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What We Wore | Pippa Small

Pippa Small is a captivating jewelry designer, and most importantly, a woman fiercely dedicated to empowering communities around the wold from Afghanistan to Rwanda. In this conversation, we explore Pippa's childhood, her journey to motherhood, and her unique designs that have resulted in an extrarodinary woman and business.

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Laura Vinroot Poole:

Where are you from originally? I think you're from different places.

 

Pippa Small:

Yes. I was born in Montreal.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Oh, really?

 

Pippa Small:

Yeah. I spent my childhood, I suppose until I was five, in Northern Quebec and Montreal. And then my mother got pneumonia and decided she needed to go to a dry, hot place and moved here.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

She should have picked Las Vegas.

 

Pippa Small:

Unfortunately, she decided the south of Spain, where my aunt and family were living. So, we moved there.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Five until when?

 

Pippa Small:

Seven, I believe. And then we moved to England. And it was partly because my father was from Scotland originally. He was born in South America, but his family was from Edinburgh. He was born in 1901, I have to say so I have a father who's considerably older.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

I think my grandfather's born in 1901.

 

Pippa Small:

Just to segue off into weirdness of older parents- it is interesting to have a father whose brothers died in the first world war. And it connects you to history in the strangest way- it feels very personal. To me, this idea that my uncles were in the second world war that makes it feel so much closer. This sense of history that runs through the family.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Was your dad with you in Canada and in Spain?

 

Pippa Small:

Yes. So, he was with us. When we moved to England, his thought was to move back to Scotland because Quebec at the time was going through the sort of separatist thing and he thought, "I'll go back to Scotland, but maybe not Scotland because it's too wet. I'll go to Wiltshire." So, we ended up in Wiltshire of all places in the mid '70s. They bought this beautiful house in the middle of the country. We had stables and acres of garden and fields. It was magical.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Oh, my gosh. Magical.

 

Pippa Small:

Yeah. In a way it was an idyllic childhood because I had ponies, chickens, ducks, horses, cats, chinchillas, and parrots. I mean idyllic; it was free to roam. There weren't many young people around, so you had to be quite resourceful and find your own things to do in this beautiful... I don't know. A little haven in the middle of the country. For me it was perfect. It was just heaven.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Do you remember your first piece of jewelry?

 

Pippa Small:

I remember a piece that was given to me by my godfather. And it was a beautiful gold bracelet. And I had a favorite hen, and I gave it to her to wear.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

As a necklace?

 

Pippa Small:

As a necklace.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And did she like it?

 

Pippa Small:

She did like it for a bit and then it disappeared.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Oh, my God. What was her name?

 

Pippa Small:

Oh, gosh. She was called Henrietta, obviously. But yeah, there went the gold bracelet. I think everyone thought at that point, don't give her jewelry.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And so, then from Scotland, you went to university?

 

Pippa Small:

Then I went to university. Yeah. I went to London University. Goldsmiths first, to do anthropology. And then School of Oriental and African Studies to do a master's in medical anthropology.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And tell me about medical anthropology... I have my sister is an anthropology major and my brother is a doctor, but I can't...

 

Pippa Small:

You don't put them together. Yeah.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Tell me about that.

 

Pippa Small:

Well, it was interesting because the reason I did anthropology actually was because I was very lucky that my mother, this cowgirl mother with many children... I think when she was widowed for the second time, she just thought it's time for me to do the things I want to do. And so, she wanted to travel, and it was an amazing experience to be taken from a really young age to places I don't know. We’d go to Turkey, to India, to Tunisia… she'd hear about this camel festival in the desert and we'd up go.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Just you, or did she take everybody?

 

Pippa Small:

The three of us. The three younger ones. So, my two siblings. And that I found absolutely transformative. I mean, I do find now that I have these lovely nine-year-old twins people are always saying, "Why do you take them traveling? They won’t remember. Leave them at home.” I do believe that at some cellular level you absorb that you may not consciously remember, but these things are all... I think it's really important for them to understand that the world is very large and very complicated, and people live in very different ways. And that's important to see that and know that and not-

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And you are not that important. I mean, I think a little bit of it, really. And also, just the ability to fit in anywhere and to figure it out and to not say, "I'm sorry, they don't have chicken fingers here. I can't eat here." Yeah. I don't think you probably were not that sort of a child. I think it's one of the biggest gifts you could ever give your children.

 

Pippa Small:

I think it is probably more and more important as we become in some senses, we become more secluded into our bubbles, remaining with like-minded people. And in other ways the world is getting smaller, but unless we go and experience and feel and talk to people and have a sense of other lives, it's going to be dangerous, I think.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah. And so, the way y'all traveled, I mean. Sounds like your mom wanted to do really cool things when she got to these places too. So, you really did. I'm sure meet people.

 

Pippa Small:

Absolutely. I mean, she was luckily quite adventurous. I remember early things like going to a farmer's market. All of these people would come down from the hills and they'd have their produce. My mom would look around and I'd be wandering off with a family like, "Hang on, I'm going to go back to their village with them to see it." And they'd have me bundling off the truck to go with them. I had family who lived in Tanzania I’d see; I would go back to the village and go into the houses.

