Minimalist Interview: Gillie Smellie

Gillie Smellie

Meet Gillie Smellie.

When Gillie Smellie was a little girl, she wanted to be a spy when she grew up.

Instead, she now lives in the north of England with her husband, three daughters and a large collection of animals from a very vocal parrot to a Newfoundland dog who looks like a big fluffy bear.

When not feeding animals and marvelling at the sheer size of the ironing pile, she runs a life transformational coaching business, she loves giving motivational talks and believes that the future is Outrageous Living!

To learn more about Gillie, visit LifeCycles Growth and  One Pair of Shoes at a Time.

How and why did you become interested in simple living?

It began with the flood. It rained a lot. Having been caught out the previous year by the sheer volume of water pouring off the fields and into Susannah’s bedroom, we had our flood defence system in place. It was rubbish. It was the chocolate fireguard of flood defences and the muddy water took up residence in the Gin Gan, the Pantry, the Airing-Cupboard and once again in Susannah’s bedroom. She understandably did not take it well. Eloise, on the other hand, desperate for a new carpet, inquired whether she too could have a new Berber and underlay if she chucked a couple of gallons of water on her bedroom floor. The answer was no.

However, there is a bright side to every cloud. I recently read Zero Waste Home, by Bea Johnson. I bought it thinking I might get a few tips, but I was pretty sure I was doing okay. How the mighty are fallen. I was not even scratching the tip of the iceberg. And talking of icebergs, that was what our house was. A small visible area and rooms and cupboards and outbuildings full of stuff we don’t need or use.

The flood was my gift. I had to clear up and sort out, so I might as well do it properly. It’s an odd process, at first you are ruthless, then a period of remorse sets in. “Do I really want to let go of this?” It is at this point that most people (often myself in the past) stop. But ride through that storm and the next stage is guilt. Guilt that we have bought so much stuff we didn’t need, didn’t use and didn’t really even want. The wastage of money, time, space, energy.

But the feelings of guilt and shame were countered by the wonderful feeling of space in our house. The feeling that the air could move, there was no stagnancy.

We have always been relatively self-sufficient, grow a lot of our own fruit and vegetables. We preserve (can, pickle, dry, jams and jellies etc). I was brought up to make do and mend and enjoy finding new uses for things that have passed their best in their original capacity. However, my downfall was that I am extremely organised. So when I had a clear out, what I really did was organise rather than really sort through what we had and get rid of what we didn’t need. My cupboards and outbuildings were very neat and tidy but they were full to bursting point!

I know you’ve mentioned that your husband is “rather untidy.” How’s he doing with decluttering? Is he on board?

Yes, for the most part. He has spent most of this year working in the garden, and I have to say it is looking far better than when I was in charge. He is still a complete slob when it comes to tidying and putting away, but as there is less to tidy up it doesn’t irk me quite as much. Nonetheless he can still be asked to tidy a room and leave the ironing board in the middle because “I didn’t notice it.” And he probably didn’t!
You have three teenage girls. How do they feel about minimalism? Are they decluttering too? Or is it all just an embarrassment to them?

All three of them are completely different to me. I was the child who could happily spend an afternoon organising her knickers by colour and style. I can’t bear to see a drawer with stuff just shoved in rather than folded and put in the correct place. For them the correct place is on the floor. I joke not, I could not sleep in their rooms, just knowing the chaos around me would keep me awake. The strange thing is that they don’t like it much either and one of them is more organised, but we are talking degrees of organisation!

As to the minimalism, it is more of “Do as I say not as I do.” They get very cross if we buy something they think is unnecessary but seem quite willing to bring in shedloads of stuff that seems completely unnecessary to me. They like a neat, streamlined organised house, but what goes on behind their own bedroom doors is quite another matter!

The eldest is away at university and I am looking forward to seeing if she changes at all now she has her own flat to look after.

What about your other family members and friends? Are they interested in simple living? Supportive? Think you’re crazy?

My mother and stepfather are serious hoarders. They have some impressive and valuable collections, but they also have an unbelievable amount of stuff. They live in a huge five-story London house, and it is stuffed to the gunnels. It drives me mad. My mother does have occasional sort outs but only of a few carrier bags at a time….. She does talk about my clearing out, but sometimes I think she is a little fearful that I am getting rid of family heirlooms, which I’m not.

I have become a declutter adviser to many friends. But like any habit change you have to want to do it for it to work and not everybody is really ready. They will say they are, but when you show them what is involved there is a tendency to backtrack and come up with a list of reasons why they cannot get rid of a whole raft of items.

What advice would you give someone just beginning to simplify?

The first thing you need to think about before you even pick up anything is why you want to declutter. What kind of house do you want. Total minimalism isn’t for most people, not even me. Have a think (or browse magazines or online) about what kind of house you want.

What things are no go declutters, what things do you really get fed up with and would be happy never to see in your house again. How do you use your house? Do you have a room that everybody uses and may need to have a different set of “clutter” rules to the rest. In our case that is a conservatory off the kitchen which is the hub of the house. I work there (even though I have a study, I prefer it in here). I have two daughters in the sixth form and one at university and they all like to work in here and this is where we eat.

I have to have MASSIVELY strict rules about the clutter levels in here, otherwise we would be overwhelmed. I am also a firm believer in dump zone. We have a small basket (about 8″ square) in the kitchen. Things that need to go elsewhere but we can’t be bothered to move right now are put in there and cleared out once a week. It is also helpful because if anything is missing, the chances are somebody put in the basket!

