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Online LINK: Social Cohesion in Social Isolation – Finding work for idle hands to do

Blog post written by Geraldine Montgomerie (Leeds Arts Health and Well-being Network Co-ordinator).

This blog post captures the discussion in a session of the Social Cohesion in Social Isolation online conversations series that Leeds Arts Health and Well-being Network facilitated on 17th June 2020 with Laura Blackwell from Sew Leeds. Our chat centred on how being physically occupied through arts and culture connects and benefits us, with an emphasis on textiles as a medium to prompt connection.

Laura was invited to co-facilitate following meeting her at a Sew and Swear event in Leeds in 2019 that I attended and experienced an immediate sense of community, trust and openness with other attendees, none of whom I had met previously. You can read more about the ‘profane embroidery groups here (warning: explicit language). I also experienced a similar sense of connectedness in workshops with embroidery lecturer Elnaz Yazdani, whose collaborations with Stitch Up highlight the impact of “craft and creativity on improving everyday wellbeing” and their role in “bringing people together”. Local textiles artist, Hayley Mills-Styles, also described in last year’s Stitching for Wellbeing collaboration between Thackray Museum of Medicine and Get Away Girls, how whilst women were occupied in sewing they could be more forthcoming about their personal experiences, thoughts and feelings.

As a group we reflected on how being actively or physically engaged in a creative or cultural activity can more rapidly develop social cohesion, possibly due to a shared frame of reference, assumed values or goal we are working towards. Anecdotally this appears true in a number of activities, from participating in a pub quiz to sports and creative activities. We discussed the concept of 'flow' and the conditions of creative practice that might be more relevant to an individual's connection to themselves and to mindful, insular practice as compared to a social activity where we connect to each other.

Rose, a textiles practitioner and Goldsmiths lecturer, described how creating a sensory experience in her recreations of a traditional 'Caribbean front room', where people experienced music and food and handled objects related to Caribbean culture which led to a “dialogue of trust” where people reminisced and shared stories and questions. You can hear Rose speak about “the Power of the Cloth alongside themes around research and representation in the “Sew What?” Podcast here. A further project of interest may be the Eulogy project in Leeds where stories, songs and cultural objects were shared through workshops and events, leading to a remarkably popular exhibition and book on Caribbean and West Indian migration.

During the COVID-19 outbreak where we are interacting remotely or online we reflected on how many shared sensory experiences in the moment are lost. By moving activities online not only is there the potential for people to be digitally excluded but there can be challenges participating due to differences in available technology, resources and also often a one-size-fits-all approach where different needs such as hearing loss may not be addressed.

This conversation stimulated further discussions relating to teaching and learning during COVID-19. Laura described how, as an MA student in Creative Pattern Cutting, she felt she was benefiting from adaptations to the teaching process where instruction was now more explicit. However, she was finding giving instructions to students in her dress-making classes much more difficult due to the adaptations she needed to make. For example, it was not as easy to move between sewing machine and ironing board to demonstrate dress-making techniques when there was only a limited frame of reference provided by the web camera.

We reflected on the importance of interaction and shared focus as part of remote activities. Sarah from Just Sewn Stories described her role in the national Quarantine Quilt network, which is finding ways to share resources and knowledge across multiple similar projects and finding benefits from a range of perspectives including how to engage those with the greatest need. The benefits of having multiple ways to engage remotely, for example through online meetings and video or written instruction for the remote incarnation of the Thackray Museum of Medicine's Stitching for Wellbeing project, was also mentioned.

We also reflected on how these activities might enable reducing feelings of loneliness, increasing a sense of engaging in meaningful activity and potential increase in satisfaction with life and being connected to others. We discussed possibilities of how creative engagement might lessen feelings of stress which may in turn impact on relationships with others; such as the use of arts and crafts activities as a tool for distraction, contemplation or as a means of self-development.

We asked ourselves how we might measure and prove these benefits – the group described use of standard participant experience questionnaires for which the feedback being received was more limited than when gathered in real life. We talked about how other projects such as Bradford's Covid-19 Stitch Journal have captured in the moment reflections and the place of art and creative output, such as stitch journals as a form of research. Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network will be co-hosting a conference later this year on research and evaluation in arts and health and we look forward to continuing this conversation.

Thanks so much to Geraldine for writing this wonderful reflection piece. The Social Cohesion in Social Isolation online chats are currently taking place fortnightly on Wednesdays 4-5pm GMT to facilitate further connection and action during COVID-19. To find out more or to sign up to attend a future session, click here.

Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network develops connections across sectors in the Leeds area, raising awareness of the benefits of arts and health work, developing opportunities with a focus on equity and community, sustainability and making a difference. This year they will be co-hosting the Beyond Measure conference with the Cultural Institute at the University of Leeds and the Centre for Cultural Value – the focus will be research in arts and health. Become a network member by signing up to their mailing list or follow them on Twitter for updates.

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