was stocked, and no one could feel that someone else had put their stuff in the wrong place.

Stock in the wool clip shop, collections of hats, gloves, purses, scarves and blankets

This worked very well. We didn’t discuss other people’s sales – but all of us had a certain awareness, seeing what the sales of the other members were, I made an effort and I’m sure others did as well.

We had an important rule – not to tread on each other’s toes in what we were making. We all had specialist areas – which could be several things. We learned new skills as time went on, and got into doing new things. It didn’t mean if one person was a wool spinner no-one else could. Or a knitted hat excluded someone else from making a felted hat. But there was a kind of invisible line that couldn’t be crossed – it was sometimes a bone of contention in a craft coop as to whether someone had crossed that line. Most of the time it worked quite well. There were enough gloves and wrist warmers etc. for people who wanted them, in the different styles of the different members. You could divert customers onto the products of someone who hadn’t sold much recently. If there were lots of different varieties of wrist warmers – I made a point of pointing out those of someone who I had noticed hadn’t done so well in a month.

One of my rules going into a shop was that my role was to do everything possible to sell someone else’s work rather than my own, and I’d like to think others did the same.

Q: The invisible line is very interesting. Were there conversations along the lines, “I’d like to try this but I don’t want to overstep?”

What tended to work best was when a member contacted a member about whose work they were worried about getting close to, expressed those concerns and had a chat about it. We also had a quality control team who would home in on people who were potentially upsetting other members by overstepping the boundary and that didn’t work so well. The best possible way was for individuals talk to each other and clear it, and then to let the others know they had done this, so that members weren’t looking at each others’ work with suspicion.

People want to learn and be creative. Sometimes they have a blind spot that their work is similar to someone else’s – what looks like a deliberate copy actually isn’t.

It could be tricky but I think on the whole we managed it well.

Q: What was the representation amongst the membership of different crafts, spinners, dyers, etc.?

Some members had their own livestock and ranged from people like me who had a handful of goats, to people who had a full-scale farm with 1000 ewes. Invariably we used the wool from our own animals, sometimes we used each other’s wool. We had a rule – it had to have value added to it by us. It could be our own wool, spun at a mill. Or someone else’s wool, spun by us. But if it was someone else’s wool, you couldn’t just buy it in and sell it on without doing something to it, such as dyeing it, or making it into a product. I’m sure that is still a rule. The wool had to come from Cumbria or be made into products in Cumbria by the members. That was an important aspect that kept us within our mission of promoting Cumbrian wool. Not all members had livestock of their own – this was vital to provide enough people to work in the shop at busy times in the livestock calendar, such as lambing.

We covered the whole range of wool workers, spinners, dyers, felt makers, knitters, crocheters, we could even rustle up naalbinding (an ancient Norwegian/Scandinavian technique).

Also things like rug tufting – there is a member who is an incredible expert in that.

Q: As the Wool Clip evolved over time, what happened as you scaled, and what tensions started to develop? Is there a sense of Woolfest as something that got beyond its natural scale?

As in any group of people, welcoming and accommodating new members was an incredibly important part of it. Especially when they may not have known the original members and the original vision. Some tension will have been because the founders had a particular vision. The founder who was responsible for the idea of Woolfest died tragically in 2007, having seen only 3 of them. A lot of Woolfest was about maintaining her vision, although things had to change as it evolved.

The trouble with visions is that we tend to have them individually. We look at how we want our work to be, etc. but that’s an inappropriate way of viewing the future of a cooperative. But it has to be more than a “mission statement on the wall” – it has to be a vision of how you proceed, what you want out of it. Sometimes there may have been a sense in which possibly the visions of the new members weren’t included in the vision. Not speaking of myself. I felt very welcomed.

Speaking to some members later we found that they didn’t understand, but some did. We could all have been better at talking about what we wanted out of it.

There was certainly a difference between the beginning and later years. In the early years, the members couldn’t have done as much of what was achieved on their own in their own businesses, although one or two already had established wool businesses. A fellow member, Julia, said “together we could do what we couldn’t do alone” and this was so right. It would have been impossible as individuals to launch ourselves into a wool festival, fitting this in amongst going to shows, having a shop, having a life. We were really empowered by working together. What was different later on, was that more members who joined later on already had established businesses. This didn’t make them less valid, they had worked very hard to set themselves up and the wool scene was more established as well. That may have caused some tensions because of different visions. The founders perhaps still saw it as something that was “necessary for a rural woman’s wool business”

Q: The coop felt it should be more essential to the businesses of its members?

