Like a lot of people, I spent a couple of weeks working from home on my laptop at the kitchen table once the lockdown became a new reality. I was in a privileged position, given I was not forced to go into work like many essential and front-line workers, putting their lives at risk in order to keep the cogs of society turning. The only risk I faced, newly isolated, was not leaving the gas running on the oven for an extended period for there would be no one to tell me otherwise. Cue the memory of SATC’s Miranda’s anxiety about the fear of dying alone, only to be eaten by her cats. I did not even have a cat.
Once I was told by my agency that I was no longer required to work for the company at which I was freelancing, a youth-orientated recruitment company targeting graduates and first-jobbers, I started to turn my attention to the need for masks. I had become aware of a taskforce in New York called @masks4medicine informing home-sewers on how to make masks from 100% cotton with the aim of donating them to essential workers. As a costume and clothes designer and maker who works on a small scale, this mask-making initiative caught my interest since costumes, I’d figured, would not be in demand for the foreseeable future. I could, at least, harness some of my project management experience to some small degree.
Through the magic of social media, Masks4Medicine put on live mask-making video tutorials with the aim of helping the home-sewer make a batch of well-made masks quickly and efficiently. The need for masks in hospitals and other health care establishments was becoming all too real.
I rummaged around my existing stash of cotton, machine washed it and went about cutting the 8 x 8-inch oblongs and sewing them, adding wire for the nose bridge and elastic for the ears. I posted in my local neighbourhood Facebook group page asking if anyone would be willing to donate some cotton in return for some masks with the aim of giving them to healthcare providers. One neighbour stepped forward the day before the UK lockdown was announced. The evening walk to her house in Stoke Newington to collect the material, which she had put in a cotton bag by her front steps, felt almost like a scene from a post-war European city. Empty streets with shuttered-up shops and the frequent view of small posters telling people to wash their hands and stay at home. It was a scene worthy of a Christopher Isherwood chapter, chronicling the fin de siècle, if he were alive to experience this new life.
I set about making the masks, delivering them to local nurses and keyworkers in the N16 area. I gained more on a personal level by undertaking this initiative, keeping myself occupied and giving myself a purpose for the days ahead that would ensure exercise beyond simply satiating boredom. It became clear after some days had passed that there was a requirement for home-sewers to sew hospital scrubs since there was a shortfall in the provision of adequate PPE. The masks I was making could not be worn inside hospitals since they are not NHS approved, but could be worn on the commute to and from the hospital.
The scrubs were an entirely different proposition. It was clear the supply chain of PPE manufacture was seriously affected, and it was on home-sewers to try to help. On 4th April, I volunteered my time to the North and East London Sewers Group, a subsidiary of the national For the Love of Scrubs initiative. The group is made up of sewers of varying abilities, fabric cutters, logistic co-ordinators and drivers. It was almost the unplanned beginning of a new company that had a mission statement and values already set by dint of the national health emergency that was besetting the UK and the rest of the world. It was then that I presided upon, in the solitary quietness of my home, what personal and professional values mattered to me most.
Whilst I awaited the 18 sets of pre-cut regulation green material to arrive, I started making scrub bags from existing cotton from washed bedsheets. When the pre-cut material was delivered by a smiling lady called Siva, wearing a mask and gloves, I took a deep breath and committed myself to sewing 36 separate garment pieces from the heavy bulk of fabric. 18 tops and 18 elasticated trouser scrubs. Overlocked with pockets. These would be worn by nurses at The Whittington Hospital in Archway, a hospital that I had been to a few times when I needed pain relief from tonsillitis or other womanly ailments. I felt by sewing the scrubs, I could give back in some way.
The National Health Service (NHS) has been latterly hailed in a recent New York Times article as ‘the new Church of England’, so vital is its religious-like presence and need. Created by a Labour government after World War II to unite a nation that would seek to erase the “five evils”: want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness, the NHS is a sticking point in a Brexit-bewildered country that is staffed by many people of varying ethnicities who are vital to its survival. The prospect of Brexit ever becoming a headline news article again seems unfathomable and it is difficult to believe the sincerity of the vote-leave neighbour who claps at 8pm every Thursday night. The NHS has become a pivot-point upon which individuals who rely on it are tasked with re-assessing their own moral and professional values in real time.
As I sewed my way through the 18 sets of scrubs, breaking a few needles here and there, tired with the isolated monotony of my new work, it was in no comparison to the trials of those working in hospital wards and care homes. Lives that may have voted against the right of those working all hours to save lives yet still cared for by people who believe in the values upon which the NHS were originally founded. Enduring the exhaustion because their commitment to saving lives is paramount to their life’s work. That is real personal value, the likes of which are rare to find in many industries.
Whilst I may never become a nurse or doctor, I am much more aligned to the importance of personal values and how integral they are in defining your professional value. It is a two-way street between employees and bosses, business owners and clients, service providers and users. It has raised my hope that through this experience, we can make more informed and supported decisions when it comes to deciding on our professional career paths, ones that have long-lasting value to not only ourselves but to others. Most importantly, that we advocate for those who undertake critical life-saving work, such as NHS nurses, for fair payment beyond Covid-19.