Scrubbing for Dudley

If only my old needlework teacher could see me now. We’re talking half a century ago, so it’s amazing how clearly I can recall standing by her desk doling out pins for her to secure the latest tedious project prior to stitching, in fear of handing her the pointy end. No, battleaxe meets boredom did nothing to inspire a love of sewing; instead, my mother taught me the skills that have proved both useful and enjoyable all my life.

Recent conversations have revealed that Mum herself learned as a little girl from the lady next door. It became a lifelong activity with an emphasis on good quality materials and perfect finishing, whether dealing with school dresses, curtains or evening gowns – the latter resulting from bolts of sensational fabric brought back by my father from overseas business trips. She made a fabulous job of my wedding dress too, although in my defence it fell to me to cover and make rouleau loops for about three dozen tiny buttons.

I may not always have matched Mum’s meticulous standards, but I’ve had a lifetime of making clothes, World Book Day costumes and soft furnishings. I haven’t had too many disasters and have presumably saved myself some money along the way. I bought my first sewing machine with funds from my 21st birthday and that kept going for about twenty years, with the odd visit to the menders. My current model is its replacement, which is taking quite a hammering at the moment. Why?

It’s not simply because most of my other creative outlets are on hold due to the pandemic and lockdown: no local library to help run, no writers’ group to attend, no choir rehearsals or choral holidays – nor any other holidays to make nice new outfits for, for that matter. But when I spotted the nationwide call for amateur stitchers to produce much-needed scrubs for hospitals, I didn’t think twice. I can’t nurse, but I can sew, so let’s go! In a bid to help with infection control, all staff now have to wear the sort of scrubs that would more commonly be seen just in operating theatres. Frequent hot washing is key, so these pyjama-style garments have to be well-built. Would I and the machine be up to it?

Fifteen sets later (and counting), the answer seems to be yes. As my family had more than our fair share of care from Russells Hall Hospital from December to March, it went without saying that I would join the Dudley group of the ‘For the Love of Scrubs’ movement. The administrators are marvellous. It’s extremely well organised, with fundraising to underpin the whole operation and laser cutting behind the scenes, so that raw materials are supplied to my doorstep in kit form with instructions and haberdashery, and all I have to do is sew, then message to have them picked up. There are a hundred ‘scrubbers’ in the group, and although I only know a couple of them personally from my village, there’s a great sense of virtual teamwork as we take to our machines, and mutual support, tips and encouragement via a Facebook group. At a time when people are forced apart, this worthwhile shared endeavour feels like a strong thread that binds us.

Also at a time when I’m not allowed to visit Mum, two hours away, chatting over the phone about scrub-making helps to inject something positive into the conversation when so much of the news is grim. She can sympathise about the frayability of gingham or going cross-eyed focusing on black fabric, and although she no longer sews I feel she’s a part of this effort by training me in the first place.

There have been one or two challenges in ensuring as close to perfection as possible: neat V-necks, underarm seams that turn without bunching and finishing raw edges so they’ll withstand multiple 60 degree washes. I was apprehensive about attempting my first elasticated waistband but now I’m wondering why I never tried them before. Hopefully all the heroes wearing them find their scrubs nice and comfy.

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