Sewing Through The Pandemic

Changing Lives women’s services and I have worked together on a number of projects over the last five years. These include The Partnership Quilt and The Red Umbrella Archive, but also include some writing projects such as the reports and academic papers that accompany those projects, as well as some forthcoming work related to our overall relationship.

Earlier this year, we started working on a new project: I was invited to explore the meaning craft activities have for staff and the women they support in their drop-in and group-work services. We were going to work on these through embroidery workshops and interviews, which would then be turned into an interactive exhibition. We even already had our exhibition venue sorted, as we were going to combine it with their ongoing ‘Forever in Bloom’ project led by a paper artist and one of their domestic violence services workers.

Since the UK went into lockdown about 6 weeks ago though, we paused this project. Instead, we have been working on a new idea: the Sewing Through the Pandemic project. This is a project where we invite women across the different services Changing Lives provide (eg. housing, domestic violence, criminal justice support, etc.) to sew a page of a collective diary. Together, we would develop an embroidered, collaborative, and mindful diary of the covid-19 pandemic.

As part of a regular welfare check, case workers would be able to take a toolkit to create one page of this stitched diary to a woman to complete. The purpose of this activity, is to allow us to name our emotions, engage in mindfulness practice, and build hope together.

Each pack contains: a square piece of white fabric, an embroidery needle, thread in 7 colours, and instructions. Each colour represents a different feeling or emotion. For example, yellow means ‘I feel happy and excited’ while grey means ‘I feel tired and grey’.

Every day, the women are invited to stitch a few stitches in the colour that best represents the feelings on that particular day, creating a stitched diary day by day. The women are aware that others are also working on their own pieces of fabric, and that we will come together when it is safe to do so to see each others’ work.

Throughout the time of social distancing, self isolation, and the lockdown, we will use this activity as a way of staying in touch asynchroneously; as a way to be in touch without talking to one another.

When it is safe to do so, we will host a series of events where women can come together to talk about their experiences, show their work to one another, and to turn the individual squares into a banner, quilt, or stitched notebook.

I have created a video explaining how to create the toolkit, and include a list of materials (including links of where to get them) below:

Remember, if the items on my list are sold out, any other brand or online shop will do as long as you’ve got some white fabric and the right colours of embroidery thread!

If you don’t know where to start with the embroidery or are looking to learn some new stitches, the “Cutesy Craft” YouTubve channel has a series of different stitches, which they have collected in a playing list: (though video 2 in the list would probably be a bit much as it includes pattern transfer, which the women won’t need to do). The actual stitch videos are all very short, detailed, and well-explained, though

The Red Umbrella Archive

December 17th marks the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Historically, on this day sex workers carry red umbrellas and march through the streets of large cities to fight for their rights, reduce stigma, and to make their presence visible in a city. In 2016 Changing Lives organised the first of these marches in Newcastle upon Tyne.We joined sex workers, support workers, police, and other supporters on this march as well as the remembrance service that took place afterwards. Through ethno-mimesis, we recorded our experiences of the march and subsequent service, focusing on the use of digital technologies. Between the march and the service, we also encouraged attendants to partake in our ‘red umbrellas’ activity. Here we used the open source JigsAudio tool to begin to craft a living activist archive of Newcastle’s experiences on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

With this activity, we have supported Changing Lives service delivery, while simultaneously developing a digital archive of sex worker voices. To our knowledge, this is the first time that experiences of those marching to end violence against sex workers are archived in this format. We archive the voices in a hybrid craft where playful crafting is mixed with tangible technologies to develop a space where the archive is manifested not only through the digital audio recording of voices, but also through the tangible crafted artefact.

The Partnership Quilt

The Partnership Quilt is a collaboration between Changing Lives, Six Penny Memories, and Open Lab at Newcastle University. It started out as an activity for clients of the Girls and Proud project in Changing Lives to do during the Northumberland drop-in sessions organised by Kirsty, but quickly turned into something bigger – clients began sewing at home, while waiting for appointments, or even in the bath! As Kim and Debbie from Six Penny Memories became involved in the project the individual pieces came together and were shaped into a well-balanced quilt. While this quilt by itself is something all those who put a stitch in it can be proud of, the addition of the secondary quilt is what makes this a truly special project. Angelika and Janis from Open Lab used do-it-yourself, flexible, and low-cost technologies to turn the soft and colourful quilt into a living archive of stories and experiences of Changing Lives service delivery in the North East of England. The addition of quilted capacitive touch sensors turns this traditional craft artefact into a contemporary piece of interactive art: by touching some of the rosettes on the quilt a voice is activated to tell a part of the story that lies in the folds and seams of the quilt.

The materials we used allow us not only to continue to share the story of the quilt, but they allow Changing Lives staff to curate the audio recordings and easily exchange the voices that are shared through the quilt. Like this, it can be used for exhibitions, staff training, or focused one-on-one reflection.