Paula Gamester always had chutzpah.
“My dad was a welder and worked as a ship builder in Camel Laird and my mother a school dinner lady,” she said, unable to explain how she ended up a serial entrepreneur. “It’s just innate in me, I think.”
Paula established several successful businesses, both in the UK and in Dubai UAE, where she worked with global brands such as Calvin Klein and Emirates Airlines, before she set up The Sewing Rooms.
“The sewing started when I was about 14. I wanted to have the height of fashion, and being the eldest of five, money wasn’t available. So, my mother bought me a second-hand sewing machine and I started making my own clothes, designing my own. I turned my school uniform into a pair of hotpants and the blazer into a bolero.
We were taught by nuns, who sent me to the headmistress. I didn’t even get past registration. Everyone was saying, ‘have you seen Paula with the hotpants on!”
After working in Dubai, with ‘obscene wealth’ she returned to the UK, working at the local Chamber of Commerce as a business advisor, using her experience to help others. It led to an interest in social enterprise.
“I got really inspired by it. So, I left the Chamber and set up Connector Media all those years ago.”
The Sewing Rooms, a manufacturing and training social enterprise, is a project of the Community Interest Company, Connector Media. It was established in 2007.
The sewing academy has provided training for over 4,000
A delegation from Ikea visited her in Lancashire.
“I was fearless really, I’d not long come back from the Middle East, where I worked with all the top hotels and brands, so, it didn’t faze me. We got the contract.”
Profits generated from its trading activities pay for its social impact, which is generated from its sewing clubs and well-being courses.
Projects to date include Mindful Sewing with Refugees from Syria, teaching sewing and business skills to women in the criminal justice system, and working with disaffected teenagers as well as the elderly.
“Silver sewers started eight years ago with lottery funding. When funding ran out, we couldn’t get rid of these women!
They wouldn’t go, so we carried on. Some have lost jobs, or they’re bereaved, some are at a really loose end, ship wrecked really; they have all these different stories, and just love being together.”
The purpose-built accredited sewing academy has provided training and support for over 4,000. They employ nine people, with a bank of sessional tutors and trainers for specialist projects.
After securing major new contracts to make soft furnishings for the Marriott Hotel and Premier Inn, they took on a loan of £90k to buy new equipment and take on new staff to service the contracts, moving into new premises, costing £30k per year in rent.
“Everything was looking rosy. Within six weeks of moving, Covid hit. All of our contracts ceased, and we had no money and we had to pay back this loan.”
Paula said: “It was really a difficult time. I tried to get government contracts to make PPE, as we had a manufacturing department. We wanted to be part of the solution, but I couldn’t get anywhere.”
Paula and the team persevered and galvanised 60 volunteers, secured a Big Lottery grant, and began to make masks.
Around 35,000 were donated to key workers and the most vulnerable. Paula also saw commercial opportunities.
“I thought to myself, businesses need masks and will pay.” One of the biggest commissions was from Peel Ports in Liverpool for 4,000 branded masks for its workforce.
During Covid, the Local Authority chose them as an organisation embedded in the community to distribute aid to families in crisis, providing clothes or food.
“We were able to keep our staff, they were employed right the way through, and we were able to pay off the loan,” Paula said.
But then, the bottom fell out of the mask market.
“The hotel work hadn’t materialised as planned, and it’s just been a rollercoaster. We found ourselves last December in a crisis point. I was worried I didn’t have enough money to pay the wage bill, and that was when the Key Fund stepped in to help.”
Key Fund gave a £19,200 loan and £5,800 grant.
The investment Paula said was ‘critical’: “I needed a quick turnaround to pay wages and Key Fund were absolutely fantastic. It gave me some breathing space to go out and secure more contracts, so we’re steadily starting to grow again.”
The team is still reeling from Covid; Paula recently suffered a bad bout of it, affecting her own health.
“To be honest, we don’t know the full extent of the impact of Covid. I think it’s having a terrible effect on people, their mental health and well-being. It’s horrible. So, we try and bring joy and light and laugher whenever we can.”
They’ve been designing their own product range and developing new business contracts. “It’s still a struggle, but there are little green shoots.”
EDI Group Women and Lived Life Experience