The London Scrubs Hub sewing the seeds of change: an interview with Myka Baum (May 2020)
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
an immersive interview with the founder of a London charity hand-sewing face-masks for frontline workers.
A note outside tells me that the bell for St Mellitus Church, N4, can be temperamental, so I ram down hard on it. This side entrance to the grand, pillared building is home to London Scrubs Hub. The parish hall has been transformed into a factory, producing scrubs and face masks for organisations in need, mainly hospitals and care homes. The door opens, and I worry that I have been too aggressive with the bell.
It’s a hot day, and the spacious hall is gloriously cool inside. There are five volunteers working onsite when I visit, all wearing brightly patterned face masks and working at a generous two metres’ distance from one another. Hand sanitizers have been duct-taped to the hall’s pillars. The space has been divided into different production areas: two sewers work on the far side of the room, one using an attractive duck egg green sewing machine. In the middle of the room there are tables stacked with completed scrubs and masks awaiting inspection. A large whiteboard charts the scrub orders, behind which there are several black bin bags containing cut material for scrubs passed on from South London Scrub Hub.
Presiding over all, there’s a raised stage, where a volunteer logs the scrubs orders into a spreadsheet and completed scrubs go through quality control. Approved scrubs lie in wait for collection. The doorbell rings. It’s a parcel delivery: a huge, colourful box of liquorice sent from Myka Baum’s sister in Germany.
“She’s gone overboard” Myka laughs, encouraging everyone to take some.
In spite of the Hub’s obvious connection with COVID-19 and the various precautions set up around the hall, the space has a sense of peaceful industry. It’s quiet today, with volunteers making tea for each other and trading playlists whilst they work (it transpires that Kim, in her 60s, is a big Run the Jewels fan).
Unlike most office spaces, where a cup of tea represents a break from work, the volunteers here seem eager to get back to it. There’s a real sense that they want to be here. I can see why: the atmosphere is friendly and calm.
“People are very passionate about the NHS”, Myka explains.
(Myka Baum, founder of N4 Cutting Hub, image courtesy of @n4cuttinghub )
Image description: Myka Baum stands holding the back of a chair. She has short black hair, a green floral face-mask, and a yellow coat. To her right is an ironing board. To her left is a sewing machine. Behind her is folded cloth.
Volunteers are motivated by the cause, primarily. They are keen to use their skills to benefit a project they care strongly about.
The country’s various scrub hubs have received considerable national attention, largely focusing on the network as a whole rather than the individuals at their helm. The existence of the hubs has been used as a criticism of the government’s failure to provide adequate PPE. The hub at St Mellitus Church was also photographed by the press, but in the end, Myka explains, the photos were used to support an article criticising Matt Hancock, not mentioning their work.
Although the government’s oversight in providing scrubs is the reason for the Hub’s existence, making a political statement does not seem to be its primary motivation. Rather, the hubs have responded to the demand for scrubs by harnessing the power of local communities; using the skills and willingness of individuals to find a solution to the problem.
Yet, intentionally or not, the Hub makes a powerful point. A few days after I spoke to Myka, Dominic Cummings’ breach of his own lockdown rules came to light. As many have pointed out on Twitter, Cummings did not think to make use of the numerous Mutual Aid groups based in Islington. He should have done. The Hub, which has flourished with local support, is testament to the strength of community.
(Volunteers at the Cutting Hub, image courtesy of @n4cuttinghub )
Image description: A large room with wooden floors, red and white walls, and large windows with red curtains. A large table with a blue tablecloth stands in the foreground. The table has white tape dividing it into sections. A mug rests on the right hand side of the table.
In the background, four women are sat in chairs against the wall, facing the camera. The women are sat far apart from each other, but are all smiling as they show the camera their work
The Hub opened at the beginning of April and is home to network of around 100 volunteers. About 30 work from the Hub and many sew at home. This includes volunteers who make and sew the scrubs (the sewers, cutters and overlockers, who tend to work with fabric professionally) as well as the couriers. There are also administrative and logistical volunteers, whose tasks include tracking orders, making tea and opening the door.
There is a huge willingness to contribute, and Myka explains that it has at times been difficult to organise support. She tells me that many people sign up to sew without sewing experience, which has led to some tricky conversations. She shows me a set of scrubs which have come back with mistakes: the stitching on the bottom hem is clumped together; the neckline is bulky and there is a small hole where one of the sleeves has been sewn on. It’s quicker, she says, to start from scratch than to unpick the stitches and correct scrubs like these.