In the early days the coop was an integral part of getting business off the ground. Now, there are more models of how to run a wool business in a rural area, and in many cases it was Woolfest that allowed that to be possible. Now, maybe it is not easier, you still have to work very hard, but it’s a different environment. Founder members particularly may have felt, perhaps, that there was a different level of commitment because of founding it, although newer members could be equally committed, and this was a perception rather than a reality.

Q: Newer members felt they had a more individual identity outside the coop. How did that play out in how they behaved/what they expected?

There was a perception that they weren’t pulling their weight as much. This may not have been true. Some just quietly get on with it without making their hard work known, so it was an unfair perception.

There might have been situations where the shop wasn’t as well stocked as it could be, especially after Woolfest, when we’d taken our products there and sold so much.

There were some members who used Wool Clip solely as an outlet, and others who had work in galleries throughout the county. How well stocked it was was individuals’ own responsibility – there could occasionally be some tensions over that.

Q: Woolfest took on a different identity over time?

Carolyn was the visionary. She had the idea. She was Canadian and had seen the wool festivals in the US. When I joined, one reason was to help Carolyn with the admin. This became a sudden and urgently bigger thing when she was diagnosed with cancer and then deteriorated quickly. For a few years I was fairly heftily into the admin of Woolfest, and took over a large role from Carolyn, without much breathing space or time to think, because it had to be achieved.

I was doing admin for the stallholders. Other members were making sure the marquees and portaloos and catering were organised, and for setting up our own Wool Clip stall. Members had different areas of responsibility for the different aspects of it all. It became very big, it became massively huge and we did restructure after 2012. They made teams – I had a break for a year or two because I’d been slogging at it so hard. We employed someone to do the admin which was probably a good idea and gave everyone that much more time. I would have been very pleased if it had stayed on at a smaller scale, but it couldn’t. It grew because of the numbers of people who wanted to attend it, this made it massive. We couldn’t do workshops, for instance, because there weren’t facilities in the building when there were that many people visiting. During this time, the number of wool businesses in the country had grown hugely. A wool festival in Wales (Wonderwool Wales) was set up in 2006 – some people set up businesses just to tour all the wool shows, perhaps as they do in the US. It became harder to reject many stallholders. The show took on a new, glossier identity – it won a Cumbria Tourism award and it had to become super-professional. It’s always difficult when you are making something very shiny and it has to be properly shiny all the way through. In the early days we got away with a lot of goodwill because we were the first to do it and we were trying something that hadn’t been done.

I suspect they’ve made the right decision not to start it up again after the pandemic – even employing someone else just to do the admin, there’s still so much to do. And now there are so many other wool shows.  But Woolfest was the first and it showed that it could be done.

Q: What can you say about the motivation of those who had their own businesses to join the coop?

You would have to ask one of them. Alice is one of them – she’s such a committed coop member, you forget she wasn’t there at the start. Some of them believe in the idea of cooperatives politically, as a movement for societal change. Someone gave me the name “the political wing of the Wool Clip”! At one point we were involved in a lot of government consultations on the wool industry and I was nominated to write our responses. There was occasionally a muttering that some people only joined because it was just another gallery to sell at – but that’s absolutely not fair, a member still needs to work their days in the shop and do all the things that need doing.

Q: What strategies were used in the coop for communications amongst itself?

This was one area we didn’t always do very well, especially with technology. Message boards would have been fabulous and could have exchanged all these emails that just poured in with messages that had been compartmentalised into their topics. We weren’t able to find one that was simple enough for all members to use and also secure. We had a bit of training on Google Groups but that was no use because it just emailed everyone anyway. That would have made a massive difference to me when I was there. There was often a sense that members were apathetic. An email would be sent around and there would be nothing in reply – silence or perhaps one person. It wasn’t because members didn’t care – they didn’t have the time or the headspace to deal with it when it arrived and then it would scroll away and be forgotten.  Perhaps there should have been a poll at the bottom of each email that says “yes/no/don’t know”!

They may have done something about this now, it may be much easier.

I don’t know if there is some software out there that meets these needs now.

We had monthly meetings. These were hugely important. We would also get members interacting with other members in other ways. They might go and run a stall somewhere together which was a great way to get to know each other.

