In the run-up to the Choose Communities: Buy Social campaign SEUK’s Content Manager, Shehan Perera spoke to Paula Gamester, Founder and CEO of The Sewing Rooms & Sew Fab Academy about the incredible work they’ve done to support the communities they work with over the last few months.

To find out about the Sewing Room’s work listen in from 1:24 to 13:52 .

Could you just tell us a little bit about the sewing rooms, what it’s all about and what inspired you to set it up?

We’re a social enterprise based in West Lancashire, just outside Merseyside, and we trade to tackle social problems. We use sewing as a mechanism to inspire, motivate, and help people with their well being and mental health. We also train people and they can take jobs in our manufacturing department. So we have two departments in the Sewing Rooms,  a manufacturing department and a training academy that we call the Sew Fab Academy. That’s where we do all our wonderful community interventions and training where we train people up and then they can apply for the jobs in the manufacturing side of things.

So I guess a lot of what you what you do would have changed dramatically following the first lockdown back in back in March and you pivoted what the business did quite quickly to start manufacturing masks for the local community. Could you tell us a bit about those first few months felt and what inspired you to make that decision to start manufacturing masks for the community?

Well prior to COVID, we made curtains and soft furnishings and we had a contract with a national hotel chain to make the soft furnishings, bedding and curtains, obviously, that completely all came to an end once COVID hit. It was almost as if we had the rug pulled from under our feet. We’d just moved into new premises and we’d taken on a social investment loan as well, so it was really a very worrying and concerning time for us. At the time, we had all of the skills, we had fantastic staff who can sew and there were great problems and issues around PPE. We wanted to be part of the solution and we got together with the team. We were constantly being contacted by local nursing homes, key workers and vulnerable people who were shielding and worried and that wanted masks, asking us would we be able to supply masks to them. So that’s how it all started – it was an ask and wanting to be part of the solution and supporting local people

Was it quite easy to shift what you did because you had all the equipment?

We had the equipment and we had all of the skills and talent within our team but it wasn’t easy. We had to design a mask and that took a month going through all different types of templates so we could make sure that the mask that we made was comfortable and washable. We have a fantastic supplier, who have been a great supporter of us since we started 10 years ago, and they have this wonderful fabric that’s antimicrobial and COVID-19 retardant. They rang us up and said “we’ve got some fabric would you like some, you know, you can make masks with it?” and so it was all part and parcel of a jigsaw that just all fitted together. We galvanised 60 volunteers, people that have been furloughed, people that have been involved in some of the projects that we’ve been running prior like our silver sewers who are women over 50 – we gave them sewing machines in their homes. And we all got going together and started making the masks. That’s how it all started.

How did you get masks out to the people that need them? Could you tell us a little bit about that?

We had a driver go in and drop them off at community centres, nursing homes, various different things. We featured on radio and local TV and it just built momentum. And we were just carrying on making these masks and giving them out, we got some funding from the Lottery and our local Lancashire community foundation that helped us purchase fabric so we could supply all these masks to the community. But then I started thinking as a businesswoman – how can we trade out of this in an ethical and social way? And so we decided to contact local businesses and said we can make masks that are washable and reusable, they do what they say, and they protect you. If you put one of our masks on and you try and blow through it, you can’t blow out a candle or you can’t cough, the fabrics that dense. So we were really confident and it just took off from there! We’ve had one commission after another, it’s been hard work.

Great news recently about winning a massive contract with Peel Ports in Liverpool. Could you tell us a bit about how that came about and also, getting these big contracts, what has that allowed you to achieve to help you further your social purpose?

Peel Ports is a massive company in Liverpool, and actually, they’ve got sites around the country. It’s all about relationships with people and the CEO of Peel Ports happens to be the chair of Skelmersdale Place Board, and I sit on the board. So Mark Whitworth, who’s the CEO, knew that we were making masks  and I just got a call from his PA one day saying “you know what, we’d like to buy some masks. Paula, how quickly can you do them and this is how many we want.” And one of the things is if you’re in business, you say what you do and you do what you say. So we said, well, we can do this, we can have the masks for you by this date and honestly the girls worked their socks off and they produced 2000 masks in just under two months. That’s how it happened.

And has that allowed you to do more stuff, supporting your community, just getting that contract?

We’ve sold 15,000 masks, and we’ve given 15,000 masks away to national charities, local and regional ones and to vulnerable people and individuals including taxi drivers and postmen

People are  probably wondering how can they get hold on your masks? Do you deliver nationally?

We set up a website and we have buy social masks on there and we have a number of other ones that you can purchase. We post them straight away to people. So we look forward to hear from you!

We can’t not talk about something else that you’ve been involved in and so correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve played a big role in the creation of what could be the world’s first social enterprise feature film? – Skem I Love You. What’s that about?

Were so excited about the prospect of filming this social enterprise called Skem I Love You. There’s a whole big movement of films from places so there’s a Sydney I love You, San Paolo, I Love You, New York, I Love You and we thought why not Skem I Love You. And so, prior to COVID, we had this vision for making a film and we started filming then COVID hit and we thought, well, what can we do? So we pivoted again and made with the community, a soap opera with 16 episodes. Local people shot it and some of it is real and some of it is part acted –  we’ve just givesn people a free rein to run with it and it’s really, really powerful. One of the women who featured in the soap her father caught COVID then she caught then her mother caught it and she died. These things just happened through the space of time and it’s very moving. It’s just it’s real life and it’s social history in the making. We’re really proud. You can go to the Skem I Love You website and download the episodes for free.