Surviving the Pandemic: How to Trade out of Trouble

Covid Anniversary Blog

The Sewing Rooms is a social enterprise that uses sewing skills to improve the resilience, health and employability of some of our community’s most vulnerable people.

At the end of 2019, we were celebrating our move to new premises and the many opportunities for expansion that came along with having a larger space in which to work.

To help fund our lease and the hire of several additional employees, we had taken out a social investment loan and were just hitting our stride, having won several national manufacturing contracts, when COVID-19 appeared on the horizon.

Watching in horror as the virus got closer and closer to home, which for us is Skelmersdale, in Lancashire, we were filled with uncertainty, fear and sadness. What was going to happen to our newly refurbished manufacturing department? What about our entire business? What about the community we serve?

By mid-March 2020, we were staring into the abyss. Our entire commercial manufacturing business had screeched to a halt. We had no income. With everyone’s lives on pause for an indefinite period of time, we had to make the painful decision to furlough our employees.

Reacting to the emergency helped keep the panic from overwhelming us. As always, social impact remained the purpose of our business. As soon as we heard of the shortage of PPE for healthcare workers, we knew what we had to do.

In just one month, we galvanised 60 volunteers, secured a grant from the Big Lottery and started making masks. We were able to support volunteers working in their homes by giving sewing machines to people that didn’t have one and organising a steady stream of drop offs and pick-ups of packages of fabric, completed masks and any essentials we felt our volunteers might need.

All the while we were making masks, my mind was racing. How could we ethically and sustainably trade out of this emergency? When we made branded masks for Peel Ports, I saw the opportunity.

With commissions for masks from organisations including Wyre Council, West Lancashire Council, All About Food, One Manchester and Age Concern, we were able to bring our furloughed staff back to work on 1st May. Thank goodness for our huge new work space! We turned each office into an individual work station, allowing each staff member to work on a single sewing machine and in necessary isolation. To date, we have made 70,000 masks, donating 35,000 of those to key workers and the most vulnerable.

Start-ups often use the word nimble to describe their development process. I think it better describes the social enterprise way of working. We constantly adapt to changing community and business needs and often at speed. I think that is part of the reason for our success in pivoting our business so quickly yet still sustainably.

Now, as the number of people who have been vaccinated rises, we’re very tentatively starting to think about what parts of our pre-pandemic business to restart. We have our work cut out for us – both figuratively and factually – but we survived! Now it’s time to look to the future.

Paula Gamester, co-founder of The Sewing Rooms CIC. Watch Paula speak about the journey that brought her to social entrepreneurialism and the insights she developed along the way.

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