The monthly meetings could be dominated by one or two people and others not talking.

Q: Did the postcard picking idea get used at these meetings?

Not at these. Someone would introduce a subject, and everyone would vote on it. This was not necessarily a situation of people trying to get an opportunity to talk. Agendas became very important, making sure they were appropriately detailed and not a surprise, giving people time to process. People have different ways of thinking about an issue, some need lots of time, others spontaneous.

We were having a lot of meetings at one particular member’s house – they made delicious food, we loved going there, but it felt like it gave that member a lot of power, something that was not necessarily thought of. Food always helped, making the meeting a bit less intimidating and businessy and a bit more centred around food sharing and reminding ourselves that we were all friends in a space.

Cecilia’s Database

Q: Can you tell us more about the database you designed for the coop?

The database itself has been deleted because of GDPR. It got passed on to someone else once my admin role was finished in 2009. I found 93 emails between myself and the person who made the database, and the spec notes.

The reason we got into having a database was because I joined the Wool Clip to help Carolyn whom I met at the local Spinners, Weavers & Dyers Guild. It was clear she could use some admin help. She already had an admin system for stallholders, and contact information for spinners/weavers guilds from around the country for a mailing list. I offered to help. Carolyn agreed in 2006 very readily, and handed me a card index file, all handwritten in pencil in her lovely writing.

In time for the show that summer, I quickly got this straight into the computer as a load of mail merge documents. This was just in Word using Word mail merge. In order to print labels, I asked it for a label run on stallholders. In 2006, Carolyn found some funding which was specifically for technology. There was £1000 which could be spent on some tech, an EU grant. Perhaps in retrospect a shiny printer would have been a better idea, but I said perhaps some kind of database would be good. We could do more than just a mail merge, and report on aspects of what we were doing.

It was agreed by the Wool Clip as a whole and someone local gave us the name of Margaret Francis of Cleverdata, since she designed show databases. Agricultural shows were the basis of it and our show was a bit different but had some areas of overlap. She was confident she could design something for us, using Microsoft Access.

We had names and addresses and details of the stallholders, and then of the guild people who we would mail with information about the show. There were 12 different types of record, and some people were in several categories. You could arrange them and print out reports based on the flags that they had. It was a single site licence, but multi user, but no one else was interested in learning how to use it.

We then moved on to generate invoices from the stallholder records. It turned out that all Carolyn’s invoices were hand written. This was a big step helping her, it was completely brilliant. There was a lot of toing and froing at the outset. I’d expected this because I’d worked for a software company who had made such databases on a larger scale. There were lots of “undocumented features”, the term that was used, that needed fixing.

It was brilliant and very user friendly – the aim was to create a system which I could hand on, unlike Carolyn’s system of handwritten notes. You put the details in the boxes, and you couldn’t accidentally break it.

It was clear from my notes how much Graham helped. The designer had a tendency to say “You must be doing that wrong” and I would say “I don’t think I’m doing this wrong, Graham, am I doing this wrong?” and he and Margaret would work it out.

It took a remarkably short period of time. We ordered it in November 2006, and by early 2007 it was up and running. Later on we added the invoicing, perhaps a year later. We had ongoing telephone support for 6 months as part of the grant. And there were a couple of hours that were never used. In 2009 I handed it over – it was decided to employ an actual administrator, Hazel, and it was handed over to her, and she knew Margaret. She was confident she could use it, and she had a few hours of Margaret’s time. I don’t know what happened to it after that. Hazel spent some time doing the admin and then her contract ended. And with Hazel went the database. I later asked casually what had been happening to the database, and was told the current admin was being done on an Excel spreadsheet. I can’t imagine the spreadsheet could do all that the database had done.

All the information went into it, as long as you’d got your codes right, you could generate reports from that “sideways” to all the information. It was storing all those records so beautifully, and didn’t present them in a way where you could associate the wrong address with the wrong name. With a spreadsheet it would be very easy to enter a field incorrectly. Each record on the database came up as its own page.

Q: What did the database do?

You could enter names, addresses, roles and notes about stallholders, livestock stallholder, the volunteers helping at the show and everyone on the marketing mailing lists. You could ask it to generate letters, labels, invoice, either in a run of everything or just one specific record.  And you could create reports, which showed things such as who had paid and were also incredibly helpful to have as physical lists, to use in offline contexts, such as at Woolfest itself.  For instance, we worked with a local graphic design company on the programme for the show and I could just give them a printout of the report for the stall listings. It could all be done using spreadsheets but the database was that much neater and it felt safer, and was very user friendly. If I was handing it over to someone less computer literate, they would find it easy. It wouldn’t let you get it wrong.

