A volunteer army is stitching to fix the coronavirus scrubs shortage

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In the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Shetland, you may soon find clinical staff dressed in unusual uniforms, adorned with images of Buzz Lightyear or Thomas the Tank Engine.

When concerns were raised at a daily coronavirus briefing meeting last week that hospital staff were struggling to find clean scrubs, the simple clothing worn by doctors, nurses and cleaning staff that is frequently washed to help reduce the spread of disease, Carol Campbell, communications officer for NHS Shetland, put out a call for volunteer sewers who might be able to help fill the gap. “The laundry team were basically washing around the clock, trying to keep the supply of scrubs going,” she says.

After she posted about the need for more scrubs on a Facebook page fundraising for an MRI scanner, word spread fast, and people scrambled to start their sewing machines. “It just went crazy,” Campbell says. “In half an hour I must have had 80-100 emails coming through my email. At that stage we didn’t even know how to make scrubs.”

Volunteers found sewing patterns and started stitching whatever suitable cotton or polycotton fabric they could find – including old children’s duvets. Photos posted to the ‘Shetland Scrubs’ Facebook group show volunteers modelling their homemade outfits featuring floral designs, cartoon animals and, in one case, the giant faces of members of One Direction. “I think we’re just going to be a bit more colourful during this period,” Campbell says. “As long as they’re clean, washed at the right temperature, and there’s no chance of them passing on infection.”

To coordinate the effort, two big bins were placed outside a local NHS building – one to donate or pick up fabric, and one to deposit finished tops and trousers. People can collect and drop off materials while maintaining social distancing, and sanitising wipes are left near the bins. Campbell says they have received 48 finished pieces so far.

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, hospitals and other medical facilities across the UK are struggling to get hold of enough scrubs. While the clothing is not expensive, hospital workers say that increased demand has resulted in backlogs and delays at regular suppliers. With strict efforts to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, staff are changing their clothes more frequently so as not to risk carrying the virus between patients or wards, or to or from their own homes. For the same reason, some staff who would normally wear their own clothes, such as consultants, are now also turning to scrubs; Campbell says that one consultant in Shetland had resorted to wearing sportswear in the hospital because her usual woollen clothes were not appropriate for the frequent hot-washing required to limit the spread of the virus. “It’s about impeccable infection control,” she says.

Elsewhere across the UK, other community efforts are working to provide scrubs to those in need. In London, an NHS consultant reached out to a Hackney-based Mutual Aid WhatsApp group to ask if anyone could make scrubs, as her and her colleagues’ usual suppliers were out of stock. Local volunteers set up a group to coordinate the effort; Annabel Maguire, a set designer and one of the coordinators, initially bought fabric (plain coloured in this case) for around 20 pairs of scrubs and, with the help of other volunteers, sent it out to sewers in the community, with the finished scrubs being delivered directly to doctors. The WhatsApp group now has more than 100 members, and Maguire has set up a GoFundMe page for donations to cover further material and delivery costs.

The demand was initially overwhelming, she says, especially from doctors who didn’t usually wear scrubs and were desperate to find some. The group received one email from a hospital ward with a request for 250 pairs, but is currently only capable of fulfilling individual rather than bulk orders. When requests started coming in from across the country, Maguire and her fellow coordinators set up the ‘Scrub Hub’ website to coordinate different local efforts, with 12 regional hubs now listed.

Many of the volunteers are experienced sewers, with people involved in costume and fashion design contributing their skills. “Most of the people volunteering their time to sew, myself included, are freelancers, and we all became essentially redundant a few weeks ago,” Maguire says. “It’s nice to be able to use the skills we’ve honed over the years in our freelance life and actually be able to help in such a proactive and productive way.”

Seeing the Hackney effort, Dulcie Scott, a film and TV costume supervisor in Gloucestershire, decided to form her own local group. Scott recently finished working on the second season of the BBC series His Dark Materials, and reached out to other members of the team to see if they would be interested in applying their skills to making scrubs. She posted on her village Facebook group to ask doctors and nurses for more information on what they needed, and to see if they would be interested in receiving some homemade scrubs. “I thought, if I can keep it super-local, it’s a good way to drum up support, because it’s people in your community that you’re helping,” she says. “And also, if you fall ill, they’re going to be nursing you.”

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Then, she says, the group “went bonkers”. Scott decided to use the name Helping Dress Medics to reference the initials of His Dark Materials and appeal to fans of the series, and the production gave her permission to use images from the show. The effort has now spiralled into a network of groups across the country, and a GoFundMe page set up by Scott has raised more than £20,000 to pay for fabric and other materials. Scott is keen not to add too much to the demands on busy couriers, so she is organising for fabric to be sent to individual sewers, who will then send their scrubs directly to a local hospital in need.

Such is the effort that some sewing groups say they are beginning to struggle to get appropriate fabric (many hospitals specify the colours required, such as blue or burgundy). But Scott says that the HDM group has an advantage in member Fiona McCann, an experienced costume buyer who is used to sourcing from wholesalers. Members from different regions are also sharing sources they find. “We’re going to keep going as long as there’s a need and we can get the fabric,” Scott says.

Like the London group, many of the HDM community have found themselves out of work as film, TV and theatre productions are halted. “We’ve got, I think, some of the best costume makers in the world working for us now – the pedigree is extraordinary,” Scott says.

Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk

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