A Praxis of Action: Scrub Making and Solidarity during the UK Lockdown
by: Patricia Sutton , October 5, 2020
by: Patricia Sutton , October 5, 2020
A seemingly random moment, on 9th April 2020 transformed (at least for the lockdown) my life. Upon entering self-isolation, (now known by some as shielding (Public Health England 2020), although I will not use this term as I feel this ‘war-like’ terminology, perhaps intended to promote cohesion, also promotes fear), I had spent two solid weeks attempting to access food. This should not have been a difficult process, for I had shopped regularly online, so much so I had a ‘delivery pass’, but now things were different and now, instead of being one of the 7% who shopped online (Butler 2020), I had become one of almost everyone.
The intersection of my life circumstances meant this article, let alone the crafting group I write about, nearly didn’t happen. As an unwaged lone parent, my priorities lie with homeschooling, providing three meals a day, and chores. When both your oven and your dishwasher break down, as mine have done during the lockdown, chores can take a lot of time. Locating a food delivery service when you can’t go outside takes a lot of time. With the latter now mostly resolved, the former activities can be combined with organising a crafting group, which demonstrates my perpetual wish to offer acts of kindness, but also my capabilities. In future, this may aid in the securement of paid work, or if I dream really big, a funded PhD.
I eventually approached others who were in a position to elicit access to the food I required and only then were my thoughts able to turn elsewhere. With ‘priority access’ to a major supermarket, I was able to provide food for my children. Reaching the last meal in my fridge-freezer is a position I don’t ever want to be in again.
With this basic physical need fulfilled, my attention turned to how I would occupy any spare time I would have for myself during the purported 12 weeks (Gov.uk 2020) I was being advised to remain at home, as one of the 2.2 million in the UK who were considered extremely high risk if exposed to COVID-19. From the outset, I had realised that I was in this position for the long haul, but I was determined that this was not to be the same as the winter I had just spent inside, after having been hospitalised by an asthma attack. I had learned how to manage an extended period of time indoors at home, and wanted to put this knowledge into a useful purpose.
Randomly searching my phone for the news, I came upon the idea of making ‘scrubs’ for medical workers. Medical staff had struck upon the idea of making their own work clothing, after experiencing difficulties in obtaining the items, which are frequently changed to reduce the risk of spreading infection (Murray 2020). I had been a craftsperson since I was a child, when my mother–who had been a seamstress making wedding dresses in her earlier years–had taught me how to sew. I decided to put my skills to good use, and make some scrubs for someone who needed them. Falling asleep on the evening of the 9thApril, I hadn’t quite realised the enormity of it all.
Next morning, I woke and discovered a local hospital trust had put out a call for 2,000 sets of scrubs (Burrows 2020). The night before I had considered getting in touch with potentially 8-10 people to support and motivate each other, while sewing remotely/together, but now I appreciated how much help was required locally, which was a bigger challenge. So, I thought ‘why not?’ and decided to find 200 people to sew with me, thinking we could make 10 sets each. In under a week, the group reached that goal, and shortly afterwards I founded the group Connection Through Crafting , which, at its height, was to have almost 650 members. The group’s premise is to offer a virtual community for the members and support their wellbeing, while offering gestures of kindness to others. All contributions are welcomed and valued, from beginners to experienced professionals. Beginners practice sewing ‘scrub bags’ before trying to sew scrubs using donated sterile fabric. This fabric is transformed into colourful ‘duvet’ scrubs. With more experience, scrubs are made with purchased fabric, although our eco-friendly credentials keep this to a minimum. To further this aim, I recruited a team of cyclists, and all deliveries and collections between machinists and recipients are achieved with pedal power!
I have worked with local councils, organisations and companies to provide eco-friendly deliveries , collaborated with the Graduate Union of the University of Cambridge, been interviewed on the radio (Elbro 2020), been mentioned in an academic paper (Blackburn, 2020) and have raised over £8,000 in funding  to support the group’s projects, which have now extended beyond making scrubs for medical workers, to sewing community facemasks (Big Community Sew 2020), possession bags for bereaved families to receive their loved ones belongings and quilts for local families who lost everything in a devastating fire (Brackley 2020). Our work has been acknowledged in helping members to promote wellbeing and alleviate loneliness, which is an important aim for the group in addition to the items we make (Connection Coalition 2020). We are currently making facemasks to supply local Community kitchens. While collecting surplus food from local supermarkets, visitors can also take home a free face mask. This is our contribution to equity. While many other governments across Asia (Evans 2020; National 2020 & Nation 2020), North America (Fikowski 2020), Africa (Radar Outside 2020) and Europe (Official information of the Belgian Government 2020; Jones, 2020 & Sawyer 2020) provide free face masks, the British government does not. During a time when many are struggling to afford food, people’s finances should not be challenged further by having to purchase a mask. To date, we have produced over 4,684 sewn items.
