The fashion designer, judge and founder of The Big Community Sew on making your own mask, the power of community and what he hopes we’ll take from lockdown life
Patrick Grant is a force to be reckoned with. A powerful, passionate, unstoppable force who cares so much about his work that lockdown has seen him leave his life in London behind – removal company and all – and up sticks to the depths of Lancashire, just so he could be near his factory and at the centre of his business.
But this won’t come as too much of a surprise when you consider how dedicated he is to fashion and the role it can play in changing people’s lives – a dedication that has seen him take on an exhausting number of guises. You may have seen him as a judge on The Great British Sewing Bee. Or you might know him as the man behind Community Clothing, the brand he started to create jobs and restore prosperity in the UK’s most deprived areas. If you’re a menswear aficionado, you’ll recognise him as the brains behind Savile Row tailors E. Tautz and Norton & Sons. And if that isn’t enough, Patrick has now started The Big Community Sew, a campaign backed by Public Health England that has got thousands of people across the country sewing face coverings for their communities near and far.
We sat down – screen to screen – with Patrick to talk about the wonderful movement he’s created, why he believes in its longevity, the plethora of benefits that come with putting others before yourself and how easy it really is to make your own mask.
I’ve been in Lancashire for nearly four months – our factory is in Blackburn. At the end of March, I came up here with one bag. I spent two months in a friend-of-a-friend’s granny annex on a farm, where the newly-retired owner would make my tea every night and do my shopping. I recently went back to London to sort out my house, let the removal company in and now I’m settled in a proper rental.
Spending more time outside has kept me sane. I’ve connected with nature a lot more than before lockdown. I go out on my bike into the Lancashire hills on the weekends and weeknights if I finish work before 9pm. I’ve been seeing the dawn, seeing the sunset.
The rise in social capital is a hugely positive outcome out of all of this. The rise in volunteering and the connectedness of those volunteers has been great. I also think people have reassessed their view on certain jobs during lockdown. We have a rediscovered admiration for those who make things for a living; I think we value them more as a society now than we did before all of this started.
“We started The Big Community Sew to dispel a lot of the misinformation about wearing masks”
Wearing a mask is so important. Even if it only works at a 50% barrier rate, that’s still going to make a difference if everybody wears them. People confuse the idea of wearing a mask to protect themselves versus wearing a mask to protect others. It’s not heroic or masculine to give someone else a disease. It’s a kindness thing, not a bravery thing.
We also wanted to encourage people to make them for their communities. In the same way that people were popping notes through neighbours’ doors and helping them with their shopping, we wanted to encourage anyone with a sewing machine to look after their neighbours, too.
I tried to get some government support in April for the volunteers who were sewing scrubs, hats and scrub bags but I was unsuccessful. A few weeks later, they approached me and asked if those volunteers would be willing to sew face coverings. That’s how The Big Community Sew started; if I could encourage people to do it, the government would work with me to ensure that all of the advice we were giving was correct.
We pulled the whole thing together in under a week. I went on The One Show and about 150,000 people tried to get on the website within the first hour. It crashed! But after that, the whole thing just took off.
It’s important to me that all of these volunteers are legitimately thanked for their efforts. We started by contacting established groups of volunteer sewers, many of whom had spent the last two months sewing scrubs. They were all exhausted and were balancing work, childcare and volunteering but they were doing an amazing job. We knew it was tough to ask people to double down and do more of this, but they all wanted to wholeheartedly.
It has been phenomenal and some people have been just exceptional in their support, producing extraordinary numbers. Certain people have made over 1,000 masks individually which is a humongous effort. One of the groups in the Peak District has made 25,000 coverings – that’s a factory level quantity. What’s more, almost all of the groups are giving them away for free.
It’s so easy to make your own mask. You can do it in less time than it takes to boil an egg! And of course, you can use great fabrics. People are having fun with it and we need to have fun during this period – anything that brings a bit of joy to the process is very important. We started The Big Community Sew to encourage people to get sewing and also to encourage people to wear them, too. It’s so easy to get involved; you can find sewing groups in your local area on our website and they will help you get started.
“It has been phenomenal and some people have been just exceptional in their support, producing extraordinary numbers”
My ethos for The Big Community Sew is the same that I have for my brand, Community Clothing. I believe that we can make better versions of things that are built to last here, rather than relying entirely on somewhere else like China. After all of this, lots of people are going to need jobs and those jobs could be found in manufacturing things that we need everyday. The NHS, for example, is looking at working with reusable products again. A reusable gown could be used 100 times and then that fabric could be used for something else.
I hope that people will have found they’re buying less over lockdown and that they don’t feel any less themselves, having slowed down their consumption. When I think of the fashion industry, I think it will always have relevance as long as it’s driven by creativity and craftsmanship. Because when it’s driven by those things, it brings joy to people in a way that isn’t destructive.
To get involved and find your local group, go to The Big Community Sew.