At the end of 2017 we invited social entrepreneurs to respond to a series of six briefs compiled by local communities looking for innovative product and service solutions, with the simple aim of improving the experience of later life for local people in Somerset, Torbay, Devon and Cornwall. 19 social entrepreneurs successfully responded and received funding and support to deliver lasting social impact in the region.

One of the successful social entrepreneurs was The Sewing Rooms, who responded to the challenge of Making Connections. Here, we find out more about their unique take on helping people in later life make and keep social connections.

It doesn’t take long for newcomers to the Silver Sewers at The Sewing Rooms, a social enterprise in Skelmersdale in North West Lancashire, to get stuck in.

“We put on some nice music on and enjoy working together,” tutor Laura Scott says. “It brings people back to life.”

The Sewing Rooms started as a social enterprise to build confidence in women in Skelmersdale, West Lancashire, in 2018. Ten years later, Laura Scott is travelling to the South West to recruit 60 new Silver Sewers, who are aged over 50, to sew three banners representing the towns of Brixham, Paignton and Torquay. By the end of the summer, The Sewing Rooms plans to sew the three banners together to go on display for the whole community of Torquay.

Paula Gamester, the director of The Sewing Rooms, says: “The whole project is so older people can get together, do some sewing and be mindful about the banner they are sewing. Most importantly they will be learning about practical things they can do to stay strong and resilient.”

Gamester got the idea for The Sewing Rooms in 2008, when she was working with people with mental health issues in her role as a business advisor for the Chambers of Commerce. She noticed that the women in the group weren’t moving forward with their businesses as fast as the men were because they lacked confidence.

“I thought, with a bit more confidence, those women would be able to move forwards,” she says.

Gamester is a shrewd businesswoman. She started her career as a hairdresser, managed her own salon at 21 and ended up with a business in Dubai designing and creating exclusive events for clients such as Calvin Klein and Givenchy. When she heard IKEA were looking to work with social businesses to make curtains, she seized the opportunity to use the sewing to bring people together and boost their confidence.

The Sewing Rooms now makes curtains for IKEA customers and runs workshops in the Skelmersdale store, using any surplus profit to create jobs. Gamester says: “The more successful we are as a business, the better we can help our local community with sustainable jobs.”

Gamester saw through this work that sewing could promote wellbeing in the five ways outlined by researchers at the New Economics Foundation: connect, taking notice, learning, being active and giving.

The Sewing Rooms

“For the older sewers, it’s all about connecting,” Gamester says. “We do mindful sewing, using it as a way to build confidence and create.”

The business has expanded to engage with a number of social groups, including the long-term unemployed and refugees. Gamester has worked with the probation service in Lancashire to give sewing and upholstery courses to women and men at bail hostels across the county.

But the Silver Sewers have had such success that their reputation is spreading beyond Skelmersdale. Some of the women travelled to London to take part in the Processions to commemorate 100 years of the Peoples Act and some women getting the vote, after the Design Council suggested the group sew a banner for the event.

The Sewing Rooms invited women and girls from across Skelmersdale and Lancashire to join together in creating the banner at library and community groups. On the day, the banner was so impressive that it was featured on the BBC.

Transform Ageing has granted The Sewing Rooms £25,000 to replicate its banner project across three areas in the South West, engaging 60 volunteers. Each banner will represent the town where the sewers are from, with fishing in Brixham, the big wheel in Torquay and beach huts and a palm tree in Paignton.

Supporting innovative social entrepreneurs is key to Transform Ageing. The programme is funded by Big Lottery Fund and run in partnership between Design Council, UnLtd, the South West Academic Health Science Network and the Centre for Ageing Better. It aims to revolutionise the approach to health, wellbeing and social care for people in later life.

Laura Scott will be relocating from Skelmersdale to the South West, where she originally comes from, to lead the project that she wants to call Sewing Torbay Together. She plans to take the banners to communities centres across the South West to enlist sewers and to spread the word. “If it follows a similar path to how it’s worked in the north, it should gain momentum,” she says.

For Scott, working for The Sewing Rooms is the realisation of a lifelong dream to work in textiles. Scott found her way to the project after she stopped working as a support worker to start a degree in textiles. Working with The Sewing Rooms allows her to combine her passion for both care and sewing. “This is a caring profession combined with sewing, so it dovetailes quite nicely,” she says.

When newcomers are nervous to try sewing, Scott reassures them with a simple task like sewing on sequins. “Sometimes these skills are latent in people,” she says. “People know how to do it, but they get nervous at first.”

Before long, participants have forgotten their worries. “People get so enthusiastic and engrossed in it,” Scott says. “It’s fun and it’s friendly and it gives a purpose to their lives.”

Transform Ageing is a pioneering programme taking a community and design led approach to improve people’s experience of ageing. It brings together people in later life, their friends, family and carers, social entrepreneurs and public sector leaders to define, develop and deliver new solutions that better support the needs and aspirations of our ageing communities.

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