Home   Real Life Stories   Article

Real Life: Sewing for the frontline

There’s been a phenomenal response from professional and amateur sewers to the nation’s shortage of PPE. We look at the amazing people firing up their sewing machines and generously giving their time to protect our frontline staff

And Sew it Began

When she was furloughed from her city job as a fashion designer, Cat Bell, 30, moved back to her family home near Ramsay and enlisted the help of best friend Jess Marshall, 29, to launch the Cambridgeshire ScrubHub

“I work as a dress designer for River Island in London, but when Coronavirus began to spread, I packed up my work stuff and headed home to live with my Mum and boyfriend. Shortly before I was furloughed, my boss sent me a web link to the ScrubHub, a volunteer-led group set up in Hackney. It was launched by a group of women who were approached by a doctor that couldn’t get any PPE – so they responded to the national shortage by setting up the hub.

I approached my best friend Jess to see if she’d like to start a Cambridgeshire hub. Jess and I have been friends for 15 years; we went to secondary school together at Ramsay Abbey and are like sisters. Jess agreed and we launched on April 5 – and the hub has boomed from there!

The original ScrubHub team set up an incredibly useful PDF pack online, giving details of how to start your own group. It’s got downloadable patterns that you can send to people to print, advice on how to set up your own email, Facebook and GoFundMe pages to raise money for fabric, so we did all that. We also set up Google forms, with one for NHS workers to fill in the relevant information for sizes, their address, the hospital they work for and how many scrubs they need. Then another for volunteers.

We’ve amassed a wonderful team of volunteer sewers and cutters, making our own little production line. We also have a brilliant group of drivers, who have been integral in helping us get fabric delivered, as obviously Cambridgeshire is such a big county.

We’ve split Cambridgeshire into manageable areas, so we have a Peterborough group, a Cambridge group, a March and Ely group, and a Ramsay, St Ives and Huntingdon group, which has made it a bit easier for us to manage. Then we have cutters, sewers and drivers per area.

We were actually incredibly lucky as a lady called Kelly, who runs fabric store Plush Addict in Peterborough, got in touch via Facebook and she and her husband John have been supplying us the fabric at cost. They’ve been absolute saints! They’re cutting all the fabrics into batches for us to collect and distribute.

Jess has also been brilliant as she’s a B2C call centre manager, so she’s really good at logistics and organisation; she is the spread sheet queen, managing all our online orders.

Originally I thought I’d be on my sewing machine all the time but our ScrubHub was featured on The One Show quite early on, and after that our emails went mad, so we were getting over 100 emails a day from volunteers, which was incredible. We now have a group of 80 plus volunteers that we are managing throughout our four areas.

We’ve raised more than £3,700 so far to buy materials – and fulfilled 340 orders, including 100 for Fulbourn Hospital, part of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, and 55 for a GP practice in Yaxley. We are also working with Magpas, the air ambulance charity; they’ve ordered 40 sets of scrubs. Aside from that we’re taking individual orders from doctors working at Addenbrooke’s and Hinchingbrooke Hospitals.

It’s been a crazy couple of months but Jess and I are really proud to be supporting the NHS. I didn’t really think my sewing skills would come in useful in a time of crisis, but I’ve been cutting out and sewing when I have spare time - so it’s nice to know my university degree is living up to something!

I’m happy now that the PPE is starting to arrive for our frontline workers, but if we can support them by continuing to plug the void then we will keep going as long as we are needed.

Jess and I feel really overwhelmed by the spirit shown by all of the volunteers. They have clubbed together brilliantly as a team. We’ve got married people working together as a mini production line, and our drivers are out and about, able to see some of the older population in the community that maybe don’t have their family around. It’s a real sense of teamwork, and we’re absolutely going to throw a huge party to thank all our volunteers when this is over!”

* Find out more at scrubhub.org.uk (search for the Cambridgeshire hub on the directory), and donate at gofundme.com/f/cambridgeshire-scrubhubmaking-scrubs-for-the-nhs

Material Girl

When news of a scrub shortage broke, award-winning dress maker and designer Clare Szabo, of River Elliot Bridal in Cambridge, used her own money to buy fabric and set up a sewing hub

“I was busy working on bespoke wedding dresses and planning my next sustainable fashion collection when Coronavirus hit. But as the death toll in the country began to rise it was really hard for me to carry on talking about weddings on social media, as I didn’t think it was appropriate. So I thought ‘what can I do?’ I read about the desperate scrub situation and thought, right, I’ll take my foot off the gas with the bridal work as weddings will eventually come back.

I had so many connections in my sewing circle – mainly home sewers that I had long-standing friendships with - and we were private messaging, and as the need emerged for scrubs, we thought we could help. I bought fabric out of my own money, and made my first set of scrubs for a GP who lives next door as a trial pair. That’s when I really realised how much need there is – and so I appealed on my facebook page for spare change and managed to raise £500, which was amazing.