The above goes some way towards explaining how and why I became involved in a project that uses sewing skills to help others; but what about the people who joined me? Also, who could join me? As a fledgling academic, these questions intrigued me. My prior work concerned the wellbeing of bullied adolescents, and I had recently spoken on the importance of creativity and connection to support wellbeing , and was aware of the long-term benefits of generativity and health (Moieni 2017), but I wondered why people, mostly women, had joined this cause.
Perhaps the national context would suggest a reason? The first COVID-19 fatality was reported in the UK on 5th March, escalating to the announcement of a national emergency on the 11th March and lockdown on the 23rd March. Soon afterward, the death of a surgeon on the 25th March from COVID-19, followed by those of another two surgeons on the 29th led to concerns being raised about insufficient PPE. To date, over 400 medical staff have died from COVID-19 (Marsh 2020), compounded further by the loss of health care workers (Amnesty International, 2020). At the time of writing, an estimated 700 people have lost their lives while working in these sectors. The day after I formed my sewing group to assist in providing scrubs to be worn under PPE, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock heightened feelings when suggesting that staff ‘treat PPE as the precious resource it is,’ implying that blame should be directed at frivolous staff, as opposed to accepting the effect of years of inadequate funding of the NHS (Nuffield Trust 2017) and the suspension of the Threads, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee (THRCC) six months before the outbreak (Telegraph Reporters 2020). Another week was to pass before the Government would admit to shortages, while unions announced that these issues may force staff to refuse to work (Blackall 2020).
Was the national context the reason why my group blossomed in the first week? Over 100 joined on the first weekend alone, in the time immediately following Hancock’s comments; by the end of the month, we had 650 members. Perhaps the availability of time explained the opportunity to volunteer? Doreen Massey has noted that in the 1990s, white-collar workers in Cambridge were supported by the domestic labour of their wives, not unlike the miners’ wives in the North, where the role of the caring responsibilities also frequently fell onto women (1994: 190). Thankfully, Cambridge academia has come along since the 1990s, and is now more representative of all genders, but perhaps those who fulfilled caring roles then are expressing their caring natures now? Alternatively, perhaps the precariousness of life became apparent to those who had previously experienced a comfortable existence (Reisz 2020)? Which of these explained the response of numerous individuals? Was it simply explained as individuals (mostly women), wanting to help others (mostly women)?
In the NHS, 77% of healthcare staff are women. Within this healthcare environment, women are disproportionally socially conditioned into care roles, e.g. nurse, midwife, as opposed to cure roles, e.g. surgeon and physician (Maas 2020). While women constitute only 43% of doctors, 89% of nurses and midwives are women, and in providing the majority of the health-care workforce, they are placed at higher risk from COVID-19 (p.8) (Women’s Budget Group 2020). This is particularly true as they provide the majority of close-contact care. Women are also frequently provided with PPE which doesn’t fit correctly (Topping 2020), further putting them at risk from COVID-19. This precarious situation also affects BAME people, a disproportionate number of whom work in health care (Women’s Budget Group 2020:6) with black people more prevalent in non-medical roles (National Workforce Statistics gov.uk, 2019) and therefore more likely to be in positions of high exposure to COVID-19.
Women are further disadvantaged by having less representation in decision-making processes and positions of leadership, which extends to the highest levels. In England, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is heavily biased towards male membership: only 22% of the 69 named members are women (Chatfield et al. 2020). Outsiders observing this situation (in the majority women) may not have been able to supply the PPE that health care workers desperately needed, but they could provide ‘scrubs’ (the clothing worn under PPE, or instead of home clothes for staff in the community setting). Many sets were required, both for medical staff in hospitals and in the community, due to the need to change them frequently to minimise the risk of infection. This was made possible by the sheer number of volunteers who came forward.