It was a single licence product, and run on a computer at my house – there was no tech in the shop at the time (that’s changed now). There was another tech grant much later, perhaps in 2014? With that the coop was able to computerise more systems and have a laptop in the shop for everyone to use. If that had been in place at the time of the database, we would perhaps have used that and other members could have taken a share in entering the information. On the other hand, it was very useful to be at home as I was doing it as a full time job, especially for the first couple of years. It would have been a nuisance to have to go to the shop every day. If I was doing it now, I probably would have got a sort of licence that would allow access from the shop.

After the era of the database, there was a phase of the coop becoming very paper-based. It was decided that everyone had to do everything, it was no longer acceptable for post about Woolfest to come to shop and not be dealt with. During your day in the shop, you opened all the mail, and for example Woolfest applications got entered into the paper system. If the database had still been in use and connected to the shop system that would have been a perfect use for it, but by then it was gone. No one had access to the Excel spreadsheet, except the employed admin person and one other person and the paper system in the shop ran parallel to the spreadsheet.

We hadn’t wanted it to be a “this is how it is done” kind of system, rather instead as “this is to be helpful”. It was also possible to make notes about the stall holders. Information that gets lost if it is scribbled on the backs of envelopes.

Q: How did you work with the designer?

I can’t remember the first meeting I had with her. There are emails saying the meeting was going to happen. She probably came with a laptop and showed me her system, for running a show, a standard agricultural show for livestock showing and getting prizes, a Women’s Institute tent, food vendors and how to put all the information for that into it. I showed her how Woolfest was similar but different. We didn’t have prizes. Our livestock stalls were an exhibition. They were like other stallholders but organised by a different coop member, they had their own separate requirements but needed to be on the database.

There were the stallholders who sold woollen goods and workshop exhibitors who would run workshops about their skills. And then there was a large number of volunteers, we couldn’t have run the show without them. They were mostly from the local Spinners & Weavers Guild. They would organise themselves into doing a door rota, selling the entry tickets. We needed extra help beyond that. We mailed all the guilds in the country, partly to market the show, but also to get help. After the first year, we decided we could get feedback and could also get more volunteers signed up by putting questionnaires on the backs of the entry tickets. We could ask what they liked most/least, what problems they faced, and what they would like to see. To get the tickets back, we created a prize draw, they dropped them off, and then all that information went into the database. One of the most useful things it did was to highlight the overlap between the volunteers and others. This deduplication was important to make sure we weren’t mailing the same person many times because there was a small difference in how they’d entered their details. This was how it differed from the standard show database. Margaret was confident she could accommodate that and indeed she did.

Q: What did you hear about results of the tech grant the cooperative received in 2014?

It was partly brilliant and partly useless. An EU thing. So much so, they were so determined to show that all the money was accounted for they sent a man to each Wool Clip member to go through the forms, they were so concerned we wouldn’t be able to fill out the form. It was a grant to small businesses in rural Cumbria, we seemed to be on a “hit list”, particularly for women. It enabled us to buy a couple of laptops, one for the shop, one for a person in charge of the Excel spreadsheet, and another for the person in charge of accounts. We also got a load of iPads. Another member got a camera to document her work. Loads of people in small businesses locally benefited from this scheme. We also received some tech training. An issue with the training was that we’d been given Apple devices and the training was Google-based. It was not totally happy working on the Apple devices. I talked earlier about the Google calendar. In some ways it was fabulous, you could amend it remotely, whereas it had been previously paper in the shop and to find out who was working when and you could just ring the shop and have a nice chat and get to know the members, which obviously wasn’t as quick and easy, but, that point of human contact was lost with Google calendar, except for the people phoning Cecilia because she had volunteered to help folks with the tech. Some members were very unsure of it. If you happened to ask offhand when another member was working they would say – “don’t ask me that because I’ll have to look at the Google calendar”!   The technology grant meant things like sales records could be computerised with a straightforward system and everyone learned that, although the paper backup was kept too. With sales entered directly on the computer in the shop, the member responsible for the accounts could access it daily remotely which made it much easier for them.. The database grant was for Woolfest, the other was specifically for Wool Clip. I’m in two minds about some of it. Did I like the iPad? Being a craftworker, I’ve only got so much time to spend on a screen.