 

Pippa Small:

And being a female child is quite useful because the women feel fine bringing me to the house and I felt completely fascinated and curious. How do other people live? What do they believe in? What motivates them? What does this mean to them? And what does the earth mean to them? What does food mean to them? What does family mean to them?

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Well, and I also want to see how they literally live. What does their bed look like? What does their kitchen look like? I love a train. I take a train as often as I can. And that's my favorite thing is to start, try to look into people's houses on the train room because it's just so fascinating.

 

Pippa Small:

That's such a strange thing. Isn't it going by? You see the illuminated rooms-

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

But I love it. That's so interesting.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And so, how did you connect that, that as a young person, to anthropology?

 

Pippa Small:

I think a friend of my sister told me about it. I'd never heard of anthropology. Once I started looking into it, I thought, that's absolutely what I wanted to do. And by then, I was already interested in human rights. I think all that travel did help me to understand that there were people being unjustly treated. I'd already had the sense of that from childhood. But I think then as I grew older, I became more interested in and discovered more acutely how things were. That sense of someone explaining why the world is the way it is and you're just, finding all these things out. It's like opening up your mind and having it stirred and thrown about, and then you're just like, "I understand that. Why some countries are poor, and some are rich." It just all began to make sense.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Oh, really? Oh, my God. I love that.

 

Pippa Small:

I just loved it.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Tell me about the medical anthropology part. What is that?

 

Pippa Small:

The medical? Well, medical anthropology, I was sort of torn between going into anthropology of the arts, which could lead to curating, collecting museum work and I thought that would be very interesting. Or medical anthropology. And it was in part, because there's sort of all big families, there's some mental health issues in the family. And I was very interested in how mental health was seen in other cultures. So, medical anthropology is simply medical systems, healing systems, doctor patient relations. Ways of seeing the body, ways of understanding health disease in other cultures. Or in other cultures within our culture. Or in migrant communities or how other people see death and birth.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Oh, how fascinating.

 

Pippa Small:

Nothing to do with jewelry.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

When did you start noticing jewelry? Was that sort of always a part of it?

 

Pippa Small:

Well, jewelry was always a part. I mean, the reason I started with my drill was because I had, I think as many children do, this fascination with stones. I don't know, maybe with the chaos of family life, stones felt very solid and still and dependable and ancient, quiet and wise.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Yeah. Wise for sure.

 

Pippa Small:

Something about them. I mean, hard to say. But it was the touch of them. I'd always have them in my pockets, and I'd always be losing them. I'd put them in bed, in the bath. It was just stones everywhere. And the drilling was so I didn't lose them. It was literally so I could carry them around on a chain or as I still do on cords and not lose them.

 

Pippa Small:

So that was the beginning of making jewelry. Botswana was the first trip I did, which was definitely going to be about craft and making things. So it was, gosh, it must be like 23 years ago or something or maybe more. And I knew I was going to go to make jewelry and embroidery and leather work. And it was just at this time where I had this sort of thought that maybe in making jewelry and in having living lived with different communities, it was a way of combining. Because wherever I go, even Sarawak and Borneo, where people would come and say, "Well, do you think you can sell our baskets? Can you sell these bracelets?" They'd always be trying to make things, which they did beautifully, but they didn't have a market. And then I'd also take all the baskets and try and sell those. And it just dawned on me, I mean that if they perhaps spent more time and made something with the intent for it to be a beautiful, important thing and not a cheap, rapidly made, breakable thing, but something that's going to be in the world for a long time, then that would change. They could charge more money for it and it could become something that to be proud of, rather than something made very quickly for a sort of tourists market.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

But they just didn't have the ability or the understanding of how to get it to the place where you could sell it?

 

Pippa Small:

The markets, exactly.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Interesting.

 

Pippa Small:

So, it was just... We'll try and shift it. Let's make something. If we're going to spend time and energy, let’s make them beautiful and last and be important and precious. So, that was the first trip I started to do that with the community of women.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And what was it like? Was it challenging?

 

Pippa Small:

I did it one summer, and I found it very challenging because HIV and AIDS was unfortunately huge in the community. So, there were frequent funerals. And poverty was an issue. It was very interesting because that first trip I spent, I don't know, maybe six weeks there and I found it quite difficult. And then I went back a year later to do it again, over the same period in the summer. And it was completely the opposite. It was as if I think they also felt a bit like, "Okay, you've come back?" So, I think the coming back was really important because it made me understand actually, just seeing the other side, which was this incredible community of extraordinary people who survive in this amazing desert. Through just ingenuity and brilliance and the struggles they have now with the loss of land and hunting rights and so forth, but to see what they made and to see what joy and laughter and just constant laughter I mean, we'd sort of all the women we'd sit outside, we'd be making things an endless laughter.

