Sewing Social Histories with Stitches in Time

Stitches in Time began as an experiment to see if sewing could start conversations between strangers – Lottie Whalen interviewed the team to find out more…

For readers unfamiliar with your work, could you give us a brief overview of why Stitches in Time was first set up and what it aims to achieve? 

Stitches in Time began as an experiment to see if sewing could start conversations between strangers. This small experiment in 1993 turned into our giant founding project, the creation of 50 tapestries made by over 3,000 local people.

Communities who wouldn’t usually have an opportunity to meet formed groups and sewed together: school children and elders groups, unemployed migrant women and bankers from Canary Wharf, mothers with young children and groups of teachers, groups from different religions groups. Some of these groups still meet today.

27 years later, we now engage with over 2,000 people per year.

But the support we offer is much more than just sewing. It starts with offering a safe, supportive space to develop and share a creative skill, but expands and wraps around to support the ranging needs and aspirations of our beneficiaries.

Our core weekly projects include:

English for Sewing classes – creative English learning for migrant, long-term unemployed women.

Arts Playscheme – Creative summer holiday arts activities for children on? our local estates

Sewing Socials – Weekly sewing clubs for older people facing isolation

FabricWorks – A textile social enterprise supporting long-term unemployed women into training in garment manufacturing.

What impact has the organisation made on the local community in Tower Hamlets in the almost thirty-year period since its work began?

Tower Hamlets faces some of the toughest challenges in the UK, with child poverty and unemployment at record levels. Whether it’s the small steps of raising the confidence of someone in long-term unemployment and getting them into work, or battling social isolation for our elders, we produce direct results that benefit our communities and help other organisations learn from our work.

A By You Tapestry submission

The arts are facing unprecedented challenges and already marginalised communities are likely to be hardest hit when the full financial implications of lockdown are felt; how do you envision Stitches in Time’s work adapting to meet these challenges?

We’ve always been a small, project-focused organisation, adapting to the rapidly changing landscape of social need and requests from people we work with. It’s a space in which we are constantly required to evaluate and change, so our model of working may not change that much. However, the speed with which the current crisis came about, and the ones we can anticipate coming down the line (from a future-proofing perspective), will no doubt put difficult strain on both our organisation and our community. As always, we will attempt to innovate, to keep bringing diverse people together, to provide immediate support for those in need, and to make work that is able to comment on the wider social landscape.

With the By You Tapestry, we started with a moment of reflection, in a time of great uncertainty. We knew people were worried, experiencing complex mental health issues at home, and would benefit from a moment of unity. Where we see this going as a project over the next few months is one where we can transform that moment into a more outward looking act, and support increased agency in those that will take part. The difficulties that we face, and the protest actions that are already playing out globally, show an incredible appetite for progressive change. By building relationships with other groups working locally and nationally, as well as devising project work with theatre makers that are around collective decision making, we hope to bring the work out of the form in some sense before finally bringing it back as a final piece.

 “I am headteacher of Croft Primary School in Warrington. The 2020 Lockdown has been very much a balancing act; keeping children and families safe, and providing childcare for key workers. I felt as though I had the whole school community in my hands. I felt responsible for their safety and more than ever, had to make life changing decisions”

Tell us a bit more about the By You Tapestry – what is it and how can people get involved?

We’re inviting people to embroider their experience of isolation, and sew a part of our current social history. Contributing to this to a historic community textile will bring us together through sewing whilst we stay safely at home. We ask contributors to consider: what represents this time of isolation to you? Is it the view out of your window, or something you now appreciate far more than before? Is it developing a new creative skill or the people you have or haven’t spent this time with? 

All submitted embroideries will be pieced together and form a huge community-made textile. This modern day Bayeux Tapestry will document this unprecedented time and place. It will help us remember when we were separate, when we slowed, and when we found time to sew. This piece will be exhibited and celebrated with everyone who has taken part, once ‘normal life’ has resumed.

No experience or skill needed. We welcome contributions from the experienced stitchers to first the time experimenters.

Donations: We hope that many people will participate in this tapestry piece marking a moment in our global history and we don’t expect people to have to donate to us to do so. However, if you’re in a position to also give something towards to the work we do changing lives through our innovative projects then please do consider making a financial contribution here:

Find out more about Stitches in Time on their website