We tried Google Groups but it was a disaster. People had trouble stopping it from feeding straight into emails, and we got notifications every time, so it created even more emails. We all had Gmail accounts. Theoretically we could have used Gmail for Wool Clip and keep that separate from our personal accounts. In reality everyone just used their normal email addresses, and getting the iPads just meant more emails flying around. The idea was some sort of forum to avoid all the emails, but it wasn’t user friendly and we didn’t find anything that was. There is a great need in the world for user friendly forums, Facebook has been scooping it all up, we need things businesses can use just to provide message space.  

Alice Underwood’s involvement with The Wool Clip

Alice joined the Wool Clip after moving to Cumbria in 2010. As well as being a knitting designer, she owns her own flock of rare breed sheep. She had been running her own business since 2006 after first attending Woolfest in 2005. Alice came to the wool scene after a background in the Health Service, including teaching and lecturing. She is still a member of the Wool Clip.

Q: How did you first come to join the Wool Clip?

When I went along to Woolfest in 2005, people asked me “Where’s your stand?”. That was a wonderful story because that is what the Wool Clip and Woolfest were all about – encouraging people to broaden their horizons into the world of all things wool. My friend Sue and I set ourselves a challenge to start a business. 4 years later I moved to Cumbria, had already had a stall at Woolfest every year and so knew some of the people in the Wool Clip, including Cecilia. I was in a business partnership, and I didn’t know where that stood in terms of joining the cooperative, but it worked out fine.

You don’t want to have the majority of the people in a group being weavers or crocheters, or whatever. It is important to have a wide mix of creative skills. I have a strong interest in rare breed sheep, which adds diversity and I am someone that has wool produced from my own sheep and am a knitting designer using these and other wools.

Q: How did you find the transition into the coop? Did it seem a very different decision-making and collective responsibility model than a partnership?

My background was working in the health service which was very hierarchical. Additionally many of my colleagues were male, whereas the Wool Clip is predominantly female. I was there as a clinical scientist. I liked the fact that everyone was equal but I was frustrated that although in theory we were all equal, we were not in practice. I’m a doer and felt I was ‘doing’ too much at times.

Q: Cecilia mentioned that there might have been a perception of implicit status of those as founders, leading to a possible long-lived imbalance?

I felt this was more to do with differences in personality. Some wanted to be in charge whereas others wanted an easier life, for whatever reasons. Some may see the Wool Clip simply as a shop they can sell things, possibly not appreciating the behind the scenes work. It takes time for people to gain confidence in a new community.

I have a rule to not say anything at meetings in a new group for around 3 months. I like to find out who’s who and who does what – some may never take a major part, others may come in all guns blazing. It takes time to appreciate the nature of different personalities. There are currently 14 of us. This is not many people but enough to potentially create some difficulties. I can put this in the context of having been in an organisation of over a million and a partnership of just 2.

Q: Did you take part in any of the training sessions offered to the coop, e.g. from SECOD?

I did attend one, not the one that Cecilia mentioned, but there was a later one when we were having difficulties in effectively communicating with each other. It was useful, but the most useful thing was for everyone to get together and someone to guide us as to how to say things and structure the day. We’re not always very structured. We do have an agenda for our meetings, but sometimes drift from that. The training was helpful to move us along, and made a point of making sure everyone had a chance to speak.

Q: Why do you feel the Wool Clip was constituted a coop?

I evaluated this in 2017, and spoke to a friend who was a founder member who talked me through the planning stages. Her view was that they looked through various business models, and spoke with someone from Coops UK, and it was decided that an industrial and provident society was what was needed. It allows things to be relatively informal which is useful when you’ve got a real mix of people, and that there was limited liability, and no employees. This would remove the whole need for HR.

We have very different people with different lives and skills. The view was that with a cooperative model it allows you to exploit those skills – this could almost be a downside since you can have people saying “I don’t know how to do that”. My background means that I’m going to find out, but not everyone has the confidence to do that. It’s important to share things out, and chop and change so you’re not doing the same thing all the time. When a person with the relevant skills isn’t there you’ve got a massive hole, and you haven’t got management to go to as there is no higher tier.

