It’s a little after 11 am and the writer is standing in the office of a factory unit in Southampton on the English south coast with her trousers lowered, while two women she has never met before discuss the design of her underwear.
“Two panels, two side seams, no top seam,” concludes Samia, an Afghan lady in her late 40s, looking her companion directly in the eye.Becky John is English and a little younger. “Marks & Sparks spring season last year,” she says, nodding sagely. After a few moments, she says, “Our new designs will be similar to this.”
John founded the ethical knicker-making collective Whomadeyourpants? to strike two social ills in one hit — to provide work for marginalised women such
as Samia and to offer an alternative to buying underwear made in sweatshops. Whomadeyourpants? opened in December 2009 as a workers’ co-operative, employing 11, along with nine trainees. About 80 per cent of the women are refugees, and the other 20 per cent were born in the UK but have various health problems that make it impossible for them to work full time.
“These are energetic women who had good jobs back in their home countries,” says John. Samia, who correctly assessed the seams of this writer’s undies, describes how miserable she was when she arrived in the UK after fleeing Afghanistan, where she used to run a restaurant beside a world heritage site. “Thirteen years ago, the situation in Afghanistan was good. Tourists came to my restaurant from all over the world,” she says. “For three years after I came here, I did not leave the house.”
The one day a week she now works at Whomadeyourpants? is a lifeline. The co-operative currently sells its products online only but hopes to get them into shops soon.