Permaculture, basket making, and the Urban Nanna

Updated: Mar 10

The Urban Nanna, aka Anna, has been crafting since she was 10-years old. Her work in the sustainability space, namely permaculture, came later when she realised that modern craft has a sustainability problem. Teaching traditional skills to empower sustainable living felt like a calling to this powerful Nanna who, when she isn't creating her own work, might be found running a workshop on how to forage your own mushrooms, or explaining the importance of living a sustainable life on your local radio station. We asked her a few questions about what drives her to do all that she does.

Tell us about your love for crafting for a second. Have you always been into slow stitching? Have you always made baskets?

I’ve always been creative, which I put down largely to the fact that my mum is an artist. From childhood, I’ve loved trying my hand at all sorts of crafts and particularly gravitated towards natural materials. I’ve embroidered since I was 10-years old (particularly cross-stitch); I spent years working with clay, stone and found materials to make sculptures, winning several awards in my 20s; and the attraction towards incorporating natural objects (seeds, cocoons, bones, feathers, fossils etc) has run strong and deep since majoring in visual arts at university.

I’ve been making stitched coil baskets with reeds and grasses for around 10 years, going back to one entrancing weekend after my mum had cut down a NZ Flax plant in my childhood garden. I’ve intermittently used traditional weaving methods to produce baskets and 2D artworks. I also love a bit of carving, and have recently been playing around with carving pieces from avocado stone, which is great fun.

How do you think permaculture, sustainability and craft relate? And why do you think sustainability in craft is so important?

Any action that humans undertake have an effect on the global environment, and thereby, we impact the sustainability of our planet with the choices we make. In a 2018 paper looking into the factors influencing pro-environmental behaviours in craft businesses, researchers discussed the rise of ‘handmade crafts’ and outlined how 'the mass production of consumer goods has a direct effect on climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the depletion of natural resources.' This really stayed with me, and has been part of the lens through which I view any new crafting craze that crops up.

Permaculture is a system which grew up around a genuine desire to tread more lightly on the earth so as to increase the chances of future generations having a healthy and stable place to exist. The foundational ethics of permaculture speak of caring for the earth, caring for each other, and ensuring there’s a ‘fair share’ balance between all living things. Within that framework, there are multiple principles which help guide people in their quest to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

When you stop to consider the materials, processes, and practises used in the production of the crafting materials available to the mass market, it very quickly becomes evident that there’s a real problem with this industry.

The principles (which you can read about in full here) cover things like Produce no waste; Applying self-regulation, and using & valuing renewable resources and services, and these speak directly to how we as crafters can begin to think about our practice if we wish to reduce our negative environmental impact.

I think sustainability in craft is vitally important. So many of the materials used by crafters – paints, glues, fabrics, yarns, stickers, glitter!! – not only took massive amounts of raw materials & energy to create, but largely won’t be recyclable at the end of their life. Just because a thing can be made, doesn’t mean it should be. I think conversations need to keep happening amongst crafting circles to encourage moderation in the use of environmentally detrimental materials, and nurture exploration into the use of sustainably & ethically sourced renewable natural materials.

Do you think the craft industry needs a sustainability overhaul? Why?

I do, absolutely! For several decades, the focus I’ve noticed in the craft world circles around how much ‘amazing’ new stuff can be bought, how easily and cheaply it can be obtained, and how quickly crafters tire of each ‘new best thing’.

Even just observing those behaviours, it’s easy to see that there’s a real problem of consumerism when it comes to craft: if it’s not new, then it’s not Interesting. When you stop to consider the materials, processes, and practises used in the production of the crafting materials available to the mass market, it very quickly becomes evident that there’s a real problem with this industry.

Quite aside from the finished products often being plastic-based, non-recyclable, and coming in excessive packaging, there’s the issue of the carbon footprint involved in making, packaging and transporting craft materials around the world. Then there’s the question of what raw materials were used to make the stuff people craft with: were they sustainably sourced? What ethical factors were considered in the collection of them? And then there’s the trade practises of the companies and factories that produce the cheap stuff we’re all so conditioned to seek out: many countries have poor (if any) fair-work practises, and things like work-safety, child-labour laws and fair-pay just don’t exist.

There is already a shift towards awareness of fair-work practices in industrialised manufacturing around the world (‘fast fashion’ is slowly becoming social anathema), which is great to see, but we need to keep looking for the things that can be done better and work out ways to execute change that is considered and able to be maintained.

What are your top 5 tips for a sustainable life?

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. There are so many people out there doing the research and sharing the findings of how we can reduce our environmental impact: listen to them. Take their advice, observe your own actions truthfully, and when you can see that your actions could be more sustainable, work towards changing them.

Be kind to yourself. Once you start truthfully self-reflecting, it’s easy to become weighed down with ‘eco-guilt’. Try not to listen to that inner voice that shames you for not fixing it all at once: just take it a step at a time.

Use small & slow solutions. Make one small change, get it to the stage where it happened naturally, then choose another change. I’ve written up a big list of small and sequential alterations you can try if you’re keen.

Produce no waste. Look at every resource you have as if it was the last one of its kind. Think of all the ways you could use up every last bit of it, or consider how you could cut something differently to get more out of it . Eg saving up all thread offcuts to create filling for small stuffed items, or quilting together tiny pieces of fabric offcuts to create larger useful pieces.

Integrate rather than segregate. Try not to think about ‘living sustainably’ as a separate thing in your life that has to be fit in somewhere. Think of it instead as something that can be found in every facet of your already existing life. Constantly ask yourself if you could do something differently next time to work towards the sustainable person you’d like to be.

For more info head to:

Urban Nanna's website

Urban Nanna Workshops

Follow on Instagram @theurbannanna

Interested in making Baskets from the Garden? Go here

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