Human fabric

How a passion for sustainable fashion sparked a mental-health movement

words Summer Brooks
photos Photo + Flourish

“At the time, there were relatively few people in Manchester tweeting angrily about fashion,” says Bryony Moore, one of the co-founders of Stitched Up, a community business in Manchester dedicated to inspiring people to take practical action on sustainable fashion. Bryony began chopping up charity-shop clothes when she was ten or 11, inspired by her grandmother – “an amazing seamstress who made clothes for the whole family” and a passion became her career as she entered the world of corporate social responsibility to understand the true impact of the fashion industry.

Back in 2012, Bryony connected with other women on Twitter with backgrounds in art and fashion who also felt powerless in the face of a global industry and all the issues associated with it. The six of them founded Stitched Up to create a positive route of action and help people in their community to think differently about the clothes they bought. Any profits they make from paid workshops and clothes swaps are reinvested back into the community.

Today, they run hands-on workshops in their sustainable hub and in locations across the city, teaching people how to sew, repair and upcycle their clothes. But it’s not just about making and mending, it’s also a place where people struggling with mental-health challenges find solace. Amid the chug of sewing machines and the snipping of scissors, friendships are formed, confidence grows, and a community comes together.

“Our whole approach to tackling these issues is community based,” explains Bryony. “So Stitched Up is all about upskilling people, bringing people together to learn and share skills, and encouraging people to take some small action and hopefully from there, that ripples out from our local community. We see community cohesion, wellbeing, the environment and social sustainability as being completely intertwined and so that’s our multipronged approach to it.”

Sarah Revington’s love for fashion, like Bryony’s, also began at a young age. She went on to complete a fashion marketing degree and landed her first job out of university at a fast fashion brand in Manchester. Unenamoured with the brand’s ethos and production, she decided there had to be another way to work responsibly in fashion. She started volunteering at Stitched Up in 2017 and discovered her unlikely passion for teaching. Sarah now runs the Bee Well Crafternoons; a participant-led course for adults facing mental-health challenges with a focus on creativity and resourcefulness with textiles. “By showing people these skills, it’s not so much about screaming in their faces about what we all need to do to make a difference – it’s more about the difference you can make yourself, which then in turn helps with mental health,” she says. “You meet new people and get to know your own community better.”

Caitlin Aitken first discovered Stitched Up as a student living in the city. “I wanted to hire an overlocker, so that’s how I came across Stitched Up,” she says. “My eyes just lit up coming into this little warm space down an alley where you wouldn’t expect it. You walk in and it’s just such a nice community environment – sewing stuff everywhere, fabric everywhere.” Caitlin went travelling for a year and upon her return began volunteering, ultimately becoming a workshop facilitator last year. “I think that sewing and crafting, when your mental health isn’t great, is not only escapism, but it’s also building that confidence because you’re using your hands and demonstrating your own worth to yourself in such a small, personal way,” she observes. “I think that can really build your confidence when you’re in a bad place.”

Determined to keep in touch with their clients when lockdown first hit the UK, they scrambled to move as much of their work online as they could. Not everyone would have sewing machines, so any training revolving around that was out of the question. “For some of the people we support through this project, that time once a week when we meet is incredibly important, so we really wanted to maintain it,” says Bryony. “We just wanted to find a way to make it work for some of the things we do.”

Some funding from charitable trust Power to Change meant they could develop their workshops online. And so Sarah hopped on her bike and set off around Manchester every other week delivering craft packs and then bringing participants together in informal Zoom meetings at a time when people needed connection more than ever. “I remember one person hadn’t actually made it to the physical Crafternoons when we were doing sessions at Gorton Monastery, but I managed to get her involved again when we started delivering the packs,” Sarah reflects. “I was given a piece of cheesecake by her brother and I cycled home that day just thinking, ‘I love my job!’ And this wasn’t something I’d ever planned to do, especially in the way of teaching, but it’s nice to know I’ve helped someone think that they can do something and they’ve trusted me, and now they’ve got a pencil case out of it and they love it.”

By gathering in an informal setting, where the focus is on learning a new skill, it makes it easier for people to be open about mental health. “If you have mental-health challenges, sometimes socialising can be quite daunting and trickier,” Caitlin explains. “I think even just being an adult in a city, it’s not easy to meet people – especially if you are struggling. It’s the socialisation of our sessions, but without the pressure of it all being centred around the mental-health issues themselves. It lets people make connections beyond Stitched Up, too.”

Little moments of joy are prevalent in this small, community business – for both those running the workshops and those benefitting from them. “Some of the people we work with have been homeless or are homeless, or we’ve done projects with female sex workers – and these people are ordinarily just ignored by people whom they see on the street. And so when you sit with someone and teach them a new skill, teach them how to make a garment or how to repair something, they really love that and it lifts their spirits. And that’s really a beautiful thing to see every day,” says Bryony.

Stitched Up works with a number of organisations in Manchester that use textiles and creativity to support people dealing with a range of issues, including Revives Women’s Group. They provide a safe space for women who are refugees or seeking asylum in Manchester, while empowering them to transform unwanted textiles into beautiful upcycled clothing and homewares that are then sold to raise funds for the group.

Bryony works specifically on sessions at the Booth Centre, a community centre for those experiencing homelessness. “Often the best ones are where someone comes and asks me to fix something they have and instead I show them how to fix it,” she laughs. “It’s always met with a little bit of resistance! There was one time when I basically spent 30 minutes forcing a guy to repair his own trousers and at the end I could see him going around the room showing everyone what he’d done – it was so lovely!”

After a six-month hiatus of their in-person activities, the ladies at Stitched Up had just launched a new programme of workshops at a new pop-up space in nearby Stretford Mall. But another lockdown scuppered their plans once again. “We can’t wait to get people back in a room,” says Caitlin. “That little spark of confidence people get when they’ve made something themselves – I just love seeing it.”

This article first appeared in Oh Magazine, issue 58.


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