Despite the numerous hardships that COVID-19 has brought to many of our lives, from queuing up for hours in supermarket lines, to being separated from loved ones, there are some people in our society who have used this situation to bring about greater good.
Kemi Oloyede, the creative director of The Sew London Project, kindly told me about her experience during this pandemic. Kemi is a sustainable fashion designer entrepreneur based in Barking and founded The Sew London Project in 2015 to teach adults and children how to sew. Her focus within her business essentially lies with sustainability and upcycling fabric rather than letting it waste in landfills.
Initially when the lockdown was imposed by the government, Kemi heard that there was a shortage in PPE equipment within the NHS.
‘The first thing I thought in my head was: whatever I can do to help, I am going to do.’
Kemi reached out to her friends working in the NHS and asked if they needed her to make them masks, which they said they did. When she shared the pictures on Facebook of the masks that she had sewn, people started to ask Kemi if she was selling them. Although Kemi hadn’t initially planned on doing so, she began selling these masks.
Kemi also signed up to volunteer with Participatory City Foundation, where she packed food and medical supplies to the vulnerable members of her community. On top of all of this, she also started to sew scrubs for NHS staff after receiving a callout from an organisation called For the Love of Scrubs, who were looking for volunteers to increase the NHS’s PPE supplies.
‘I just thought, right that’s it, I’m in! And I just haven’t looked back… It’s kept me sane and feeling as though I’m giving something back into the community.’
Admittedly, COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on the lives of many, including Kemi, who previously had numerous workshops and events planned for this season. However, she also appreciates the blessings that she has witnessed in this climate. She has found that there has been a wider trend in people sewing, a skill that is slowly filtering back into the mainstream, through schemes like For the Love of Scrubs.
‘What a better time than now! Never in the world have they needed the skills to sew which I have been talking about forever.’
Alongside her voluntary work, this situation has prompted Kemi to think more deeply about her goal to create online workshops. Although she has wanted to do for years, the social distancing measures have made the need for digital forms of connectivity even more necessary.
‘I’ve been fortunate because I’m a creative. With creatives, we can make something out of nothing.’
This pandemic has made Kemi more ambitious to re-educate people about the effects that wasting fabric can have on landfills, particularly as COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the fashion industry. Although staying up to date with the latest trends can be a huge ‘feel good’ factor, Kemi is an advocate for the dangers that this can have on the planet. Perhaps with all this free time, we can all dig out our dusty sewing machines and an old pair of jeans, or even find a needle and thread and ‘make something out of nothing’.
‘As much as I am a fashion designer, I see fashion as having more to do with ergonomics than the aesthetics, despite how important the aesthetics are.’
Whilst voluntarily sewing medical scrubs, Kemi hopes that individuals will realise the efforts that go into this form of labour and will make people think twice before buying clothes that derive from exploitation.
‘I hope that my business can re-educate people, both from the Barking and Dagenham borough but also across London.’
Ironically, despite the social distancing measures that Kemi has been adhering to, she has found that through her volunteering, she has met more people. She has even met people who have previously heard of her business but have never had the opportunity to meet her in person.
‘I’m not saying that COVID-19 is a good thing but it has created other opportunities elsewhere.’
For Kemi, social distancing has brought her closer to her community. It has made everyone even more willing to help each other and the community spirit within Barking and Dagenham has just intensified.
‘The motto of the borough is no one is left behind.’
Although we are all hoping to return to our previous lives, Kemi argues that our past habits aren’t necessarily the right way forward. She appreciates how much we have learnt about ourselves through this experience, from spending time with family and looking out for neighbours, to our increased appreciation for each other.
‘In coming out of this, we should continue to remain as better people… We shouldn’t change that because as a nation, we have learnt so much.’
Kemi’s mission is one that I find deeply inspiring. She artfully merges her passion for sewing with her desire to make the world a better place. Although she initially centred her focus on sustainable fashion, she has adapted to this current climate and has used her skillset to help protect the NHS. Sometimes, charity literally does begin at home.