A salutary lockdown lesson has proved to be the importance of having a hobby or finding one. Take away our gyms, our cinema-going, our pub nights and our blow-dries and we're left with an awful lot of time to fill. Recent research from e-commerce platform Picodi revealed how Irish people's pastime pursuits have changed due to isolation with an increase in hobbies like puzzles and board games, as well as decorative arts, including origami and crochet, also on the up.
Google Trends indicates a spike in Irish searches for sewing machines and craft techniques, and a combination of factors, like rising to the challenge of making your own face mask as well as finding a rewarding way to spend all that extra time, means a needlecraft renaissance is now in full swing.
Reality show The Great British Sewing Bee, where amateurs compete to be crowned TV's best sewer and currently on screens for its sixth series, has also driven desire to start stitching. In short, there's never been a better time to get crafty.
All forms of sewing have much to recommend them according to devotees, who are hooked on the calming effects of needlework and how it can act as a tool for mindfulness. Craftwork is also very much in tune with the circular economy and its mantra of 'make, use, return'.
"Definitely, there's been a resurgence in the whole 'handmade' thing and it's a kick-back against fast fashion," says Brigid Rynne, owner of Wild Ireland Haberdashery in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, and online store Sew Irish. She's recently had to take her shop offline from time to time because of the enormous volume of orders, just so she can process the backlog. The amount of people who want to make face masks at home are partly responsible for this demand, but she's also seen an upturn in other areas of her business and has had to increase her range of embroidery sets. Brigid, a dressmaker and seamstress who first took up a needle aged nine, says that sewing is therapeutic. "There's a tactile element in sewing. There's something lovely about the feel of the threads and the fabrics. It's doing something with your hands and concentrating. When I'm sewing, my husband despairs - the world could end around me and I wouldn't notice. It's a great escape for so many people and it's open to so many people."
Alice Brady, who teaches embroidery classes and workshops and who sells her work and embroidery kits on her website Be Alice, agrees that needlework is accessible.
"With embroidery, your equipment and materials aren't very expensive and it doesn't take up a lot of space and it's easy to do once you're just sitting on the couch," she says. Her online shop has been increasingly busy of late, and she outlines some of the benefits of embroidery as helping to slow you down and take your mind off things. "It's a very nice feeling. I think it really helps that so many people share different designs and styles on social media and that really keeps your interest," says Alice, who is the founder of the Dublin Sewcial Club, a monthly meet-up for stitchers of all abilities, which is currently on pause. She also stresses that embroidery is not as hard to master as people might think. "There are obviously more difficult elements to it but your basic stitches are quite easy to learn," she says.
Sligo-based, self-taught embroidery artist Chloe McGinty, who sells patterns and kits via her Etsy shop Chloe Jo Designs, wants to banish the notion that embroidery is something old-fashioned. "I wanted to make embroidery modern, because it's such a lovely hobby to do," she explains. "You don't have to get big equipment; you just need a hoop, thread and needle." She too stresses its meditative qualities. "You can kind of get lost in embroidery and you focus and concentrate on what you're doing. For mental health as well, it's a great thing to do to keep you away from your phone and the news for a few hours."
Ireland already has a longstanding and rich tradition of textile artistry. Limerick lace, which is made from embroidered lace on a machine-made net base, and Mountmellick work, a form of floral whitework embroidery dating from the early 19th century, both feature on Ireland's Intangible Cultural Heritage list of 30 unique practices.
According to Anne Jeffares, chairperson of the Irish Guild of Embroiderers, a renewed interest in needlecrafts has been ongoing since before the pandemic.
"You see it online and there's a lot more activity when it comes to craft and stitch and it's not just embroidery," she says. "There's a lot of information out there, and people can take it up quite easily."
The Guild, which has over 100 members ranging from beginners to those who have been refining their craft for three to four decades, celebrates its 20th birthday this year, an occasion that will be marked by the publication of a book this summer and an exhibition in dlr Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire. Embroidery has been traditionally seen as a 'women's work' and Anne, who teaches fashion and textiles at the Bray Institute of Further Education, says that it remains a predominantly female pursuit although she would love to see more men taking it up.
Getting away from her phone was precisely the reason that primary school teacher Clare Gallagher started doing cross-stitch, a type of counted thread embroidery as part of her New Year's resolution to stop scrolling. "Cross-stitch is a bit easier than standard embroidery because there are little holes in the fabric that keep your stitches absolutely uniform and there's no real skill set involved, so it's a nice craft for anyone to do," she says. "You really have to concentrate on it and you lose hours. It's a slow craft but you see the beautiful results the other side of it."
As a pandemic project, she recently opened an Etsy shop called SexyRexyStitch where she sells her patterns from her home in Dublin. "I wanted a Clockwork Orange cross-stitch and I couldn't find one I liked and I thought I could do the pattern for that myself. I did it on grid paper and I stitched it up and I thought, I should sell this one on Etsy, it's a lovely pattern. When the lockdown happened, I decided I was going to teach myself how to make cross-stitch patterns so I downloaded a programme and got busy on it, but I never would have had time to do this before. They're digital files so it's a very easy product to sell on Etsy - you just load them up and forget about it. It's fun and I'm just happy if somebody else likes them too."
The question is whether or not people who have recently picked up a needle and thread will continue after lockdown is over. Practitioners of sewing hope that they will. "There's a great joy in creating and there's a huge satisfaction," says Brigid Rynne. "I do think it's addictive and I think people will think, 'Maybe this is good for me, maybe I can put down the phone. It would be nice if that was the case. It would be so sad if all these people who started again were to just put the sewing machine back under the stairs."
Sew Simple: Tips from the experts
Learn the basics
"I think anyone can take up cross-stitch - the whole thing with any new craft is not to run before you can walk. With cross-stitch, don't go for something that looks like an oil painting for your first project. Do something simple, like make something with a bit a text, which is what I got into first. Then you'll gain more confidence."
- Clare Gallagher, SexyRexyStitch
Manage your expectations
"Your first piece isn't going to be a masterpiece. A lot of people will look at work I've done and say, 'Mine looks nothing like that' and I have to remind people that I have been doing this for years. You have to be willing to stick with it for a little while and hone your skills."
- Alice Brady, Be Alice
Keep at it
"You just need to practise. Some people think they're not creative and they can't do it. But with a bit of practice you realise that it's not as difficult as you thought."
- Chloe McGinty, Chloe Jo Designs