How the local community provided us with scrubs during Covid-19

When the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability reached out to the community during the Covid-19 pandemic the community reached back


rhn doctors in funky scrubs
Some of our doctors in funky scrubs donated by the community

When the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability (RHN) in Putney, south west London, found it needed scrubs to help non-uniformed staff protect themselves at work during the COVID-19 pandemic the local community stepped in. Scrubs are loose fitting cotton or polycotton garments traditionally worn in operating theatres that can be washed at 60C after every shift, and so are good for infection control.

We reached out to Putney Rotary Club, the Women’s Institute and Richmond Council for Voluntary Service for help, and they started to spread the word. Our own staff also bought fabric, sewed, and got their family members sewing.

At the same time, A&E nurse Ashleigh Linsdell from Boston Hospital in Lincolnshire, seeing a need at her hospital, started a Facebook group calling for people to make scrubs. With so many people at home, both professional and amateur sewers, and with a groundswell of love and appreciation for healthcare workers the movement blossomed and grew. Soon there were regional groups with coordinators logging what was needed and organising the army of volunteer sewers. Free patterns appeared online, as well as YouTube tutorials for the more difficult techniques, such as setting sleeves and doing V-shaped neck facings. The Facebook groups became places for sewing help and support during lockdown.

The RHN reopened its laundry, which was managed by donor development manager Trudi Brown, and catering assistant, Christine Crane, who was redeployed after we had to close our staff restaurant so that we could concentrate on providing food for patients. Trudi applied for us to be an approved hospital in the South London for the Love of Scrubs group, and only two days after our membership had been approved our first batch of hand sewn donated scrubs arrived. By the 21 April we had received 25 sets from the group, which we began handing out to staff every day, and taking them back at the end of the day to be laundered.

The South London for the Love of Scrubs group was managed by theatrical and film costume maker Sarah Dearing. All of her paid work disappeared overnight at the beginning of lockdown, then she saw a cry for help from Kings College Hospital for people who could sew, and that led to her leading the south London group.

Sarah said, ‘I know the value of altruistic work on your identity and wellbeing. I wanted to approach the project with that in mind so that, as well as offering support to healthcare workers in a practical sense and hopefully offering a moral boost, that the group would provide a sense of purpose and community for those, like me, found their lives so disrupted.’

Sarah added, ‘Alongside professional stitchers we had lawyers, company owners, hairdressers, engineers and many more, from age 8 to 94, planning, stitching, washing, ironing and driving around south London for the cause. It is such a great achievement and I am so proud of them. I was bowled over by the commitment to, and quality, of the work.’

Sarah had not heard of the RHN before, but she said,

‘The RHN has been one of my favourites to donate to because we could make such jazzy scrubs for you. Really Maria in Dulwich donated some gorgeous fabrics and it has been an absolute joy and morale boost for our volunteers to see them made up and in use in the photos the RHN shared to our Facebook page. There’s a bit of a running joke amongst the costume contingent of our group that we would love to add some sparkles, but all the fabulous patterns we’ve made scrubs from for you have been the next best thing.’

While the donations continued to arrive from the South London for the Love of Scrubs Group, two members of staff brought in 15 sets made by families and friends, mostly from recycled materials like duvet covers. We received a surprise donation from Holy Trinity Church Wandsworth, who are our next-door neighbours, and had been sewing for us after being contacted by RHN admissions co-ordinator, Susie Wilford. We then received some donations from Richmond CVS, four embroidered sets from a woman whose mother had worked at the RHN. Then two further substantial donations arrived from the South London for the Love of Scrubs.

Meanwhile at St Mary’s church in Putney, Rosie Taylor, an academic and former Head of the Commercial Studio at the Royal School of Needlework, had started her own production line after she found out how desperately hospitals needed extra supplies of scrubs because of the experiences of her daughter, a doctor on a respiratory ward. Rosie used hymn books to hold down the patterns for the scrubs.

Rosie said, “A lot of people we’re using are older people, so my oldest machinist is in her eighties and my youngest is 15. It isn’t just about making the scrubs, it’s about the fact that people are sitting at home and feeling hopeless because they don’t know how to help. So it’s also about the journey and people having something really positive to do.”

By the end of May this incredible network of people had made 200 sets of scrubs for us, from fabric they had bought, recycled or had had donated to them. We were overwhelmed and our staff absolutely loved the beautiful fabrics. They were going about their work in African prints, an upcycled Marvel Comics duvet cover, and huge green polka dots, which not only helped with infection control and raised morale. Some of the scrubs donated even ended up on the Victoria and Albert museum’s blog about the pandemic.

RHN Director of Nursing, Dr Emily McWhirter, said,

‘The scrubs have brought us immense joy during a really difficult time. Wearing scrubs every day has been a vital part of our infection control strategy, but they have also boosted our morale, made us laugh and have really helped us to connect with the community who have taken so much care to make them for us. Some of the scrubs have messages of support sewn into them which has meant so much. We are so grateful to everyone who has contributed. Thank you so much.’