Acts of pro-social behaviour are not a new phenomenon, even in times of crisis. In ‘A Paradise in Hell’ Rebecca Solnit states that ‘the history of disaster demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning’ (2010: 305). The innate nature of being deeply interconnected (Capra & Luisi 2016) comes to the fore, even in societies where economics drive in neo-liberal wedges to attempt to separate communities and societies. Within a crisis, people come together and look for ways to help, often before a centralised administration begins to do so. Almost overnight during COVID-19, just as on many occasions beforehand, old and newly-forged communities searched for solutions where official channels were failing to provide them, not only in supporting the NHS, but in supplying food to those in need and helping neighbours who were self-isolating. With respect to the NHS, women all over the country emptied their ‘stashes’ and used novel techniques when sundries were not available (Lemon Mint Studio 2020), in order to provide urgently required clothing. This altruism provides a ground level response, adapting to problem solve within what initially appears to be an insurmountable situation.
This altruism extends far beyond a basis of natural selection to protect an individual’s gene pool, reaching out to protect that of humanity itself. COVID-19 is indiscriminate in who it attacks, but some groups are affected far more deeply than others: for example, the elderly, BAME communities and those disadvantaged by social structures and inequality. Despite this, communities congregate to offer support to those in most need. Helpers offer empathy. In supporting the NHS during this crisis by offering support to others (by providing protective clothing), individuals also subconsciously protected themselves (by making the crisis in hospitals manageable, in aiming to reduce admissions). Carl Rogers, eminent person-centred psychotherapist considered empathy to be one individual ‘entering the private perceptual world of the other … temporarily living in the other’s life…communicating your sensings of the person’s world as you look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements of which he or she is fearful’ (1980: 142). The altruism required to support others contains empathy for others’ situations, understands what they are going through, but is also beside them. A person willing to help is required to slip on the shoes of another and be in their life, to understand their experiences and their fear.
But for some, the shoes currently being worn are different. How can someone away from the hospital environment, not exposed to the risk of COVID-19, have an understanding of the desperation of trying to obtain PPE and scrubs, and failing? In a county where few are furloughed in comparison to the rest of the country (68,400) (HM Revenue & Customs 2020) and many can safely work from home, how can they have empathy for others who have to go to work and risk catching this virus on a daily basis? Empathy is not a sufficient enough explanation for why people want to help as ‘[e]mpathy in the context of health is largely predicated on our appreciating the risks of disease because we can imagine getting the disease ourselves’ (Galea 2019: 1). Yet individuals can potentially be in a position where there is little risk to themselves, and still help. Perhaps the thin wall which separates them from their groundless facticity collapses (Sheehan 2015: 163 & 164) and fear enables understanding, leading to empathy. This implies that the urge to volunteer is purely an individualistic one, aimed at protecting the hospitals and staff within.
On the other hand, having compassion motivates, and the unjustness of a situation is observed in tandem with a desire for the world to be different (Galea 2019). This compassion includes empathy, but also contains a ‘caregiving social motivational system, considered key to being compassionate’ (Gilbert, 2014: 10). In occupying a place of privilege at home and avoiding the clinical spaces where COVID-19 is present, individuals offer to help, motivated by caring. They can also appreciate the fear of the people they want to support. Their compassion enables them to consider the suffering of medical staff, and stimulates feelings not only of caring, but also of a need for action: the desire to help and ameliorate the suffering of others, along with a belief that the situation should be different.
Making scrubs is therefore not only an act of caring, but also an act of craftivism. Gentle and peaceful, but a protest of the patriarchal decision process that places far too many in an intolerable position. Just like baboons (Judson 2007), supportive companions protect against dominant males and offer a mechanism for survival.
This craftivism is a form of feminism, held equally by the women and men who participate. It is not neoliberal feminism, an incitement of individual responsibility (Rottenberg, 2018), but rather a collective form, acknowledging a desire for equity and fairness for all. A small grassroots movement of craft activism, a desire to make the change, to protect those who often protect and cure us, and a response to those who make decisions which are the antithesis of our own. This group was one of many, across the whole country. Individuals who want the world to be a better place came together, both women and men. A fairer place. A safer place. For all.
Mary Beard proposes a re-evaluation of power from possession to a verb, ‘to power.’ Once a noun, an obscure unattainable elite object, instead there is the potential of a bottom-up power, resulting in a collaborative effort to elicit change. She offers ‘I have in mind the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually’ (Beard 2017: 87). On one level, as an individual, and the intersection I occupy within groups in society which are often ignored or even vilified, to then found and organise this group is empowering. But much more so is the group empowerment these actions create, for we act quietly and gently, yet powerfully, contributing together to elicit change.
