Operation Make: Helping Veterans Transition to Civvy Street

Company of Makers founders Rachel Olivia Owen and Steve Bomford.

Portsmouth social enterprise Company of Makers have won a place in a national crowdfunding competition to raise money for sewing equipment that will enable them to help Armed Forces veterans and their families make the transition into civilian life. Sarah Cheverton reports.

The Company of Makers are a Portsmouth-based social enterprise that work with ex-Service personnel and their families who are ‘struggling with life on Civvy Street’, no matter how long ago they left the forces.

Founders Steve Bomford and Rachel Olivia Owen were delighted to discover they were finalists in the national What’s Your Idea? competition from Crowdfunder and Go Daddy, offering the most innovative and impactful ideas of 2018 the opportunity to win £1,000 towards a crowdfunding campaign.

However, the team must raise another £1,000 themselves to reach their £2,000 target and they only have until the 28th March to do it. If they fail, they will receive nothing. If successful, the team will purchase additional sewing machines and increase their revenues in order to help more ex-Service personnel.

The Company of Makers provide a range of workshops that enable veterans to explore their experiences in service, and to make the often challenging transition into civilian life.

Founder Rachel said, ‘We run practical workshops that are semi-therapeutic and at the same time highly creative. Our goal is for participants to learn new skills and experience an improved sense of wellbeing. Workshops range from sewing and upcycling, to traditional woodworking skills, or even something as high tech as 3D printing.

‘We like to offer lots of different workshops because veterans are individuals, not one homogenous group. They are a microcosm of society and are, of course, as individual as civilians.

‘The workshops are the driving force behind the work we do: assisting veterans and their families with the challenges they face transitioning into civilian life. We try to recapture that service camaraderie and build strong relationships, with a bit of banter thrown in!’

What pays for the workshops is a highly innovative and creative social enterprise – based in the new Hotwalls Studios development in Old Portsmouth – that utilises traditional tailoring techniques to turn reclaimed military uniforms into entirely new pieces, from cushions to aprons, teepees to bags.

A commissioned cushion made by the Company of Makers from a military uniform.

‘Within our studio, we design and craft unique items using military uniforms. We also take individual commissions that use a veteran’s uniform to make a one-off item that the veteran, and their loved ones, can treasure forever as a family heirloom. Of course, when someone no longer has their uniform, we source this for them,’ said Rachel.

‘Although uniforms are by their very definition standard issue, the items we make are completely unique and bespoke. Someone brings in their own or a loved one’s military uniform and the first thing we do is sit down with them and go through it with a fine-tooth comb – no pun intended!

‘We find out the history of every little mark on that uniform, each patch of wear and tear. We find out what each of the badges on the uniform mean, what they mean to the veteran or the family, and through the uniform, we discover the story of each veteran’s experience of the Armed Forces.

‘It’s a very personal process and often quite an emotional one, not just for the veterans and their loved ones but for us as well. It’s a real privilege to work with veterans, and with the uniforms and what they represent.

‘After this, it’s my job to translate this story into a hand-drawn design for the veteran or their family, whether that might be for a very posh cushion, or a big chunky BBQ apron, or a bag, or something else that has captured their imagination. Once the veteran or family have approved the design, we make it.

‘It’s a real celebration of their military service.’

A commissioned cushion made by the Company of Makers from a military uniform.

The income from their studio and help from supporters including Heritage Lottery, The Soldier’s Charity and Royal Navy Royal Marines Charity fund the work Company of Makers undertake with groups of veterans and thier families at no charge.

‘We hope that the income from the things we make in the studio will become self-sustaining, so that we can continue to run the workshops forever! It’s also important to us that veterans’ workshops are free for them to access, and reduce the obstacles to gaining help’ said Rachel.

‘Company of Makers work with veterans from across the three services and we hope to become the exemplar in how we look after our veterans in the UK, particularly as we’re in the home of the Royal Navy. In addition, we also work to promote greater understanding between civilian and military communities through our interaction with the public at the studio, and via our social media and publicity.’

The team have built increasingly strong relationships with veterans that have also helped to improve public understanding of the unique challenges they face in making the journey back to ‘Civvy Street’, including a project helping to better understand the health needs of veterans following their departure from the Armed Forces.

While the business model they’ve created is unique, the Company of Makers build on a long history of artisan making, sewing and tailoring in Portsmouth. This includes the city’s history as the ‘corsetry capital of the world,‘ and as the birthplace of the Gieve family tailors – originally the premier tailoring business to the Navy. It eventually became Savile Row’s Gieves & Hawkes, which continues to act as a military tailor to this day and lists members of the Royal Family as regular clients.

Whether Portsmouth’s long military and making history had any part in their recent success is hard to tell, but the Company of Makers beat over 2,000 other competition entries to launch their crowdfunding campaign.

Guy Hayler, Head of Partnerships at Crowdfunder, said, ‘We were faced with a huge decision! The quality of every single project involved and going live on 14th March is truly incredible and we can’t wait to see how they all get on.’

The Company of Makers have lined up a range of rewards for people who donate over £12 to the crowdfunding campaign. To find out more and make a donation starting at £1, or just to help spread the word, visit their Operation Make crowdfunder page here.

The campaign closes at midday on Wednesday 28th March 2018.

All photographs courtesy of the Company of Makers.