Hampstead Gown Factory: Creative roles for young volunteers

The Royal Free London is part of a network of 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018.

I want to tell you about an incredible project that took off at the very start of the lockdown in response to the national shortage of personal protective equipment and which we were worried might affect the Royal Free London (RFL), an NHS Foundation Trust with three hospitals.

An inspiring and life changing collaboration was created between the RFL, Royal Free Charity, the WAC Arts Centre, the Spare Hand Charity and an amazing team of volunteers.

The project attracted local, creative professionals in most age groups, who were very skilled. Many furloughed.

The Roles that we created were:

  • Sewing – Sewing one part of a gown to be passed to next person
  • Cutting and folding – Cutting out a pattern and folding material at each stage of manufacture
  • Packing – Packing finished gowns into boxes.

The word spread after a piece was published in the local paper, the Ham & High. The charity also started to work with the SpareHand charity. More local people came, many with their children as soon as schools stopped for the summer. We had a great stories of family volunteering, including brothers and sisters, dads and daughters etc, as well as some celebrities! This was very exciting for the volunteers, working alongside a movie star! Actually 3 movie stars!


The young volunteers enjoyed the music from couple of guitarists and from the speakers in each room. It was very lively! They loved all the baked goods from the local Finchley Volunteer Bakers.

yv w cupcakes

Young Volunteers would sit outside WAC centre during the breaks, at a recommended distance, making new friends.  It was a great social opportunity for them as well as a safe and supportive structure to interact and learn new skills.

brother and sister learnng new skills

There were young actors and performers unable to work who also volunteered. They all seemed to find each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, there were other creative young volunteers who were able to sew quickly and very professionally.  Some were studying Textile and Design so were of great benefit to the project.

All under 18s were sent a certificate for their achievement at the end of the project. And the feedback has been great:

‘I found my volunteering really nice! Everyone there was really friendly and helpful, and I felt really welcome! It’s really nice to be able to help out during these difficult times, especially since the Royal Free is such an important hospital to my family!’
‘It was a very friendly environment with everybody working as a team and I enjoyed that a lot. I sewed belts for the first part of the session, then I did folding for the other part, and although the folding was more physically challenging, I liked the variety. I made a friend who is also on the Young Volunteers programme, so that was lovely.’
‘Everyone was very friendly, and the atmosphere was very welcoming. I liked how each part of the process had a team leader it made it feel less independent and easier to ask for help. The snacks were a huge plus as well.’
‘I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to volunteer this summer at WAC, making PPE for the Royal Free Hospital.  Living through the unusual circumstances that 2020 has brought upon us – 7-weeks of lockdown, quarantine birthdays and online school, I can honestly say that being able to get out the house and do something meaningful has been really appreciated. During lockdown I found myself feeling fairly useless, as there wasn’t much I could do and I wanted to help out. While I did do some grocery shopping for my elderly neighbours who were shielding, it was only infrequently. I enjoy voluntary work and this made the fact that the GP programme was postponed very disappointing. This summer I have been able to develop plenty of new skills such as sewing and pattern cutting, as well as meet a variety of new people. Even though I wasn’t the most confident seamstress and often accidentally jammed my machine, people were always happy to take the time to teach me the basics and help out. Volunteering at the Hampstead Gown Factory really highlighted the importance of community spirit and made clear to me how willing people are to support the NHS. Whether it was through the homemade cakes on the break table or how friendly and chatty everyone was, I felt very welcome and really enjoyed my time volunteering.’

Overall, this was also the biggest recruitment of new volunteers in such a short time we have seen. We had 573 new volunteers and a good number of existing volunteers involved in the sewing project.  More than 100 volunteers were under 23 years old.

We called the project Hampstead Gown Factory to reflect its community feel. Our volunteers have made over 50,000 surgical gowns which are already being used in A&E, Endoscopy, and Maternity departments with a great success!

At the end of the programme, a 20-year-old entrepreneur, who has just set up a new business, provided cupcakes that were beautifully decorated, reflecting the themes of the NHS and sewing.


I know I have not covered all the amazing stories and learning opportunities we had so please keep an eye on our website as the Science Museum team captured the project in photographs, as well as taking all the paperwork, T-shirts, patterns, and spare material and will soon include it in a major exhibition on Covid-19 and the community. A picture tells a thousand words and I am really looking forward to seeing this project in photos very soon.

Useful links:

You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here.

You may also be interested in:

Reimagining hospital volunteers – getting started with under 18s

Tips from hospital volunteer coordinators

Read more Blog
New roles and adaptations for young hospital volunteers
Read more Blog
Learning from the Pears #iwill Fund Network: Creating enabling environments for young volunteers in healthcare
Read more Blog
whois: Andy White Freelance WordPress Developer London