Interview: Elaine Burke, Khama

By Krisi

Elaine Burke, Makerversity member runs a social enterprise in Malawi, working with local craftswomen and men to create handmade fashion items using locally sourced raw materials.

We caught up with her after her latest trip to Malawi to find out more about her latest range of accessories.

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This was about your tenth trip to Malawi, what was the purpose of this trip?

To work on our latest collaboration which is a bomber jacket for a project in Ireland called Ethnic threads, (A university run project which engages students with social enterprises. ) I went out to do training and we also expanded the workshop. So we were busy knocking down walls whilst knocking out a production line!

Anytime you come back from Malawi you seem to have discovered a new material source on the local market, any gems this trip?

Actually yes, recycled rubber tyres! We were looking for an alternative for the veg tan because that comes from the UK, so now were making zip pulleys from rubber strips and they look great.

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In London we can pick and mix from a huge range of fabrics, buttons, sequins that are on offer to us, it couldn’t be more different in Malawai. What’s it like to design under those restrictions?

It can be a really rewarding and exciting experience, for instance this time we discovered rubber tyres, last time it was coloured fisherman thread, designs get adapted by whatever’s available which always adds something new and unexpected.

We also make a lot of things from scratch, for example for the buttons on the new backpacks… we made a prototype here in the UK in Sugru, sent them out to the woodcarvers by the lake who then made samples and once approved, make up a bulk order.

What’s the maker community like in Malawai?

Everyone’s out making stuff on the streets all the time, which I Love. There’s a real ‘make do and mend’ spirit. The women recently made their own range of bags using charity clothing because they didn’t have any spare materials, there’s definitely a real ingenuity with the materials.

Any highs or lows from the trip?

Seeing the women being taken completely out their comfort zone and totally mastering a new skill is very rewarding, a real high for everyone. Also one of the workers, Emi had her 59th birthday so we had lemon cake and soda and I gave her a photograph of herself outside the workshop as they never really have those things so…Yeah It felt like a productive trip all in all!

A low point was probably buying the last zipper foot in the capital city that we needed to copy, taking it to the metal worker and him cutting the wrong zipper foot completely into pieces ..  It wasn’t a disaster in the end but yeah, that was a low.

What is your favourite item at the moment?

I‘ve got a limited edition of really quirky African prints that I’ve been collecting for a while, and that’s actually my favourite – things like little cups and saucers and glass bottles.

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What does a typical day at Makerversity look like for you/?

Well there is no typical day, but I normally wake up around 7 and straight away I’m talking to the ladies, seeing if they’ve got all the materials they need, making sure the workshop has funds and everyone’s working and it’s going ok. Then my time is probably divided between making prototypes, chatting with customers, checking that all our suppliers are well stocked and talking to people about collaborations.

In another life what would you like to be doing?

I think I want be a florist! Although they told me I should be a corporate lawyer when I was in school…!

If you could learn a new skill what would you like to learn?

I’d love to be able to do woodwork, also i’d like to learn the Chichewa language… and ice skating!

What are you most proud of ?

I’m really proud of the women, especially one of the ladies who’s been with me from the start who is basically running the workshop now, Maggie, she’s incredibly gifted and she just exceeds my expectations every time, she’s brilliant.

It’s just really inspiring no matter what I suggest to do, they’re always up for it, and the workshops always full of chatter and laughter, they’re constantly ripping the piss out of each other but the support and community is always there. It has really enriched my life.

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Can you name your favourite day at Makerversity?

ooh it’s hard to say just one, I think one of my favourite days – this is weird, but it was when we were upstairs listening to the radio, with our overalls on, during the middle of Fashion week and we could see all the people outside and we were just so busy painting the walls and ceiling we had no idea it was all unfolding downstairs. There was a great feeling of building something together, and also that feeling of being anti-establishment.

Any exciting collaborations coming up?

Yes! I’ve been speaking to someone in Sierra Leone who has a project that I feel really passionate about. Its’ in the Ebola area and as you can imagine the artisans who were working there were already struggling because of the war and now just all the stuff that’s coming out of Africa at the moment is about Ebola so we’re working on something together to showcase the creativity and productivity that’s still going on despite the difficulties.

Who would you Love to collaborate with ?

Christopher Raeburn! I really would love to collaborate with Christopher Raeburn.

Thanks Elaine, Visit Khama’s shop now to get something in time for Christmas!

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Posted By Krisi
Managing Director