Clare Szabo has swapped bespoke wedding dresses for scrubs(34501353)
Clare Szabo has swapped bespoke wedding dresses for scrubs(34501353)

I initially ordered about 100 metres of navy fabric – and then I realised that with my five year old, River, at home, there was absolutely no way I could sew that all myself. Thankfully, a lovely woman called Gio Gomez, who runs Gorgeous Little Things, had launched a scrub hub called Sewing Scrubs for Cambridgeshire and asked if I wanted to co-organise it so I jumped at the chance.

I shortened the name to Scrubs for Cambridgeshire, designed the logo and created my own little subteam of five women, dotted around Histon, St Ives and Impington. My husband then had to hold up this massive heavy roll of 100 metres of fabric, so I could cut it up to make scrub kits, which we delivered one afternoon, heading out with River on a road trip around Cambridge.

My little subteam has so far made 30 sets of scrubs, which have been delivered to Hinchingbrooke Hospital. We’ve had hospital trusts, hospices and care homes, including Addenbrooke’s and Papworth, contact us for scrubs, because they are so desperate; it’s really sad because this shouldn’t be the case. The government should have taken care of this – but we are glad we have the skills to help.

At the same time, because I’m from London, I’m sewing scrubs for a West London Hospital, Hillingdon, which is in a less affluent area. So some of my scrubs go there, and others locally; I have to try to spread the work over the time I have!

My husband is a journalist in environmental finance and works solidly morning to night, so I look after River in the day, home schooling and playing with her. She’ll generally have an hour’s down time in the afternoon, when I’ll do my prep work so speed cut out scrubs or do fiddly bits like ironing up hems or preparing pockets. Then in the evening I’ll try and get another hour of stitching done. At the moment I pretty much spend the whole weekend sewing in my studio.

We’ve had some great feedback so far. When Gio dropped off several bags of scrubs at Hinchingbrooke, they were really overwhelmed. My sister is a nurse at a GP practice in Suffolk and typically only has one uniform so I made her a pair of scrubs and she’s been so grateful and had lots of compliments from other nurses in the practice.

I feel like I can’t do enough; I get a bit emotional thinking about it and wishing I could sew more. But I do look at some of the finished tops hanging up now –and I’ve embroidered the pockets with white hearts and the word ‘hero’ – and knowing that someone is going to be wearing them while caring for someone’s dad or mum, does make me feel emotional.

It’s a surreal feeling knowing you are part of this huge effort to support this incredible service.

I hope that while our services are so crucial, the government steps up to provide the PPE our health workers need. I also hope the craft movement – which is always there to step up when needed - gets some recognition. I’m so proud to be part of the sewing community at times like this. I see all my friends on Instagram all over the world sewing stacks of masks, scrubs, hats and bags for hospitals and it’s just incredibly heart-warming!”

* Donate to Scrubs for Cambridgeshire at facebook.com/donate/266773998025014/

* Read more about Clare at riverelliot.com

Fabric of Life

From Cambridge creatives leading community projects making scrubs to a Bury St Edmunds mum crocheting ‘mask mates’, Velvet shines a spotlight on local heroes helping frontline staff fight Coronavirus

Behind the Mask

While the current pandemic is a challenge to everyone it is also an opportunity to channel our skills to help our communities. Jane Horwood, owner of Catfish Web Design and the creative talent behind Trash Chic has teamed up with her friend Melissa Santiago-Val to make fabric face masks for the community – supported by a voluntary band of cutting and sewing bees.

Fabric face masks sewn by Jane Horwood, Melissa Santiago-Val and their sewing bees (34501355)
Fabric face masks sewn by Jane Horwood, Melissa Santiago-Val and their sewing bees (34501355)

“There does seem to be conflicting opinions about wearing a face mask but, after a lot of research, our feelings were that if a mask adds even a small percentage of protection surely it’s worth wearing. It’s not a perfect solution of course but the message a mask puts out is ‘I protect you … you protect me,” says Jane from her home on the outskirts of Cambridge.

“I found a pattern, made a couple of samples and posted them up on Facebook along with the instructions. The response was fantastic with people either producing their own or asking if they could buy one from me. Then came a couple of ‘larger’ orders for a care home and a doctor (although these are not frontline NHS masks) and orders just keep on coming.”

The project has raised more than £13,000 for the NHS to date – the masks have travelled as far as Australia, Japan, Spain and Canada.

Made from patterned cotton fabric with a pocket to insert a paper towel for extra protection – only cotton or poly cotton that can be washed at 60 degrees can be use – the masks cost £4 each to cover materials (but many people are giving more) and postage is 76p for four masks; anything over and above is given to the NHS. People are donating their own fabric to the project, but more is needed. “We are keen for corporate support to make donations on our Just Giving page so that we can donate masks to voluntary groups. We are delighted to be getting support from Johnson Matthey in Royston and Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing who are both donating money to buy materials so that we don’t have a personal outlay for the masks, only our time.

“We know that wearing a mask does not protect people fully against Covid-19 and that we should all still only be going out when absolutely essential and observing the social distancing rules, but we feel it’s a positive action. The NHS is under a huge amount of pressure and we all need to do what we can to help them.”

