Eileen Winslow is 72 and lives in Erdington, Birmingham. She set up a knitting group to support local women who had gone through bereavement. A decade later, the group has gone from strength to strength, gaining members who have been knitting and sewing throughout the pandemic.
It all started at church where Eileen met some widows who didn't have a regular activity to go to outside of the church service.
Elieen, who has been knitting since primary school, says: "It struck me that these women had a lot of talent in knitting, sewing and craft making, skills that were going to waste.
"I thought: What if we started a knitting class doing something useful for charity?"
That was the beginning of a group that has now been coming together for ten years which today brings 15 to 20 regular members together every Monday at Sycamore Court in Perry Common, Birmingham.
Eileen found that members were more likely to come along on a regular basis if the group knitted for charity than if she organised coffee mornings or knitting groups for the fun of it.
She said: "A lot of knit and natter groups ask people to come along and bring their own stuff, but I don't think that works as well. By giving members a purpose, and someone who can teach them new skills, there's an appreciation for coming on a regular basis."
There's structure to the group. Eileen buys in patterns and wool in different colours, much of which has been purchased with the help of Ageing Better in Birmingham. The programme also bought the group sewing machines so that they could do a wider range of crafting and attract more people from nearby areas.
"It keeps it interesting, it keeps it fresh", says Eileen.
They enjoy each other's company and for some, the group has become the family they share life's joys and sorrows with.
"A lot of members live on their own, some have no family. This is their family. This is where they come and talk about their problems. And we help them out and we encourage them with things and they don't feel so lonely", says Eileen.
When it's someone's birthday, the group celebrates by signing a card from everyone and bringing cake along to the meeting. At Christmas, they celebrate the season together.
"We tend to do a party at Christmas where we just enjoy ourselves. Everybody brings something in, sausage rolls or crisps or whatever. It's a way to celebrate Christmas together, even for those who don't have a family", says Eileen.
Almost 57,000 people over the age of 65 live alone in Birmingham, increasing their risk of being socially isolated. Groups like this can make a big difference to someone. Most of Eileen's members are over 60 and the oldest is 84.
One member in her 70s has proven it's never too late to join an activity or learn a new skill. She didn't learn how to knit until she was 76. Being born deaf and having had a difficult start in life, she was never taught how to read or write apart from her name. She comes along with her carer and with help from members, she now knows how to read a pattern and knit.
The group is currently knitting Christmas Gonks, quirky Christmas gnomes common in Nordic countries that are quickly becoming a popular Christmas decoration in the UK. Out of season, members knit popular toys such as Peppa Pig, Minions and Sooty and Sweep that they sell to fund materials such as needles and wool for their charity knits.
When the government imposed restrictions on meeting up in groups, Eileen made sure members kept in touch with each other in other ways.
She said: "One lady lost her daughter in the middle of the pandemic. I found out and I made sure she was aware the group was there for her – we sent a card and some flowers. We couldn't go to her house."
The group applied for additional funds from Ageing Better in Birmingham to help maintain these connections. And this, Eileen says, kept boredom and declining mental health at bay.
"I basically filled up the boot of my car with lots of different coloured wool and drove around to the ladies' houses, asking them if they needed anything: wool or patterns or anything like that. Often we'd have a chat on their doorstep, and sometimes we'd meet in the park with a cup of tea in takeaway mugs."
Eileen put together packs of materials to suit individual members' needs and skillsets. This included wool for making premature baby hats and twiddle muffs for people with dementia. While not everyone has come back to meet in person, most of the group now meet on a regular basis again and they have also gained members who found it through the sheltered housing scheme.
They are careful when they meet, taking additional measures to keep the activity safe such as keeping windows and doors open when they can. The room they use at Sycamore Court is also separate from the residents' space. It's got its own kitchen and separate toilets.
Another challenge has been the closure of wool and sewing shops which has doubled the price for wool. To keep the group going, members give £2 per session which goes towards refreshments and materials. Members look after the group and each other. And they leave ailments at the door. Eileen says:
"The whole point of this is that people who come leave the class having had a jolly good time, a good laugh to get their endorphins working. I want them to feel better when they leave than when they came in. Not one single day have I thought 'Not Monday again'."
The groups meets on Mondays 1 - 3 pm.
People with or without skills in knitting, crocheting and sewing are welcome to join this friendly and welcoming bunch of people and if you would like to find out more, call or text Eileen on 07480 780750.