Once you have decided what you are aiming for then you need to start the actual declutter. Choose one room to begin with, one which will have a huge positive effect on you if you clear it. First remove anything that is rubbish (ie recycling/landfill) Next remove anything that could be used by somebody else but not you. Sell or give to charity IMMEDIATELY before you move on to the next step. Third, remove anything that you want to keep but doesn’t belong in that room. Take it to the room it belongs in. Do not be tempted to tidy that room, concentrate solely on the room that you are working on.

By now all that is left in the room is that which you want in there. All you have to do now is move things around and tidy up. Room sorted and you can move on to the next one. I don’t believe in maybe boxes, where you put stuff that you don’t know whether to keep or not, I will put my life savings on the chance that anything that goes in the maybe box will never leave your house.

You’re working to live more sustainably. What tips do you have for my readers who are just beginning to live greener lives?

Gosh – where to start!

Kitchen/food: Plan your menus every week. See here. This is one of the biggest areas where people fail.

Shopping in general: I try to stick to a one in one out rule. I am not rigid and I still have far too many shoes. But I never ever buy anything on impulse.

Charity shops: Don’t be proud, today I am wearing a pair of green suede shoes from Bally (British luxury accessories brand, average price for a pair of shoes £400) which I bought in a vintage shop in Glasgow together with the original wooden shoe trees for £20. They are the shoes that inspired the title of my blog btw. My skirt is by David Emmanuel (of Princess Diana wedding dress fame) from a charity shop in Barnard Castle price £5. Both are in excellent condition. Abandon fast food and fast fashion.

Grow your own: It doesn’t matter where you live, we lived in a flat in Glasgow and still managed to grow our own tomatoes and courgettes, our own herbs and alpine strawberries. Not enough to live on but a start and so much nicer than shop bought. Try to get an allotment. One scheme we are trying to get off the ground here is to match up students and young families with older people who have large gardens but are unable to keep them up. The young ones help in the garden and in return keep a share of the produce.

Reuse: I can’t remember the last time I bought a duster, I use old tee-shirts and sweatshirts that are beyond redemption. Use the back of envelopes as scrap paper. If you must buy things in plastic bags keep them. Bread and bagel bags are ideal for freezer bags. If a pretty mug or jug has cracked and leaks use it to keep your pens/knitting needles or as a plant pot (a small crack won’t affect it if it’s not full of liquid). Cardboard juice cartons make great seed trays and the wax that they are covered with makes them good firelighters too. Plastic milk bottles are great for protecting seedlings when you plant them out. Or have a look at this fabulous idea – we are just building ours. If you put your mind to it you can find a new use for pretty much anything.

Make it yourself: I make my own all-purpose cleaner (vinegar and water and orange and lemon essential oil). I make my own granola, yoghurt, soft cheese, jams, jellies. I enjoy knitting and sewing, I may not be that good at sewing and wouldn’t dream of making my own clothes but I can make cushion covers, curtains, tablecloths, napkins, aprons. And you would be astonished at what you can knit!

I know one of your interests is herbal healing, because, awhile back, I was a little freaked out by the photo of your knee smeared with green goo (aka plantain poultice). What suggestions do you have for those interested in learning more about natural medicines?

Learn from somebody who knows what they are doing! (Sorry about the picture by the way). We enjoy foraging and the same rule applies, if you are not sure then don’t use it. There are some well-known treatments, plantain for cleaning and comfrey for healing are examples. But if you make a mistake you may not live to regret it.

You’re a crafter. Many of us struggle with stash and unfinished objects (UFOs). Has it been hard for you to minimize your crafting supplies?

At this point I may have to go and hide under the stairs. I recently came back from Yarndale, a HUGE wool festival in Skipton and brought my bags in from the car bit by bit so as not to freak the family.

I am reasonably good about finishing projects (reasonably being the operative word) but do like to have several on the go, so it can be a while to get them all to completion. Recently I joined up with a group of friends and every two weeks we get together with any project we are working on (wool/fabric/beads etc rather than paper and glue). We spend the day working and chatting and I have found that as a result I am much more inclined to get a project done rather than let it fester.

Also I am not so precious about my supplies. Unless it is something I have bought for a specific project or it is incredibly valuable then I am happy to let my daughters or anyone else use it. I would rather they were used than just hanging around in a drawer.

You wrote a post, how far are you prepared to go?, that resonated with me, because I’ve wondered this myself, both in the eco-context and in terms of what we owe other people (say, is it fair for me to spend money on beer while someone else is literally starving to death?). Since you wrote the post, have you come up with any answers for yourself?

Not really. But that doesn’t surprise me. I am still on the bottom of the learning curve and have friends who have taken far more drastic steps than I have and are living further up the learning curve than we are. The important point for me at the moment is to question what I do, what I buy, how I buy and how I use. As long as I am not on autopilot then I am better than I was previously.

The more you question the more you start to think and it is when you start to think that you can start to work out what route you want to take and how far you are prepared to go. My daughters would never take part in plastic free July now, but I am not sure I would have done at their age either.

Today we do have a choice, although I noted the other day that we may already be moving too fast.

Plastic free July might become Plastic Free Forever. I am not an eco-saint. I am sitting in a reasonably sized house which has plenty of unnecessary stuff in it. I drive a car and fly to the States to visit my father. I think, deep down, I should probably be doing more to change my lifestyle and I do sometimes think that I am a hypocrite. But then I remind myself that I am at least trying and that is better than not trying at all.