Plans for the facility were announced by Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust when it revealed it was working with other NHS organisations, businesses and volunteers to find ways to boost supplies of gowns for its staff and beyond.
The new facility, leased from local firm Wingrove Motor Company, has been transformed in a matter of weeks and is now home to cutting tables and 18 sewing machines and other essential equipment.
Threading up their sewing machines and raring to go are 18 experienced machinists – with around 12 starting this week – all stitching, with love, around 6,000 gowns a week.
The machinists came forward to help after hearing the trust was looking for people to make gowns and scrubs. Some machinists are employed by Northumbria Healthcare and some are volunteers.
Dawn Shiel, who is 56 and lives in Stakeford, has her own tailoring business in Guidepost which is currently closed. She has worked in the textile industry for 40 years. She started her career at Hepworths which later became Dewhirst in Ashington. Fifteen years ago, Dawn started up her own business Tailored For You. She said: “Signing up to be a volunteer has given me back the excitement of life and a purpose again. I am so used to being very busy so it is fantastic to feel useful and productive.
“Both my son and I owe so much to the NHS. My son was very poorly when he was younger and I received excellent care at Wansbeck Hospital a couple of years ago. The staff were so compassionate and I am so grateful to them. To be able to give something back by making these gowns is amazing.”
It takes around 8-10 minutes to sew one gown. The material used for the gown is a laminated spunbond nonwoven fabric.
The gowns will then be checked, packed and distributed to the trust’s sites in North Tyneside and Northumberland. As production kicks-in, the gowns will also be distributed to other health and care organisations in the region.
Chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Sir James Mackey, said: “We have had an unbelievable response from local businesses, organisations and volunteers, and what you see here today is a real testament to them and our teams in the trust. To get to where we are now in a matter of weeks – and during such a pressured time – is just incredible. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has enabled us to turn this idea into reality.
“The gowns, which are being produced here, will help to keep our front line teams safe and, by being in control of supply – from design to the front line – we can be more self-sufficient, ensure sustainable supplies going forward and reduce our carbon footprint by keeping production as local as is possible. We are going to be living with the virus for some time, so this sustainability is really important, but we also see a future for this beyond COVID-19.
“We are very much part of a wider system and community and what this event has shown is there are opportunities to work together to re-generate local business and provide local jobs – which is vital in these challenging times.”
The Northumbria Manufacturing and Distribution Hub is now at the heart of a wider network of businesses which has grown over the past two months after the trust asked for help to boost protective gown supplies.
Sarah Rose, managing director at Lucas Jacob Ltd and director of Hobart Rose and volunteer Michael Young have been instrumental in getting the hub up and running – helping to find machinists and linking with businesses and organisations, both large and small.
The network now includes 35 factories and partners across the country, including John Lewis and Northumbria University. They will make around 65,000 gowns a week for the NHS in the north east – bringing the total of gowns being produced for the north east up to around 71,000, per week.
The gowns from these factories are now being delivered to the hub and then distributed across the trust and the wider region.
Sarah’s 27 years of experience in the industry means she was able to call on her network and personal contacts.
Sarah said: “There’s been some very long days to get to this point but seeing the fabric running through those machines has made me so proud to be involved in supplying this vital resource for health and care staff. This is a difficult time for so many businesses. To come together like this gives us hope for the future. Perhaps it’s true what people say, when the going gets tough, the tough get sewing!
“We are also proud that the products being supplied by the factories in the wider network are mostly made in the UK– from the raw materials, the weaving of the fabric and to the finishing of the gowns.”
Volunteer Michael Young said: “I am immensely proud – never in my wildest dreams did I expect this evolve to what it is today. This started off for me as a few conversations with a few local fabric shops who then put me in touch with machinists – it just goes to show the community spirit we have in this region and what can be achieved when we all pull together.”
The manufacturing hub will run for an initial three months but it is hoped that it will continue beyond COVID-19 to ensure a more sustainable and local supply of protective gowns and support for the local economy.