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A Time to Sew

It’s Monday afternoon; below us in the street a blizzard of snowflakes.  All around the shelves are piled to the ceiling with yarn, stock for the shop below, winking out its gorgeous colours and textures through plastic bags.

“Ee you’d only come out for Sewing Café.”

balls of knitting wall all colours on shelvesThe nine women round the table hardly look up from their knitting, sewing, cross stitch, mending, beadwork but they nod.  That’s how it’s been for two and a half years now, every Monday afternoon, excepting public holidays, through rain, shine and snowstorms, since Wendy Haslam set the project up under the Transition City Lancaster Arts Group.  It started in Lancaster Library – a great, accessible, central and free venue.  “The Cuts” meant they had to start charging over £20  a session so now their room is empty and we are over Hester’s Haberdashery, a shop in town, and jolly convenient it is for that bit of thread or ribbon, the set of needles or packet of pins.

The Sewing Café has althree women show their sewingways been a drop in and we never know from week to week who will come or what they will want to do.  We acquired some essential equipment, sewing machines, ironing table, iron, scissors, thread etc. through a £300 “Bright Sparks” grant and the rest has come from Lancaster Freegle or Swapshop so we can generally find something to support someone with any project they want to try. About sixty people all told, have dropped by to chat, use the equipment, use the space and get on with something.  They don’t always have the skills and nor do we – neither Wendy nor I have great stitch craft skills – we just enjoy the doing.  To start with we tried to get an expert to come along, but when that didn’t work out we began to rely on pooling our skills.  It’s amazing what people know – we even occasionally consult one of our books, and we hardly ever fail to get someone’s project sorted.

Sometimes I wonder, Monday after Monday, why we commit ourselves to this little effort.  What are we creating and is it worth it?  In the Transition Companion it says:

A more resilient community will require us to be adept in a wide range of skills – skills that until recently were everyday but are now greatly undervalued. How best to address this collective loss of practical skills?

group of women knitting round central tableHere, The Companion suggests we should run workshops, classes, and full days on everything from growing to cycle maintenance, get involved with colleges and universities.  It is so very Transition and at the beginning we were fired with this ideal, thinking we would have sewing tasters and craft instruction sessions rather than this sitting around doing our own stuff and developing people’s skills ad hoc as and when they wish. Which is not to run us down too much - I can truly say yes, rather than a collective loss of practical skills we see a collective growth in skills.  Lin came wanting to learn to knit.  Together we taught her, even mastered the problems of tension and knitting sample squares before starting a pattern.  Now her knitting is something I envy; neat, even, beautiful and so much better than mine.  Occasionally a man turns up (!) one came with a non-working sewing machine.  We matched up with one of ours, took the offending piece – the tension regulator, apart and then we fiddled for an hour trying to reassemble it correctly.  Eventually Wendy leaned over, said just try this way and lo and behold it was threaded up and going.  He packed up, went and never came back.  We like to think it’s because he’s acquired resilience, doesn’t need us now and the machine is well used.

many baby jumpers in coloured woolThe thing we reckoned without, misjudged completely, is that even in a drop in, a group forms.  Most weeks there will be five or six “regulars” from a core of about ten and they have created a unique and rather wonderful character to the Sewing Café.  There’s Sue who came to use the sewing machine but has since organised us into knitting mounds of little vests for the “fish and chip babies in Africa” and is now following a course in Patchwork and Embroidery for Beginners at the Adult College.  There’s Susan – call me “Oddball Susan” she says, who comes nearly every week with her support worker, (a good little group, she says) and one of her many, many unfinished projects. Oh didn’t we have fun with her baby jacket – Sue spent weeks getting it unsewn and resewn up. There’s Mary who threads my needles and sorts out Susan in her knitting or her cross stitch and quietly gets on with her neat embroidery.  She and I started crocheting together and had a race to see who could finish our blankets first. Joyce and Janet also come with a support worker and knit and knit and smile and don’t yet say much.  There’s Freddie whose embroidery and patchwork and beadwork are so beautiful we are constantly amazed and Bernadette with her cones of 3ply wool and endless patience at fine knitting.  No-one is a signed up member of Transition City Lancaster and the same can be said for all but two of our other fifty occasional members.

woman knitting with video tapeWhen I ask why people come the answers are about help, inspiration, getting things finished and  I have to admit it’s the same for me.  Somehow the curtains don’t get finished, the mending stays unmended and the good ideas for what you might do with redundant video tape are never tried out unless I have a place to share the difficulties and the triumphs.  Wendy reminds us of a few collective disasters too – the over locker we never learned how to thread, the sacking backed rag rug that shed dust and gave us all breathing problems. Oh and don’t bother knitting with video tape!  Someone says,

"We have good conversations,"

and we do.  Conversations often come round to the latest Transition event and explaining why we think it’s important to insulate, recycle, save water, use local produce.  I mention now to the group with a laugh that two years ago we had this fine ideal of doing sewing tasters and craft instruction sessions rather than talking and “sitting around doing our own stuff”.  People nod:

 "That’s a good idea – we can try that. I’ll do one …"

We started the Sewing Café with a very simple model of Transition reskilling our community, spreading and enhancing knowledge.  Too simple a model.  What doing it has taught us is that PEOPLE get reskilled and they get reskilled most of all by:

creating environments in which people can help themselves.

Our experience echoes Gehan McLeod of the GalGael Trust in Glasgow when she argued:

 a keystone of resilience is people reclaiming their right to be responsible … and quoted George McLeod, a priest from Govan who rebuilt the church on the Isle of Iona, who said that “only demanding common task builds community”.                                           Quoted in The Transition Companion

A Sewing Café.  Try it yourself.  We recommend it.


Pictires: Hester's Haberdashery (Hester's)  ), Kathryn, Freddie, Grace and a dress made from curtains (CJ), Sewing Group at work - Mary tackling susan's baby jacket (Wendy Haslam), Little jumpers for a Kenyan hospital(WH) , Me knitting video tape (CJ)


Kerry Lane's picture

Ah yes, its amazing how much

Ah yes, its amazing how much more you get done when you have people to do it with. I think it would be worth setting up a Sewing cafe in Shrewsbury just so I get my darning done!!

It sounds to me like your sewing cafe is wonderfully successful, as you say it is peoples personal responsibilities to come and learn, but you can provide the space.

Gabriela Mindru's picture

wool supply

Hi, there!

I've enjoyed a lot reading you story, I am very much intersted in gaining this type of skills and I was wondering whether, in the spirit of localism, the wool you are using is locally produced.

Thanks in advance!



Caroline Jackson's picture

Local wool??

I don't think we have ever had any local wool, although Freddie did get a fleece for Wendy, I'm not sure it was for spinning.  There are more specialised groups in the district who spin and weave from local fleeces but these require more space and specialised equipment than we have.  They also charge.  The Sewing Cafe is free and we are about skills rather than localism. To cut the carbon footprint we always suggest re-using previously used materials for sewing, rag rugging etc and keep a supply of cast offs for people to use.

Wendy L. Haslam's picture

Sewing Cafe

Another good blog Caroline. You make us sound quite exciting :) What happened to you mentioning the lovely sari silk oven mits you made?