Lockdown Legend: the Londoner who set up a community scheme to make scrubs for NHS workers

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron
Features Editor, Time Out London
Lockdown Legend
Illustration: Time Out

Like many Londoners – and people around the UK – Hackney Wick local Maya Ilany joined a mutual aid WhatsApp group a few weeks ago. It was in this group that Ilany saw a message from a local doctor asking if anyone could help sew some scrubs. Although unable to sew herself, Ilany decided to try to find some volunteers who could help. She teamed up with three neighbours with sewing skills – Brooke Dennis, Annabel Maguire and Rebecca Zehr – and launched Scrub Hub. As well as making scrubs for the local community, they’ve helped spread the scheme across the country and there are now 70 local hubs across the UK, making scrubs for NHS workers and caregivers.

It all started in a local WhatsApp group before the lockdown started properly. There was a message from a doctor called Katie Ward asking if anyone could sew and make scrubs for herself and colleagues. I kind of thought someone was trolling us. How could it be that in such a wealthy country like the UK there are no scrubs for medical staff? But the doctor looked genuine and I saw other doctors on Twitter posting pictures of themselves wearing bin liners I realised it was probably real. That sense of shock is what made me want to do something about it.

I can’t sew – I have two left hands, I’m very bad at it. But my job in normal life is in the charity sector so I know a bit about organising, so I thought I could help with that part. I designed a graphic saying: Can you sew? If you do, get in touch and help us. Before I knew it, my inbox was full of people – not just in Hackney but from all across the UK – asking to help. I realised it was probably a bigger job than I imagined.

Some of the first emails I received were from neighbours and it was clear they knew what they were talking about. Annabel usually works as a set designer, Rebecca is a professional pattern cutter in the fashion industry and Brooke has a textile studio in Hackney called Make Town. I said: do you want to help me manage this? Because I don’t know how to sew! They all said yes and a week after we received that message from the doctor, we delivered 25 sets of scrubs. It was incredible.

After our first batch of scrubs went out to doctors and other NHS staff, we had so many requests for scrubs from across the UK as well as offers from volunteers not based in Hackney. We wrote up how we’d done it in an open-source document and shared it with others around the country. But now we have a website with a directory which we update every day with all the new hubs and how to contact them.

There are more than 70 hubs across the country now and more than 2,600 volunteers. Between us, we’ve delivered around 4,000 pairs of scrubs. That’s all since we started five weeks ago. It’s crazy. It feels like three years.

At the beginning, we had a few doctors in the local area asking for scrubs but then when the word got out that we were doing this we started getting hospitals and NHS trusts asking us for hundreds. Even if you’re a very experienced volunteer, it takes a few hours to sew a set of scrubs, so to produce a few hundred is mad. We had a few weeks of chasing our tails trying to make really large amounts of scrubs. Thankfully, factories now have official contracts from the government to produce big batches of scrubs – but it took four weeks for that to happen.

We get emails and WhatsApp messages from NHS staff and it’s so heartwarming to see pictures of them wearing the scrubs. It’s not just a nice blue top, it’s something that can save people’s lives. Keeping them and their families safe has so much meaning. It’s really moving. 

I’m currently on furlough and being on Twitter or watching the news all day isn’t good for my mental health, which is why I wanted to do some volunteering. I feel like it’s a healthier way to engage with this stressful situation where I have very little control.

The responses from volunteers have been amazing. Every time we need volunteers to do something, we get way more than we need, we have to turn people away. They really love it. For the volunteers who are sewing, I think doing something with your hands is really satisfying – it’s not abstract. Plus you need to use both hands when you sew, so you can’t look on Twitter! 

We’ve raised £20,000 through our crowdfunding campaign, which is unbelievable. At first, we just wanted to raise £500 to pay for the fabric for the first batch of scrubs but people want to help. Even though we’re all self-isolating, I think people are thinking way beyond themselves and they want to give. It’s incredible and will allow us to produce so many more scrubs. Whatever we have left over we’re going to give to a charity which supports the mental health of NHS workers. I think they’ll need a lot of support for their mental health when this is over.

I didn’t plan for it to be such a big thing and to take so much of my time. I thought it would be really straightforward, I was so naive. I thought: I’ll put out a callout, find people who can sew and that’ll be it, job done. But I’ve enjoyed making it grow. 

I’ve been living in Hackney for some time now and before Scrub Hub, I didn’t really know my neighbours. Now if I go for a run, I wave at people because I know them, so that’s really nice. It doesn’t feel like London!

Find out more about Scrub Hub and donate to the crowdfunding campaign.

Read interviews with more Lockdown legends:

The Londoner bringing together top chefs to make food for NHS staff.

The Londoner hosting aerobics classes on his doorstep.

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