Stitching the Community Together

Charlotte, a textile designer, was teaching a sewing class when she got chatting with one of her students, Donna, who had a background in candle making and upcycling.

The pair were reflecting on how relaxing it was to take time out of a busy working week to sew. Little did they know that their idea for setting up a craft group would become such a hit. Over the past five years, Pimms and Needles – a Community Interest Company – grew to 12 groups across the North East, Teesside and North Yorkshire; 600 women attended each month.

Each month, a tutor would lead a new activity – belly dancing, gin tasting, sausage making, sewing, crafts, mindfulness, yoga. Members paid £9 per month to attend. There were no preconceived perceptions about the type of person who would join, and women came from all ages and backgrounds. One group saw 90 women attend each month. Donna would see many tired and fed up from life or work, make new friends, have time for themselves, and leave with a spring in their step and a smile.

Donna said: “It’s so easy to go to work, come home, and live in an isolated Netflix bubble or see friends only on Facebook. It amazed us how many people felt lonely. We had single women asking if it was okay to come alone, and we’d seat solos together – you saw friendships develop.”

It was so successful, the two had plans to expand, there was talk of franchising – they were at a turning point, but then it all crumbled under Covid-19.

For the last three years Pimms and Needles had won funding to run a group for isolated older women, aged 70-90 plus. As lockdown hit, they had to tell them they were unable to hold the groups.

“They were really upset and said we were the only people they see from one month to the next,” Donna said. “It gave them time to chat to other elderly women and get out of the house and do an activity. We felt really bad.”

They applied for a grant from the Lottery and made 160 care packages for the women, with jigsaws, embroidery kits, flour and baking kits, tea and biscuits. Around 40 members of Pimms and Needles volunteered to deliver the kits. Their children drew pictures and wrote letters to add to the hampers.

“So many of our volunteers were moved to tears, saying just how much the elderly appreciated the kindness and the gesture.”

They applied for more funding and went on to deliver 1500 hampers throughout the North East. Alongside the elderly women in their original group, people would nominate an elderly neighbour or relative they knew were isolated and in need of a ‘little joy’. Each month, there’d be a different activity, from gardening kits to water-colouring kits.

Operating at the heart of their communities, they were best-placed to meet need and now have a wall of thank-you letters.

The pair, who worked in other jobs too, were struggling though as no member fees had been paid since lockdown. They relied on grants month to month and ate through their reserves to cover running costs.

Before Covid-19, not only did the groups support 20 artists each year, they become breeding grounds for micro-businesses as women tested out their baking or craft skills in the groups, and went on to set up their own businesses. What’s more, local businesses such as garden centres also ran their own craft workshops with members.

Donna said: “I do feel we’re helping the local economy and encouraging people to shop locally and support what’s on their doorstep, as well as each other.”

As a CIC, turnover was £49k last year. Key Fund gave them a £31k grant from the Social Enterprise Support Fund, made possible thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. The grant could be used towards office costs, insurance and salaries.

“If we hadn’t had the lifeline,” Donna explained, “we certainly wouldn’t be here in six months’ time.”

This money bought six months’ time and allows Donna and Charlotte to train in digital skills to help them deliver Pimms and Needles virtually, developing a potential revenue stream until things get back to normal.

“It buys us time to diversify and retrain so we’re more resilient in the future when we do come back.”

Post-Covid-19, it’s a group Donna can see that could be easily rolled out nationally. “Everywhere we’ve set up a group, it’s been welcomed with open arms.”

In the last six months during lockdown restrictions, they’ve reached over 2,500 people, helping tackle social isolation and loneliness as well as supporting the most vulnerable elderly.

To find out more visit their website

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