Changing the conversation about health

Why a North London social prescribing group – ‘Make and Mend’ – is about so much more than sewing

A free sewing group started during lockdown that teaches tailoring skills to women has flourished – with some ‘graduates’ from the programme starting their own businesses.

Poornima Kirloskar-Saini founded Kundakala, which encourages women to become ‘more social, confident and financially independent’ via three sewing-based programmes, in July 2021, and says she’s been amazed by the positive mental health impact on those who’ve attended the Make and Mend, Upcycle and Kundakala Collective sessions.

Women attending a Kundakala session; the Make and Mend classes, which equip those who attend with tailoring skills, began in July 2021 after founder Poornima Kirloskar-Saini started a one-off three day course

Run in the boroughs of Hackney, Camden and Lambeth, in London, the expert tuition costs nothing and can see those who attend making everything from tote bags to kimonos. 

In recent months, the Kundakala project has partnered with a North London GP surgery, the Caversham Group Practice, with patients now being socially prescribed the sewing sessions.

Speaking to the College of Medicine, Poornima explained she decided to start the project in memory of her mother, Kunda Kirloskar, who died in 2020, saying: ‘She was an artist who wanted to empower women with her work. She passed away in India at the start of the pandemic.

‘My sisters and I are all outside of India, so we couldn’t travel back. Her death made me think that I wanted to do something meaningful and give back to society, especially because the pandemic had affected so many people.’

The positive mental health impacts of the sessions – particularly for ‘often isolated’ women from ethnic minorities, have been so significant that the classes are now social prescribed by a North London GP practice

The first sessions began after Poornima hired a tailoring tutor – paying for them herself – and secured some sewing machines, with just ‘seven or eight’ women attending.

Now, Kundakala runs three six-month Make and Mend courses a year, plus Upcycle classes which rail against fast fashion by transforming garments into something new – including the Saroodie, a hoodie/saree hybrid.

Moving to the UK 20 years ago, Poornima says she feels particularly strongly about the rights of women in ethnic minority communities, a feeling that escalated during the pandemic.

The Upcycle programme also teaches people how to transform garments into brand new items

She explains: ‘The research that I had started to do revealed that more than 40 per cent of ethnic minority women worried about putting food on the table during the pandemic – because of their traditional cultural roles.’

The feel-good stories from the classes, which are now funded by a number of charitable organisations and trusts, are as plentiful as the stitches sewn.

‘Two days after the first session, I realised this was not just about skills or saving money, it was about social integration’, she says.

She recounts how one woman told her how the tailoring classes have had a huge impact on how she interacts in her community.

Positive stories: Kundakala founder Poornima says it was clear from the first session that the classes could offer benefits to mental health – simply just by attendees chatting as they learn new skills

Poornima says the mother-of-five told her: ‘She said to me: “Before I met you, I used to drop my kids off at school. I used to come home, watch Somali TV, chat to my Somali friends, go back, collect the kids and be with them. This has exposed me to other other cultures – from Afghanistan, Egypt… that I would never have met before'”.

Another, a mother-of-four who was also caring for her ailing mother-in-law and would rise at 4:30am to prepare food for her family, told her that her mental health had improved dramatically within just a few classes, telling her: ‘You’ve given me time to myself’.

To find out more about Kundakala – including buying the products made in the sessions, visit kundakala.org