Joining the Scrubs Army: what does it take to feelgood?

green scrubs

Like many other UK sewists, I’ve decided to join the scrubs-making army. There are currently thousands of us, mostly women up and down the country sewing hospital scrubs to support the NHS. I’m doing this because I want to; because it makes me feel useful to make a contribution to something, but while I’m sitting here sewing and overlocking and unpicking and sewing again, it’s a lot of time to think – thinking about sewing, thinking about this pandemic and think about why it is that I need to be sitting here doing this at all.

I first saw the website For The Love Of Scrubs in April, that was started by a nurse in the north of England. After a while, groups began appearing all over the country and I decided to find one which was closer to home as, due to shielding and social distancing you’re not really supposed to leave your home unnecessarily. I thought it would be better if I could choose a local group which could come and collect the things when I had made them. I’d also heard that there were some groups supplying pre-cut scrubs so all you have to do is the sewing. For a week or so nothing happened so because it’s me, I got impatient and I decided to buy the material myself and crack on.

So many pockets…

I remembered I actually had 5 m of polycotton in my stash because I had been ruminating over making duvet covers and pillowcases. I decided to use that up and there was enough there to make two sets – 2 tops and 2 bottoms. I found a link on the scrubs website which pointed to Laura from Sew Different who provided a free, not-for-profit scrubs pattern for people to use so I downloaded that, stuck it together and then off I went.

Two down and it all seemed so easy

Once I had done these I set a personal target complete to 10 sets. I thought this was a reasonable amount to take on.

I wasn’t hearing anything from the original website and I ended up joining three groups. Finally, I connected with the Sew Sussex group, I thought joining the local one would be better for getting the scrubs collected when I completed them. They also have a scheme to deliver pre-cut scrubs leaving me just to do the actual sewing, that sounded brilliant. When I got in touch with Sew Sussex they didn’t have any fabric left it as had all been allocated so I decided to go ahead and purchase my own fabric as I thought that I could afford to do that much of a donation.

I was trying to source more fabric from an online shop. I found one offering to supply polycotton for £2.99 pm and I thought that was quite good but I later found out that there were other sources supplying it for 0.99 p.m. but nevermind what’s done is done.

The guy from the supplier phoned up and told me that there was a shortage of the blue fabric that I’d ordered and would I accept any other colour? He offered purple, light blue and finally green. I said I didn’t really want green, because I knew that different roles used different colours and I wanted nurses scrubs, so I asked him for the light blue then purple then green, in order of preference. Guess what colour he sent?! It’s not really a major thing and I’m sure the recipients will be happy and I’m hoping they’ll be looking on it as a ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ kind of situation, but it was just another one of those times when I thought “Why don’t you just be more assertive and say what you want?” I gave him options and I kind of knew almost as I hung up the phone that he was going to send me the green – that’s obviously what he wanted to get rid of. Oh well, there you go.

Cutting out 4 sets at a time

Cutting out multiple sets of scrubs is a beast. I’m lucky enough to have a great cutting table and I do all my prep work standing up, however, there just isn’t enough room to do this on the table. I set out a space in my living room that’s the largest area I’ve got and ended up with all of my cutting mats out on the floor. I enlisted the help of my other half to get this fabric spread out as it was surprisingly difficult to get it all straight and taut singlehandedly. It’s remarkable how wriggly and naughty the fabric can be and it took both of us to get it stretched out evenly so I could cut multiples of scrubs pieces. I’d forgotten out how awful cutting out on the floor is. My knees feel a bit achy from it even days later. It took about 4 hours to cut out all my fabric and while it was successful, by the time I finished it had put a dent in my energy and enthusiasm.

Doing these repetitive actions seem very mindful and calming until I mess up and therefore allows me time to think why can’t the government provide the scrubs – is it really that difficult? I know it’s a huge undertaking, but I’ve just been reading about 400,000 units that had to be sent back to Turkey because they’re not to the right specification. How can they let that happen, what’s going to happen to all of those scrubs? Hopefully, they’ll use them somewhere else.

Dictating this blog I’m sitting here unpicking the set of scrubs I’m sewing because I got a bit carried away decided to overlock everything, but it hasn’t really worked. Seems I’ve managed to very thoroughly and very securely sew two front pants together so now I have to unpick them.

It’s actually become a job that, I don’t regret taking on, because I still think it’s worthwhile and I want to complete it, but it’s not fun. Sewing one of something is fun because you’re discovering the pattern, you’re usually learning new techniques and you come up with something really nice that you can wear yourself. When you’re sewing multiples of the same thing for somebody else, it ceases to be fun and becomes a bit of a chore – but because I know it’s for a good cause …

So how do I feel about this sewing? Mixed feelings are the order of the day. In the same way that I felt conflicted about clapping for the National Health Service, because I don’t really feel it’s for the NHS and it’s not actually helping the NHS. Some might say clapping was the least you can do, unfortunately, it’s the most some people will do because they stand there clapping but they vote for a government who are systematically breaking the NHS down bit by bit. I do think that the morale and bonding with your neighbours might make it worthwhile, but it felt forced and false. As for sewing scrubs, I’m glad to be able to use my skills to do something tangible for people. Again I think it’s one of those things that’s soothing for the person doing it; i.e. me – helping someone and all the time thanking your lucky stars that you’re still okay.

