Crafting civil society during COVID-19

cord and scissors
On 10th August 2020 a group of women volunteers gathered at Lark craft studio at Cardiff MADE to make re-useable face-masks for members of the local community on low incomes.

The initial idea for this event came from Sarah May, who posted an appeal on her local Mutual Aid Group, and was joined by local business owners, Tina Paulakis and Gemma Forde, to organise the event. Gemma drew on networks linked to her craft business Lark Design Make and was flooded with offers of help and donations of fabric.

My WISERD Civil Society project explored how skills and values from the household can be harnessed for wider community benefit, and I was keen to go along to volunteer my sewing skills and find out more about what had prompted others to participate.


Having the skills to help

Like the mothers and grandmothers in our study, many volunteers were enthusiastic about putting their domestic craft skills to use for a good cause. For example, when Clare, a full time mum of two, saw Sarah’s appeal, she thought ‘I can help, I can use my skills to help’. Likewise Ilid, a children’s book editor, ‘signed up straight away’. Both women had previously taken part in other volunteering activities which used their craft skills – for example Clare made re-useable sanitary towels and granny squares with her Church craft group, and Ilid joined numerous volunteering projects as a student to learn new things and meet new people.

Our  WISERD Civil Society project on families and civil society explored how ‘maternal’ skills developed in the family home – things like cooking, baking and looking after children – can translate into activities that benefit the wider community, through voluntary work. This also seemed to be the case with this all-women group of volunteers, who were keen to use their sewing skills to help others.


Having time during lockdown

The lockdown influenced some volunteers’ ability to get involved with the mask making event. Before lockdown, Caryn had been involved in various volunteering projects, including knitting clothes for premature babies as part of the ‘Warm Baby Project’, and making and distributing food for homeless communities.

Since being furloughed from her job as a designer at an engineering company, she told me that had a lot more time on her hands. She had made cakes and savoury tarts to share with the other volunteers at the mask making day, explaining ‘I really enjoy making food, it makes me feel nice to help people and I feel good about myself knowing that I’ve done it’. Sarah, a university lecturer, also described a shift in pace, from an intense period of travelling and commuting to having time to ‘get stuck in’.


‘Seeing other humans’ and feeling connected to the local community

Spending more time at home during lockdown had prompted some volunteers to rediscover or strengthen their love of craft and sewing as activities that can be carried out at home without too much specialist equipment.

With lockdown restrictions easing, many of the women I spoke with were really enthusiastic about seeing other people beyond their own household for a day of making. Whilst some were familiar with the craft studio, for others, like Clare, this was their first time.

‘You’re here with craft people…I’ve met some really nice people, it’s such a mix. I’m enjoying myself and relaxing’ (Clare)

‘It’s nice to see humans’ (Caryn)

‘I’ve chatted to more people today than I have in months’ (Sheila, art teacher)

Volunteers also spoke about feeling more connected to their local community since the beginning of the pandemic.


Thrift and sustainability

Volunteers embraced the values of thrift by using donated ‘second-hand’ fabric (e.g. duvet covers and pillow cases), using cutting templates to minimise fabric waste, and borrowing equipment on the day to maximise output.

Using craft skills to re-use, mend and ‘upcycle’ objects to save them from landfill has become an important trend in light of looming environmental crises. The roots of these ideas can be traced back to post-war values of thrift often espoused by mothers as home makers (see Patricia Nichol’s book ‘Sucking Eggs’).


Women’s Work?

Many of the volunteers in attendance had learnt to sew from their own mothers or grandmothers. When asked why they thought that only women had signed up to take part in mask making, many volunteers argued that sewing is still regarded as a female activity.

Some drew on accounts of women getting together during wartime to sew and mend soldier’s uniforms to suggest that sewing is ‘in our makeup as women and home-makers’ (Clare).

Sarah, for example, said ‘it’s still so gendered female’ and suggested that men tend to volunteer for more ‘manly’ activities such as building and woodworking.

Having the confidence to get involved also seemed to be important. Caryn hadn’t made masks before but her experience of making other things made her confident enough to come along – ‘it’s new but you know how to do it’. This echoes the accounts of the women in our research project who said that helping out at the school fete or church creche came naturally as an extension of the skills they had already developed as mothers. Having these skills (be they craft, cooking or childminding) gave women the confidence to step forward and help.

But sewing isn’t an entirely feminine space. Some volunteers knew boys and men who enjoy sewing and are good at it, but feel that it is still an area dominated by women.

Beyond the practical skills required to sew, volunteers also emphasized the importance of the social and therapeutic aspects of this type of activity.


Who benefits?

Craft is said to have a beneficial impact on our health, as a refuge from the stresses of everyday life and an opportunity to reach a state of ‘flow’ or mindfulness. Our volunteers highlighted how therapeutic, relaxing and enjoyable they found making things.

Other studies have identified a positive link between volunteering and (physical and mental) health (e.g. Yeaung, Shang and Kim 2018). The blending of craft and volunteering might double benefit those who take part.


Are men missing out?

Men might be missing out on opportunities to develop craft skills, meet others and feel connected to their communities. The rising popularity of Mens Sheds does suggest a shift in this trend, and might be an important step along the way to providing opportunities for all members of society, regardless of age, race or gender, to get involved with craft activities and to contribute to their local communities.