Blog: Seeking solace through sewing in lockdown

Published: 1 Jun 2020

Author: Clare Hunter
Blog: Seeking solace through sewing in lockdown

One of the unforeseen consequences of the lockdown has been a revival of home crafts: people becoming more creative in their search for meaningful ways to occupy work-free hours and ward off anxiety.

"There has been an explosion of collective sewing projects to support key workers in the NHS and care homes, with the factory manufacture of hospital textiles being boosted by amateur stitchers who have taken it upon themselves to supply their local health and care workers" - Clare Hunter, Fellow 

Amongst the crafts that people are pursuing, sewing is gaining popularity. Hobbycraft, the UK’s biggest online art and crafts retailer, is reporting a surge in orders for sewing materials, with sales of thread up by over 300% and sewing machines by over 155%. Fabric and haberdashery suppliers are enjoying record sales.   

The enthusiastic reclamation of sewing during this crisis should not be that surprising. For centuries, needlework has been adopted as a therapeutic activity for, and by, those confined physically or mentally: the penal reformer Elizabeth Fry chose patchwork as a diversion for women convicts in Newgate; those caring for shell-shocked WWI soldiers introduced embroidery as a way to settle minds and hands; POWs in WW2 camps took to sewing to continue to make their mark; and in British prisons today, hundreds of men are stitching irony and insight into saleable products to stay connected to the outside world through the initiative Fine Cell Work. What is surprising, however, is that today, with technology and social media at our fingertips, people in search of solace should shun the lure of Twitter and Netflix to pick up a needle and thread.

Increasingly, research is revealing the link between creativity and well-being, with sewing emerging as a particularly effective activity to combat mental anxiety. Its requirement for absorption, its soothing repetitive rhythm – its flow – has been proven to calm nerves, lessen stress and, tangentially, boost the immune system. And in lockdown, it is sewing that is becoming a conduit to social connection and a sense of community purpose.

There has been an explosion of collective sewing projects to support key workers in the NHS and care homes, with the factory manufacture of hospital textiles being boosted by amateur stitchers who have taken it upon themselves to supply their local health and care workers. Love of Scrubs has voluntary makers in North London, Dundee and elsewhere, whirring away on their sewing machines to donate thousands of cotton scrubs to their local hospitals. Other groups have been quickly mobilised to make masks for other people using free online patterns and You Tube tutorials.

In our small Scottish glen, local women stitched laundry bags. Bags of Thanks ensured our local hospital and care staff would have limited contact with their uniforms when they came off shift. Using WhatsApp, fabric and cord were sourced and allocated, arrangements for collection and distribution organised, with socially distanced drop-offs and pick-ups.

And there are other projects afoot to capture the experience of lockdown in collective quilts, such as the Stay at Home quilt and the Staying Home, Stay Safe quilt. This lockdown is spawning different ways for people to use their using sewing skills to counteract isolation, stay connected, share experiences and foster a sense of being active and involved.

In 1995 I went to China, courtesy of a Churchill Fellowship, and in its remote hills I found the embroidered story cloths of the Miao, a minority clan. Without a written language, the Miao use sewing to record their myths, community history and beliefs. As animists, they believe that everything has a spirit, including their embroideries. The resurgence of sewing in lockdown is imbued with its own spirit, a spirit of care, of survival. What we are stitching is unique to this period, and it will surely carry within it the tangible essence of a humanity rediscovered in the space, time and mindfulness that lockdown has thrust upon us.

Clare Hunter is the author of Threads Of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle (Sceptre), which is available on Amazon.

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