The Sewing Soldier visits the Company of Makers

In an exclusive interview for Company of Makers, Great British Sewing Bee’s Lieutenant Colonel Neil Stace talks about the myth that sewing is a female pastime and the many benefits of sewing for mental health and wellbeing.

What are the benefits of sewing for people’s wellbeing?

Back in 2008, I was in Sangin, Southern Helmand [Afghanistan] working with the Parachute Regiment. I was a 40-year-old major with a bunch of 18-year-old paras. We went out on patrol, and came under fire. I was with a young soldier who was getting screamed at by his corporal. It was his job to fire off mortar rounds as soon as we came under fire. He was struggling to get his mortar rounds out of his rucksack because they were at the bottom.

Back in patrol base, I sat down next to this soldier [and] with my sewing kit, modified an ammunition pouch to go on the side of his rucksack so he could kneel down and pull out the mortar rounds. A couple of hours just focusing on something that was useful, contributing: [I felt] calm.

We went out on patrol the next day, came under fire again and it worked brilliantly. All these young paras started asking questions about where did I learn to sew, what I’d made. When I started talking about wedding dresses and things like that, they just thought this was hilarious. I became part of the banter, they all started taking the mick out of me and it was brilliant to feel part of the team, all through this sewing kit. In a very stressful situation [sewing] worked wonders.

What do you think it is about sewing that can help people recover their sense of wellbeing and calmness?

You are in the moment, you are focused. You are not thinking of the past, you’re not thinking of the future and you are creating something. A lot of people who suffer from issues of wellbeing are always worrying about the future or the past and they don’t believe they can create anything.

This big guy down at Combat Stress, a 6’4” Guardsman, [worked] for two hours [and] produced a beautiful love-heart pin cushion. He came away and said, ‘That was a happy time.’

What do you say to people who say ‘Sewing’s for women though, isn’t it?’

I hear this all the time. When I was on the Great British Sewing Bee, one of the things people struggled with was this bloke in uniform or in rugby kit. They couldn’t relate it to someone who did sewing. My answer is look at all the tailors, all the designers. Knitting, which I’ve always done, used to be a male hobby. In Afghanistan, your craftsmen, your sewers, your tailors are all men. It’s about creating stuff and being creative.

A lot of [sewing] is engineer-based: how things fit together, how things are constructed. I’ve run a lot of classes with kids. Put a boy in front of a sewing machine, they’re brilliant and they pick it up a lot quicker than the girls do.

Is the idea that only women sew a modern thing?

Totally. Love-heart pin cushions were introduced by Queen Victoria in the Boer War as a way of occupying bored soldiers. In the First World War, they were used as early occupational therapy. They were made from old uniforms and stuffed with sawdust or sand and elaborately designed with pins and embroidery and the silk badges you used to get in their ration pack cigarette packs.

Last year, I worked with SSAFA on a display of 100 love-heart pin cushions as part of the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, working with Combat Stress, Chelsea Pensioners, Fine Cell Work (who work with ex-servicemen in prison), homeless veterans, and the Embroiders’ Guild up at Hampton Court. It was absolutely stunning.

How can we encourage more people to have a go at sewing?

The joy of sewing is when you’ve created something. You’ve got to target the kids who are very self-conscious and very fashion conscious, and say, ‘You can make your own stuff, you can alter your own stuff.’ As opposed to saying learn to be creative, it’s more ‘Do you want to wear something you’ve created?’ I think that’s the secret in schools.

How did you get into sewing?

I was at primary school in Hong Kong and they allowed girls into the school football team. So a friend and I, out of protest, joined the sewing club! We started making clothes for our action men, and it developed from there. I’d knit an action man sleeping bag or sew a tent. Then I discovered girls in my early teens and realised this was a useful skill. I made a few blouses, and skirts, and I was the envy of my mates at parties because the girls would talk to me about what they were wearing. [Later] I started making rugby shirts because rugby is a great passion of mine and I got more and more creative, I’d see something and have a go at it. I met my wife and started making ballgowns, and progressed to wedding dresses, ski suits. You name it – I’ve made it!


Interview by Sarah Cheverton, Editor in Chief, Star & Crescent.