Cecilia mentioned that the chair of the Wool Clip changed frequently, but the treasurer less so. Someone can step in in the interim before you can formally put someone in that position. We would encourage people to all have a go at everything – and not be scared saying “I’ve never done that before”. There’s been a time nobody has been in some roles. Then you’ve got more people learning that skill set.

I have done a lot of the social media work in the past, but then I put my hands up saying, it’s not fresh any more. Nobody wanted to take it on, but I had got a lot going on in life, so sent a note to the next meeting saying “I’m doing it to the end of May and stopping”. Thankfully another member stepped in, despite not having the confidence to do so herself. She knew I would help and support her in the transition.

Because we take turns to be in the shop there’s always a way of catching up with someone. You can say “I’m in the shop on Monday, can you get to the shop” if they need help with something. When I’m between customers, I can go through things and find time to share skills.

Q: Did you work in the finance area for some period? How did the scaling of the Wool Clip/Woolfest affect people’s relationship with that?  

I was treasurer for Woolfest for 5-6 years. The shop itself started with a tiny unit, which is now 4-5x the size, with a much higher income. Woolfest started with 80 stalls at the beginning, but at the end was closer to 150. That scaling up created difficulties in terms of expectations. Wool shows were happening everywhere by that time – the expectations of stall holders changed which became difficult to manage at times.

Initially there was no other wool show in the country, so people were very excited, but expectations changed. Now someone can visit a wool show every weekend if they want to – we shouldn’t say we are “against” competition, but some of the others were professional show organisers, which we weren’t. Ours was held in an auction mart where cattle and sheep are sold, and organisers would tear their hair out if someone was saying “why haven’t they filled in all the gullies that are used for swilling?”. We did our best to help people with mobility issues but it could never be perfect for the less physically able. We were simply amateurs doing our best – now there are professionals organising wool shows, and good luck to them for doing it. Expectations grew for Woolfest – “where’s the camping site, etc.” and there were a few challenges that we couldn’t meet.

Because of Covid we couldn’t hold it in 2020 and 2021. With no experience of such things, we managed to hold two online events – the first was fantastic. We’d been confined to our houses so it was a wonderful way to reach out to folk. I’m interested in animals and know a lot of people with livestock, so we shared photos of livestock owners showing off their breeds of sheep. By the following year, lots of other people were doing online wool shows, and people weren’t spending as much. They’d been able to do this over many weekends. We thought – do we start Woolfest up again – or call it a day? It took us a very very long time to make that decision. That was one of the hardest decisions in the coop that I’ve been part of. No tempers were lost but it was very demanding. But now we are able to use the time taken for Woolfest admin for doing other things, and these things are part of the Wool Clip of course.

People had reached the stage they’d wanted a professional show. We didn’t ever pay ourselves for organising it – when you get a lot of flak it’s hard. We are very proud of what we achieved – we were the first – we brought this concept over to the UK, thanks to Carolyn, and what an industry it’s produced.

Woolfest was originally part of the Wool Clip cooperative. We split apart from the Wool Clip after just a few years, which was purely a financial decision. Woolfest had its own expenditure and income etc. and this was putting us above the VAT threshold. Although we had a mostly identical membership, we needed a different treasurer, otherwise it would have felt a bit too uncomfortable. In recent years Linda was and is treasurer of the Wool Clip, and I became treasurer of Woolfest – a great partnership as we could phone and ask each other for help, or use the other as a sounding board. It made everything very clear, with no confusion.

Q: We’re interested in how coops keep information about themselves, how they keep that info in trust. Was there a contrast the kinds of record-keeping you experienced in the NHS and the coop.

The NHS would change every 3 years with a new layer of management. I’m keen on accountability, on reporting back. Things are “looser” in a coop, more relaxed and not as structured. That took some getting used to. There were great benefits of that though – letting people fly. If someone has an idea, comes to a meeting, we may just agree there and then, or we may go away and try to find some further info and come back to discuss.

Q: And was the model of decision-making less hierarchical, and more irregular?

We have a chair who has a casting vote in decisions, but in practice this has never been an issue. All decisions get talked around, and I have never known a fall-out about them. It’s not too difficult to come to consensus, we have always got there in the end.

Q: Can you say something about the coop’s use and experience of technology?