Nevertheless, Myka welcomes the support and has managed to direct it to the best possible use: some more junior sewers, for example, are encouraged to make masks. Most volunteers, she notes, are women. They have only had one male sewer. One, she adds, who said he could make 60 sets of scrubs in a week (most make 6) and completed 6 sets in total. Myka is full of praise for the support she has received from non-sewers who are keen to help. At the beginning, she says, she couldn’t complete a task without being interrupted by the doorbell. Days would go by when she’d be so busy that she wouldn’t have eaten anything until the evening. Support like this, she says, has been invaluable in allowing the Hub to run smoothly.
Myka is an artist. Before lockdown began, she was working on a project examining the unnoticed natural world. It focused on the earthworms living below urban pavements. It strikes me that the same willingness to devote attention to the overlooked that dictated her artwork fuels her work with scrubs.
Myka tells me that she set up the Hub at the behest of a friend, who mentioned the need for scrubs and for someone to spearhead the organisation in North London. Myka knew how to sew and make scrubs, so volunteered herself. After asking the priest if they could use the empty parish hall below her home and deciding on the name ‘London Scrubs Hub’ quickly on the phone, the ‘factory’ was born.
(Volunteers at the Cutting Hub, image courtesy of @n4cuttinghub )
Image description: a large hall with wooden floors. Three large rectangular tables can be seen in the shot. In the foreground, a girl is crouching on top of a table, working with her head down and her back to the camera. Five more people can be seen in the background, stood around the tables, also working.
“We did things very differently to how you’d start a business” she says, mentioning that they soon realised that another organisation had already registered the domain name.
But in this case, it didn’t matter: this was about the work, not the brand. This is evident in the numbers: the Hub has produced around 1100 scrubs since it was established. Its record production peaked at 300 sets of scrubs in a single week, averaging around 150 sets per week.
Myka emphasises that this is a community effort. Much of the equipment in the room, including the two industrial overlocking machines, has been donated. Volunteers have also lent their own sewing machines and materials have been crowd-funded and donated.
Unlike the scrubs, which are bound to specific colours, there’s a lot of freedom with fabric for the masks. Myka and another volunteer, Julia, show me some Liberty print material salvaged from Julia’s mother’s house. The Hub’s work has also received charity donations to support volunteers who have been hit by the pandemic financially. This means that some volunteers have been paid for their time.
Facebook groups, such as Mutual Aid and the For the Love of Scrubs page, have mobilised support and resources. Myka has requested all manner of supplies on her local Tollington Park group, from an embroidery machine to tea-making volunteers. Mutual Aid, she says, has been a “lifesaver”.
To me, one of the best things to have come out of the pandemic is the wholesome swap and share culture (sourdough starter traded for plant cuttings; tomato seedlings for recipe tips). This is perfectly exemplified by the Hub, which gives out scrubs and masks and has received wide-ranging support in return. Myka mentions, for example, that local food banks began donating surplus to the Hub. They in turn have redirected some of these supplies to other vulnerable people living locally.
So many people, Myka points out, won’t ask for help. She gives a couple of examples of how bringing food unsolicited to people they suspected might need it has led to the gradual acceptance of support. Whereas initial coverage of the pandemic focused on stockpiling, with anxiety about food supply inducing people to hoard food, this is a far brighter picture.
Myka’s own generosity is obvious, from the time and effort she has put into running the Hub, to her willingness to share her liquorice with everyone there. The Hub, which is fuelled by donations of time, resources and support, ultimately shows that here, generosity is rewarded. It comes round full cycle.
Things at the Hub are beginning to wind down: the demand for scrubs is gradually decreasing and the volunteers have begun to up their mask production instead. Myka mentions that energy levels are dropping, and, as lockdown eases, people are gradually returning to their normal lives. This in part has dictated her decision not to branch out into the production of tabards, as has been requested. The Hub won’t produce scrubs forever, but it’s hard to imagine it closing down completely.
I ask where Myka sees it going from here. “I’d like to start a sewing group, or knitting and crochet classes.” Myka tells me. She is keen to continue to use the space. Her aim would be for her classes to be intersectional. She knows of a local sewing group for asylum seekers, for example, and would be keen to widen this out. She’d also like to engage young people in sewing: Myka talks about how one of their tea makers brought her young son with her, and they began to teach him to sew. It transpired that he was pretty good at it.
Sewing is a cross-cultural activity, and the Hub has shown its potential to mobilise local community. Myka is keen for this growth in community spirit to endure beyond the pandemic; for people to continue to look after their neighbours.
She adds: “It makes me feel good to know there’s so much goodness around”.
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