* See more at justgiving.com/fundraising/communitymasksfornhs and facebook.com/CommunityMasks4NHS and contact Jane at info@catfishwebdesign.com

Hospice Lifeline

A family indebted to Suffolk-based St Nicholas Hospice Care for looking after a loved one in his final weeks, have raised more than £850 in two days and inspired a host of volunteers to sew scrubs.

Jo Birch’s husband John died at the hospice in 2015 – and when the centre’s annual fund-raising day had to be cancelled due to Coronavirus, Jo decided to help staff source much-needed scrubs, syringe driver bags and surgical mask comfort aids. Though Jo, who lives in Bury St Edmunds with daughter Madeleine, couldn’t sew herself, she got in touch with the West Suffolk Hospital scrubs sewing group, which offered patterns and advice, and set up a Sew for St Nicholas group on Facebook.

Jo Birch and daughter Madeleine(34501359)
Jo Birch and daughter Madeleine(34501359)

Since then 130 sets of scrubs have been donated, along with the other essentials – and Madeleine, eight, even donated her £20 birthday money. “People have been so generous and it’s just snowballed,” says Jo, whose husband spent his last seven weeks at the hospice. “The support they gave me and my family then and since is phenomenal,” adds Jo. “At this time, kindness is going a long way and it is what the world needs. There is so much kindness at the hospice.”

* To donate or get involved, go to the Sew for St Nicholas group on Facebook or email jobirch90@hotmail.co.uk

A Stitch In Time

Paula Smith has been busy sewing scrubs at home (34501376)
Paula Smith has been busy sewing scrubs at home (34501376)

When lockdown was announced 71-year-old Paula Smith decided to help with the national effort and took to her sewing machine. Joining the Sew Scrubs for West Suffolk Hospital group, she’s made more than 20 sets of scrubs for frontline staff. “I just thought I’m going to be sitting here so I might as well contribute and help those working in the NHS,” says Paula, of Fornham All Saints.

Scrub Up

Kath Goodwin of Cambridge fashion school MAKE has closed the school during lockdown but after she put a post on the MAKE Facebook page showing how to make fabric face masks she was overwhelmed by the positive response. The post listed the components needed and a video with instructions and resulted in makers stepping up to create the masks for key workers in supermarkets, care homes, pharmacies and delivery drivers (not frontline staff). Katie Benson, owner of The Cambridge Fabric Company (pictured here with Kath) is donating fabric and elastic for free; a parcel of fabric and elastic will cost £4 to cover postage and makes nine masks.

“I am so grateful to Katie for donating the fabric as she has also had to close the shop during these difficult times but is still operating online. Once people have made a good amount of masks they can offer them to their GP surgery, local care homes, schools, and post office. Sadly, these masks aren’t high enough grade for frontline doctors and nurses but it’s a start for our key workers and I’m very proud of everyone in MAKE for the Community.”

Now the group is making scrubs for staff at Hinchingbrooke Hospital and Royal Papworth Hospital too. “After our initial call for making masks, myself and Katie launched the 'City scrub Hub'. We are working together with a larger scrub team called 'Scrubs for Cambridgeshire' led by Gio Gomez (see justgiving.com/crowdfunding/gio-gomez-2) and her fantastic team.”

The city team is concentrating on urgent requests from Addenbrooke’s frontline staff.

* For more information contact Kath on info@makecambridge.co.uk

* Kath and Katie send big thanks to: Susannah at the Cambridge Art Markers, Linton; Roxanne from Frocktails and Camcycle; Naomi from The Polar Museum; and wonderful MAKE clients, Marion and Carolin

Mask Mates

Jane Hutton with her mask mate (34501357)
Jane Hutton with her mask mate (34501357)

Creative mum-of-two Laura Jane Hutton has put her crocheting skills to amazing use, by creating dinky little ‘mask mates’ for key workers. The ingenious knitted accessories help prevent rashes and sores caused by wearing surgical masks for long periods of time. Laura, 30, who lives in Bury St Edmunds, explains that the mask mates - which she is donating for free - are made by crocheting cotton and attaching two buttons for the mask to hook around. “I saw them on Facebook and I thought, seeing as I’ve been crocheting for about 10 years, that I’d reach out and see if there was a need for them here,” she explains. Anyone who would like one or who can donate buttons can message Laura on Facebook.

Sew brilliant

Wolf in Sheeps clothing sewing scrubs (34501383)
Wolf in Sheeps clothing sewing scrubs (34501383)

Brandon-based clothing company Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing is busy making masks and scrubs to help healthcare workers and individuals protect themselves against Coronavirus. Owner Paul Brown started production in response to the government’s plea to companies to produce protective gear for the NHS, but having heard no more about the scheme, the business has forged ahead with vital scrubs and masks for individuals and private hospitals but would happily pitch in to help the NHS.

* To place an order, visit wisconline.co.uk

More by this author

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More