I didn’t have experience of Cecilia’s database, but I did experience an attempt to set up a Google calendar, and storing stuff in Google so people could access it. The calendar worked and is still in use, though the idea of storing stuff never truly happened. Not everyone was comfortable using the internet, spreadsheets, databases. Cecilia wanted it to be shared. In 2013 we were trying to get more digital. A lot of people then just were not ready for this change. Even the calendar caused grief. They didn’t know how to log in, or forgot how to do it. They were unfamiliar with technology and uncomfortable. But it needed to be done and now works very well indeed, with all members using it.

Q: The transition to technology is interesting, what kinds of accommodations or workarounds were made for those not so digital?

Again the physical space of the shop was a great help. You could say, “When are you next in the shop? I’ll show you how to do it.” You would be working through it, going and helping people. Working as a cooperative, we are all there to help each other.

Q: What sort of state would people be in in the meantime? Were they left out?

No, they were not excluded. You might send things by email that they should have been able to access. I’ll send links to people if they can’t find something. People need to be honest if they are struggling. Otherwise people would just be left wondering why haven’t they responded.
Other workarounds might involve sections of spreadsheets – you might take a screenshot and send it as a JPG or PDF or so if they’re struggling to get into that.

For members of the coop, there’s no job description – people are taken on because of the general picture of what they can offer, and their willingness to be part of the team. We don’t say “We need someone who’s good at marketing”.

Q: If someone wants to join the coop, what does that process look like?

They come and talk to us. We always ask them to show us their work, leaving some of their products in the shop for the members to look at. We go through them without the person there and see if we think there’s a gap that they fill. Someone will then go and talk to them to give feedback. New members start with a 6 month probationary period,  before becoming a full member. They almost always do fit in. It just means neither side is taking on something they can’t walk away from without fuss.

Q: Returning to the “phygital” model for the coop’s data – is the physical sales ledger described by Cecilia still a thing in the shop?

Yes, we still do that. We don’t always have good internet in the shop. If it broke down, then we’d have no records if the handwritten ledger didn’t exist. If you’re busy in the shop, you’ve got to write down name, price, cash/card, with a queue of 20 people  – it can sometimes cause difficulties. But, to be fair, most customers are happily patient. At a later point in the day these handwritten notes are entered into the Google Sheet enabling all members, especially the treasurer, to see what has been sold during the day. We have a Jan, Jean, Jane, Julia in the co-op so mistakes can be made in this process. When the treasurer sees what’s entered on the computer, she’d know I wouldn’t be selling a hand-woven scarf for example. So she’d call and check to see what the correct info is. It’s good to have that backup. With the paper version there is a way of double checking when these hiccups arise. When I’m in the shop if I have a quiet moment, I get busy putting it into the Google Sheet. Other people might need to have that door shut and do it all once the shop closes.

Q: Is the treasurer a paid position?

No. No one is paid so it is important to try and get jobs evenly shared. It’s most important then to balance out the work. We do pay the accountants who prepare our annual return.

Commission from sales is taken off, which is how we pay for rent, utility bills etc. The commission does vary – not regularly, but if we are going through a difficult financial time it will go up.

Q: Returning to Cecilia’s example of competition when some work was rejected – can you think of situations in which the collective nature of the coop can create tensions?

The competition was an unfortunate case where there was not complete clarity with the organisers. We’d assumed they’d take a piece from each of us and hadn’t thought to seek clarification on this before accepting the invite.

Some things might not seem fair – for example, there’s an opportunity for Grampus/Erasmus tours into Europe. Takeup of these can appear to be uneven, but it can be just seasonal. For example, I can’t do this season since I’m lambing. Another time I went to the Isle of Man since noone else wanted to give the required lecture.

Q: Are there situations where the nature of coop is not understood by external body?

All the time! The phone rings – someone asks, “are you in charge”? Someone’s name may be on the phone account, but they may not be the person dealing with it. They ask, “can I speak to so-and-so?” (whoever set up telephone line). Instead we say, can you put it in writing by email and we’ll forward to everyone.

Q: Has the issue come up in financing situations – has the coop tried to apply for loans or credit?

No, we applied for a couple of grants in the early years. For anyone looking to set up a system check on what basis grants are being allocated. E.g. one restriction we had was that the funds were to be used for marketing, but not for advertising. Got to be very clear what the basis is on which you’re getting that grant money.

Q: Are there ways that this process that could interact with the coop structure? Have you been caught out by that?

In this example, yes. We’ve never taken out loans, even at the beginning. What does surprise coop members is that we’re all jointly liable. If we were to take out loans, we’d all be equally responsible for them.


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