Wonky WI: St Leonards’ newest Women’s Institute

Inaugural Wonky WI meeting, September 2011. Photograph by Abigail Riddihough
Inaugural Wonky WI meeting, September 2011. Photograph by Abigail Riddihough

The unusually named Wonky WI is the town’s most recently established Women’s Institute, and one of a new wave aiming to challenge preconceptions of an organisation that is almost a century old. Reporter Hannah Collisson went along to the February meeting to find out more.

“IF you have any ideas of Jam and Jerusalem then get them out of your head now!” was the advice from Alison Rose, of the Wonky WI craft sub-committee.

Alison Rose, co-ordinator of craft sub-committee, with president Lesley Greening Lassoff

Alison Rose, co-ordinator of craft sub-committee, with president Lesley Greening Lassoff

It seems fitting that the inaugural meeting took place to a backdrop of torrential rain and gale-force winds, as these ladies aim to shake things up.

And despite the weather 72 women were present at that first meeting back in September 2011, bringing with them an enthusiasm that has not diminished in the months that followed.

Wonky WI was set up by St Leonards-based artist Lesley Greening Lassoff, and its membership has already swelled to more than 50 women, from all walks of life, ranging in age from 21 to 79.

She came up with the name as it suggests acceptance and inclusion with a little bit of humour thrown in for good measure.

Lesley described it as more of a campaigning WI, and said: “There is a need for a focal point for women who want to be active in the community.

“There is a new wave of WIs for women who were put off by Jam and Jerusalem, we are very different from most of the East Sussex WIs in that we are not really interested in things like cake decorating competitions.”

Even where what are seen as traditional WI pursuits feature, Wonky WI do it slightly differently. One of the first campaigns the group got behind was Knit One Pass It On, which encourages knitters to pass on their know-how to at least one other person.

They also plan to give guerrilla-style knitting lessons to the public on Pirate Day this year. The guest speaker at February’s meeting was Hazel Lawrence from educational charity Pestalozzi, based in Sedlescombe, who was accompanied by two of the students, Jaspreet and Jyoti, from India and Nepal.

Once Hazel had imparted some background information on the charity and its aims, the two teenage girls told their own stories of how they came to be at Pestalozzi, and studying for their International Baccalaureate at Sussex Coast College.

They spoke with incredible confidence and conviction for such young women. Both had come from societies where education is largely thought to be wasted on girls, and had overcome considerable obstacles to even make it to the UK.

The high quality of the guest speakers is key to the Wonky WI 2012 programme, which illustrates the wide range of interests the group caters for. Next month’s meeting on March 6, features local activist Maresa Bossano, on sustainable eating and cooking (with samples), while in June Wonky WI will host a debate on the representation of women in the media and entertainment industries.

In terms of forthcoming campaigns, the Community Garden project is in the process of applying for WI funding to green up a derelict site in Central St Leonards.

There is of course also ample opportunity at meetings to chat to fellow Wonky members, over a cup of tea, or indeed glass of wine or two.

Emma Wilson, 35, full-time mum with crafty bits on the side (her words), from St Leonards, had never considered joining a WI until a friend urged her to try it out.

“It’s not the kind of thing you ever think of doing,” she said. “But it has far surpassed my expectations of what it was going to be like.”

Emma was so impressed that she convinced her friend Ceri Jones to come along, and Ceri has now also joined. Shelley Feldman, 36, one half of the 1066 Cake Stand partnership, has attended every Wonky meeting so far, and emphasised the accepting nature of this particular WI.

She said: “It’s a place where you can admit that you can’t knit.

“It’s not necessarily for people who have similar interests, but for those who are generally open to things.”

Wonky WI is one of three WI groups in the Hastings and St Leonards area, and despite being the newest, has by far the largest membership.

The others are St Helen’s WI, established in 1959, with around 30 members, and Hastings Ore Village WI, another newcomer, established in 2011, with around 25 members.

Vicky Booth, secretary of East Sussex Federation of Women’s Institutes, said: “Having dropped for a few years, membership is starting to go up again. We are starting to see a very gradual increase.”

She said that 18 new WIs had been started in East Sussex alone since 2006, and many more working women were now joining groups, and also younger women, which has tended not to be the case in the past.

Meetings of Wonky WI are normally held on the first Tuesday of the month, and take place in the Burton Suite at the Royal Victoria Hotel, Marina, from 7.30pm to 9.30pm. Visitors may attend up to three meetings without obligation to join, which is a nationwide WI policy to ensure that women find the group that best suits their interests. For more information on Wonky WI visit www.wonkywi.com or contact president Lesley Greening Lassoff on 01424 447235.

To find out more about the WI in East Sussex visit www.esfwi.org.uk.