Women's Institute fights back with young(er) blood

The chutney-taste test is a serious business for members of the Women's Institute.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

The chutney-taste test is a serious business for members of the Women's Institute.

In a sea of well-polished, comfortable shoes a pair of heeled boots stands out. Boot-legged jeans and T-shirts are dotted among the smart pants and viscose. The Women's Institute needs to change, could Marlborough have the answer? Paula Hulburt reports.

There is a whisper of excitement over at the chutney table.

Heads are bent as hushed tones discuss the entries, displayed to best advantage in charmingly decorated jars. Never has a group of pickles been given so much attention.

This is a meeting of the Women's Institute in Blenheim and members from across Marlborough have been joined by their counterparts from Nelson, many of whom got up before dawn to attend.

A chutney taste-test is in progress and, for the entrants, it is a tense time.

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'Tea and Tarts' members, front from left, Sally Blackwell and PJ Muir help Woman's Institute members, back from left, ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

'Tea and Tarts' members, front from left, Sally Blackwell and PJ Muir help Woman's Institute members, back from left, Dorothy Baxter and Alison Knight at the 'One-Day Show'.

The room is filled with good-natured banter and quiet laughter. Handbags lay tucked in next to chairs and the occasional walking stick is propped-up carefully against the pale lilac walls. 

The Women's Institute is seen by many present as a rite of passage. Many mothers and even grandmothers of the women present were stalwart members and the tradition has been successfully passed down the generations; until now.

An aging membership has seen the demise of institutes across the country. The New Zealand Federation Of Women's Institute is facing a slump and moves are in place to try and stem the decline. Amalgamation has been a must for many.

Women's Institute members still teach traditional crafts such as knitting.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Women's Institute members still teach traditional crafts such as knitting.

National president Kay Hart, based in Nelson, says institutes across the country are struggling to survive. What was once a hive of thriving institutes is now a skinnier network of its former self.

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"Distance, old age and travelling have become impossible for some.

"The idea of amalgamation of the Nelson and Marlborough Institutes should not just be wiped without thought, there are ways of doing this.

Women's Institute members Joan Vercoe, left, and Marie Price judge the scones.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Women's Institute members Joan Vercoe, left, and Marie Price judge the scones.

"If there are enough functions that are interesting enough and people make the effort it can be done," Hart says.

In Marlborough, changes are already afoot. Members of the affiliated Tea and Tarts group listen attentively. 

In the sea of well-polished, comfortable shoes a pair of heeled boots stands out. There are boot-legged jeans and T-shirts among the smart pants and viscose. Some of the women, young and old, are quickly texting or searching the internet for how to make temari balls, a form of Japanese folk craft. 

'Tea and Tarts' members of the Women's Institute include PJ Muir and president Hannah Price, background.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

'Tea and Tarts' members of the Women's Institute include PJ Muir and president Hannah Price, background.

Fingers fly across smartphones while others are more cautious and gnarled; stabbing hesitantly at keys, glasses sliding unnoticed nose wards as concentration brings furrowed brows to the fore.

An 18-month-old boy toddles arounds the room clutching a half-eaten biscuit and giggling in delight at all the attention he gets while his mother watches with a smile on her face. The Tea and Tarts members are helping breathe new life into the establishment.

Blenheim's Sally Blackwell co-founded the 14-member group alongside friend Sally Neal three years ago. 

A pink and orange-themed table takes pride of place at the Women's Institute meeting in Blenheim.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

A pink and orange-themed table takes pride of place at the Women's Institute meeting in Blenheim.

"There was a coffee group of mums that had no real outlet for their craft skills. The WRI is dying a bit and needed new, younger members.

"The older ladies tend to meet during week days and that just didn't work for some of us who have jobs and young families to look after," she said.

The Women's Rural Institute began in New Zealand in 1921 as a way to provide friendship and fun while teaching and sharing homemaking skills. While some of these skills have remained relevant for women in town and country communities, many have not, Blackwell says.

The Salvation Army rooms are filled with flowers as Women's Institute members Karen McKnight, left, and Jenny Hair judge ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

The Salvation Army rooms are filled with flowers as Women's Institute members Karen McKnight, left, and Jenny Hair judge entries.

"We meet on the third Sunday of every month and sometimes we'll have coffee but others we might have bubbles. While we do cross-stitch and weaving, we've learnt a lot of other skills too like cheesemaking and upholstery.

"Not all of us are interested in crochet anymore, we wanted to make it fun," says Blackwell, adding new members are always welcome.

In 2016, there were more than 5000 individual members and 299 local institutes, 43 district federations overseen by one national executive committee consisting of seven members.

In its hey day there were 18 institutes in the Marlborough Federation, now there are four. The demise of many over the years is the result of the "attrition of old age", says Marlborough president Jan Marriner.

But she is determined to roll with the changes to ensure the future survival of the institution.

"I think amalgamation is possible.

"In today's world of technology, there's texting and Skype and teleconferencing. I vowed at the last meeting that I would get a phone that does all these things. I've said it so I've got to do it now.

"We can always find things to put up barriers so let's not do that, let's think of positive ways to go forward," she said.

In 1932, the Dominion Federation of Women's Institutes was officially named. In 2004, its current handle replaced the New Zealand Federation of Country Women's Institutes (Incorporated).

"For Home and Country" is still the motto and the ethos remains the same; "to encourage and support all women within their communities".

The display of items handcrafted by members are testament to that support.

Alongside the more traditional knitted jerseys sit polka-dot covered fridge magnets and painted peg families, carefully laid out to showcase the many talents.

No item goes unnoticed and kind words and compliments are easily shared.

Some of the Tea and Tarts members have turned their passion for crafts into thriving cottage industries. In 1921, it was unthinkable for women to work outside the home. 

But the underlying foundation that pins the organisation together more than 80 years later remains the same; friendship.

Marriner has been a member for 16 years and has served as president for the past four. There are a sprinkling of new members at the gathering and she hurries to make each feel welcome. Warm applause accompanies her words and late-comers smile apologetically as they tip-toe in.

She is enthusiastic about plans to keep member numbers steady.

"Our numbers are fairly steady as we're doing our best to keep up with the times," Marriner says.

"We offer demos and the chance to learn new crafts and it's wonderful to have some of the younger women here and we learn new skills from each other.

"The WRI is about learning, support and encouragement. It has an important purpose for women and I believe it always will." 

 - The Marlborough Express

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