The story of the volunteer PPE factory in Hampstead's old town hall

Dishti one of the gown makers at Hampstead Town Hall featured in the book

Dishti one of the volunteers at Hampstead Town Hall featured in The Gown Factory published by The Royal Free Charity - Credit: Sarah Nicholl

For three months in the summer of 2020, Hampstead Town Hall became a hive of activity with an army of volunteers joining forces to make gowns for frontline staff at the Royal Free.

Against a worldwide shortage of PPE – in what resembled a wartime community effort – banks of sewing machines were set up in the main hall in Belsize Park.

Kentish Town TEFL teacher Sarah Nicholl was among 600 who answered the call for anyone who could "sew, cut, fold or just have enthusiasm."

Others included actors Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne who helped out as part of the Sparehand project.

Actor Eddie Redmayne helped out at The Gown Factory as part of the Spare Hand project

Actors Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne helped out at The Gown Factory as part of the Spare Hand project - Credit: Courtesy of the Royal Free Charity

"There was a desperate shortage of PPE and I just knew I wanted to do something practical and hands on," said Sarah. "I wanted to do something valuable at a time of huge uncertainty."

Having made and mended clothes before, she assigned herself to the sewing room.

"There was a cutting room, a finishing room and a sewing room. They didn't seem to be looking for master sewers and I was happy to do anything so I was put onto doing the sleeves and shoulders on the gown."

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The factory was a huge local collaboration. Caroline Gration, who founded The Fashion School and whose daughter worked at The Royal Free gave advice, the Royal Free Charity bought the sewing machines and recruited the volunteers, the hospital supplied the gown material, and WAC Arts the venue.

"It was really heartwarming, there was real camaraderie," said Sarah. "The sewing room was a hive of activity with machines on four walls and in the middle people folding and packing gowns, getting things ready to be sewed, or moving boxes down to be finished with cuffs and belts.

"People were incredibly resourceful and positive. If there was an issue, they would put their heads together and work to solve it."

Adam Brown

The book's designer Adam Brown finishing off a seam - Credit: Sarah Nicholl

Running daily from May to August the factory made 50,000 NHS grade surgical gowns: "They were barriers when dealing with acute infection. They had to be fully protective with no holes."

The keen amateur photographer started capturing the activity during her twice weekly shifts, "nipping off from the sewing machine" to chat to volunteers and take photographs.

"At that time there were very few things you could do with people in a safe space, many said it was a lifeline to be part of it, to feel connected and involved 'not just locked up in my own home'."

Liz and Arlene with the last gown

Liz and Arlene with the last gown - Credit: Sarah Nicholl

On one trip to the finishing room she met Adam Brown who encouraged her to continue recording the historic effort.

His design business had ground to a halt during Covid and he said: "I wanted to use the time productively in a way that would benefit others. I had never sown, but soon learnt how to. 

"Over the course of the project we all bought different skills that could help make the delivery more efficient and a better experience for all involved. I applied my graphic design background to give the project an identity and we soon had set of manufacturing guidelines on the walls, and t-shirts for volunteers."

Sarah undertook a "personal project to photograph this collective rallying".

"Adam was encouraging about the importance of recording the project, and asked what I was going to do with the photographs. He's a graphic and book designer so it was a lovely, fortuitous meeting."

The pair have collaborated on the book The Hampstead Gown Factory. Adam created the layout, with photos alongside personal testimonies of resilience and shared purpose. Sarah hopes it references "a historic point in time". Indeed the Science Museum acquired some patterns, logbooks and sketches for its collection.

Photographer Sarah Nicholl and book designer Adam Brown at the launch of The Gown Factory at the Royal Free

Photographer Sarah Nicholl and book designer Adam Brown at the launch of The Gown Factory at the Royal Free - Credit: Courtesy of The Royal Free Charity

"It takes a while to process something as huge as the pandemic," said Sarah. 

"That sense of vulnerability and wondering what we can do to make it better. Underneath the chaos and the media telling us 'it's crazy out there,' you saw the power of human imagination, the ability to collectively make positive decisions and seize opportunities to do something for the greater good.

"This was a small example in north London of something very special that happened in response to a crisis."

Adam adds: "It was a life-affirming project and a life-affirming moment. In time, it will seem all the more extraordinary. I thought that for those involved, a book would stand testament to the fact that it did happen."

The Hampstead Gown Factory is published by The Royal Free Charity.

Jude Law

Highgate actor Jude Law helps out at the gown factory - Credit: Courtesy of the Royal Free Charity