One of the longest running Community Gardens in Birmingham, Martineau Gardens, has been recognised for its commitment to the community, receiving the Queens Award for Voluntary Service. The Gardens have been described by visitors as ‘an oasis of calm in the bustling city’ and as ‘Birmingham’s hidden gem’ – all thanks to the dedication of the wonderful volunteers.
The Edgbaston Neighbourhood Network is here to help all of Edgbaston’s community assets with everything from grants and funding applications to networking and promotion. That’s why Community Connectors Deb and Natalie are always on the lookout for new community projects to meet, learn from, and support! Every two months, they speak to one of our assets in depth and feature them in the the ENNS Newsletter. This time, it’s the turn of Woolly Mammoth Stitch Works CIC.
Focus on Assets: Woolly Mammoth Stitch Works CIC
By Deb Ufton and Natalie Tichareva
We all know that making time to connect with others and do the things that make us happy help to improve our health and wellbeing. This is something that Woolly Mammoth have addressed repeatedly with their various stitch projects. Read on to find out more about Woolly Mammoth and their latest Metre Meadow Sewing and Sowing project, in partnership with The Patchwork Meadow, in Quinton.
Woolly Mammoth’s Creative Director, Tina Francis, tells us, “I come from a family of makers. I have three brothers, a builder, a master tool maker and an interpreter for the deaf. So we all use our hands and heads to make a living. I don’t find it unusual for men to knit and stitch because my dad was taught by his mom to do this. Her family were all fishermen and so knitting and stitching were essential skills for men at sea. I think that if you can stitch you can travel the world, firstly, people will always need things fixed and secondly you do not need to speak the language when you have the language of stitch in common.
“Working with Suze on Woolly Mammoth Stitch Works is the best of both worlds for me. As a stitch artist, running workshops can all too often be about the stitch process which is fine if you are coming to me to learn a specific skill. But we are about way more than this, stitch is the activity but community is the aim. Having Suze by my side gives me confidence because her ability to bring the creative community element never fails.”
Projects Director Suze tells us how Woolly Mammoth got started, “In 2012 I started working in the Jewellery Quarter on heritage regeneration projects. Tina was active as a resident and business owner there and our paths soon crossed regularly at various work events. I moved on to deliver the community engagement programme at Stirchley Baths in 2016 and invited Tina to be the artist on a community project for local residents, to recreate a piece of history in stitch. Before you know it, we had 155 people all stitching pieces in a coordinated way for an artwork which still hangs proudly in the building today.
“Back in the Jewellery Quarter a year later, I commissioned Tina to work with me again – this time we set the bar much higher and challenged ourselves to bring together 1,000 people from across the city to stitch a bee for a collaborative tapestry for The Hive. We created an epic tapestry where every bee is unique, just like its stitcher. It was such hard work, but after this second project we knew we had something really special.”
Connected, content and colourful
About 18 months later Tina and Suze set up Woolly Mammoth Stitch Works as a Community Interest Company with a vision and social mission to stitch Birmingham’s communities together through creative fun and a shared purpose to build a connected, content, and colourful city.
Tina says, “Craft is often seen as a singular activity but at Woolly Mammoth Stitch Works we are about creating large scale artworks using small contributions from everyone. We have stitch projects that have included people from aged 3 to 93 and no one’s work is rejected because it might not look neat. We value everyone’s contribution!”
Tina and Suze always wanted Woolly Mammoth projects to connect people to places and to each other and to use a needle and wool as a tool to get people working together towards a shared goal. As the pandemic struck it also became apparent that taking part in something creative and collaborative could also have a positive impact on people’s personal wellbeing.
Suze remembers, “Three weeks into our first Woolly Mammoth project – 18 at Heart – we were forced to change our way of working. We had programmed 20 social stitch meet ups over the next six months but had to cancel them and move to postal tapestry kits and online activity. We sent out 1,900 tapestry kits during the first lockdown March – June 2020 and five fantastic artworks were created from the stitched pieces that collaborators sent back to us. This included a 6ft arch in Northfield created by 162 people; a field of poppies created by 250 people for the Jewellery Quarter cemeteries; 18 tapestry train artworks with individual carriages, doors and engines stitched by over 250 people (one for each rail station in Worcestershire); and an apple wall hanging made by 160 stitchers for a church in Evesham. We even did a yarn-bomb along 5.5miles of the number 18 bus route from Billesley to Northfield, featuring 670 tapestry hearts stitched by a stitch team of 40.”
Tina adds, “during the pandemic lockdowns we were able to work with large amounts of people by sending a dose of what we like to call ‘woolly wellness’ through the post for people to do safely at home. Two further projects included sending out a monthly wellbeing tapestry pack and community magazine for four months for around 200 people, thanks to NNS grants in Selly Oak and Ladywood constituencies.”
Covid recovery projects
Since covid restrictions have eased, Woolly Mammoth projects have been more about recovery and bringing smaller groups of older people back into spaces to stitch together and this includes projects in Ward End where over 20 stitchers created their own tapestry samplers and told their life stories in stitch for an exhibition. Two weekly social craft groups have formed and thrive as a legacy of this work. In Billesley around 20 stitchers who had been receiving ‘woolly wellness’ kits came to Tina and Suze’s ‘in person’ meet ups, and they now continue to meet monthly to craft together. These ‘covid-recovery’ projects have been made possible thanks to Neighbourhood Network Scheme grants.
Suze says, “Our latest project in Quinton is a partnership with The Patchwork Meadow, a small environmental charity and Edgbaston NNS. In fact, it was Deb Ufton who connected us! We are running a ‘sewing’ and ‘sowing’ project which has almost 40 stitchers, aged 50+ using embroidery to sew wildflower designs each month for collaborative artworks which will form a public art trail next Easter. At the same time we are also sowing wildflower seeds to brighten up Quinton’s green and not so green spaces. So far we have planted meadows in the Toby Carvery car park and in the communal garden at Moat Meadows Retirement Housing complex as well as in the stitch team’s gardens. We’ll be doing more sowing across the area again in March next year. It is a really fun and friendly project, and two groups are meeting at Quinton Library and Toby Carvery as well as keeping in contact in a WhatsApp group”. We have received such a warm welcome from the staff at these venues and are grateful to the Library for also offering their space so that stitchers can meet up to sew together at other times.
Alison, founder of The Patchwork Meadow says, “We have planted 1,750 square metres of meadow to date across the city and counting! We are really enjoying working on the Quinton Metre Meadow Project with Woolly Mammoth.”
Suze continues, “After the last 18 months, it’s so wonderful to see people sitting together, chatting, laughing and sewing. Friendships are forming, people are getting more confident about being out and about, and in their sewing abilities, and green shoots can be seen emerging through the earth, promising colourful meadow areas in the future. It’s been a really excellent project to work on, and we can’t wait to see what we can all create together”.