Soooooo much pressing. This was a very ouchy task

I support the NHS wholeheartedly and used to work in it and that in part is why I’m ambivalent about the whole situation. Our government should be doing “Whatever it takes” (one of their early slogans) to equip our healthcare workers to fight this disease. The fact that it’s been such a shambles makes me so mad. How can it be that our NHS has to rely on charity and individuals’ donation of their time, money and resources to tackle a nationwide crisis?

There’s also a bit of anxiety – what if my scrubs aren’t good enough? What if they’re not up to standard? If a professional manufacturer can’t produce scrubs that will meet the scrutiny of the NHS, what makes me think I can?

All of this second-guessing and the fact that the garments are a lot more involved than I had anticipated, started to slow me down. It took me a lot longer to finish than I expected. Then just as I had nearly completed my self funded batch, I heard from Sew Sussex that my materials were ready for me and they just needed my address!

OK, don’t panic, get a grip, you can do it! I’d committed to doing it and I couldn’t back out so I filled in the form with my details. I asked them to collect the sets I’d made and to send me kits for 5 more. When they arrived I got no pickup and 10 kits!

In the midst of this, a friend asked me to make a set of scrubs for her daughter who is a nurse. I was happy to. Don’t get me wrong, I was really happy to help anyone I could, but doing something for a friend is so much more motivating.

Putting in the draw string – I’m almost there

Once I’d made my friend’s scrubs I felt a bit more energised overall and I tackled the second batch much more effectively. I got my production line On! I broke the task down into sub-processes. I applied the best division of labour and specialisation approach (Business Studies teacher head) and I set myself daily targets for what I would complete and this was much more fruitful than the random way I sewed the first batch.

Fancy schmancy in seam pockets be damned!
  • a day of overlocking – yes a whole day!
  • A day for sewing legs
  • A day for sewing neck facings (argghh!)
  • A day for pressing and sewing 20 pockets
  • A day for sewing the fiddly side splits on the tunic
  • A day for (pressing and) hemming trousers
  • A day for (pressing and) hemming sleeves
  • A day for (pressing and) hemming tunics
Homemade set square for lining up my pockets

I still had days when I couldn’t be arsed and some days when I just had to sew something else for my sanity but diminishing returns did not set in as fiercely as it had before. Also, sewing precut sets was so much better and they had done away with the trouser pockets which made an incredible difference in how quickly everything came together. The original pants had patch pockets on the back (not too much of a problem) and inseam pockets which while good to have, were a bugger to sew accurately.

So finally after several weeks, much soul searching and a bit of rage directed at the government, I finished my mission and the socially distanced courier relieved me of my scrubs. The OH had joked that I wouldn’t finish before the pandemic ended, earning some death stares, but at times I thought I was going to prove him right. However, even as my scrubs were collected and I heaved a sigh of relief, my updates from the Hub kept saying they need more.

My congratulations to Sew Sussex, For the Love of Scrubs and all the other groups. Also many thanks to Laura at SewDifferent for providing her pattern drafting skills to support this project. I know my post is a bit grumbly but I am actually in awe of the people who have taken this from one woman’s dream and gathered us into an amazing slick organisation which at last count Sew Sussex volunteers have made over 30,000 items of scrubs, masks, gowns, caps and headbands to support our NHS heroes.

Would I do this again? Yes, definitely, I do feel really good to have played a small part in this effort. Especially as Black and Brown people are dying at a disproportionate rate in this pandemic, the toll of poverty, poor housing and limited access to health care and good diet. However, I would manage my expectations of how this would all make me feel. Pandemic life is a box of contradictions.

EDIT: I finished my scrubs over a month ago and although most people seem to be acting as if the pandemic is over, apparently even now they still need help. Did you sew scrubs? Would you do it?

Thanks for dropping by…

About Elaine Batiste

I'm a teacher, a lifelong learner, a traveller, a maker, an adventurer and a 'want to do more' kind of gal.

4 Responses

  1. Hi Elaine, What a fantastic effort you put into this, scrubs look fab. I wanted to sew scrubs, but reading your post I am so glad (in one way) that I didn’t. Looking after a four-year-old whilst trying to work 3 days a week while my OH was working 5 days a week was already impossible, so adding into that over a week’s worth of sewing would have sent me over the edge. You made me laugh with your story of the options and eventual receipt of the green fabric – that’s exactly what I would have done. I’m determined to do this less and less!!. Well done on the whole thing, hugely worthwhile and impressive. Hope you are doing well and see you soon, Cheers, Emma

    Liked by 2 people

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