Iona Barker, founder of Say It Ain’t Sew, is determined to show the world how relevant and therapeutic hand sewing can be.
by Julia Migné
“Did you learn sewing at school?” That’s one of the first questions Iona Barker asked me over the phone when I rang her to learn more about Say It Ain’t Sew. If you’re living in the UK, chances are that your answer would probably be similar to mine: “No I did not!” Across Britain and Europe, it seems that teaching basic skills at school such as sewing came out of fashion, creating a generation of young adults completely unable to even stitch a lost button back.
“Our mothers and grandmothers would have learnt how to do it at school but the curriculum in the UK and Europe don’t see it as being relevant to the 21st century,” explains Iona.
Unlike most children, the Scottish founder of Say It Ain’t Sew was already taught how to sew when she was only nine years old after she started cutting things up across her house, from curtains to beddings. Her mother and grandmother decided to intervene and thought that if Iona was to keep cutting things then they might as well teach her how to sew them back together.
Little did the young girl know that sewing would become an essential part of her wellbeing, turning it into a therapy throughout her life. “When I faced adversity when things have been tough, I’ve always made things to make myself feel better,” she adds.
After moving from London to Glasgow after getting her dream job in fashion design, Iona had a hard time staying in the capital after having been made redundant. Struggling both mentally and financially, she got dragged back to Scotland by her preoccupied family and shut herself away, having completely lost any kind of self-confidence.
“I kind of hid from the world and I knew it was only making things worse so I decided to regain my confidence,” she says. “I started to do a free hand sewing class in a pub one night a week and then eight years later it completely snowballed! We now have five classes across Scotland, we’re trialling two in England this year, and we basically want to decrease social isolation and increase confidence, mindfulness, and really bring the art of hand sewing back into the world.”
Hand sewing is one of the oldest skills developed by humans when they started putting things together to protect themselves from the cold. In addition to being historically important, sewing is also great for hand coordination and dexterity. It also teaches patience.
Iona witnessed the power of sewing on many occasions during the past nine years. She explains: “As soon as you finish making the thing you were sewing, your brain gives you a rush of good feeling because you achieved something.” This dopamine boost plays an important role in improving the self-confidence and the self-esteem of the participants.
The two-hour sewing classes tick many boxes for people as they are completely free, easy, and fun. Say It Ain’t Sew does all their classes in pubs and bars and never use any machines — making it as accessible as possible and attracting a diverse crowd of people, from people who had sewed before to complete beginners.
“People realise that it’s a really good therapy! Once you’ve made something, you get that little boost of dopamine and you feel better about yourself and the world and so it helps so many different demographics of people.”
“At the moment it’s a lot of women who come to our classes but they sometimes drag along their husbands and boyfriends and it’s really interesting because they have so much fun,” says Iona. “They just saw sewing as something you had to do if your trousers broke and you had to fix them, it was more of a compulsory thing than a leisure thing, but they end up actually having more fun than their girlfriends!”
Having a different theme each week, the classes are intended to be as current and topical as possible. For instance, the organisation did a special Valentine’s Day session last week. And now, she is prepping for International Women’s Day on March. “For that day we are going to make rosettes,” she explains, “because it is the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in the UK and in 1918 the suffragette made rosettes so that’s what we are going to make.”
Currently in the process of becoming a registered Scottish charity, See It Ain’t Sew aims to reach all types of people, and Iona is trying to make the classes as gender neutral as possible. From people suffering from domestic abuse to people with alcohol and drug problems, the sewing teacher explains that they cater to a lot of vulnerable groups.
“People realise that it’s a really good therapy. Once you’ve made something, you get that little boost of dopamine and you feel better about yourself and the world, and so it helps so many different demographics of people.”
Iona has big plans for Say It Ain’t Sew and wants to take over the entire UK. To do so, the non-profit will trial new free classes in England for the first time this year in York and Newcastle. She wants to go even further, and so she is also planning on developing videos for her YouTube channel to be launched this year.
“I have a very important and specific mission,” Iona says. “We’re reaching about 8,000 people a year in Scotland and its an amazing number […] but it’s important that we connect further afield so I would really like to spread my mission by other means — be it television, radio, magazines, etc. So this year, I’m concentrating on that specifically and trying to get people to listen to me and to accept that hand sewing isn’t really old fashioned, but that it’s kind of cool and relevant and important.”
So if you are looking for a crafty hobby that is good for both your dexterity and your mental health, why not give hand sewing a try? You know what the expression says: a stitch in time saves nine!
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.