At Christmas last year, Cathy Wood’s family home in Manchester was disturbingly quiet. Her daughters, 19 and 21, were revising for exams. She says she and her husband “hardly saw anything of them … I was a bit fed up.” Bored and frustrated, she bought a 45kg (99lb) bale of secondhand clothes, without knowing what she was going to do with it.
She is speaking from her lounge, and behind her the room is crammed with rails of brightly coloured clothes. Wood, 62, enjoyed shopping for vintage clothing with her daughters, and had even discussed getting a shop with a friend, but the rents put them off. A week or so after the bale arrived, she booked a stall at West Didsbury Makers Market.
Wood, a former teacher of English for academic purposes, has always loved clothes. “My grandmother taught art and crafts, and both she and my mother spent a lot of time with the sewing machine, teaching me to sew.” At Leicester polytechnic, where she took a higher national diploma in business studies, Wood “hung out with the fashion students” and sewed her own frilly, velvety, new romantic outfits.
Standing at her first market stall in January was a wholly new experience though. “It was nerve-racking. It was very different from teaching. You need just the right amount of contact with people.” At first, she greeted her customers with a chatty: “Oh, hello – this is my first market.” But, she says: “People did a runner. Then I noticed that they bought things when I went off to the loo.” She has now learned to be more restrained and has perfected “looking into the distance”.
Wood sold four pieces at her first market, which paid for the pitch and left a small surplus. Now, she sometimes returns home with 30 empty coat hangers. But it was the contact with customers and fellow traders that she found most rewarding. “It’s a lovely environment. You chat and get to know each other. I really enjoyed it because I had been deprived of contact with people,” she says.
After the birth of her second daughter, Wood, then 42, had a prolapsed uterus. The family lived in France at the time, where Wood taught English as a foreign language, and in 2011 she was fitted with a pelvic mesh.
Before long, she found herself “in a lot of pain, without knowing the cause. Gradually, I couldn’t carry on driving to various companies to teach their employees. I ended up being isolated at home. My children were growing up and becoming teenagers. I had a depressive illness,” she says. “I decided something had to change.” She enrolled on a masters in linguistics, and commuted from France to Birkbeck, University of London one day a week.
Despite three operations to remove the mesh, Wood does not know “what’s been removed and what hasn’t … I’m still in some degree of pain all the time.” The pain of sitting for long periods made teaching on Zoom impossible. Being active, running her stall, handpicking clothes, buying in bulk, selecting, mending, ironing and steaming, she says, “helps to take focus away from both the pain and anxiety about what’s left in there. And I feel that I’m being useful.”
Wood wants “to be of service”, and has dropped her prices to reflect the cost of living crisis. She also holds an MSc in environmental resources, so she enjoys the sustainability aspect of selling secondhand clothes. Sometimes, in quiet moments on the stall, she takes out her mending and thinks of her mother and grandmother.
“I was thinking about how much these clothes evoke for me and how nostalgic they make me feel. I suppose it is a form of wishful thinking,” she says. “I would love to be completely able-bodied again. But what these clothes do is transport me back to different times when things were easier for me. They give me a pleasurable feeling. Nostalgia can be a good thing in that way.”
After she stopped teaching, she “started to feel like a non person”, she says. The market stall “has given me status in my own mind to be part of the community, contributing something, to be somebody people talk to, somebody people smile at.”
To see more of Cathy’s vintage clothing, go to her Instagram page: @vintagewardrobemanchester