Our London correspondent Emma Holmqvist Deacon had the privilege of experiencing the city’s hospital gown-making workshops as a two-shifts-a-week volunteer during lockdown and is compelled to share the experience. Read her inside report:

The furious buzzing of sewing machines will stay with me long after London’s scrub hubs have closed their doors. I’ve had the privilege of experiencing the city’s hospital gown-making workshops as a two-shifts-a-week volunteer during lockdown and am compelled to share the experience. The brainchild of The Fashion School’s director Caroline Gration, this particular volunteer-based scheme came into being in mid-March as the Covid-19 pandemic gathered force. Due to the desperate lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) at hospitals across the UK, Royal Brompton Hospital knocked on Gration’s door, located just a stone’s throw away, with a plea for help.

A peek inside the Belsize Park scrub hub
Photo: Emma Holmqvist Deacon
A peek inside the Belsize Park scrub hub
Springing into action, Gration and a handful of NHS employees set up a three-floor scrub hub in the nearby Kensington and Chelsea College, which had been emptied of students during lockdown. Before long, the team had attracted hundreds of volunteers, with about 80 pairs of hands rustling up some 700 hospital gowns per day, clocking up 30,000 by the end of June 2020.


Over the span of a few weeks, Gration – a Royal College of Art alumna – had teamed up with three additional London hospitals and care homes to set up workshops of similar calibre. The hub in Belsize Park – which is connected to the Royal Free Hospital where Gration’s daughter Dr Betty Gration heads up a Covid-19 Ward – has at the time of writing sewn over 80,000 gowns and they’ll keep going until October 2020. The PPE made at The Fashion School’s workshops are of the disposable kind, fashioned from surgical drapes.

Having volunteered at the hubs connected to the Royal Brompton and Royal Free hospitals I can testify to the efficiency and industriousness of both. The working day is divided into two shifts, though quite a few volunteers stay all day, five days a week. People of all ages, genders and professions come together in these carefully sanitized and socially-distanced workspaces, from retired NHS admin staff and fashion students to actors and furloughed PR executives. Skilled sewers are sought-after, but there are plenty of jobs that don’t require sewing skills – cutters, trimmers, folders and packers are all part of the ecosystem. There’s even a role for bobbin re-fillers.
A parade of socially distanced sewing machines at the Belsize Park scrub hub.
Photo: Emma Holmqvist Deacon
A parade of socially distanced sewing machines at the Belsize Park scrub hub.
At the Belsize Park site – housed in a high-ceilinged historic building usually occupied by WAC Arts college – 32 sewing machines are grouped into bays and divided across different floors. To ensure speed and precision, sewers get to repeat the same maneuver, be it a shoulder or side seam, before passing on the gown to the next step of the production line. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, but not without a smidgen of healthy competiveness. “How many pieces do you manage per hour?” is a question thrown around occasionally. Boxes jostling for space under round tables are each filled with 50 neatly folded gowns before making their way to the Royal Free Hospital around the corner – and straight onto the backs of healthcare workers.

In April, a government order of 400,000 pieces of PPE arriving from Turkey was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t conform to UK standards. This highlights the importance of local, quality-assured production, particularly in times of desperate need.



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