Client Story

Sewing Rooms

  • Location: Lancashire
  • Sector: Employment, Education and Training
  • Amount: £25k
  • Purpose: Working Capital
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The Sewing Rooms is stitching the community together in Skelmersdale.

Paula Gamester always had chutzpah.

“My dad was a welder and worked as a ship builder in Camel Laird and my mother a school dinner lady,” she said, unable to explain how she ended up a serial entrepreneur. “It’s just innate in me, I think.”

Paula established several successful businesses, both in the UK and in Dubai UAE, where she worked with global brands such as Calvin Klein and Emirates Airlines, before she set up the social enterprise, The Sewing Rooms.

“The sewing started when I was about 14. I wanted to have the height of fashion, and being the eldest of five children, money wasn’t available. So, my mother bought me a second-hand sewing machine and I started making my own clothes, copying things, designing my own. I even turned my school uniform into a pair of hotpants and the blazer into a bolero I turned up to school. We were taught by nuns, who sent me to the headmistress. I didn’t even get past registration. Everyone was saying, ‘have you seen Paula with the hotpants on!’ I suppose I have always been a bit of a disruptive!”

After working in Dubai, and ‘obscene wealth’ she returned to the UK, working at the local Chamber of Commerce as a business advisor, using her experience to help others. It led to an interest in social enterprise.

“I got really inspired by it. I thought, that’s what I want to do. So, I left the Chamber and set up Connector Media all those years ago.”

The Sewing Rooms, a manufacturing and training social enterprise, is a project of the Community Interest Company, Connector Media. It was established in 2007.

It all began after Paula saw an opportunity.

“I heard Ikea was looking for a charity or a social business to make curtains for their customers. So, I got in touch with them. We didn’t even have a sewing machine then; I just had the idea for a sewing project.”

A delegation from Ikea visited her in Lancashire.

“I was fearless really, I’d not long come back from the Middle East, where I worked with all the top hotels and brands, so, it didn’t faze me. We got the contract.”

Profits generated from its trading activities pay for its social impact, which is generated from its sewing clubs and well-being courses.

Projects to date include Mindful Sewing with Refugees from Syria, teaching sewing and business skills to women in the criminal justice system, and working with disaffected teenagers as well as the elderly.

“Silver sewers started eight years ago with lottery funding. When funding ran out, we couldn’t get rid of these women! They wouldn’t go, so we carried on. Some of these older women have lost jobs, or they’re bereaved, some are at a really loose end, ship wrecked really; they have all these different histories and stories, and just love being together.”

With a purpose-built accredited sewing academy, it’s provided training and support for over 4,000 people. They employ nine people, with a bank of sessional tutors and trainers for specialist projects.

After securing major new contracts to make soft furnishings for the Marriott Hotel and Premier Inn, they took on a loan of £90k to buy new equipment and take on new staff to service the contracts, and moved into new premises, costing £30k per year in rent.

“Everything was looking rosy. Within six weeks of us moving into the new building, Covid hit. All of our contracts ceased, and we had no money and we had to pay back this loan.”

Paula said: “It was really a difficult time. I tried to get government contracts to make PPE, as we had a manufacturing department. We wanted to be part of the solution but I couldn’t get anywhere.”

Paula and the team persevered and galvanised 60 volunteers, secured a Big Lottery grant, and began to make masks out of antimicrobial material. Around 35,000 masks were donated to key workers and the most vulnerable. Paula also saw commercial opportunities.

“I thought to myself, businesses need masks and will pay for this.” One of the biggest commissions was from Peel Ports in Liverpool for 4,000 branded masks for its workforce.

During Covid, the Local Authority also chose them as an organisation embedded in the community to distribute aid to families in crisis, paying a bill, providing clothes or food.

“We were able to keep our staff, I brought them all back they were employed right the way through, and we were able to pay off the loan,” Paula said.

But then, the bottom fell out of the mask market.

“The hotel work hadn’t materialised as we planned, and it’s just been a rollercoaster. We found ourselves last December in a crisis point. I was worried I didn’t have enough money to pay the wage bill, and that was when the Key Fund stepped in to help.”

Key Fund gave a £19,200 loan and £5,800 grant.

The investment Paula said was ‘critical’: “I needed a quick turnaround to pay wages and Key Fund were absolutely fantastic. It gave me some breathing space to go out and secure more contracts, so we’re steadily starting to grow again.”

The team is still reeling from Covid; Paula recently suffered a bad bout of it, affecting her own health.

“To be honest, we don’t know the full extent of the impact of Covid. I think it’s having a terrible effect on people, their mental health and well-being. It’s horrible. So, we try and bring joy and light and laugher whenever we can.”

They’ve been creative designing their own product range and developing new business contracts.

“It’s still a struggle, but there are little green shoots.”

Ann Stubbert and her husband Nick were active on the West Lancashire charity committee.

In 1991, Ann was medically retired from her career in the NHS after an accident at work left her with spinal injuries.

“I worked for the NHS for a long time, I started off as a telephonist.”

That same year, tragically Nick died suddenly in their driveway.

Ann, now 80, said: “He was just 52. I just didn’t want to do anything, I lost myself. I found it very, very difficult, and I’ve been on my own ever since.”

Ann said; “I never knew my father, I was only two when he was killed in 1945, he was in the Royal Engineers and my mum never re-married, and I feel I’ve gone down the same path with my husband passing away so quickly.”

An old school friend, Maureen, had co-founded The Sewing Rooms with Paula. Ann believes The Sewing Rooms have put Skelmersdale ‘on the map’.

“I’ve known Maureen over 75 years! We were in school together; she has been absolutely fantastic as a friend. Anything going on, she’ll always get me involved.”

Ann began attending the Sewing Room sessions.

“Oh, the Sewing Rooms, oh my goodness me,” she said fondly. “I’ve got an operation next week, and just thinking about the Sewing Rooms, all the anxiety has gone quite out of my head about going into hospital!”

“The Sewing Rooms breathed new life into me, they really did,” Ann said.

“Maureen and Paula were doing well-being classes, and we’d have regular entertainment and the friendships we all made was absolutely unbelievable. Everyone who came every week, you’d see them changing. At first, they’d be really nervous – I was one of them – you’d see them getting more confidence, week after week.”

Ann still has the needle cushion – the first thing she ever made there. “I was so proud of it.”

“The Sewing Rooms brought back so much confidence to me that I never thought I’d see again.”

Thanks to her previous fundraising work, Ann was invited to be Mayoress of West Lancashire in 2018. Mobility problems meant she had to step down in 2019.

Despite feeling vulnerable with her health, she said she feels lucky.

“I don’t want sympathy from anyone please, I’m a joyous person really. I had the most wonderful year as Mayoress, it was out of this world. I met the Queen.”

“The Sewing Rooms to me was a new beginning when I lost my husband,” Ann said, but she hasn’t been able to attend for two years due to the pandemic.

“Through the pandemic, I was vulnerable and couldn’t go out,” Ann explained. “They’d come up the drive! Maureen was one of them. They’d come and talk through the window! If the weather was nice, they’d sit in the garden and talk through the window, so you always felt you had somebody who was there for you.”

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