But is it idealistic to consider that something as simplistic as sewing scrubs can offer change? ‘Theorists from Marx (1887) to Baudrillard (1998) have warned us that dominant ideology will always prevail in the modern state, where everything from cultural activity to rebellion serves to legitimise a social order’ (Morris 2016: 8). Perhaps dissent is unachievable? My first response to this idea was dismay. But instead, consider with me: when medical staff walk around in colourful scrubs, portrayed in the media “We can allow the material (object) to declare our allegiance to the immaterial (dissent) and metaphorically take up arms through our [purchasing] creative power”? (Morris 2016: 10, my insertion). Morris argued that deep structural changes to capitalism might seem idealistic. However, with conviction, small changes are achievable.
In response to my pondering the question ‘What brought you to this group?’ I have suggested altruism, time, and dissent to be potential answers. So far, I have offered my suggestions, and the responses of several members of my crafting group follow below. This group came about as a natural experiment, and those responding to a questionnaire I created were self-selecting. It is worth bearing in mind that this response was restricted by Facebook’s algorithms, which are likely to have excluded many members of the group. Additionally, Facebook no longer allows group messages, and thus prevented me from contacting all the members with the same message (an invitation to participate). While I did not apply for institutional ethical approval, being ethical is a personal process as much as an institutional one, and I applied my own principles, in addition to referring to relevant documents (British Psychological Society 2017). In total, 50 members answered the questionnaire and supplied demographic details, after providing informed consent. Respondents ranged between 18-76 years (the group ranges between 8-87 years old). The first question expressed my curiosity as to why the members joined the group. It simply stated: ‘What brought you to this group?’ Some answers were quite literal (‘to make scrubs’), while others offered more depth. The responses can be divided into the following categories: a connection the NHS, to express core values, a compulsion to help and to be constructive, with a purpose.
A connection the NHS:
‘Am a medical professional myself currently working remotely and wanted to help.’
‘My daughter she is an intensive care nurse.’
‘My cousin who works in the NHS.’
‘A mummy friend who works in XX put out an SOS for scrubs… When I offered to help, I was put in touch with this group.’
Many people expressed a wish to help (16 of the 50 responses):
‘Wanting to help during the pandemic.’
‘Liked to help the NHS.’
‘Wanting to help the community.’
‘The opportunity to help health workers.’
Some expressed core values:
‘Religious and political principles to support key workers. Was seeking information on best ways to support comment groups involved in making scrubs.’
The compulsion to offer support was strong and the word ‘desire’ was often used:
‘Desire to do something useful.’
‘Desire to help knowing there was something useful I could do.’
‘Desire to help healthcare workers in XX by sewing scrubs.’
‘Desire to ‘do’ something plus I love sewing.’
‘A desire to do something practical to help others whilst in lockdown.’
‘A desire to use my skills and help during the pandemic.’
Such a strong word, implying passion. And, that was certainly what I observed. A motivation that provided the fuel for many late evenings and busy days.
Being constructive, for others or themselves, in having a purpose was also mentioned:
‘Desire to do something constructive during the pandemic, ideally to help a local community and/or the NHS.’
‘Wanting to do some[thing] constructive in the pandemic.’
‘Being off work due to furlough.’
‘I needed a project for lockdown and this was perfect!’
‘Needing to be occupied and to be helpful in a way I could.’
Altruism did play a large part in volunteers coming forward, an expression of compassion for others. Social justice was also evident, as were religious principles. Relationships were revealed to be of importance, with volunteers expressing a wish to help family and friends who required scrubs, thus demonstrating a desire to protect loved ones.
A further reason was more personal: the activity provided a purpose during a challenging time. As an intangible cultural asset, sewing provided members of this group not only a means of social connection (evident in the threads of posts, and expressed in new friendships made), but also a means of coping. This small study reaffirms the findings of a meta-analysis of 11,088 studies, which investigated the effect of intangible cultural assets on wellbeing (Mansfield, 2019). As Mansfield’s extensive study was completed prior to the pandemic, this paper extends these previous findings, by demonstrating that this intangible asset continues to be of value to wellbeing during the pandemic. While 90.4% of my responses indicated they had joined to support medical staff, 44.2% also indicated they had joined to support their own wellbeing. Being constructive and having a personal project to occupy their time during lockdown was important too. As members have offered to provide follow-up questions from this questionnaire, exploration can follow to investigate how the impact of participating in such a sewing project can vary between different age groups and personal circumstances. This was identified as an area for further research in the Mansfield study (2019).