 

Pippa Small:

It was just seeing the complete reverse of that first time that I found. I was seeing the darker side at first and this time it was just the joy and that created a love of being in places where you have purpose. And not just traveling through, but sort of stopping and staying still and putting down even the most temporary roots that having that relationship with people that's based on an exchange or a creation.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

How do you make it so, it's about partnering with the communities rather than charity?

 

Pippa Small:

Well, I think the first few were charity. I wanted this to last and now in Afghanistan, we've worked together since 2008 and I'm really proud that some of the people in the workshop were really young when they started and now, they have children. I think emphasizing how vital livelihoods are in places where there's such vulnerability through conflict, poverty, and violence. And creative jobs are even more important because it means people leave the workshop feeling like they’ve achieved something today. I've made something beautiful. It's going out into the world. This thing is going out into the world and to me, it's a bit of their voice and their hand coming out and telling their story. A lot of the time I find myself in workshops- we discuss designs, we discuss stones, we discuss materials, we discuss the inspiration behind the design. But most of the time I find myself just listening. Everyone wants to tell you what their experience has been. Whether there has been a bomb or there’s a situation where they couldn't get to their child, or what it's like when you're going to work and suddenly the city's extra quiet and that's a sign something's going to happen, and you jump off the bus and try and get somewhere safe. They all want to explain what their life is like. Just to share. And I think it's that role of listening that is important to understand what their daily reality is. And whether that's Afghanistan, Myanmar, Jordan, its just to listen and be that vessel for their stories.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Have you always done all these trips by yourself?

 

Pippa Small:

Yeah.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Are you ever afraid?

 

Pippa Small:

Well, Afghanistan. Yes, I used to get quite scared before going. And then certainly after I had the twins, I'd have a little anxiety, but the moment I'd land and get in the workshop, it would be just this amazing sense of welcoming. And they were so thrilled. Someone had made that effort to come. And I mean, we had a few incidences in the workshop. There was once an attack outside the workshop, but it was only for a minute- it was a little unclear whether it was machine gun, or what exactly was happening.

 

Pippa Small:

And I do remember looking around the workshop and thinking there's only one entrance and one exit there's nowhere to hide, because kidnapping was obviously a bit of an issue. The Afghan women were holding my hand and saying, "It's okay. We'll protect you if anything happens." Okay. And as it was, we were fine. But, yeah, there were certainly moments when there'd be attacks in the city and you'd be a little panicked, but overall, I don't know, I know they would protect me. So many years later, the relationship, the friendship there is so important to me. Above and beyond.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Of all the places you've visited, is there one that feels like your soul's home?

 

Pippa Small:

Oh, that's so interesting because I always sort of searched for that one place, but then realized it's everywhere. I learn about the place, I study before I go, I look go to every museum and try and sort of understand its history. And each place I feel is that place. I don't know it's everywhere.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Do you have a favorite piece of jewelry?

 

Pippa Small:

Favorite piece of jewelry? Well, I have been wearing this shell on my arm.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

It's so beautiful.

 

Pippa Small:

I’ve been wearing it since I was about 22 or 23. And it's from Nagaland, which is a tribal area between India and Burma. Up in the mountains. And I worked for a Naga, human rights activist. He was sort of my mentor for years. I worked with him. He was a refugee in Thailand on a human rights project. And he couldn't go home to India. But at one point I got permission to go to his area. You needed a special permit because there is sort of conflict in this community, they’re trying to get independence from India.

So, there was a lot of army and guerilla movements going on. Anyway, I got permission to go, and I went to meet his mother and siblings. I used to hear endless stories about this village and everything from people's cows and the dog and his neighbors and the cousins. I knew everything about it, but I finally got to go. So, there was lot of warfare going on and, but it’s an amazingly interesting and incredible community.

 

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And it's a conch.

 

Pippa Small:

It's a huge shell.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Huge conch. And does it come off?

 

Pippa Small:

No.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

You've had it on since you were 21?

 

Pippa Small:

22, 23.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Are you kidding?

 

Pippa Small:

Yeah.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

And it hasn't broken?

 

Pippa Small:

No, it's very thick and I took it off with great difficulty before I had the twins. I genuinely have no memory, but I remember it was on a table and I'd be back and forth, new babies, da, da, da. And then one day I woke up and it was back on, and I must have in the night, got up and struggled and put it back on and with no memory, because it's quite a thing.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

It's so beautiful.

 

Pippa Small:

It's obviously, I mean, in some ways I see it as my shell, when I feel shy, I can disappear in it. And sometimes people meet me, and they say, "Oh, yeah. The girl with the shell." They don't remember me at all, but they remember the shell. So, it's a part of me, but, and in other ways it's I think of it as protection.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

Is it comfortable?

 

Pippa Small:

I don't notice that. But I mean, you can't wear tight sleeved things.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

No, I was thinking that about when you said that I was thinking you must have to think about all of your shirts.

 

Pippa Small:

Yep.

 

Laura Vinroot Poole:

That’s beautiful. Pippa, this has been such a treat. Thank you so much. Speaking of generous, you've been so generous with your time and thanks for spending your time with me.

 

Pippa Small:

Oh, thank you.

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