It’s 10 o’clock at night and from the comfort of my kitchen, I am learning how to turn a dusty hardback into a work of art. Through a series of video tutorials, Jacqueline – a librarian, crafter and avid collector of all things print – will show me and 76 other students how to paint, snip and glue our way to creating altered books. All I need are some household objects (greaseproof paper, PVA glue), scalpel blades, sandpaper and acrylic paints.
Jacqueline is one of more than 90 over -50s who have signed up to teach a craft, skill or hobby through social enterprise The Amazings: a company set up to give older people a platform to share their expertise and life experiences.
The Amazings was launched by Adil Abrar – the creator of Buddy, a mobile app for anxiety and depression sufferers and Sidekick Studios, a digital consultancy service for charities – in 2012. He saw it as a way to help older people stay engaged with their local community and stop them from feeling lonely.
“We were initially planning a venture called Near Death Experiences – a company that would arrange a kind of ‘bucket-list’ for older people, planning trips and unusual experiences for them. But when we started talking to them, we realised the idea wasn’t quite right,” says Abrar.
“People weren’t offended by the name – they found it funny – but they didn’t want people coming up with activities for them. They already had interesting hobbies of their own, from foraging to paper craft. The more people we spoke to, the more we realised we should focus on what we can learn from older people and not what they can learn from us,” he says.
The Amazings recruited ‘elders’ from online and newspaper ads and set up workshops in homes, offices and local businesses around London. In small groups, usually of 20 or less, people could meet up, chat and learn a new skill from someone who’s practiced it for decades. Workshops range from planting herbs in a west London pub garden with an urban horticulture enthusiast, to classes on how to style a beehive in a Hackney salon run by veteran hairdresser Michael.
“Workshops range from planting herbs in a west London pub garden with a horti-culture enthusiast to styling a beehive by veteran hairdresser Michael.”
While a certain level of skill is required, Amazings don’t need to have a degree or a formal qualification – although many are former teachers and professional craftspeople. “There’s no strict criteria – we just ask that they’re passionate about what they do and want to pass that on to others,” says Abrar.
Amazings receive a percentage of royalties from each workshop – usually around 20 or 30 per cent – but for most, the biggest reward is helping to share skills and engaging with others. “I love the freshness of new students, and their enthusiasm – they’ve made some really impressive work,” says Lesley McShea, a 55 year-old Amazing who has been teaching adults ceramics since 1985 and runs pottery workshops in north London.
72 year-old Josefina DeMarcos, who teaches crochet, agrees. “People have been so keen to learn and they’ve all been really nice. After five minutes it’s like they’ve known me for years” she says.
Since its launch last year, the scheme has been a huge success. Most workshops are fully booked in advance, hundreds of older people have applied to become Amazings and classes have received glowing reviews – which is why the organisation announced earlier this year that it planned to launch workshops across the UK.
On its website, The Amazings asked people to nominate a city of their choice and explain why The Amazings should come to them. Unsurprisingly, large cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham proved the most popular – but what Abrar didn’t expect was the overwhelming response he received from Amazings fans around the world. People were voting not just for cities in England but for places as far afield as Seoul, Seattle, Hong Kong, Barcelona and Abu Dhabi.
“The interest was incredible. But we quickly realised that we weren’t going to be able to reach all of those cities and meet demand,” says Abrar. “We thought about it, and decided the best solution was to focus on online workshops so people anywhere in the world could sign up,” he explains.
Switching from personal encounters to web tutorials may seem like a contradiction – after all, The Amazings was set up as a social project – but the organisation says that it is working on ways to ensure that the community spirit on which it was founded isn’t lost online.
“It’s not just a video channel – people can sign up, comment on classes and contact their tutors for personal advice,” says Abrar. At the moment, there’s no option to create a profile or upload work, but Natalie Wiggins, head of talent at The Amazings, says this is in development. “The plan is to create a community where you can share pictures and ideas, ask each other for help and just have a general chat about the craft,” she says.
Online videos are shot and edited by trained staff to avoid shaky handheld how-tos or awkward close-ups of teachers staring into a lens. The tutorials are filmed in Amazings’ homes or other domestic settings, and the teachers are accompanied by a younger person who wants to learn their craft.
In Jacqueline’s videos, she is joined by Alicia, who designs handmade backdrops for photography shoots. Alicia brings along her own choice of books and sketches of designs she’d like to create, and they both talk about what has drawn them to customising hardbacks. The two of them seem at ease and oblivious to the camera, which makes the video feel more like a glimpse of a conversation between two friends than a lesson.
“The videos take around a day to shoot and a little longer to edit, with a couple of people operating the camera. We film the Amazings with someone because we wanted to recreate the human, face-to-face elements of the workshop online. The other people who appear in the videos are usually young creatives, who’ll come along with their own ideas and add something new to the craft – they’re usually promising graduates or people we’ve spotted on social media,” says Wiggins.
While learning online doesn’t have quite the same appeal as meeting face-to-face, The Amazings has created an easy and enjoyable way to learn a new skill from anywhere, at any time – whether it’s a spare 10 minutes in your lunch break or a Sunday afternoon.
For elders, teaching their craft online means less social interaction, but it also offers a chance to reach more students in other countries and continents, as well as those in their local community, and any who are unsure of how to use the web are given digital training. “The Amazings is pretty amazing really. The idea of passing on something you love is very appealing ,” says Jacqueline.