Many participants who responded to this questionnaire were retired, and thus potentially have the time to support this cause. Perhaps they were Massey’s caregivers of the 1990s. Other responses came from a variety of ages (between 26-76) and occupations, including skilled workers, a Mum on maternity leave, and people who are unemployed. The majority consisted of professionals (42.3%) or retirees (36.5%). No one in this group identified themselves as manual workers.
This raises the unanswered question of why people didn’t volunteer for the project. I would be naïve not to consider the existence of other local sewing groups, and of course many people can’t sew (although this hobby is experiencing a resurgence), and people were potentially helping in other ways. Or perhaps life was just too busy. I wonder how many women never achieve what they are capable of, or never volunteer, because their priorities have to be elsewhere?
This crafting group is, for the most part, comprised of women. Additionally, within the survey, there were no volunteers in the 18-25 age group. During the lockdown, women held the majority of housework and childcare responsibilities, and striving to achieve these would have left little time for volunteering. Within the academic sphere, output from women drastically reduced during COVID-19 (Fazackerley 2020). Across demographics, women changed routines to accommodate childcare by working anti-social hours (Office for National Statistics 2020), and reduced their working hours to maintain childcare (Andrew et al. 2020), with one survey reporting up to a 75% reduction (Elks 2020). Women are now unable to return to their previous working hours, either due to losing their jobs (Andrew et al, 2020) or because of a lack of childcare during the summer holidays. No wonder a large percentage of the volunteers in the crafting group were retired, and some demographics were not represented.
This praxis of action, of those who were able to volunteer, is demonstrated in and through photography displayed on social media and intertwined in this piece of patchwork (auto)/ethnography (Gunel, Varma & Watanabe 2020). This intertwining of the personal and professional combines in visual virtual space (both here and in the private Facebook group), where the opportunity for this patchwork form of knowledge production occurs, but also ‘to power’ is demonstrated. The virtual community acknowledges each contribution, big or small, novice or expert. All are valued and appreciated as a gesture of kindness, and are also effective, in many senses of the word.
Making scrubs and community face masks within a virtual community group demonstrates a praxis of women ‘to power,’ a chance to express dissatisfaction against the status quo, enhance members’ wellbeing and offer solidarity with each other and the medical staff, who they are eternally grateful for.
Founder of Connection Through Crafting
I appreciate the kind offer by the editors of MAI to insert a Paypal link: paypal.me/MsPFSutton
Thank you in advance to any of my readers who choose to make a donation.
 Connection Through Crafting is organised via a private Facebook group- https://www.facebook.com/groups/537968523577582/ and consists of many volunteers, who tirelessly provide sewn items.
 A wonderful team of volunteer cyclists enable deliveries to machinists, local hospitals and individual medical staff. I am grateful to both Camcycle https://www.camcycle.org.uk/newsletters/#newsletter147 and Zedify for providing volunteer cyclists https://www.zedify.co.uk/cambridge, along with other volunteers across Cambridge.
 I owe a debt of thanks to my earliest supporters and donors- David Goode, Praelector & Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, the Isaac Newton University Lodge, Descensus Aquarum, the late Emeritus Professor Michael Langford and his wife, Dr Sally Church, and local businesses for providing printing services. Both men’s and women’s Lodges are contributing towards a £2.75 million special funding towards helping those particularly affected by COVID-19. A grant from this special funding enabled my sewing project to go ahead at the scale I dreamed of. https://www.pglcambs.org.uk/featured-news/180-cambridgeshire-hospital-heroes-scrub-up-well-thanks-to-freemasons-grant
 I am incredibly grateful to Dr Isabelle McNeill, Dr Georgina Evans and Dr Louise Haywood for their invitation to speak at the Tactics & Praxis seminar group at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge on 6 March 2020. https://www.tacticsandpraxis.org/programme/
 Photos are reproduced with the permissions of Tricia Sutton, members of Connection Through Crafting and Jamie Garsha.
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WHO SUPPORTS US
The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.
However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:
Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers
Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey