The power of a pair of hands

MORE THAN IN THE BLOOD:Meet Lou Hanmer, the second Woman of Wool 2014.

WHEN Miranda Pereira was recovering from a life threatening illness, she took up the knitting needles and yarn. What emerged from her hands is a business based on Australian natural fibre, jobs for unemployed women in Loddon-Murray and a new organisation that will lobby government and big business to revive regional enterprises.

Being told you need life saving surgery for a cerebral brain aneurysm would derail the strongest of us. Add to that the fact that your mother has died from the same condition 12 months previously and the challenge requires a strong will.

For the next two and half years, life as a busy city advertising communications Director isn’t an option. The body must rest. But, the brain still works overtime. Miranda discovered her late mother’s craft box. “I desperately needed occupation, but had real physical limitations,” she says. “It was then that I started to knit. I realised the power of the tools I had dangling there, right on the end of my two arms.”

It was a case of being able to dream again. “I could think without fear. And, I had my future back. My hands gave me that,” she says. By the end of that journey, Miranda had even made weaving looms using door knobs and window fastenings and knocked out the seats of Bentwood chairs to use their circular frames.

She had knitted, knotted, invented, hooked, sewn and revelled in bringing beautiful natural yarn to life. Why stop there? Miranda created her own fashion and homewares label, Daato. 

She could have kept that in hometown Melbourne, but instead discovered an army of women in the Loddon-Murray region who were crying out for paid employment. Knitters, pattern checkers, finishers and they could work in a group or work from home. Whether they are in Bendigo or smaller, isolated towns, they want to work and be paid for it. Like Miranda, they could be shown how to unlock the power that was in their hands and be trained in new skills. 

Miranda was happy with her regional workforce and could have enjoyed the feel-good outcome, but this is not a woman who can just stop there. She had listened to their stories, trained them and worked with them. The National Hands Network was her next creation. If they could do it using Australian grown fibre and a local workforce and on the way through win a top design award in Milan, Italy, then why couldn’t others be attracted to go down the same path and breath some new life into economically struggling communities? 

Five months ago, the NHN went into action with the target of bringing together Australians who are united in their goal to create rural and regional jobs in the manufacturing sector.

The experience with the Daato label became the model. So far, 27 Loddon residents have been allocated paid work to produce the label. Miranda began working with Loddon Shire Knitters last year to research placing the project permanently in the Loddon Shire. Two or three times a week, there is a trip from Melbourne head office to Inglewood and Wedderburn, where working sessions with the knitters are held.

They also make house calls to other knitters throughout the region. The travel ‘melts away on account of the extraordinary fashion and humanity... that is unfolding between Daato and the Loddon Shire as they knit together.’ 

As the knitters and other employees acquire new skills, the leadership qualities to manage the project have begun to emerge. The median age of the knitters is 50 years old in a region where 40% fall into the national low income threshold, but Miranda says they are passionate about wanting to work and passionate about keeping their towns and communities alive. 

Without an income they can’t afford to buy local, but with regular paid work this can change.

The NHN is setting up work centres where a job seeker can go and learn initially to interact and socialise. The first one will be in the Wedderburn High Street. Once ready to take on a job, employees can be given a work bag to take home and complete or they can complete it at the centre. This has been done in close consultation with the local council. They have also embraced the next generation through a schools programme and Young Manufacturers’ Awards.

The fact that employees could be trained to produce a high quality commercial product and proudly stamp it as ‘Loddon Made’ is now being used to change mindsets at all levels of government and in big business.

On her journey, Miranda became deeply committed to breaking the cycle of disadvantage caused by a disappearing manufacturing base. Couple that with tough agricultural forecasts, welfare dependency and what she sees as ‘a failure to educate the next generation in rural Australia’ and she was on a higher mission. She has set up the Rural Hands Fund to research and implement programmes that will spark new employment opportunities. This will be backed by rigorous monitoring and evaluation that can then be used to inform the investment decisions made by the fund. 

Apart from government, Amanda’s other target involves engaging what she calls ‘the big guns in the big smoke’. To this end, they will approach chief procurement officers in large concerns to explore supply chains and see what part of that can be placed in rural hands. NHN will then work with those companies to include in their human resources policies a commitment to engage Australian rural workforces in some way.

What was borne out of adversity has become Miranda’s mantra: “Your are never down on luck if you have a good pair of hands.”

Miranda Pereira is one of two women honoured as the Australian Sheep and Wool Show 2014 Women of Wool. The event will be held at the Bendigo Showgrounds from July 18-20.

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