Laurence Alster talks to A-level textile students who are making silk purses out of sound ideas
Unlike most of the others, stand F33 at the last Damp;T with ICT Education Show in Birmingham last November offered no flashy displays, high-tech gizmos or smooth-talking salespeople, but just a few girls busily sewing and stitching some rather exotic-looking products. The products were handbags and the girls were AS and A-level textiles technology students from the Arnewood School, a technology college in New Milton, Hampshire.
Being at the show was the high point of a scheme that, as so often happens with the best ideas, had come almost from nowhere.
Lorraine Emerton, who wants to study textiles at university, remembers the moment well: "We got the basic idea at a sixth-form open evening. We were all sitting around making tassels, trying to think of an idea to cover some parts of the syllabus, when we came up with a scheme to make bags. Everyone thought it was promising because it's a wide market."
Textiles technology teacher Adele Tylas was similarly enthusiastic, not least because the plan matched the demands of the Edexcel A-level product design (textile technology) syllabus almost perfectly.
"Across the two years of the course we have to cover marketing and advertising, consumer issues, CADCAM (Computer-aided design computer-aided manufacturing), quality control, design, fabric properties and legislation. So we tried to make it a live project, one that would involve the whole product life cycle," she says.
After initially experimenting with cone-shaped bags and others inspired by origami, the 12 students and two teachers opted for reversible silk bags - "ideal for our target market," says student Bonnie Lock.
But silk is expensive and, despite having invested pound;10 each in the project, funds were short. So it was decided to raise more money by making a cheaper product for a different market. Sticking to the handbag theme, the team sold dozens of bags made from transparent industrial laminate.
Customers were invited to bring in any images they wanted - lip prints, for example, chocolate bar wrappers, photos or postcards - to be sandwiched between slices of laminate that eventually made up the sides of a handbag.
Student Samantha Taylor said it paid off handsomely: "The wide age range at school meant lots of people were interested, so we sold our products at prices to fit them, pound;2 for an A4 size bag and pound;3 for an A3.
From the laminated bags we made just over pound;200 at school and we used the money to buy silk.
"Later, we made another pound;200 at the NEC in Birmingham. Originally, we went there just to make the silk bags and show off our ideas, but more and more people asked about and bought our laminated bags."
Looking to the future, head of textiles technology Susan Bugler not only sees a different marketing technique but also a revised price structure for the silk bags. The next step is to produce silk sewing kits so people can make their own bags and to increase the price of the ready-made silk bags.
"We were told at the NEC that our bags were too cheap and that we could comfortably increase our prices by pound;5 each from pound;10 for a small and pound;20 for a large bag. If we do this we'll make rather more than our current profit."
Buoyed up by their success so far, the team is working on its own website but also intends to sell at craft and hobby fairs.
A local shop has shown interest and press publicity should help. Even so, as Adele Tylas admits, sales skills need to be developed: "We've put in a lot of production hours and we need to sell the bags to justify these.
Until the website is operational, we'll have to polish up our direct selling through school, local outlets and the knitting and stitching show."
Though the scheme - purely an extra, done mainly in the students'
own time - will not be submitted as examination coursework, Susan Bugler feels that it will bring more than economic benefits. "The know-how they've gained from this project will benefit them in all kinds of ways," she says.
The students agree. "It's definitely helped with our UCAS personal statements," says Lorraine Emerton, while Samantha Taylor stresses the social side: "Our confidence and communication skills have really come on, and we've learned to treat teachers as equals."
For Bonnie Lock, getting involved has meant bags of fun: "It's been really exciting, something to look forward to." And, as with so many such activities, the teachers have discovered their students anew. "Everybody's mucked in," says Adele Tylas. "We've seen facets of the girls'
personalities that we never knew they had."
If projected profits are realised, their reward will be a day trip to the Design Museum and Liberty's in London, followed perhaps by a visit to the theatre. Susan Bugler thinks it's the least they deserve. "They've done the work, so we want to make sure the reward is theirs and that it doesn't just end up paying for next year's reels of thread."
The project should be online by the end of March. For details, visit the school's website: www.arnewood.hants.sch.uk