Walking into the Sew Sisters Training Project lifts your spirits.  It is a bright, colourful, welcoming place – a cross between a factory floor and an art gallery; a creative space where imagination has no bounds but where practical, useful skills are learnt and applied.  It is a space re-invented in the heartlands of Tyneside’s monumental Industrial heritage; free of the dirt and danger of its ship-building past but nonetheless born out of the value of manufacture and the making of things essential to sustaining a resilient, vibrant community. 

It is little wonder that when women from the East End of Newcastle walk through the door for the first time, many of them struggling in difficult circumstances, they are in no hurry to leave.  Barbara Romanis, the Creative Lead and the driving force behind the Sew Sisters Project, tells heart-breaking stories of women who are living with ‘cripplingly low self-esteem’, who are spiralling into ever deeper debt following job loss within the household, or coping with extreme isolation and loss of status having arrived from volatile and dangerous parts of the world.  It is a vocation for Barbara who has worked extensively in the mainstream fashion industry and has experience of design, production and management as well as teaching and mentoring.

Barbara Romanis, Sew Sisters Project, Creative Lead

“Every day I see the change in people’s lives. Often it is instant.  When people realise they are in a safe space I see the difference in their demeanour – in the way they hold themselves, their posture and their body language”.

The Sew Sisters, a project run by Building Futures East (BFE), offers women the chance to learn skills in garment manufacturing in an environment designed to help them grow friendships, confidence and self-esteem, thereby increasing their chances of employment. Clothing manufacture is a sector that is experiencing a significant skills shortage, so the prospects of finding employment at the end of the course are real.  The Sew Sisters is one of 25 organisations delivering innovative projects in Newcastle and North Tyneside, through North Of Tyne Community Led Local Development  (NoTCLLD) https://northoftyneclld.weebly.com/, a 5-year programme funded by the European Union. NoTCLLD is supporting organisations to deliver a wide range of activities, all with one thing in common; they are designed to help local people and businesses to grow and do the best that they can. NoTCCLD uses SIGNAL to measure its social impact and to target its resources at areas of real need.

Building Futures East is not only using SIGNAL to measure the Sew Sister’s social impact, but also to have structured conversations with the women, to find out more about their aspirations and ambitions, to identify the issues in their lives that might be holding them back and preventing them from making progress and to work with them to find ways of removing those barriers.

Barbara is clear that SIGNAL plays a vital role: “I love using SIGNAL and so do the women.  SIGNAL is a crucial component of the safe, creative space that defines Sew Sisters.  Safety means ‘trust’ and trust is the platform on which everything is built”.  So, alongside learning practical skills and making garments, using SIGNAL has helped Barbara and her team to respond to a person’s specific individual needs such as an emergency referral to a food bank, as well as to areas of need that have been identified through looking at the accumulated data from all the participants.  As an example, Barbara arranged for a training session to demystify the subject of Insurance and to look at cost-effective ways of acquiring it in response to the high percentage of women who had indicated they either had no insurance or felt ‘at risk’.

The ‘factory’ part of the Sew Sisters Project takes the women through the process of making garments by teaching practical, marketable skills that will help them find jobs.  The ‘creative space’ part is about supporting them to flourish as individuals, building social networks, using SIGNAL to identify what things in their lives they would like to change and working with them to put a plan in place for them to make those changes.  The women, from the East End of Newcastle but with hugely diverse backgrounds, and with experiences ranging from abusive relationships, poor mental health and low self-esteem through to extreme financial insecurity, are clear about what the Sew Sisters Project means to them, summarised in a simple statement: “I feel enormous relief - at long last I feel I am getting somewhere.”

If you would like to find out more about how SIGNAL could help people in your community please get in touch at contact@clearsignal.org

To find out more about the Sew Sisters Project contact eastendwomen@buildingfutureseast.org or call 0191 263 2752  

To find out more about North of Tyne Community Led Development contact Victoria.Powell@newcastle.gov.uk