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Icon Member and BPG Chair Abigail Bainbridge ACR: Stitching for the NHS

ecn_scrubs_1.jpgIt started because someone got in touch looking for surgical gowns for a hospital. They’d seen my earlier new story celebrating conservators and conservation institutions who had donated PPE and thought I might be able to help. A few ideas turned into dead ends… but then I remembered that my husband’s old friend, the fashion designer Phoebe English, had posted on Instagram about turning over her operation to helping provide PPE to the NHS.

Phoebe instantly said she could help or find someone who could. She had quickly mobilised with two other designers, Holly Fulton and Bethany Williams, to create the Emergency Design Network (EDN), and they were gearing up to sew scrubs. This was a few weeks ago, or maybe two, or maybe two years - I’ve lost all sense of time. 

After that we started talking about how conservators might be able to help with more than just materials (although when I say “just materials” I refer to the 500 metres of Tyvek that the V&A had promised to the EDN). I tried, not for the first time, to explain what conservators are like to someone who isn’t a conservator.

We are people with hand skills and precision and the ability to teach ourselves new things to solve new problems. We manage time efficiently to accomplish practical and theoretical tasks. We are people who make things. Many of us are or will be furloughed. 

Meanwhile, Natalie Brown (The National Archives and Icon HSG), Catherine Higgit (National Gallery) and I had all been trying to help institutions get their PPE to where it could be used by front line staff, and started working together. We started the Emergency Conservators Network to parallel the Emergency Designers Network and mobilise support for Phoebe’s operation as well as providing a centralised place for conservators who want to help and aren’t sure how.

We emailed a list of people who we thought might be interested or able to help, asking for London conservators with domestic sewing machines and a bit of time to volunteer to sew scrub tops or trousers. We have had about 15 responses; around half ecn_scrubs_3e.jpgarrived in time for the first trial round of manufacturing. Together we are one book conservator, one paper conservator, one paintings conservator, one textiles conservator, one upholstery conservator, one curator, two heritage scientists, one conservation principal and two conservation students. In addition to offering practical support to the NHS we have become a positive example of conservation professionals working collaboratively across disciplines on a shared goal. It’s great to be part of this new joint initiative which chimes with one of Icon’s key values: to be collaborative and generous.

The EDN has done an amazing job getting donations of time and materials to facilitate the project, starting in this first round with a trial of 200 scrubs for the Royal Free Hospital. I am committed to making 10 trousers and got straight to work practicing the flat-felled seams required to make the scrubs stand up to high temperature washes and repeated use.

And if you are wondering where does the time come from…  as someone juggling two small kids and three jobs, chairing the Icon Book & Paper Group, and nurturing a sourdough starter, the rational choice clearly would have been to keep quiet. But I found, as the chaos of the beginning of this pandemic swirled around us, that helping with donations of PPE and now making the scrubs feels like something I can do actually to help. It is something that I have control over and can focus intently on – while most other things feel the opposite. 

Wish me luck for when the fabric arrives…

Interested? Want to help? You can get in touch with Natalie, Catherine, or Abby at the Emergency Conservators Network via email or fill in our online contact form. And please share this idea via your own networks too. If it goes well, it might be possible to expand the scheme beyond London.



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